Composer Spotlight: Interview with Ola Gjeilo

Biography

Composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo was born in Norway in 1978 and moved to the United States in 2001 to begin his composition studies at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he currently resides.

Ola’s recordings include the Decca Classics albums Ola Gjeilo (2016) and Winter Songs (2017), featuring Tenebrae, Voces8, and the Choir of Royal Holloway. His choral and piano works are published by Walton Music and include titles such as the Sunrise Mass, Northern Lights, Ubi Caritas, Tundra, and Ave Generosa. His wind band works are published by Boosey & Hawkes.

For more information, please visit olagjeilo.com or find Ola on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

When did you start composing?

I started playing piano and improvising when I was about five years old. As a child, I had a pretty good ear and was fairly quickly able to hear which notes worked together and which ones didn’t. I didn’t read music until later on because I just wanted to do keep improvising and creating things. I never had a moment in which I decided to become a composer though; it was something I had been so passionate about from a young age, and I never thought of doing anything else.

What drew you to compose choral music?

When I was growing up, my parents were always listening to a variety of music in the house, including choral music, so it’s always been a part of my life. My first composition teacher, Wolfgang Plagge, is an excellent choral composer, and choral music is such a natural and organic place to begin as a composer because you’re writing for the human voice. It’s also a great starting point as a composer because it teaches good voice leading and other foundational aspects of composition. The combination of choir and orchestra or string orchestra is one of my absolute favorite sound worlds.

Who are your musical influences?

I’m especially inspired by the improvisational artists, such as film composer Thomas Newman, jazz musicians Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, glass artist Dale Chihuly and architect Frank Gehry. As a pianist, Keith Jarrett is definitely my greatest influence. I think he’s the greatest improviser of all time and his tone is incredible. In the past ten years or so, a lot of my music has been influenced by film score, and some of the greatest composers today are writing music for film, such as Dario Marianelli, Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard, and Howard Shore.

Please explain your creative process.

Piano is my instrument, so my composition process starts with improvising on the piano or a keyboard. Usually, I first record a lot of ideas on my computer, into Logic. Then I’ll often make the ideas into tracks and put them on my iPhone and go listen to them somewhere else, like in a park. I try to step out of myself as much as possible and experience an idea from the outside, as if I’m in the audience. That way it helps me find out if it’s something that really touches me or if it’s just in my head. When an idea lights a spark, I start to build on it, sort of chiseling – I don’t often compose chronologically, it’s usually more like a puzzle. I might even start with the ending and build around that, never really writing down any music until it’s pretty final. My compositional process is intuitive more than anything else, and much more emotional than cerebral, I think.

How do you decide what text to set?

I read a lot of poetry and compile the poems that I like and can pull from later. There are a few poets that I am perhaps particularly drawn to, but it really could be anything as long as it inspires something in me. Sometimes the person or group that is commissioning a piece will suggest lyrics as well. In the past few years, I’ve also worked with poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, which is my favorite thing to do in terms of texts, since he’s so great to work with and the lyrics will be written specifically for that piece. For the song Tundra, for example, I sent Tony photos of a mountain plateau in Norway near where my father grew up, and he used them to write the text for the song.

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve composed? 

It’s hard to pick one; I usually think more in terms of albums, since recording is my favorite thing to do and is something I always think about. I like lush, symphonic music though, so I enjoy Sunrise Mass (for choir and string orchestra) quite a lot. But in terms of just listening when I’m on the subway or walking around, I like The Lake Isle with Tenebrae from my first Decca Classics album (“Ola Gjeilo”, 2016), especially because it involves acoustic guitar, one of my favorite instruments.

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