Album composed along Pilgrim’s path

Inspired by Norway

Alexander Chapman Campbell

Photos Hugh Carswell
Campbell found pianos along the pilgrimage route and interpreted what he experienced through music.

Eric Stavney
Seattle

I recently got a hot tip that a Scottish composer named Alexander Chapman Campbell was coming out with an album of pieces he composed while hiking through Norway. This was to be Campbell’s third album of what has been described as “not jazz, not classical, not improvised, but a glimpse of something new.”

I listened to some of his work and identified the reflective, lyrical, and spare style as what I’ve associated with New Age music. Alexander’s compositions remind me of George Winston, especially the December album, a favorite of mine. Like Winston, who writes pieces associated with certain seasons or places, Campbell’s new album Journey to Nidaros seems to call up visions of pristine Norwegian lakes, broad rocky and green plateaus, and fog hanging in forested valleys.

Wanting to know more about what inspired his walk in Norway and the music that came from it, I talked to Campbell at his home in Scotland.

Alexander Chapman Campbell - Journey to Nidaros

The album cover for Journey to Nidaros features artwork by Campbell’s brother, Edward Chapman Campbell.

Eric Stavney: What got you interested in visiting Norway?
Alexander Chapman Campbell: I visited Norway when I was 13 just for a holiday. I was really struck by the place; I just loved it, and knew I always wanted to go back. Then back in 2015 I had a few weeks of spare time, and I saw an opportunity to go back—and I love exploring places on foot. To me the obvious thing to do was to find some long-distance footpath through the country. I found these six medieval pilgrim routes and I chose the longest one from Oslo to Trondheim: the Gudbrandsdalen Pathway. Part of the reason for my walk was to have a break from my musical work and familiar life.

ES: Isn’t Gudbrandsdalen the legendary home of Peer Gynt (a Henrik Ibsen play for which Edvard Grieg wrote accompanying music in 1875)?
ACC: Yes. I really love Grieg’s music as well, and I was very conscious of his legacy as I was walking through.

ES: Tell me about how you started your walk and came to write the pieces on this album. Somehow you kept running into pianos?
ACC: It wasn’t until about four days into the pilgrimage that I composed my first piece in Norway. It just seemed to express my experiences. I supposed I’ve always gone to the piano when I want to express an experience or a feeling. So it was wonderful for me to have the opportunity to do that while on this pilgrimage. I think the two really came together, the walking and the music. When I listen to those pieces now, it takes me right back to those moments when I composed it. It’s wonderful to have that direct link to those places. I was also keeping a journal and doing some sketching.

ES: Yes, I’ve seen some of your sketches—you’ve got some serious artistic talent as a visual artist, too. How different were the pieces on this album to your other music?
ACC: They’re similar in some ways, but there’s a very distinctive sound that make them different. These just seem to go together. Maybe in the way the melodies move or the harmonies go together, there is something about the landscape in the music.

Alexander Chapman Campbell

Photo: Kari Hirth
Campbell with his gear outside of a herberge (hostel) along the Gudbrandsdalen Pilegrimsleden (Pilgrim’s path) in 2015.

ES: You obviously were not writing these compositions down while on your trip, so how did you remember them?
ACC: Luckily I’ve always had a good memory for music, so as long as I play something a few times, it tends to stay in my memory. So in Norway, when I composed something, I was sure to stay at the piano for a good half hour more to try and settle it into my memory. In the days after I wrote something, I was keen on finding a piano just to make sure it was still there. Once it is settled there, I can carry a piece around for months and not forget it. I think it’s a combination of sound and what my fingers are doing.

ES: Were the places you stayed at hostels for pilgrims on the trip?
ACC: Not many people do the trip. In the year before me, about 50 people walked from Oslo to Trondheim, and others walk just part of the way. They don’t have hostels, but people who live along the path have volunteered to offer a few rooms for a small fee. Often they only have 10-12 people staying with them in a season. It was great staying with people—sometimes on farms, sometimes in a cabin in the garden.

ES: So every time you got to a place, you asked, “By the way, do you have a piano?
ACC: Yes (he laughs)! At first I was quite shy, and then I got more comfortable asking. In a lot of cases they did.

ES: How did you come to be a musician? Did you grow up learning piano?
ACC: I started learning piano when I was seven, and then I took up the violin and the bagpipes and other things. But it really was the piano I took to really quickly. I used to love practicing piano, and I always practiced a lot more than the work I was given. Quite soon, I started adding extra notes to pieces and was naturally curious. It wasn’t planned. I just naturally started improvising more and by the time I was 14 I was writing quite a lot of music.

People have asked me what my inspiration is, and what other composers inspire me. I think inspiration is quite a mysterious process so I don’t know quite how to answer that. Certainly I’ve got a connection to nature. I’ve always lived in wild and nature settings. I think that comes through in the music.

You can listen to samples of Alexander’s music website at alexanderchapmancampbell.com. You can also order his Journey to Nidaros album, which was officially released in early April. His previous albums, Portraits of the Earth and Sketches of Light, are available, too, as well as sheet music for his compositions. You can also view his beautiful five-minute video of Norway and his music at vimeo.com/257420279/b5fde117b5.

Eric Stavney is graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and co-hosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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