Knut Vaage 60 years
Knut Vaage about discovering contemporary music:
– I felt like a plane takin’ off
By Magne Fonn Hafskor – Translation Andrew Smith
“I don’t really have any strong feelings about reaching 60. Time seems to fly by, but I’m very glad to be actively involved in the arts and culture scene. I don’t think age really matters as long as one can contribute something meaningful, and is able to communicate through music,” says Knut Vaage.
Originally from Sunde in Kvinnherad, Vaage has lived all his adult life in Bergen. He studied the piano and composition at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, and was one of the founders of the Avgarde concert series, which has been an important arena for contemporary composers, musicians and audience since the start in 2006.
We begin the interview talking about his childhood, and it doesn’t take long before he mentions his grandfather, the writer Ragnvald Vaage (1889-1966). Knut Vaage’s first album “Eg strøyer mine songar ut” (1993), was in fact a song cycle based on ten of his grandfather’s poems, originally composed for a performance at Baroniet Rosendal in 1991.
The composer’s paternal grandfather.
Ragnvald Vaage (1889-1966) from Kvinnherad
published 20 books in various genres in his lifetime.
He is remembered particularly for his poetry and
his problem-oriented literature for and about children,
according to the website allkunne.no. (Photo: Private)]
Grandfather was a writer
“I barely remember him, as I was only six when he died,” he explains.
“Grandfather was a bit distant, he was preoccupied with his poetry. He had worked on the farm all his life, and now he had just a brief, few years left – so he wrote many fine children’s books and collections of poems late in his life.”
Ragnvald Vaage’s output consists of poetry collections, children’s books, novels, and short stories. He also wrote articles and visited youth organizations where he would speak about the law, rural culture, and the New Norwegian language.
“He was in fact a well-known figure on the arts scene, and counted Geirr Tveit, Olav H. Hauge and Johannes Heggland among his friends,” says Vaage.
“When, as a child, I met older people and they heard that I was his grandson, I always received special treatment.”
Were your parents artistic too?
“No, they were farmers. My father was interested in local history which he chronicled in three books. He was a book man. I remember him sitting in his chair after a long day on the farm. He worked out there on his own, then he would sit in his chair, watch some television and read a good book before he turned in. Usually he managed neither, nodding off with the book in his lap and the tv on.”
Trained as a carpenter
Knut Vaage is the youngest of five siblings, all brothers. The next oldest is Lars Amund Vaage, a renowned writer like his grandfather. Knut Vaage studied the piano and composition, but his career began somewhere else entirely.
“I moved to Bergen to work as a carpenter,” he explains. “Not so very different from what I do now. I’m still constructing things.”
As a carpenter too?
“I’ve done quite a lot of work on my house over the years, even though I prefer to hire craftsmen.”
How do you put up a lining wall? I ask, out of interest
“I can explain. You have a bottom beam and a top beam with vertical posts in between. Then you need plasterboard on both sides, with insulation in between. And you mustn’t forget wiring for electricity. And if you need a door, you have to remember to make room for it too. And everything has to be level.”
Have you worked as a carpenter?
“Yes, until I was 20. That’s when I received my craft certificate – and I switched over to music. I’d been into music earlier, and obviously made the wrong choice going to technical college. I could feel how my fingers were gradually getting stiffer, so in the end I gave up my job.”
“What happened was that I met Karl Seglem [a saxophonist and bukkehorn player] at a café. Like me, he had just arrived in town, and had put an ad in the paper looking for somebody to play with. When we met, we had a paper under our arm, this was how people could recognize each other before the age of mobile phones.”
Time off to practice
The rendezvous took place late one evening at the night club Hotell Norge. It would be right to say that they hit it off from the start, and very shortly they formed the band Ictus, named after a Carla Bley song. Their fellow band members were Gunnar Nordgård, Rolf Prestø and Geir Egil Svinnset.
“They were freelancers, so we practiced during the day at Hulen [a legendary student club and concert venue in Bergen]. I had to take time off work, so I quit and took odd jobs instead.
[Picture caption: Everyone dies at the end. “The main character finds true love out on the oil rig, but the world comes to an end before they get the chance to kiss,” says Knut Vaage about his opera “Khairos” which was performed at the Norwegian National Opera in 2013. In the picture we can see civilization coming to an end in a massive blowout, while the masses are having a huge celebration with the help of a confetti canon. Music: Knut Vaage, libretto: Torgeir Rebolledo Pedersen. (Photo: Erik Berg)]
Around the same time he contacted a teacher at the Bergen Music Conservatoire (now the Grieg Academy) and began practicing classical music to prepare for the entrance exam.
“We called the Conservatoire “Konsen”. I practiced by myself for a few months, and I was admitted. On classical piano. It was something of a miracle that I managed the audition. The other students had been practicing for years.”
There wasn’t much jazz there back then?
“No, jazz was completely forbidden. I didn’t go there to play jazz. I did that in my spare time. I went there to learn technique, my touch was so hard because of my carpenter’s fingers.”
Encountering contemporary music
At the Conservatoire he also learned about recent music history and contemporary music.
“I think I was the only student in my class who liked it. I took to contemporary music like a fly to a flame – and I began composing as soon as I was accepted there.”
Which composers did you get to know?
“Alban Berg, György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and many more; the whole lot. It was all fantastic, it opened up a whole new world for me. I was totally omnivorous and it never entered my head that it might be problematic writing music like that. I was used to making music and playing in a band – to me it was the most natural thing.”
What about Olivier Messiaen? Did you find inspiration in his music?
“Oh yes. He had a very advanced composition technique and wrote his own textbooks where you can learn his style. He also travelled around the world, transcribing birdsong that he used in his music.”
Have you used birdsong yourself?
“I wrote an orchestral work called “Hidden songs” that I began composing in May 2005 when I was at my cabin in Sunnhordland. The first thing I did was to just stand there and listen to the birds. Then I went to the piano and wrote down the various birds I heard round about, and used this as raw material for the orchestra piece,” he recounts.
“It was never published, but Stavanger Symphony Orchestra played it on the radio. They had a conductor who put a tremendous amount of work into it. He didn’t want to talk to me, he was so concentrated. But afterwards he said he wanted to do it again, though that hasn’t happened.”
It had piccolos and flutes in it?
“Yes, the birdsong variations were in the upper range, but I also transformed them so they disappeared down into the contra bassoon. It was about the songs being hidden in all possible ways – not only the naturalistic birds, but also all aspects of hiding a song. If you take a small theme and repeat it at irregular intervals, it becomes a bird. And then you have these fantastic soloists like the blackbird, that embellishes more.”
They communicate. Birdsong is a form of dialogue?
“Yes, and dialogue is on the one hand the only way forward towards a better world, and on the other, it is part of the framework for musical form and structure.”
This was very evident in the cello concerto Relieff, premiered as a streamed concert in Bergen on 8 April this year. Eivind Gullberg Jensen conducted the Bergen Philharmonic in a performance that caused Klassekampen’s music critic Magnus Andersson to roll out the superlatives:
“[Knut Vaage] succeeds through writing sensual sonorities. They are frequently so beautiful that they encourage you to stretch your ears into the orchestra in order to hear the complex nuances and variations with which he paints,” he wrote, giving praise also to Amalie Stalheim, soloist and initiator of the commission.
“I have known Amalie since birth, and am impressed by her development. She is a great musician,” says Vaage, adding that he was delighted when she commissioned a concerto from him.
The pandemic put a damper on much of his activity. Most performances were cancelled, although he was able to work on new commissions and planning throughout.
“Like most other people I have worked from home, and cut out nearly all travelling. In the course of the autumn things will pick up again,” he promises.
One of the last performances he was able to attend before the pandemic was the premiere of his work Hybrid Spetakkel. This took place as part of the Borealis Festival on 7 March 2020 – just days before Norway entered lockdown. The work was performed by BIT20 Ensemble conducted by Trond Madsen, with John Ehde as soloist on cello. A live recording of this innovative work was later broadcast on national radio in Norway on 10 May 2020, and was also shown on national television on 7 June the same year.
That was a commission too?
“Yes, from BIT20 Ensemble. I had worked with John Ehde from Copenhagen for three years on the research project (Un-)Settling Sites and Styles. The work was a summary of our research. It was a composer/performer collaboration.
“Hybrid Spetakkel was the crowning work in a long series that I made together with sound artist Thorolf Thuestad,” he adds.
“He and I have worked together since 2003 and produced a huge number of exciting things. We have developed a technique for making music based on acoustic instruments and electronics – a sound world in a hybrid landscape. You could say it’s a meditation on our relationship to electronics”, he says, holding up his mobile.
“We always have it with us. It’s become a hybrid situation where we’re dependent on technology – and it affects how we live our lives – without the music actually pointing a moral finger at the audience,” he emphasizes.
“It’s more like we’re playing around with these various elements. We recorded lots of different sounds and I composed with them much like they do in pop music. Instead of writing down the music as I’m used to, I put the sounds together “live” like DJs do. Thorolf and I know each other so well that we could play around with the concept.”
What would you say to those readers who might think this all sounds too advanced and difficult – and impossible to gain any pleasure from?
“I would say that I’m the proof that the opposite is the case. It isn’t difficult, it’s very easy. I’ve recorded much of it myself. I used all kinds of sounds that I’d collected over a three-year period. I gave many of the sounds a poetic name. If I said “wind landscape” to Thorolf, he knew immediately which sound I meant.”
Traces of stardust
How did you involve the musicians of BIT20, then?
“They were the sound source. All the sounds from the musicians. I pushed them to their limits. They could be tapping on a trumpet or scraping cello strings – and the sounds went straight to the computer where they were processed live. Everyone brought their own radio – it was a bit in the spirit of John Cage.”
Were the radios turned on?
“Yes, but FM transmissions had been discontinued, so we tuned in to the white noise between stations. This comes from outer space. These cosmic radio waves carry a trace of stardust, so each musician entered the stage with stardust; living electronic noise that is like some sort of powder, or seed of life,” he explains.
“Then they went to their instruments and turned off their radios. So we had a transformation from the radio to a drone, which everybody took part in. The music grew from there, was born like that – while the audience were finding their seats.”
From the depths
The introduction to the work was entitled “De Profundis”, taken from the first verse of Psalm 130. It is also the title of Oscar Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas written in his prison cell.
“That part of the work was intended as a bit of a jibe at the idiots who sent Oscar Wilde to jail and in reality sentenced him to death. Putting a dandy to hard manual labour was the same as killing him, and just because he was gay. The man was a genius, a wonderful person who enriched the world with great art.”
Oscar Wilde had no wish to deny his love. He could have stood there in court and lied to go free, but he did not do that.
“We need reminding of the injustices that people are subject to. That is one of the purposes of music – not just dancing around saying “happy, happy” in a cheerful pop song. We can do that too – but music covers the whole spectrum, just as humankind does,” says Vaage, who looks forward to two concerts of his music this coming weekend and the weekend after.