Inside the Music with composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo

Interview with Ola Gjeilo

Ola Gjeilo is a Norwegian composer who has written over 70 works for solo piano and choir. Now based in the United States, his latest album, Dawn is a beautiful collection of solo piano pieces inspired by the peaceful light and stillness at dawn in Oregon and California. We caught up with Ola to discuss his musical background, his composing process, the works he's proudest of, and more.

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Interview with Ola Gjeilo

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about how you started out in music?

Ola ("O"): I started playing the piano when I was little, maybe four years old or so. And I just started sort of improvising early, I think. I was self-taught in the beginning, but there was always a lot of music in the house. Growing up, my father would play records all the time from lots of different genres…classical, jazz, pop, folk music, anything really. So that was a big part of my musical education, kind of assimilating all that music that was playing in the house. And then from there I had private lessons in piano and synthesizer until I got to high school. I went to a music high school in Norway which is when I started having more formal training. Later I did two years at the Norwegian Academy of Music, before transferring to Juilliard to study composition there. I then finished my Bachelor's degree in London at the Royal College of Music, before I moved back to the States again for my Master's at Juilliard and I have lived here ever since.

S: Thank you for that. So, much of your early work was written for choir and orchestra. Can you tell us the reason behind your shift of focus to piano solo composition?

O: It's always been parallel really — those two areas have been my main passions since high school. So, after I signed with Decca Classics we've been sort of toggling between the two for each album or EP. I love that contrast, between the intimacy of solo piano and the bigger sound world with choir. But the piano has always been my instrument as a performer, so I always come back to that in some way.

S: And what is the inspiration behind your latest album, Dawn? Can you give us a little peek behind the curtain of that album.

O: Sure! Dawn is sort of a sequel to my previous piano album, which is called Night, and the style is very similar. Night is mostly peaceful piano music that is pretty introvert and very lyrical. And so I did a similar thing for Dawn, but I think slightly brighter, slightly more sunny. The Night album was inspired by New York City, where I've lived the majority of my time in the US. I love it so much, and I always feel inspired by the city, especially at night — the skyline with endless lights, it's so powerful and peaceful at the same time. The Dawn album was more inspired by the West Coast. I was traveling for several months with my girlfriend, starting in Oregon and then eventually down in California, and the music was inspired by the Pacific dawn and the very unique kind of light that's so special out here.

S: Very cool, and can you tell us a little bit about your composing process? Do you sit down at the piano and the music just flows out? Do you get ideas in your head and flesh them out later? How does it typically work?

O: So it depends a bit on what I'm writing, but if it's piano music it tends to be more based on improvisation. Improvisation has always been what I've enjoyed the most as a pianist, and it's really the basis for everything I do in a lot of ways. I always loved and looked up to improvisers in any area really, whether it's, you know, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, or Thomas Newman's film music, which incorporates a lot of improv. So that's also how I usually start a composition as well, through tons of improvised material that I record, whittle down, and later develop. With solo piano music, it's a little simpler — I'll record a lot of improvisations to create material for whatever the next album is. Sometimes I'll just keep them as is, if it feels just right, and then notate it for the recording sessions. But more often I'll base it on an improvisation and develop a piece from there.

   Improvisation has always been what I've enjoyed the most as a pianist, and it's really been the basis for everything I do in a lot of ways."

Choral composing is pretty different because there's a lot more deliberate composing involved, a lot more elements. But usually that also starts out with improvisation. I tend to record several improvisations in the Logic software; I don't usually remember much of what I played, so it's really important to record it. And one of the most fun parts of the whole process is that initial round where I improvise a lot and then go back and listen to it all and kind of discover it anew, to find out if there is anything there that's exciting, that has a spark to it. And from there I choose a few of the ideas and keep the ones that inspire me, or resonate in some way. Then I take those ideas and I start to develop and combine them, before eventually writing it into the Sibelius notation program.

S: Very cool. Thank you for that. OK, so my next question, who would you cite as your main musical influences in the realm of classical or contemporary classical?

O: It's a bit harder to say these days because everything is so much more eclectic now, since because of the internet we have incredibly easy, fast access to music from every time period and genre. So you're often kind of bombarded with music throughout the day and all of that affects us in fascinating ways, I think. But from early music to newer, some of the composers I've listened to the most are Hildegard von Bingen, Palestrina, Bach, of course, a lot of Brahms, Ravel, Barber, Vaughan Williams, Adams; it's a long list! But I'm also very influenced by a lot of film music. I love movies and television, and I think some of our best composers today are working in film. Composers like Dario Marianelli, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams, Thomas Newman, Natalie Holt, Howard Shore, and many others.

S: Great. And do you have a particular project you're most proud of?

O: One of the works that is very close to my heart is a piece called "The Lake Isle", which is from my first album with Decca which is just called Ola Gjeilo, because it was my debut album with them. I think it's partly because it has guitar; it's one of my absolute favorite instruments, and I hadn't used it in choral music before. So the piece has a mix of more folksy elements with the classical choral, I really enjoy that combination in general. And I love the video to it — we were so lucky to be able to use footage from a great Norwegian photographer called Morten Rustad, who had amassed a lot of stunning time lapse material. The footage is from many parts of Norway, where I'm from, and we were so lucky to get to use that for this piece. I'm also very fond of my Mass called "Sunrise Mass." It was my first longer work and has a lot of kind of cinematic influences, like we were talking about before.

S: Thank you. And as a pianist, is there any specific music by other composers or artists that you're enjoying playing at the moment?

O: I mean, I always play Bach. Partly because he's the classical composer I enjoy playing the most, but it's also a great way to keep my fingers in shape, so it has those dual functions. But yeah, I would say always it's always Bach.

   I always play Bach. Partly because he's the classical composer I enjoy playing the most, but it's also a great way to keep my fingers in shape."

S: OK, what advice would you give to any young or old aspiring composers out there?

O: It's always a tricky one because everyone's so different and there are so many different paths to becoming a composer. And whether you want to do it full-time or part-time, there's just so many directions out there that can be exciting. Especially now when everything is so open and we mix genres a lot more, with boundaries getting erased quite a bit. But I think in terms of not just being successful, but also feeling good about what you're doing. I think it's important to be pretty stubborn about what you write and what you want it to sound like, while of course also taking in as much constructive outside advice as possible. It's so important to write music that you yourself can't wait to listen to, you know? Because I think then you tend to be the most true to yourself, and since everyone is unique, your music is more likely to be as well. It sounds really obvious, I know; but it isn't necessarily, because it's so easy to give in to all these sorts of negative thoughts and spirals. That can make you unhappy, and more likely to get stuck in the composition process, and overthinking is the enemy of creativity in a lot of ways. But if you feel excited and eager about what you're hearing from your writing, then it's probably more likely that other people will be too, right?

   I think it's important to be pretty stubborn about what you write and what you want it to sound like, while of course also taking in as much constructive outside advice as possible."

S: That's great, and one last question — can you tell us about any upcoming projects you're working on?

O: So the piece I'm writing right now is a sequel to my "Sunrise Mass" that I mentioned earlier, called "Twilight Mass." It's a commission from DCINY, which we'll premiere at Carnegie Hall with singers from around the world in November. And then I'm working on my next choral album, which we recorded in January in London. We're now in the editing and mixing process, so that should be out in September I think. And I can't wait because it's been a while since we've released a choral album, because of the pandemic. So yeah, very excited for that - creating and releasing albums is one of my absolute favorite things in the world.

S: Wonderful. Thank you for your time!

O: Thanks so much!

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