Jon Ĝivind Ness: Low Jive and the quest for new beauty

Last week saw the release of Low Jive, a portrait of the Norwegian contemporary composer Jon Ĝivind Ness. It is not the first time a full record has been dedicated to Ness’ music, but he still thinks of it as a breakthrough of sorts. Not least because it is Norway’s finest orchestra the Oslo Philharmonic that has laid its hands the difficult piece that lends name to the record. However, it was the soloists Peter Herresthal, violin, and Ĝystein Birkeland , cello, who made it all happen. On the record they play a Ness piece each, mad Cap Tootling and Wet Blubber Soup, for violin and cello respectively. Eager fans of Ness’ music they describe him as a musicians’ composer. We asked him what it is that has earned him this splendid epithet.

Listen to and download 'Low Jive' here

Jon Ĝivind Ness 09/Foto: Observatoriet

    -I’ve learned to be considerate of the musicians, says Ness. I often make phone calls just to ask whether something is possible, or if the musicians think it will work. Over the years I have acquired an understanding of the way musicians think, and I always pay attention to this when I write.

    Conductors relate that they find your music easy to conduct; that there is a precision and materiality in your scores that allows complex music to be played fairly easily. Is this precision, and the sense of practical solutions that people talk of, the fruits of the same attitude?

    -Yes, previously I composed a lot of strange stuff that paid little attention to the concrete situation of the musicians and conductors. I’ve learned to anticipate the way things will work practically and I put this into the actual score. I want my music to work organically, and in a straightforward manner.

    You have talked about directness as your new guiding principle and that you want to leave any notion of contrived complexity behind. Yet before the premiere of Low Jive you were nervous that it would be difficult to perform. Adding to the descriptions above this sounds like a contradiction?

    -No, I was nervous before the premiere of Low Jive because it requires many of the instruments to be tuned down a quart note, which I thought would be confusing and very challenging for the musicians. It had nothing to do with the complexity of the piece as such. But the musicians in OFO (The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra) tackled this with brilliant calm; they are tremendously professional.

    Low Jive was recorded about a year ago, when the OFO premiered the commissioned piece. On the record it is coupled with the aforementioned pieces Mad Cap Tootling and Wet Blubber Soup, as well as Gust, a duo piece for viola and double bass.

    Was it decided in advance which of your works would feature on this portrait? Were you actively part of the recording process?

    The make up of the record was pretty much ready in advance yes, but he last piece, Gust, was something we fitted in underway. I was actually very much on the sideline during the whole process. It is the soloists, Herresthal and Birkeland that have been the driving forces behind this project. They were the ones who wanted to make the record and they secured the funding.

    In the liner notes Simax, the label, describes Low Jive as a dark piece; a monumental dance in the depths. You have said that your goal is to write music that is direct and immediate, with an atmosphere that is easy to grasp. Is there a link between darkness and this notion of an immediate and defined atmosphere?

    -There is no necessary link, but at the time when I wrote Low Jive I wanted to present a dark and gloomy atmosphere. However, my most important objective with the piece was to achieve an aesthetic clarity, meaning that instead of jumping from one theme to the next, I allowed the parts to develop over time. Thus it is tranquil in a way, and clarified I hope. But these considerations do not necessarily imply darkness.

    You have mentioned a few concepts that guide your work as a composer in the phase you’re now in. One is a transition from quotations to energy; another is the search for a kind of beauty that is not kitsch. Do you not think that it is a problematic proposition to state that beauty is Kitsch, and that only a special mindfulness can reveal beauty of a different kind?

    -The question of beauty is a difficult one, it is not clear to me where the fault lines run here. What I’m after is a new kind of beauty, something that resides in new tonalities and new kinds of chords. I want to search for beauty in new places. In my work with micro tonality, which I’ve really just started, I find that there is a lot of potential in this respect: beauty that is hidden and has to be exposed. It is a very exciting field.

    What about the concept of humour that has been so prominent in many of your works, and the references to Zappa and Mike Patton. Is this something you’ve left behind?

    -Yes, I partly understand the criticism towards that stance, i.e. that there is too much show involved. That element of my influences is not part of the path ahead.

    You’ve said that it is an important principle for you to listen to music that is as different as possible from what you’re working on yourself. What are you currently into? And does this principle also apply beyond the field of music?

    Right now I’m kind of hooked on pop. Especially Split Enz, which is the precursor to Crowded House, with the Finn brothers. I also draw inspiration from other expressions, naturally. Literature was very important for a while. But it is not so much a conscious search for inspiration as a desire to broaden my horizons in general.

    Lastly, do you think of this dedicated record, starring OFO and some of our finest soloists, as a kind of second of breakthrough for you? What will ensue from it?

    Sure, it feels like a big event, even if breakthrough is an odd concept in my situation. I’m just very happy with the record –the process has been very rewarding and the involved parties have been so enthusiastic and professional. But apart from feeling very rewarded personally, and happy with the attention and momentum, I try not to have too many expectations. There are no concrete plans for more touring or performances. I am going to concentrate on my work with micro tonality; in fact I’ve just borrowed a new keyboard, which is tuned down a quarter note. I can’t wait to start using it and explore this direction further in peace and quiet.

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