A Citizen of the World: The Music of Kjell Mørk Karlsen from an American’s Point of View

A Citizen of the World

by James D. Hicks


We live in an age dominated by the triumph of the familiar. Although the technological advances of our time offer endless possibilities for the promotion of many types of musical expression, it is often the mediocre, the average, and the commercial that seems to attract the most attention in American society. The support of music as an art form, something to be nurtured rather than sold, might, perhaps, be viewed as a thing of the past. “Classical Music”, or however it is now defined occupies an ever-shrinking role in the discourse of modern society. Within this increasingly subsidiary role in our society, the classical music establishment, as it now functions, values a circular, seemingly endless repetition of established standards as opposed to supporting new repertoire. And, to take the reality one degree further, what attention that is extended to new repertoire is often claimed by developments within English, German and French speaking cultures. Finally, if an American musician happens to harbor an interest in new Nordic music, it is usually Finland, with its comparatively exciting contemporary school, that seems to attract attention.

Given the reality of early twenty-first century priorities, and a sometimes hostile, or worse, apathetic environment, how does the music of the Norwegian composer Kjell Mørk Karlsen speak to another land, one that possesses a culture of such sharp contrasts? Assuming one is even aware of the existence of this composer (the first problem), the musical voyager might, indeed, find the music of Karlsen to be something of a distant shore. There is relatively little knowledge of contemporary Norwegian music in America, much less awareness of individual composers.

How does an American musician develop an appreciation of a composer from such a distance, one whose music has not always received the recognition that is its due?

Fortunately Kjell Mørk Karlsen has made it easy for those who want to learn as he has created such a rich and diverse body of music. All that is required is the time to purchase a few scores and recordings, keeping an open mind, heart, and spirit.

The corpus of Kjell Mørk Karlsen offers a summation of the development of five hundred years of European music. When one studies Karlsen’s biography, his forays into many types of musical expression, and the accompanying results, one sees that he has created music that falls within A LIVING TRADITION. Enriched by past practices but yet very much a product of our time, Karlsen has in the course of a notable career created music that offers much that is unique, refreshing, and of compelling value. During this important year in which we celebrate the composer’s seventieth birthday, it is time to take stock and examine how this artist’s oeuvre exists on its own merits yet remains a part of a greater story.

Technique – Perhaps there is no better place to begin than looking at Karlsen’s early years and how he was educated. Although he reaped the benefits of many influences during his years of study, it was tutelage provided by his father Rolf Karlsen that was instrumental in providing the impetus toward a life in music. The elder Karlsen was the organist at Oslo Cathedral, and a central figure in Norwegian music during the middle decades of the twentieth century. His influence was central to the development of his son’s potential. Rolf Karlsen could be said to have employed, and here I am using a decidedly American expression, an “Old School” approach in his style of pedagogy. Just as the young J.S. Bach did so centuries previously, one of Kjell’s key assignments was the copying of scores from earlier times. By working with the simple implements of pencil and paper, Karlsen copied scores by classic Lutheran masters: Scheidt, Schütz, Praetorius, and others from the late Renaissance and early Baroque times. By this unrelenting, detailed work, Karlsen was able to forge an intimate understanding of the procedures, techniques and forms of the classics.

In this time-consuming fashion, he developed an unusually formidable technique, one that would allow him to create a wide variety of musical ideas throughout his career. It would have been impossible for any composer to create the delightful cycle of one hundred choral motets, Jubilate Deo, Op. 56 without this experience. Whether working within the most intimate of media such as the Partita Brevis 2 For Violin and Violoncello or in 2013’s epic Missa Grande, Op. 170 for chorus, soloists and full orchestra, an opus that is a worthy successor to J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Karlsen is completely at ease in writing finely crafted music for any situation.

If Karlsen’s cognizance of HOW music is constructed from a technical point of view, then, secondly, it is his Practical knowledge as a working musician that informs his zeitgeist.

Initially performing as an orchestral oboist and chamber musician, he eventually worked as a founder and director of the Early Music ensemble Pro Musica Antiqua. He later as a church musician implemented an ambitious cycle of musical liturgies, rehearsals, choral presentations, organ concerts, and organ inspections, all the while handling the considerable administrative details in Cathedral and Parish settings as well (or as we like to say in America, “wearing many hats at once”). Karlsen conducted an astounding number of ensembles, touring from the prairie of North America to Iceland and throughout Europe; Karlsen knows what is it takes to prepare a choir (from chamber ensembles to oratorio societies), conduct an orchestra or serve as a keyboard soloist. He also occupies that select company for being a virtuoso on many instruments: recorder, oboe, and a variety of keyboards. His ability to communicate in a live performance gives Karlsen the experience to know what works, and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t, as he composes. During my time learning about his art, one of the principal characteristics of Karslen’s compositions is their idiomatic approach to whatever instrument or voice for which he is writing. He is able, therefore, to juxtapose the theoretical and the practical, and his success as a professor is a logical outcome of these experiences. His partitas for organ, for example, are contemporary manifestations of gebrauchmusik, music for use, and give notice that Karlsen is not the retreating academic, but a musician who has always functioned within society.

For the American musician who strives to understand Kjell Mørk Karlsen’s career, the third essential quality to this artist is that he is a Citizen of the World. Here I don’t imply that Karlsen creates facile pastiches of “national styles”, although I am sure he would have little difficulty emulating the characteristics of any school, given his expertise. Here, rather, I refer to what was the defining moment of his career in the 1980s when he interrupted a successful, notable career as a liturgical musician and moved himself and family to Helsinki, Finland for a year. The purpose of this sojourn was to study with the modern master Jonas Kokkonen. This crucial period lifted Karlsen’s profile in dramatic fashion, progressing from a respected performer and creator of music for the liturgy, to a seasoned composer who was thus connected to the larger world of musical endeavor. It was during this time of moving forward that Karlsen was liberated, so to speak, as he then created numerous orchestral works, chamber pieces and compositions for individual instruments. Putting himself into the greater mainstream of artistic expression, Karlsen was able to build upon an already formidable career, achieving an easy familiarity with the masterworks of the twentieth century from such composers as Britten, Shostakovich, Pärt, Rautavaara, Kokkonen and Salonen. It is impossible to listen to Karlsen’s chamber music, particularly his string quartets, without recognizing this turning point in his life. Karlsen’s experiments with serial techniques, mystic impulses that are found in much of his chamber music, and colorful solutions in orchestration, are products of a mind keenly aware of the ongoing development of contemporary music.

It is not possible, however, to explain the accomplishments of a great artist in simple terms. Just as Kjell Mørk Karlsen is keenly aware of international musical life, he is, first and foremost, a Norwegian. In August 2016, I had the great honor of visiting Kjell over the course of a few days in Oslo. A generous host, he introduced me to many aspects of Norwegian culture. Whether it was visiting the National Gallery, Munch Museum, the new Opera House, the site of the 1952 Winter Olympics, or perhaps most telling, the Norwegian Folk Museum (where he demonstrated a detailed understanding of the various styles of architecture of these ancient structures), Kjell harbored a deep affinity with and intimate knowledge of the singular cultural contributions that Norway has bequeathed to the world. Karlsen would never claim to be a “nationalistic” composer, but his Norwegian heritage has left its mark. To be sure, folk music and Norwegian chorales find their way into his work, serving as a foundation to many compositions. Karlsen reproduces in notation the complex, often improvised ornamentation of Norwegian fiddle music in the Suite for orgel og spelemannslag, Op. 88 for four violins and organ. The use of chants from the St. Olav liturgy found in Symphony Nr. V, Sinfonia Grande for organ, and the development of ideas from Draumkvedet in Sinfonia Norvegica, Symphony Nr. IV for organ are indicative of this northern connection. A new work, Partite Brevis 6 For Recorders and Organ, Op. 110, nr. 6 (2015), explores the harmonic possibilities of Norwegian folk song in exciting, new ways, all the while uniquely demonstrating the tonal possibilities of four types of recorders.

Karlsen is able to convey his profound understanding of the culture of Norway in a most convincing fashion, and I fondly remember a pre-concert lecture he gave in January 2013 at Västerås Cathedral, Sweden as he explained the background behind the just-mentioned Op. 110. Speaking without notes, and singing all of the major themes in a wonderfully true voice, he delineated the message of this Nordic music with clarity and ease.

What would a fifth and final trait that an American musician might find in the art of Kjell Mørk Karlsen, drawing the enthusiast into this fascinating repertoire? Having had the privilege of meeting the composer and spending considerable time with him over the course of a few years, I would say his essential Humanity is what provides the basis for the Technique, Practical Experience, Musical Knowledge of the World, and National Identity that I have summarized. A profound Christian and person of the spirit, Kjell’s faith informs, I believe, every work that he has written. His erudition extends to the realm of theology, history and the sciences, all of which makes sense as he is a descendent of the eminent Swedish botanist/zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Far from being the specialist or someone only interested in his craft, Kjell is able to converse on a wide range of topics in several languages. His life and career represents, in the opinion of the person writing these words, a juxtaposition of application, faith and grace. Even though I have only known him for a few years, I consider Kjell to be one of my closest friends.

I count myself as blessed for having had the privilege of premiering new compositions from his pen, sharing these and his other profound compositions with audiences from around the world.

So, I ask again, why would an American appreciate the music of Kjell Mørk Karlsen?

Why would one bother making this musical journey to a new destination?

Dear reader, I refer you to the composer’s epic work: From Folk Music To Twelve-tone technique. 24 Minipreludes for Piano, Op. 133. Here in one composition, one finds Karlsen’s essential traits as he selects a Norwegian Folksong as the work’s focus yet develops it using internationally-known techniques, demonstrating facility with historical forms, creating music that is difficult yet idiomatically conceived for the instrument, and, finally, possessing that ineffable sense of the eternal as exemplified in movement ten, Phantasia.

An American hails from a land of disparate cultures, influences, and points of view. Perhaps it is this starting point that draws a musical enthusiast from the United States of America to the rich, varied world of Kjell Mørk Karlsen’s Op. 133, a work that exemplifies many characteristics and impulses, yet gives a listener from another place, a glimpse of the Divine.




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