Composer Ellen Lindquist –
With Stadsbygd as her base and the world as her workplace
Text: Jorunn Dugstad. Photo: Elise Maalø
On the edge of the forest in Stadbygd, with a view across the Trondheim fjord, lives the American-Dutch composer Ellen Lindquist. From this vantage point she writes works that are performed all over the world. Kammertoner have scheduled a Covid-secure internet interview to learn more about the person and the artist Ellen Lindquist. A fresh, smiling face appears on the screen, and the conversation flows easily even though she is in the attic on her farm, and I am in Trondheim.
How did a composer from abroad, with the world her workplace, end up in Stadsbygd? “Describing life is really a bit like writing music”, begins Ellen, “you choose the details in the moment, but don’t always immediately see the work as a whole. Nonetheless, it is the whole that matters,” laughs Ellen. In 2007, while Ellen was working on a music theatre project in Sweden, she took a holiday in Denmark.
A Dutchman, Anton van Genugten, literally came sailing past. The two became acquainted, and then became a couple. They lived in The Netherlands for several years, married, and had a child. When Anton was offered a job at Fosen folk high school in Rissa, a place he already had a strong link to, the family were glad of the opportunity to move north. “The transition to living in rural Norway was not actually that huge. Stadsbygd was not unlike the area where i come form in the USA, with forests and mountains. The real transition for me was moving to The Netherlands – it’s so flat! But we were happy living in the countryside there too. The biggest transition was being so far from my family.”
Ellen loves the people and the collaborations that music brings with it. She like to work closely with the musicians, developing material through improvisation with them, exploring ideas and possibilities that arise when the performers encounter her work. Ellen’s music has taken her all over the globe on a wide variety of projects; a grotto project in China using traditional Chinese instruments, music theatre in Stockholm, chamber music in New York. “It is so enriching to meet people from other places,” she says. “I’m really a people person, even though I work alone about 95% of the time.”
Why is it so important to you to write music? “I began playing the piano, and as a child I would composer short tunes. It was not until later when I was eighteen that I really began to compose. At university I began working with the composer James Grant, who thought that all musicians should try composing. That got me going.
Even so, I think that music and composition has always been my way of interpreting the world, trying to understand it, reflecting on what is going on around me, what I see and experience, and try to find some meaning in it.“
Ellen composes “new music” that is often described as lyrical; not atonal, but neither is it tonal. Ellen is interested in exploring new sonorities and textures together with the musicians.
“Extended techniques” is what she calls it, where the musicians use their instruments in novel and unfamiliar ways, developing a new language from these new sounds. “Through improvisation we can discover ideas, and sometimes we chance upon moments of magic. Afterwards, it’s my job as a composer to taket hese details and shape them into a whole. New music is dynamic. It takes on a shape like some kind of object, becomes a living thing. In this sense, the composition is a sort of birth. After it has been created, the music carries on growing and developing with each new performance.”
Being close to nature means a lot to Ellen, both as a person and as a composer. “I go for walks every day. I need to observe nature, experience the seasons, see how things grow and develop. At the same time, nature has a part in shaping my music in an abstract way, as an inspiration. Nature is a space in which everything falls into place.” In recent years, Ellen has worked on “landscape music projects” at Fosen. One such project is “WEEK 33 Art and Landscape”, an annual event at Gamle Helset farm. Some works are a direct commentary on nature, such as her EDVARD Award-nominated “The Sacredness of Trees”. This work, commissioned by Nordic Music Days for the carillon in Bodø cathedral, was based on the festival’s theme of “Truth”, as well as on research into communication between trees inspired by Richard Powers’ novel “The Overstory”.
Do you think of the audience when you compose? “I’ve always thought of music as being a balance between my music, the performers, and their instruments, but perhaps the audience is also part of this balance? I don’t compose for an audience, or try to adapt to what I think they want to hear. Nonetheless, the audience is always at the back of my mind, since communication is such an important part of all this. I hope that my music, even though it can be challenging to listen to, is accessible enough for the audience to find something familiar in my sound world.”
One of the projects Ellen is currently working on is a chamber opera called “Drömseminarium” (Dream seminar). The project began as a collaboration between Sweden and the USA, and is based on the works of Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer. The ensemble is made up of twelve instrumentalists and two singers, all of whom portray characters onstage. “It’s a very exciting project. We’ve had several workshops with the director and the performers. If everything goes according to plan, the work will be performed at the Chamber Music Festival in 2022, in collaboration with Trondheim Sinfonietta.”
Since 2013 Ellen has taught composition at NTNU in Trondheim, and her involvement in Trondheim’s music scene has led to commissions from Trondheim Sinfonietta, Aurum chamber choir, Alpaca Ensemble, Michael Frances Duch and Marianne Baudouin Lie, and a new project is underway for Trondheim Voices in 2022.
Ellen, however, does not just spend her time alone in her study or travelling the world. She is actively involved in her local community and has hosted private concerts in people’s homes for several years. “Audiences are different in different places. A Trondheim audience is different from a New York audience, and the audience in Rissa is not the same as one in Trondheim. I find that fascinating. In Rissa I meet audience members who have never heard contemporary music before. They are interested and curious, and it is very enriching to present these concerts in people’s homes.” Ellen’s website shows the programme – a wonderful concert series offering music from a wide variety of genres. Contributions are from well-known and lesser known musicans, amateurs and professionals alike, in addition to excerpts from Ellen’s own projects. “I think we can say it’s been a success, because the audience keeps coming back for more,” she smiles.
What significance does music have for people today? “I think the importance of physical encounters, to be able to experience live music, has become much more apparent during the Corona pandemic. I think we miss the physical vibrations that music causes, we miss being in the same room, focused, with the sense of presence that a live performance offers. We can’t get that from Spotify. I certainly believe we need music for the soul, but since Corona, I’ve come to realize that there’s a physical need too. Perhaps it’s that simple –that we need music for body and soul?”
And so our conversation comes to an end. Ellen’s son Noah appears on the screen with some exciting news – one of the hens has laid eggs for the first time! A major event. Kammertoner bids farewell and hopes for a new encounter soon – perhaps at one of those private concerts in Rissa?
Read more about Ellen athttp://www.ellenlindquist.com/