Composer Knut Vaage returns to the Pacific Northwest

Norwegian musical connections

Knut Vaage

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Last summer, Lori Ann Reinhall met up with composer Knut Vaage at the Opus XVI Hotel in Bergen to talk about his upcoming U.S. tour in the Pacific Northwest.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Bergen-based composer Knut Vaage is no stranger to the Seattle music scene. In May 2017, he appeared on stage at Bena­roya Hall with local pianist Angelo Rondello to introduce two of his piano pieces for their U.S. premiere there. It was a special evening for him, with many of his American relatives in the audience to cheer him on.

Knut Vaage, born in 1961, grew up on a farm in western Norway, where he would listen to the melody of his father’s whistle as he called the cows to their milking each day. “It was a simple life back then,” Vaage recalls, “we didn’t have all the jobs and money with the oil industry.”

In the postwar years, many of his relatives emigrated to the United States, and a handful landed in Seattle’s Ballard community, where they took up work within the fishing and maritime industries.

But even with a big ocean dividing them, the greater family somehow stuck together. The new Americans regularly wrote letters back home, and they even sent over school clothes for Vaage and his four brothers, colorful Western-style shirts and belts with cowboy buckles. There were summer visits from Seattle that kept the family ties strong, a connection that had an influence in both directions.

As a child, Vaage didn’t know that he would become a musician. He didn’t come from a famous musical family, but he loved to bang around on the piano and improvise. He remembers that he was so little that it was hard to climb up on the piano bench, and his legs weren’t even able to reach the pedals.

With the help of his older brothers, he learned to read music, and he soon started to scribble out simple songs. “I was very fascinated with drawing the notes,” Vaage remembers, “and when my older brothers were at school, I kept busy for hours on end.”

He left home already as a teenager and moved to Voss, and later Bergen, to work as a carpenter. But the young man took his interest in music with him. Even though he didn’t have a proper piano of his own to practice on, he started to play jazz and blues. Before long, Vaage realized that music was his true calling, and he went on to study piano and composition at the Grieg Academy.

Today, Vaage is recognized as one of Norway’s most accomplished living composers. He is known for breaking boundaries in classical composition, often making use of new, non-traditional instruments, microphones, and transducers. He has never crossed over to commercial musical culture, but he dabbles in the subculture. Vaage is relaxed in his approach to music, and the results can be both innovative and surprising.

Because of the financial support he receives from the Norwegian state, he has been able to work as a freelance musician. He has composed across a wide range of genres, and since he has not had to focus on money, he has had a large degree of artistic freedom. But the composer does not take all of this for granted. He knows that that great period of support for the arts in Norway could end, and he is aware that the field is highly competitive.

Yet for Vaage, music should never be elitist or exclusive. He is not interested in the competitive side of music, although he has worked with the very best in the global arena. “If there is a  beautiful novel by Steinbeck, everyone has the right to read it,” he says, “and it it’s the same with music.” While he has performed in Carnegie Hall with Bergen Philharmonic, Vaage doesn’t mind working with a student orchestra or an amateur choir. “Art is educational; it’s about sharing an experience,” he adds. “Music is an exercise in being more tolerant.”

During the new U.S. tour, Vaage will participate in a special workshop organized with Professor Svend Rønning with students from the School of Music at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. He will talk about his own compositions as well as the orchestral and choral works of Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. 

Additionally, Vaage will focus on Edvard Grieg’s last opus, no. 74, “Four Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies,” a choral work for baritone and mixed chorus. He considers it to be one of Grieg’s best works, and in his lectures, he will focus on the evolution of the classical tradition into the modern. Vaage often talks about “remodeling” in music. “We don’t create a new language; we build on what has come before,” he says.

The PLU School of Music also sponsoring a performance open to the public on Wed., Nov 6, at 8 p.m. at the Scandinavian Cultural Center, with a pre-concert reception at 7 p.m. The highly acclaimed Valen Trio from Bergen, featuring pianist Einar Røttingen, violinist Ricardo Odriozola, and John Ehde on the cello, will perform works by Vaage as well as Norwegian composers Ketil Hvoslef and Harald Sæverud.

In Seattle, Vaage is working with pianist Angelo Rondello, of the Music Exchange International program, and Julia Tai, music director of Philharmonia Northwest and conductor of Seattle Modern Orchestra, joined by soprano Laura Loge, president of the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society. At the National Nordic Museum on Sunday, Nov. 3, 3 p.m., they will present his epic composition “Odyssé,” a re-composing of Grieg’s op. 54. The Valen Trio is also on the program.

Vaage will also visit the University of Washington School of Music together the Valen Trio to discuss new developments in modern music. There are ongoing discussions about possible future performances of Vaage’s music there as well.

And, of course, Vaage will take some time to reconnect with his American relatives while he is in the Greater Seattle area.

For Norwegian composer Knut Vaage, music is always local within a larger global framework. “If you go to Hardanger, you create some beer and cider with the local base products: they are the roots for your creativity,” he says. It’s the same with music. Vaage loves to go home to work in his small cottage, but not because he has small ambitions. Vaage wants to make his music work everywhere: in Oslo, in Tokyo, in Rio de Janeiro, in Cape Town. As the universal language, music is a celebration of what we share, an opportunity to come together, and friends, family, and fans in the Pacific Northwest are looking forward to doing just this when the composer returns on his new U.S. tour in November.

• For more info and tickets to the Nov. 3 performance at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, visit www.nordicmuseum.org/product/2880.

• For more info and tickets to the Nov. 6 performance at the PLU Scandinavian Cultural Center, visit calendar.plu.edu/scan_center/calendar.

• To learn more about Knut Vaage, visit his website at www.knutvaage.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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