A Three-headed Troll

Pianist Christian Eggen really wanted to be a composer. To learn more about the orchestra, he studied conducting as well as composition, thereby becoming a captive of his own education. Today he is one of the most prominent conductors in Norway and much in demand as a composer, especially for cinema, theatre and television.

Christain Eggen

Only a couple of years ago, the least evident element of his tripartite musical personality was the composer. Today, it is the pianist – even musical trolls only have twenty-four hours in a day. As this year’s Festival Musician at the Bergen International Festival, however, there was focus on all aspects of his art including jazz. At seventeen, he released his own LP of self-composed chamber jazz, Unfuge.

The main theme of his five concerts, for which he had chosen the programme and hand-picked the ensembles, was “Past, Present and Future”. At Troldhaugen, Edvard Grieg’s home, he played solo pieces by composers as different as Bach and Scriabin, Chopin and Jan˘acÚk; he conducted the Cikada Ensemble in a programme of music by contemporary Norwegian composers; he played Kurtag and Webern with the BIT 20 Ensemble, Leif Ove Andsnes and Terje Rypdal; he was soloist in Brahms’ G minor piano concerto; and he conducted the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in the first performance in Norway of Luciano Berio’s epic work, Coro.

Just as trolls tear out trees by the roots, Christian Eggen upturns deep-rooted concepts: to him, Mozart and Beethoven are contemporary composers while Kurtag represents the future because his music is so open – it is constantly reborn in the present. He perhaps finds the past, as such, most interesting as a focus of research.

“During my first years as a conductor, I was more curious about the music than about the conductor’s role. I learned to conduct in order to learn to compose practicable music, and was most interested in new ideas. But old music is full of new ideas too, and research is constantly revealing new facets of it,” says Eggen, who in Bergen gave a lecture on how to find the source of older music, play it authentically or, as he says, give it “actualised” effect.

“New approaches actualise – without them, older music may well become fossilised – but we have no idea how the music “breathed” its way forward. Respiration and tempo, time and speed, will always be affected by the world view that prevailed at the time when the music was composed. Research opens the door to the historical context and is a starting point for meeting people from a different time or culture. Sociology, geography, contemporary politics, language, the clothes the nobility wore, what the poor were wearing – all those things give an indication of how the music ‘breathed’,” says the composer, using objective examples such as Bach’s sarabandes, Haydn, Mozart’s minuets or Chopin’s mazurkas.

“I once asked a Polish dancer to dance a mazurka for me and discovered that he often stressed the second beat in the bar. The elongation of the note gave the music a quite different, more ‘Polish’ expression. The classical minuet would be too slow to dance to, while Grieg’s hallings are generally played too quickly – it would be impossible to dance to them.”

Whether he is conductor, composer or pianist, learning more about musical expression is one of Christian Eggen’s main concerns. He talks intensely about the importance of history, about using research to change fixed opinions or prejudices, about not just going round in circles in your own head without learning anything. A score is not a fixed entity. Composers were pragmatic; they wrote to make their music work. When Mahler writes for a solo bassoon in one place and four bassoons playing in unison in another, why does he do it? Were the bassoonists in the orchestra so bad that Mahler had to use all four to get a proper sound? Or was the solo supposed to seem strong and rough?

“The conductor must use his head, get all the available information, make his choices according to the context, allow for dialogue between the composer and himself. When he has absorbed the music and made it his own, he will also be able to make the right choices on the basis of a musical totality.”

Christian Eggen believes that he has the most to contribute to new music. Whether as a midwife for new works or as an interpreter of 20th century music, he is in a class on his own. The breakthrough came with the World Music Days in 1990 when the Ultima Festival, which has been one of Christian Eggen’s stamping grounds ever since, acquired its new image.

“In Mozart’s time, there were only three or four different styles and every musician was familiar with them. That is why there are hundreds of unwritten laws in old music. Nowadays, the score is full of notations. Composers want to have full control of the interpretation. The first responsibility of the musician is therefore to be accurate. If he is, a great deal has been achieved.”
More than ten years with the two ensembles for which he is artistic director – Cikada and the Oslo Sinfonietta – have given Eggen broad orchestral experience, not least because there is more room for dialogue in smaller ensembles with longer rehearsal times than there is with the big orchestras.

“I’ve heard that Debussy had nearly a hundred rehearsals with Jeux, and Stravinsky even more with the Rite of Spring. Hans von Bülow writes to Brahms that he has a free day for him with the orchestra in August – would he like to come to Berlin to work on his fourth symphony? Brahms does so – then goes back home to carry on his work! Today, everything has to be finished in the course of three or four rehearsals. Orchestras don’t like changes, but three rehearsals are not always enough to develop good performances of new music. It isn’t only new to the audience, it’s new to the musicians too,” says Eggen, who has had the pleasure of working with such international greats as Cage, Xenakis, Lutoslawski, Ruders and Reich, and with more or less all the Norwegian contemporary composers, with both sinfoniettas and symphony orchestras.

Christian Eggen has been “a victim of circumstance” but nearly all the circumstances have been good! The offer he received in 1981 to be conductor of the New Music Ensemble (Cikada is its successor) was ideal. He was studying composition at the same time, so one would have thought he wrote mostly for the sinfonietta. However, it turned out that the cinema, theatre and television became his main employers. The 1980s saw the arrival of the sampler, which makes all manner of sounds available for musical manipulation. Today it is possible to build a complex home studio for a reasonable sum of money and work on the results, experiment and listen to what you write.

As a theatre musician, Eggen tries to utilise music’s potential as a dramatic force, not just an atmospheric backdrop. His first theatrical success outside Norway was with the music for Hitler’s Childhood in New York in 1986. Of the long list of productions since then, the most recent are Medea, Babettes Feast and Norwegian playwright Cecilie Løveid’s play about Quisling’s widow, Maria Q.

Most topical at the moment is the performance in connection with the National Theatre’s recent centenary celebrations, a new production in which text, choreography, sound, light and music are equally important and where the composer’s project is for the music to be totally integrated with the action.

“The starting point is in the sounds that are made on stage – voices, footsteps, the rattling of plates, the rustling of paper – and the music is created partly from the electronic manipulation of these sounds in real time and partly from more complex sound landscapes that have previously been recorded on tape. In other words, I musicalise sounds, both concrete sounds and instrumental ones. Any sound can be the foundation for a musical progression. I have a large reservoir of sounds and when they are structured music emerges.”

Pianist Christian Eggen uses a quite different vocabulary. Mozart has had an important place in his repertoire ever since his brilliant début at the age of sixteen, and he is very happy to have done the 1994 CD of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s piano music, which was much praised by the critics.

“Isn’t it strange that while hundreds of galleries mainly exhibit contemporary art, symphonic music and opera seem to belong in a museum? The old works are brought out and polished, time and time again. A special effort is required to promote good hidden, neglected music. Nielsen’s piano music belonged in that category, but luckily more people are now aware of the Danish master.”

The recording was a pioneering effort and also one he produced himself. It is highly unusual for a pianist to edit his music, but Eggen edited every note and was constantly surprised how many variations there were in his own recordings. He combined the roles of producer and performer like a kind of classic dj.

“It is nonsense to say that live recordings are best. Concerts and phonograms can’t be compared,” he maintains. “A recording gives you the possibility of controlling your own ideals and inner desires more consciously and fairly, and that gives you better odds for being able to delve into the musical expression.”

Today, Eggen the pianist is not such a perfectionist. In Bergen, he discovered that he had played too little in the last few years to feel totally comfortable on stage. He will have to choose between playing more or not playing professionally at all, and will probably choose the latter. Composing, research and fighting on behalf of contemporary music take time. So three-headed Christian will end up with “only” two heads, but his multi-faceted talent will continue to be the basis for all his activities. From that point of view, he is an old-fashioned musician.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.7 - 1999 No. 3
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