Circles in Luzern

This week saw the premiere of young Norwegian composer Ruben Sverre Gjertsen’s opus Circles at the prestigious Luzern festival. The piece was performed by Luzern Festival Academy, which features musicians from the Ensemble Intercontemporain and led by the formidable Pierre Boulez. MIC had a talk with the twenty-nine-year-old composer prodigy in advance of the premiere.

Ruben Sverre Gjertsen

Gjertsen unveils how the impending happening came about:
-“I submitted some of my compositions to a competition at the Luzern Festival Academy in 2003 and was invited for an interview with Pierre Boulez.”
-You must have handled that situation well then?
-“Quite the contrary, it didn’t feel like I got across much at all,” the modest young man confesses; a character of unusually quiet demeanour.
“My ideas were vague at the time, but viewing the instrumentation enabled me to concretise,” Gjertsen relates in his commentary notes to Circles.
The interview resulted in a commission in 2005, an honour bestowed also upon two other candidates, Dai Fujikura from Japan and the Frenchman Christoph Bertram. The latter two works were performed last year, and Fujikura –whose career in the meantime has sky-rocketed- will see yet another composition of his performed at Luzern later this year. Luzern is undoubtedly an important point of entry for those aspiring to the sphere of international classical composition.

“Unconscious middle grounds”

This year’s happening will not be Gjertsen’s first acquaintance with Ensemble Intercontemporain. In the 2002-2003 season they performed the two works Contradiction and Miniatures II, at that citadel of contemporary music, IRCAM in Paris. But his music has also reached audiences at other international venues: Rituals II was selected for the ISCM World Music Days in Switzerland in 2004. –“That piece is so short that they chose to play it three times in the course of the concert says Gjertsen.” This year his music has also been played at Aspekte Salzburg, at which the Aspekte New Music ensemble performed Miniatures II, Miniatures III and Rituals II.
-What can you convey to us regarding Circles?
-I am captured by the motion within the subdivisions of major pieces. I conceive of grand ensembles as constellations of different wills: the intersection of the vertical (the sound) and the horizontal (the lines). I like disclosing the make-up of “big sound.”
In his notes to Circles Gjertsen writes: “A medium sized orchestra may embody a compromise between transparency and the opposite, with individual assignments for all instruments and a superfluity of information that creates unconscious middle grounds. My initial ideas were of circles timbre, cycles of soft or nasal, smooth or crunching sounds. Working on the piece I came upon the poem Circling by A.R. Ammons, which I proceeded to keep with the drafts at all times.
-What I mean by the somewhat awkward concept of “unconscious middle ground(s)” is something clearly audible that escapes our attention because so much is going on. Several simultaneous foregrounds may create a grove of middle grounds. I am interested in what happens musically when the quantity of information is vast.
-How to you experience describing your own music in such a manner?
- Such articulation is most useful in the creative process. Once a piece is complete I have less need to describe it. Still, it is always possible to conceptualize music and articulate it in words.

Challenging music

Gjertsen was born in 1977, and started composing in his early teens, influenced by disparate sources. But he has always found complex score structures, in terms of depth and simultaneity, especially fascinating. Enthralled by the entire musical spectrum from middle ages and Renaissance up until the present day, he is still able to single out as personal favourites Thomas Tallis and Ligeti’s great polyphonies in works such as Requiem and Atmospheres. But his dream is to hear Brian Ferneyhough’s La terre est un home, in which all the musicians are meant to play in chamber mode. –A dream probably shared by Ferneyhough himself, since no-one has managed to perform the oeuvre thus far. But a glance at Gjertsen’s scores and an ear to his music reveals that he too expects much from his musicians.

He studies at the Grieg academy in Bergen, where he has been tutored in composition by Morten Eide Pedersen and James Clapperton. In 2002-5 he held a special scholarship in composition at the same institution. In the course of his years of studying Gjertsen has also completed his organist exams and participated in international master classes with Brian Ferneyhough, Klaus Huber, Salvatore Sciarrino, Philippe Hurel, Luca Francesconi, and Helmut Lachenmann.
He has been attending classes with Ferneyhough three times, and points to the course at Vex Nouvelles in 2000, featuring also Jean-Luc Hervé and José Evangelista, as a special experience. This course is held in pristine environs in the Royaumont monastery -dating from the 12th century- in Val d’Oise in France. It spans three weeks, during which one continuously works with an ensemble. For Gjertsen it resulted in the first performance of the piece Contradiction, by the Nouvel ensemble Moderne.

Close contact with musicians

    -The course in Royaumont sustained a very high level. We arrived there with an unfinished work each, which was then to be completed in the course of the second week. Several of the participants were unable to write in the final round, and it really is hard to work in such a way; the creative vein is hard to hold on to in circumstances of pressure.
    -But Royaumont is not the only occasion he has had to develop an oeuvre in close contact with musicians. Rituals III –a piece written for 59 musicians- was developed during The Nordic Composer’s Workshop with the Stavanger Symphony orchestra in 2001-2.
    -The fact that we went through several sessions enabled me to rewrite and expand the work right up to the actual premiere, says Gjertsen who is about to complete his master degree in composition at the Grieg Academy.
    -What are you expectations in advance of the premiere in Luzern?
    They are great, Gjertsen covertly smiles. And they are equally great regarding the performance of the piece at the Ultima Festival in October.

    Translated by Christian Lysvåg
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