Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson interviewed by Göran Bergendal (2012)
What is music for you?
It is possible to express the whole emotional palette with music and if the composer succeeds in this, it is as if he almost has the power to trigger the listener’s emotions. In my opinion new music should, in some way, reflect the present, otherwise it has nothing new to add. A lot of good music has already been written in the past and there is no need to recreate that. Music should be constantly approached from new perspectives. For the listener the experience should be like travelling to exotic places, where the combination of nature and culture appears in ever-changing ways.
Why do you make music?
I have the need to express myself through art. Music is the art form where I feel most at home, the art form that has the greatest effect on me.
For whom do you compose?
I have the need to express my feelings through music so my reasons are partly selfish. But I also want my music to have an impact on other people. If I did not get any feedback and got the feeling that nobody shared my taste, thoughts, ideas or my feelings I would probably give up composing and seek for other ways to connect to people.
Your path through music studies is typical for younger Icelandic composers; including the Hamrahlid Choir, Reykjavík College of Music, studies with Kjartan Ólafsson and Atli Heimir Sveinsson and then studies in Holland. What influences have these studies and teachers had on your artistic imagination? What impact has Olivier Messiaen had on you?
Singing with the Hamrahlid choir during my college years stimulated me to continue my piano studies that had up to that point been quite irregular and at the same time my appreciation for classical music started growing. I began listening to a lot of music from different periods. Through the choir I got acquainted with contemporary music for the first time and it opened up a new, exciting world for me. I soon realized that I wanted to be as big a part of that world as possible. So my aim became to fulfill the entrance requirements for the composition department at the Reykjavik College of Music. Kjartan Ólafsson, my first teacher, introduced different parameters to me, musical tools that could be used to develop and process musical ideas. Atli Heimir was an inspiring teacher who taught me useful things concerning instrumentation and voicing. When I was writing an orchestral piece under his guidance he encouraged me to use the orchestra sparsely at times, teaching me to appreciate “white pages” and in general to avoid an ordinary approach to composition. During a year as an exchange student I studied with Krzysztof Meyer at the Music Academy in Cologne. He gave me the task to write an organ piece and suggested I should study the organ music of Olivier Messiaen beforehand. I became fascinated by Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition, borrowing them from him in the resulting piece, Three Variations on an Icelandic Folk Song, and many pieces after that. Clarence Barlow, at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, was particularly helpful when I was exploring the field of microtonality using the overtone series as a source for harmonic and melodic development. Whilst there I also studied with Martijn Padding and Diderik Wagenaar, ex-students of Louis Andriessen, all three of whom belong to “The Hague School”, the Dutch answer to the American minimalist movement of the 70’s. As composers and teachers they and the Dutch musical environment in general, are partly responsible for my music being influenced by minimalism ever since.
Your use of numbers from the Fibonacci series, Pascal’s triangle and other mathematical devices may represent a systematic attitude to composing. How does it influence your musical imagination?
Sometimes I use numbers to create a kind of a “written” accelerando or ritardando. Now, one could ask why don’t I just write the traditional tempo alterations in the score instead, which would give me almost the same result? However, by using the written accelerando or ritardando technique I am able to keep one or more layers static at the same time as this tempo change is taking place elsewhere, which is an effect I like and use a lot. The numbers can also be helpful when creating different rhythmical layers (duration patterns) inside a common denominator. A simple example would be to present one number series (as a chain of note durations) and it’s mirror at the same time. I have used the Fibonacci series when searching for good proportions between musical sections, both short and long. Every two parallel numbers of that series have a proportion between them that is close to the Golden mean, a proportion that has fascinated composers and architects through the ages.
You have obviously a great interest in old Icelandic folk- and religious music. Describe your relationship to this tradition.
In Iceland, at the end of the 20th century there was a revival in interest in the composer Jón Leifs. A film based on the composer’s life, Tears of Stone, was premiered and the first biography about Leifs was published around the same time. The film and the book had a great impact on me while I was taking my first steps as a composer. Jón Leifs was the first Icelandic composer to have had an international career. One of the characteristics of his music is the use of Icelandic folk songs and folk rhythms; he travelled around Iceland to collect and notate what was left of the Icelandic music heritage. This idea of including a folk song in my music I borrowed from Leifs. Often when I was starting a new piece I went through a collection of Icelandic folk music and searched for a suitable melody to work with. In my earlier pieces using this method the original tune can be easily heard but later on the source has become more hidden, almost unrecognisable.
The ancient Lilja melody is used as material by many Icelandic composers, and it appears also in your scores. Tell about your relation to this melody.
I got to know this melody while singing with the Hamrahlid choir and it has this mystical charm, partly because it is not in a definite key. When, during my composition studies I came across the octatonic scale I soon discovered that the first two phrases of the Lilja melody actually fitted into it. The octatonic scale fascinated me and by using it I was able to develop various chords and melodies from it. Lilja is the folk song used in all the movements of Three Variations on an Icelandic Folk Song and the last section of Der Unvollendete, composed eight years later, is also derived from that same melody. In the latter case I adjusted the melody to Messiaen’s Mode 3, a nine-tone scale of limited transposition that also has similarities with Lilja.