Interview: Ørjan Matre

The concluding piece in our new Advent programme, Herrens Venner, is a haunting Norwegian folk song arranged by one of Norway’s foremost composers, Ørjan Matre.

Ørjan (b. 1979 in Bergen) studied composition with Bjørn Kruse, Lasse Thoresen, Olav Anton Thommessen, and Henrik Hellstenius at the Norwegian Academy of Music. He has established himself as a distinctive voice in Norwegian music, having obtained, in a short time, high-profile commissions from leading musicians, ensembles, and orchestras. A significant portion of his output has been for symphony orchestra, and he has been a featured composer for both the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Our Associate Conductor, Meghan Quinlan, knows Ørjan through the Oslo Chamber Choir, and interviewed him briefly about Herrens Venner:

MQ: Folk music is an important influence in the Norwegian contemporary music scene. What do you think the attraction is, and how have folk traditions influenced your own writing?

ØM: Det er riktig at en del komponister i Norge i dag har tatt utgangspunkt i norsk folkemusikk. På slutten av 1800-tallet bearbeidet komponister (f.eks. Grieg) tradisjonsmateriale som en del av nasjonsbyggingen i Norge, men jeg tror komponister i dag tiltrekkes av andre ting ved stoffet enn det nasjonale. Norsk folkemusikk, særlig det eldste materialet vi har, har ofte avansert rytmikk, intonasjon og ornamentikk, ofte ikke ulik mye av dagens moderne musikk. For meg klinger dette stoffet underlig fremmed, og kjent og nært på samme tid.

Jeg har stort nesten utelukkende jobbet med folkemusikk gjennom arrangering av folkemusikkmateriale, stort sett for kor, men jeg ser også at jeg har tatt med meg noen erfaringer fra dette arbeidet også over i komponeringen, særlig på det harmoniske området.

It’s true that a number of composers in Norway have taken Norwegian folk music as their starting point. At the end of the nineteenth century, composers such as Grieg adapted traditional material as part of Norway’s nation building, but I think composers today are attracted more by the material’s musical content than its nationalistic associations. Norwegian folk music, particularly the oldest material we have, often has advanced rhythms, tuning systems, and ornaments, not unlike much of today’s contemporary music. For me, this music sounds mysteriously foreign, yet simultaneously close and familiar.

I’ve worked with folk music almost exclusively through arranging folk material, mostly for choir, but I realise I’ve brought some of this experience with me into composition, particularly into the harmonic domain.

MQ: How did you come across Herrens Venner, and what made you decide to arrange it for choir?

ØM: I folkemusikktradisjonen er det vanlig at musikalsk materiale vandrer gjennom tradering, at man lærer sangene eller slåttene direkte fra folkemusikerne. Jeg lærte Herrens av Berit Opheim, en norsk folkesanger. Jeg likte den umiddelbart; det er en vakker melodi, med en litt fremmed intonasjon, og i samarbeid med Håkon Daniel Nystedt, dirigent for Oslo Kammerkor (et norsk kor som i mange år har jobbet med å utvikle folkemusikk i kordrakt), fant vi ut at dette var en sang som kunne fungere også for kor.

It’s normal for folk music material to wander through the folk community, so that you learn the songs or instrumental pieces directly from folk musicians. I learned Herrens from Berit Opheim, a Norwegian folk singer. I liked it immediately; it’s a beautiful melody, with slightly strange tuning patterns, and in collaboration with Håkon Daniel Nystedt, the conductor of the Oslo Chamber Choir (a Norwegian choir that has worked for many years on developing folk music as a choral practice), we discovered that this was a song that could work for choir.

MQ: One of the most striking features of the arrangement is the ease with which the choir’s continuously shifting harmonic patterns merge with a folk melody sung in free time. How do you approach this relationship between folk melody and choral accompaniment?

ØM: Dette arrangementet er skrevet etter at Oslo Kammerkor i flere år hadde jobbet med å kombinere norsk folkemusikk med klassisk romantisk kormusikk. Koret ble typisk delt i to, der en del av koret sang en folketone, mens den andre delen sang klassisk korrepertoar. Samtidig! Effekten ble noen ganger underlig, men andre ganger  fullstendig sublim, og det var erfaringene fra dette som gjorde at jeg testet ut en lignende idé, å la en del av koret synge noe jeg hadde skrevet, mens en annen del av koret sang en folketone fritt på toppen. Denne strategien fungerer aller best når man tenker så lite som mulig over om de ulike delene passer sammen, men lar tilfeldighetene råde.

This arrangement was written with the awareness that the Oslo Chamber Choir has worked for many years on combining Norwegian folk music with classical Romantic choral music. The choir is typically split in two: one part of the choir sings a folk melody, while the other part sings music from the classical choral repertory—at the same time! The effect is sometimes strange, but at other times it’s absolutely sublime, and it was this experience that made me test out a related idea: to let part of the choir sing something I had written while the other part of the choir sang a folk melody freely on top. This strategy works best when you think as little as possible about whether the different parts work together, letting chance take over. (To hear this merging of classical and folk in action, you can listen to the choir’s album Strid here.)

MQ: What are your current projects?

ØM: På den ene siden jobber jeg med komponeringen, hovedsakelig musikk for større ensembler og orkester. Samtidig jobber jeg med arrangering, og har nettopp fullført en rekke nye arrangementer av norsk folkemusikk for Oslo Kammerkor.

On the one hand I’m focusing on composition, primarily music for large instrumental ensembles and orchestras. On the other hand I’m also focusing on arrangements, and have just finished a new set of folk-music arrangements for the Oslo Chamber Choir.

(Trans. Meghan Quinlan)