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 Kaja 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, AZ. 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 personally 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 had had which prompted me to meet Kaja 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 also get a glimpse of a glorious iconic Grand Canyon sunset. The bus tour did not allow for that flexibility, so I offered that Kaja 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 even 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 Kaja 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 Kaja writing a piece for piano and electronics that I would then perform as much as possible. Kaja submitted a grant proposal for Norwegian funding for the project, which was accepted.
I was very invested in having a piece by Kaja for my Mother Earth project that was inspired by the fjords and/or mountains of Norway—some of the most beautiful areas imaginable on earth. At some point during the writing process, Kaja 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!
Kaja 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 three 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 travelling 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 Kaja’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 Kaja 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, theatre, 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.
You can get a copy of the album by beoming a "Friend of Mother Earth." Early backers really mean a lot in a project like this. If you're planning to buy a copy of the CD, reserving early helps immensely with the initial costs of production. Thanks in advance for your support of the Arts! Support the project here.
I am beyond ecstatic about my Mother Earth project. The music is powerful and engaging. I’m including some old favorites and some fantastic new pieces that I’ve fallen in love with. There are pieces from eras gone by, and contemporary works. I’m playing pieces by composers who I admire from a distance, and others by composers who I count as dear friends. I was lucky enough to have my commission funded for a new work by Kaja Bjørntvedt, my dear Norwegian composer friend. (How Kaja and I met is a fun story that I’ll save for another time.) And all of them celebrate our beautiful planet—a perfect fit for this outdoorswoman. I’ve worked on many recording projects over the years, but this one feels more cathartic than the rest, perhaps because of what all I’ve gone through to get to this point.
The truth is, I’ve had this Mother Earth program on my mind for over six years. Back in 2011 when I conceived of it, I subsequently got busy adventuring with my trio-mates Maureen and Elisa, and didn’t have time to really sink my teeth into solo work. Chamber music is rewarding and fun and I readily poured all my energy into it. In addition, as a trio we had some pretty fantastic and unparalleled opportunities that we were able to take advantage of. Meanwhile, my solo project faded into the recesses of my mind. The collection of pieces for the Mother Earth program did shift and evolve over time, as I intermittently devoted stray thoughts towards which works I should include. I continued plotting, even though I couldn’t devote time to practicing it.
Finally, in the summer of 2017 I decided it was time for me to get back to my solo work for real. I stepped down from my role in the trio and decided to dive headlong into the Mother Earth pieces.
Then I injured my elbow. I wish I had a better story—like I fell while summiting a 12K foot peak, or I sprained it pulling a child from a burning car. In reality, I was working on a minor home improvement project and I twisted something a little bit too aggressively with a screwdriver. I felt a twinge at the time, but I didn’t think it would amount to anything. I was going on vacation the next day, so I figured that when I resumed my normal life after some down time I’d be good as new.
Fast forward a few weeks. I returned to Pittsburgh full of energy to dive into my new solo program only to discover that I couldn’t play the piano at all. I still optimistically thought it’d pass within a few weeks, so I waited. And waited. And then I waited some more. Any time I would practice even a little, the pain would skyrocket so that I couldn’t sleep at night. After about a month of this, I got depressed. I couldn’t practice, or do computer work (using a mouse or typing were equal pain triggers). I threw myself into my teaching and parenting in an effort to distract myself. But the truth was, I was scared. I started to wonder if I would ever be able to play again. The absurdity of the whole thing was not lost on me. The headlines playing across my mind read: Pianist ruins career attempting to fit a chain into an eye-hook. How idiotic.
By October I started seeing a physical therapist and obsessively doing the exercises she assigned me. It was two steps ahead, one back, for quite a while, but eventually around December things started heading in the right direction.
Sometime during this whole saga I wrote a quick note to my former teacher, Craig Sheppard. The note was unrelated to my injury and I can’t even remember saying anything to “tip him off.” However, Craig being Craig, he was somehow able to intuit that I had something major going on. I ended up spilling my entire story to him after his generous invitation to do so, and he shared several personal experiences that flooded me with hope. I fervently believe this conversation was the psychological turning point I needed to bolster my efforts toward recovery. It turns out that—surprise!—the blues didn’t really help to nudge me in the right direction.
At some point I was able to figure out that the pain was caused by tension in a particular part of my arm. As a piano teacher I deal with this sort of thing every single day, so I figured I would just have to teach myself the way I teach a beginner. So I did. I started with about 5 minutes a day, playing scales at a snail’s pace. Constantly checking and rechecking to obliterate any tension. Then I worked up to 10 minutes. The first day I was able to practice for a full hour felt like a revelation.
After that I was able to increase steadily until, by the end of February, I was back to being able to practice six or even eight hours with no adverse effects.
Recently I was reflecting on the state of the planet, which I have been doing even more than usual now that I’m working on my Mother Earth project. From the start, the motivation for my project has been to inspire a greater level of care towards the earth. I couldn’t help drawing an analogy to my own personal experience. Between pollution, global warming, deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and a host of other concerns, our planet is hurting too. We’ve injured it by doing silly “home improvement” projects.
Maybe it’s time to take a step back. We need to relearn our technique like beginners. Figure out how to do this earth-stewardship thing carefully and correctly. If we do it right, we may get back up to speed sooner than we think. Here’s to a full recovery for Mother Earth!
You can get a copy of the Mother Earth album by becoming a backer at my GoFundMe site. Early backers really mean a lot in a project like this. If you're planning to buy a copy of the CD, getting one by reserving early helps immensely with the initial costs of the production. Thanks for your support! Support the project at GoFundMe.