Interviews

Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen World premiere

Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has written the piece Piano Sonata for the internationally acclaimed British pianist, Rolf Hind. The piece will be premiered at KLANG Festival, Thursday 16 June.

Piano Sonata is an intense musical study of canon techniques - augmentation, diatonic displacement and 1:1 canon. 

Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen wrote the piece while he was deeply affected by the violent and devastating forest fires in Australia. Working on a sonata while the world was literally on fire suddenly felt strangely meaningless. Yet the piece reminds us that beauty can sometimes emerge from the attempt to face disaster with the language available to us – no matter how inadequate this language can feel when disaster strikes. "Initially, in the process, I thought of the word sonata, and I immediately envisioned a romantic, virtuoso piano music fighting for its life in the almost inhuman atmosphere of our time," Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen explains. We asked him a few questions about his work. 

Find more information and tickets for the concert here >>Scroll for a Danish version of the interview below.

The work is dedicated to Rolf Hind, who has played your works in the past. How would you describe your collaboration?

I first saw Rolf play at a NUMUS festival when I was quite young. Later I was lucky enough to know a cultural organizer at a fairy-tale castle near Garmisch-Partenkirchen called Schloss Elmau, whom I persuaded to book Rolf to play Zwei Zwölftontänze and some of his own works. I greatly admire Rolf’s technical abilities and concept of a new understanding of music (his own) and his way of thinking about the piano. He is himself a composer of fantastic and corny piano music.

How do you approach such a comprehensive solo work as opposed to a work for a larger ensemble?

I started by planning the “journey”, that it should not go to Mols but to India – figuratively speaking. In this way large “arcs of time” are established in the mind, allowing a different way of dwelling on the material. In this case, a sort of emptying of the material that arose in the composition process, as opposed to material that is just visited out of curiosity. A large scale solo work is much easier to work with than e.g. a large scale opera. When writing an opera, you have to think about the musical course in slow motion to an extreme degree, because 5 minutes of music may take 5 weeks to write. In this way, there is a risk that you will lose track of the overview while writing. With a solo piece, the composition process is closer to real-time. I might accomplish 5 minutes in 5 days.

It has been interesting for me to see that the feeling of being “at home” in the musical landscape of the sonata infused in me the need to be more personal than before. I felt that it was almost morally wrong to immerse myself in notes while forest fires were spreading in Australia. While composing I had strong, strong opinions that were completely irrelevant to my sonata. There was a sense of being forced to “stick with it” while there were other things that were far more important. Deep down, I know that a canon is more important and right for me than any protest against the fossil fuel industry. The spoken dialogue between the pianist and the composer built into the sonata was the path I had to take to get there. Yes, even a composer can become vegan for the sake of the climate, but the battle is best fought with… “canons” (spelt with a single ‘n’), when you are a composer.

What do you consider to be the potential of the format?

Above all, going into it does something to me! I transformed myself in there. The format forces me to examine the material in depth. In a way, it can be compared to immigrating to a country, as opposed to being a tourist. One doesn’t simply breathe in atmospheres, but dives into history, material and basic structures, and you make the musical landscape your home.

What do you think the listener should pay special attention to in the experience of the work?

I don’t want to lead the listener by the nose. As in any landscape, everyone notices different things from a personal perspective. If you are able to spot a canon as it unfolds, that might be a fun endeavour while listening.

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Værket er dedikeret til Rolf Hind, som har spillet flere af dine stykker tidligere. Hvordan vil du beskrive jeres samarbejde?

Jeg så Rolf spille første gang på en NUMUS-festival som ganske ung. Senere var jeg så heldig at kende en kulturarrangør på et eventyrslot ved Garmisch-Partenkirchen, der hedder Schloss Elmau, som jeg fik til at booke Rolf til at spille Zwei Zwölftontänze og værker af sig selv. Jeg har en stor beundring for Rolfs tekniske formåen og begreb om en ny musikforståelse (sin egen) og klavertænkning. Han er selv komponist af fantastisk og corny klavermusik.

Hvordan tænker du opbygningen af så omfattende et soloværk i forhold til et værk med større besætning?

Jeg begyndte med at planlægge “rejsen”, at den ikke skulle gå til Mols men til Indien – i overført betydning. På den måde etablerer der sig store “tidsbuer” i sindet, der tillader en anderledes dvælen i materialet. I det her tilfælde en slags udtømmelse af det materiale, som opstod i kompositionsprocessen, modsat materiale, der bare besøges af nysgerrighed. Et soloværk, tænkt i storformat, er mere taknemmeligt end f.eks. en opera i storformat. Komponerer man en opera, skal man i ekstrem grad tænke det musikalske forløb i slow motion, fordi 5 minutters musik måske tager 5 uger at skrive. På den måde er der en fare for, at man mister overblikket mens man skriver. Med et soloværk nærmer kompositionsprocessen sig realtime. 5 minutter klarer jeg måske på 5 dage.

Det har været spændende at se, at følelsen af at være “hjemme” i sonatens musikalske landskab også gav mig et behov for at være mere personlig end før. Jeg syntes, det var nærmest moralsk forkert at nørde noder mens skovbrandene i Australien udviklede sig. Jeg havde stærke, stærke meninger mens jeg skrev, der var min sonate helt uvedkommende. Der var en fornemmelse af at være tvunget til at “blive ved min læst”, mens der var andre ting, der var langt vigtigere. Inderst inde ved jeg godt, at en kanon er vigtigere og rigtigere for mig end alverdens protester mod den fossile industri. Den talte dialog mellem pianisten og komponisten, der er bygget ind i sonaten, var den vej, jeg var nødt til at gå for at nå derhen. Jo, også en komponist kan blive veganer for klimaets skyld, bevares, men slaget kæmpes bedst med… “kanoner” (udtales “ka-nonner”), hvis man er komponist.

Hvad synes du, at det format kan?

Det gør frem for alt noget ved mig at gå ind i det! Jeg forvandlede mig derinde. Formatet tvinger mig til at gå i dybden med min undersøgelse af materialet. På en måde kan det sammenlignes med at immigrere til et land, i modsætning til at være turist i et land. Man snuser ikke til atmosfærer, men man dykker ind i historie, materiale og grundlæggende strukturer, og man gør det musikalske landskab til sit hjem.

Hvad synes du, lytteren særligt skal lægge mærke til i oplevelsen af værket?

Jeg vil ikke føre lytteren ved næsen. Som i et hvilket som helst landskab lægger enhver mærke til forskellige ting ud fra et personligt perspektiv. Har man evnen til at spotte en kanon, mens den folder sig ud, kunne det være en sjov beskæftigelse mens man lytter.