An improvised life: composer Ola Gjeilo

An interview with New York’s up and coming Norwegian composer and pianist

Photo courtesy of Ola Gjeilo The Norwegian-born composer says he feels at home and relaxed in New York.

Photo courtesy of Ola Gjeilo
The Norwegian-born composer says he feels at home and relaxed in New York.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

In January, I had the pleasure to hear a concert by the University of Southern Denmark’s Chamber Choir. One piece they sang, “Ubi Caritas,” was incredibly moving—haunting and ancient. I was taken aback when their director, Saul Zaks, explained that it was composed by a contemporary Norwegian composer who now lives in New York, Ola Gjeilo.

I got curious—who was this composer? He has composed two volumes of choral Christmas Carols. One includes “The Coventry Carol,” one of my favorites that is not heard enough. His rendition has rich tones, unexpected inflections, and a pace quickening to unending motion, then softly ending in a hush. It has a similar quality to his “Ubi Caritas,” which was a hymn traditionally sung on Maundy Thursday during the washing of the feet ceremony and is believed to date back to sometime between the fouth and 10th century. “The Coventry Carol” also has a biblical connection, to the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod. It was the lullaby sung by mothers to their condemned children. Both pieces hark back to a tradition of voice as sole instrument.

Gjeilo also experiments in other genres. He has also composed a “Sunrise Mass” for orchestra and choir. Some of his pieces reflect his Norse roots: “Tundra” and “Northern Lights.”

One project I found interesting was “Piano Improvisations.” It was recorded with three pianos forming a triangle, so that the sound envelopes the listener. On his website, Gjeilo explains how this work was created by one pianist: “Producer Morten Lindberg suggested recording a few tracks where I would play layers of two or three pianos, which I thought was a great way to really exploit the surround sound potential on a solo album. We moved the piano between each take, eventually constituting a triangle, and the listener is sitting in the middle in a surround system setup.”

I had the great fortune to interview the innovative Ola Gjeilo. He spoke to me about his life in music.

Victoria Hofmo: Can you speak a little about your upbringing?

Ola Gjeilo: I grew up in Norway, Skui, about 20 kilometers from Oslo. A semi-rural town. My father is from Geilo, a very well-known ski resort midway between Oslo and Bergen.

VH:When did your interest in music begin?

OG: I started earlier than I can remember. My grandfather gave us a piano when I was one; I started playing as soon as I could reach the keys. I started improvising right away. I had a good ear as a child, so I could hear and play back without sheet music.

VH: Where did you study?

OG: I started taking piano classes at seven. I am really happy about that because learning to improvise early gave me a kind of freedom later as a composer and pianist. I wasn’t dependent on sheet music. I also went to a music high school.

VH: Why musical composition?

OG: I don’t think I had a choice. From when I was a little kid that was what I wanted to do—be a composer and a pianist. I never thought of anything else.

VH: Do you prefer to compose or perform?

OG: I am primarily a composer. That is how I make a living. But they are such different things. I wouldn’t want to be without either of them. Composing is the creative basis for everything I do.

VH: When did you come to N.Y.?

OG: I came to N.Y. in 2001 to study at the Juilliard School. I had never been to America before. I loved it. It is such a great place to study. I fell in love with the country and the culture. I felt at home here, even though 2001 was a rough year in New York. This is where I belong now.

VH: Was it weird to come from semi-rural place where you grew up to a city?

OG: Not really. I think I always wanted to be in a big place like N.Y. I never felt claustrophobic. I always feel very relaxed here. Maybe the skyscrapers remind me of the Norwegian mountains.

VH: When I heard your “Ubi Caritas,” I was surprised that it was composed by a contemporary; it sounded so ancient. Why did you choose to compose in that style?

OG: I think it wasn’t really a choice. It was what was in my heart at the time. It is not based on any existing chants. It is definitely influenced by Gregorian chants. Also, it’s one of my earliest pieces; my later music is usually different from that piece. I do have some later harmonic language modern pieces, not modernist, but modern. They are definitely influenced by Medieval chants.

VH: Could you explain the difference between modern and modernist?

OG: Modernist is more dissonant, more edgy, while the other is more traditional, while still being modern.

VH: What effect does that style have?

OG: That’s hard to say, how individual people feel and react to music. Chants in themselves have a special flow that feel meditative and soothing to many people.

VH: You have a palate that appreciates a variety of musical styles. For instance I heard your work with Norwegian guitarist, Kristian Kvalvaag. Can you speak about that project?

OG: It’s really just one iTunes single that we did and recorded. It’s called “Shade of Violet.” A whole different genre, an instrumental piece that has a lot of improvisation. It’s me on synthesizer and piano and Kristian on a bunch of different guitars.

We met when I was in Santa Monica. He lived south of L.A. and he worked at the Norwegian church in L.A. A friend of mine knew him and told me he was a really good musician, a guitarist. I just happened to have a track I had been working on and I asked him to improvise on that track. I edited and mixed it all together and released it digitally on iTunes, Spotify, and those types of sites. But it’s different from my other music. It has a cinematic effect.

VH: In what other musical styles have you composed?

OG: My background is mainly in classical and jazz. My piano music, which is my other love, tends to be more of a mix between classical, jazz, and even pop. I have two piano albums that have a mix of genres. But my choral musical is more classical.

VH: Are you working on any projects currently? Can you share them with us?

OG: Yes, all the time. I make a living mainly through commissions through classical works for choirs, orchestra, or piano or whatever.

VH: Is there anything you wish to explore, that you have not yet had a chance to?

OG: I would love to do more film scores. I have some music in a Hollywood movie coming out at Thanksgiving. That is a little start and I would love to do more of that.

VH: Are there any upcoming performances you would like to share?

OG: Right now I am more at home composing for a while; I will have more performances in the spring.

You can hear Gjeilo’s music no matter where you live, by checking out his website ( There are many other wonderful recordings online as well. But, if you do have a chance to hear him or his compositions performed live, I encourage you to do so. His pieces are sublime.

This article originally appeared in the March 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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