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Music: an interview with Kim André Arnesen

23 April 2021

The Norwegian talks to Susan Gray about his new recording

© Ole Wuttadal

HYMNS are no longer sung in Norwegian schools; so the composer Kim André Arnesen is delighted to have taught his daughters Oda and Mia, aged two and four, the traditional Norwegian Easter hymn “Påskemorgen slukker sorgen”, which can be translated as “Easter morning extinguishes sorrow”.

His own childhood was spent singing in Nidaros Cathedral Boys’ Choir, Trondheim, and watching pop videos on MTV. “I became a big fan of The Cure around the age of ten, and wore lipstick to school parties. Looking back, I see that I enjoyed songs with strong melodic content. I especially fell in love with big intervals in melodies. It’s often the big intervals in a melody that gives it identity and makes it special, and you find this in most of my music today.”

At the Music Conservatory in Trondheim, Arnesen says, he was lucky to have teachers with backgrounds in very different styles and genres, and some working as classical composers. He highlights a former jazz pianist, and a writer and singer of folk and pop music as particularly influential. “My teachers were also rooted in tonality, and to see them write really emotional and personal music changed a lot for me. I learned that music isn’t about impressing people, or a piece of paper to be studied like a piece of mathematics. Music should, of course, be studied, but that’s not why I compose.”

The melodic, easy-on-the-ear character of Arnesen’s music makes him one of the world’s most performed contemporary choral composers. But, beneath the surface simplicity, there is an unexpected emotional depth. His 2014 Magnificat begins in a sombre, almost sad, treatment, in contrast to the passage’s more usual exuberant settings.

“Some of those very powerful experiences, like the experience the Virgin Mary had, the very early response of just being very happy and joyful, I feel that there are much more deeper feelings in such experiences. I try to focus on the wonderment and the big responsibility Mary must have felt. I don’t know if spontaneous joy was necessarily the first feeling. It’s so big.”

His music has an enthusiastic following in America, where more than 42 million people sing regularly in choirs and choruses: “In the US, everything started for me; so that has been my biggest market so far.” Cradle Hymn was performed in 2016 for President Obama. “It was performed by the Institute of Notre Dame Choir from Baltimore, who had been invited to sing at a reception at the White House. I didn’t know about it until after the event. It’s one of those things that you never would have expected and shows that amazing things can happen even if you’re from a small city from the cold and distant north.”

Arnesen returns the compliment to his Stateside following by singling out Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish as his favourite piece of music.

Arnesen’s latest recording, Holy Spirit Mass, was commissioned for the National Lutheran Choir in the Nordic heartland of the US, Minnesota. The same ensemble gave its first performance in 2017, marking 500 years since the start of the Reformation. “The mass ordinary forms the basis of the work, and the ninth-century hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus is also used in the Protestant Church. And even Martin Luther’s hymn ‘Come, Holy Ghost’ (in movement six) has Catholic roots, as it is based on the Catholic hymn Veni, sancte Spiritus. Except for a short quote from the Gregorian chant Veni, Creator Spiritus in the seventh movement, I would say that the music isn’t in one tradition or another throughout the work, at least not intentionally.”

It is easy to imagine sections of Holy Spirit Mass as a film score: slow orchestral sounds setting the opening scenes, and soaring strings draw the listener into the action. The fourth track, “Fount of Life, Glory”, has a conversation between keyboards and strings, electric guitar giving it the the flavour of a rousing contemporary Evangelical hymn.

Accessible popular music and sacred music spring from the same fountain for Arnesen: “Perhaps we sometimes need the simple and accessible to enter our spiritual rooms.”

He continues: “Some of the greatest spiritual and musical experiences I had with the boys’ choir were with the most simple hymns, especially the ones by Norwegian genius Egil Hovland. He could write large and complex orchestral works, and 30 seconds of simple liturgical music that kids love singing. Some of these moved me a lot, especially when they were sung in the large cathedral during a procession, coming through the 1200-strong congregation.”

Arnesen says that he sometimes attends church as a worshipper in Trondheim, where he has lived all his life except for three years in Oslo, “but not as often as I should”. Having struggled, at times, to reconcile an interest in science with religious faith, he says that no longer fears doubt. “Doubt isn’t anything to worry about.”

He likens writing music to praying: “It is a spiritual experience. So, it develops all the time, based on life and what matters at that time. It’s very much a spiritual journey, without knowing what will happen and not always having a plan. I use compositional techniques and theory as a tool to make sense of this journey and make it communicable.” For Arnesen, music that moves hearts, from pop to plainchant, has spiritual value: “It’s a miracle that it exists.”

Kim André Arnesen’s
Holy Spirit Mass is released on Decca Classics.

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