The valleys that connect us
Piano album brings artists from across the Earth together to celebrate and support it
Meet Kaja Bjørntvedt, the composer of the new commission “Sounds of a Fjord” that I’m including on my 2019 Mother Earth album. I suppose every collaboration has an interesting story, but I am particularly fond of thinking about how Bjørntvedt and I came to work together on this project.
Back in 2011, I attended the Congress for the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. I had traveled to Flagstaff alone from Pittsburgh where I live. I was a presenter at the conference, but I didn’t know anyone else who was attending. I met quite a few people over the course of the week, but I also spent a decent amount of time doing what many of us do now when alone in a crowd—looking at my phone. One evening, I was sifting through email on my phone as I waited for an event to start. The lobby was filling up and someone came and sat at the opposite end of the couch where I had planted myself. All of a sudden I had an overwhelming premonition that I should introduce myself. I’m not generally a person who reports experiencing “psychic” moments such as this—I had never had any such experience, and I haven’t since then. However, it was such a strong feeling that I felt I had to follow the lead. I put my phone away and went over to introduce myself. As you’ve already guessed, that person was Kaja Bjørntvedt.
We immediately hit it off with that easiness you feel when you meet a kindred spirit. I learned that she was a Norwegian composer who was at the time living in London. Having married into a Norwegian family, and having spent a lot of my adult life adopting many Norwegian traditions, it was exciting to make the connection. It turns out that the feeling I’d had prompting me to meet her wasn’t all that strange for her: she had, in fact, met her own husband at a “Free Hugs” event in which they both showed up to offer free hugs to strangers!
Through the course of our conversation I learned that she had signed up for a bus tour the following day to the Grand Canyon. I had rented a car for the week—my hotel was not close to the conference site—and was also planning to go to the Grand Canyon the next day. I had planned to take a lengthy hike and stay late to get a glimpse of a glorious iconic Grand Canyon sunset. The bus tour did not allow for that flexibility, so I offered that Bjørntvedt just come with me and bail on the organized trip. Without hesitation she agreed to the plan, and that’s how we ended up spending a very long and fun-filled day together in one of the country’s most impressive national parks. During the whole 16+ hour excursion, I don’t think we stopped talking once!
After the conference was over, all the usual connections followed—Facebook friendships, notes now and then catching up on life, follow-ups on each other’s projects, etc. Several years later, Bjørntvedt and her husband had a baby and decided to move from London back to Oslo (it’s no secret that raising kids in Norway is pretty ideal!). We continued to stay in touch and eventually we planned this collaboration, with Bjørntvedt writing a piece for piano and electronics that I would then perform as much as possible. She submitted a grant proposal for Norwegian funding for the project, which was accepted.
I was very invested in having a piece by Bjørntvedt for my Mother Earth project that was inspired by the fjords and/or mountains of Norway—some of the most beautiful areas imaginable. At some point during the writing process, she wrote me a quick note saying, “It’s hard not to be inspired by the fjords when I have this view out my window!” Attached was a picture of the Oslo Fjord that she could see right from her office window where she sat composing!
Bjørntvedt writes about the piece: “A fjord is a fantastic story of water, with many chapters going back all the way to the ice ages. The fjords were carved by a massive sheet of ice up to 3 kilometers thick that covered the land. Over time, the glaciers expanded and contracted as water accumulated or melted. These changes created movement that scoured the land beneath the ice mass. As the glacier melted, the mass of ice crushed rock and earth, generating a deep U-shaped valley called a fjord.
“Living by, and having grown up next to a fjord, I have always had the sea close to heart. The fjord has a vast complexity of sounds, sounds that I like to imagine reflect the creating of the fjord throughout the ages: deep and pulsating, sometimes wild, sometimes calm. Sometimes like a stream where the water meets the land, yet deep and dark the further out you are. Never still, always moving. Reminiscence of waves that have formed far out at sea. Reminiscence of ice melting and land crumbling. The wind traveling in a passage between the mountains on either side, creating a flute-like sound.”
In the haunting electronic track that accompanies my acoustic piano part, I can also trace a feeling that seems to reach back to the ancient Viking heritage that is so part and parcel with Norwegian identity. I’m thrilled that not only do I get to showcase Bjørntvedt’s piece here in the States, but I also have the opportunity to play it in Norway and Iceland in May 2019. It will be such a thrill to present the Norwegian premiere of the piece with Bjørntvedt in attendance, and just a stone’s throw from the vistas that inspired the piece!
It is especially meaningful to me that the beginning of our friendship took place at the Grand Canyon, and that now our first musical collaboration is on the topic of fjords—both valleys that are formed over centuries from the earth’s water and ice patterns. Sometimes valleys divide, but in this case the valleys are what connect us.
Kaja Bjørntvedt (born 1981) is a Norwegian composer with international engagements. She creates electro-acoustic soundscapes for performances within contemporary dance, theater, art-installations and films, as well as writing acoustic music for various ensembles. She also loves mixing live instruments with electroacoustic music. In her work, she explores the connection between sounds, movements and visuals, whilst searching for different ways of presenting music to the audience. Her music is published by Musikk-Husets Forlag and Tetractys Publishing, with music included in the Trinity Guildhall Graded Exams Syllabus.
Becky Billock is a pianist and recording artist based in Pittsburgh. In March 2019 Billock is releasing her new album, Mother Earth, a collection of piano pieces inspired by nature. Having married into a Norwegian family, and as an avid student of the Norwegian language, Billock is excited to include the premiere of “Sounds of a Fjord” by Norwegian composer Kaja Bjorntvedt on the new album. The piece was commissioned especially for the Mother Earth recording project. Details at www.beckybillock.org.
This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.