Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen

Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen (1951)  is a Danish composer from Copenhagen. He is coming to Bodø with a premiere! HO, HE, HA, HI will be performed by the choir Ylajali.

Along with studying musicology at University of Copenhagen in the nineteen seventeens, a decisive part of his musical training was in the Group for Alternative Music. This was a students’ movement for more creativity in the spirit of 68, with many self-organised concerts. He also became a member of the Group for Intuitive Music which played the verbally notated pieces by Stockhausen but also music by its members, as well as by the New York School and other open works. 1983-2014 he was an assistent teacher (lecturer) at Aalborg University where he taught intuitive music (group improvisation) and graphic notations for aural scores. He also worked as a music therapist, with lectures and programmes in the Danish Radio on new and improvised music and appeared as a guest teacher, as well as an improvising musician, internationally. As a researcher, he published a number of writings on theory, history and bibliography related to improvisation and open form composition.

To see and hear more of Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen:



Most of his compositions follow the traditions of the open work and use graphics, new signs and verbal means to define the form and/or details of the compositions. While some works feature short instructions for improvising musicians, others are more detailed, with or without standard notation elements. They usually aim at laying down defining characteristics of the music in a precise way, however different performances of the piece may turn out. A further characteristic is non-linearity of the performance process, and polyphony. In recent decades there has been a special focus on the interactive dimension between musicians.

His compositions have been performed in 24 countries, including at Numus Festival (DK), Warsaw Autumn (PL), Creative Music Festival (JAP) and Frontiers Festival (Birmingham). His collaborations in free improvisation as a multi-instrumentalist on horn, voice and other instruments include among many others Steve Beresford, Kresten Osgood, Stephen Nachmanovitch, Hans Fjellestad and Frei Festival (DE). Organisational work comprise arranging of concerts (Danish ISCM section; the biennale Open Form Festival since 2011, founded by Else Olsen Storesund 2007), the international meeting European Intuitive Music Conference (since 1995) and publishing (Intuitive Records; IM-OS journal on Improvised music – open scores). A number of his works are published at www.edition-s.dk and, as shareware, on the internet.

How do you work when choosing your sounds? What do you listen for?

I like sounds that can be easily varied within a broad frame, independent of definite pitches and rhythmic counting. For instance, “long sustained sounds” or “short melodic/rhythmic motifs”. Sound enviromnents capable of diversity, like in nature or around us – I like to fancy them as a place for adventures and developments. But structural ideas, how to create the rules of the game, may be just as important – how players are encouraged to communicate with or against each other, or how next section comes into existence, for instance.


Looking back over your career as a composer, what advice would you give your young self?

I doubt whether I could give my young self any advice. I did what I had to do, engaged in things the way young people do. Rather, it’s a great pleasure to look back and feel the continuity, how old ideas have expanded, how sustained activity was rewarded. It’s thought-provoking to see how things appear in different historic light through the decades.
But if you asked me what I would advice young composers today, it could be: form an ensemble, study the pioneers who developed new notations and performance practise.


What can non-standard notations do which standard notations cannot?

Provide more musical material, more ways to use it – free the composer of twelvetone systems and metric rythms that are often irrelevant. Push the composer to take more ownership of the collaborative situation. Open pieces spread virally in a special way because they are so adaptable.

Is your compositional work related to the festival theme of “truth»?

I get sad to see how much fellow composers tend to speak of their work as a purely individual affair. I wish more would consider to be the architects of musical performances, make interesting ”houses” for the performers to inhabit, without prescribing everything they do in these houses. Your announcement opens a broader perspective: questioning conventional “truths” about music. The legacy of the romantic genius carries some historical truth, but we need to discover collective genius. Music is special among the arts because of its collaborative possibilities.


Can we improvise right away without being artistically clumsy?

A little risk-taking is required… but classical musicians have fantastic sensitivities and the possible danger of mechanical sight-reading is avoided. Selecting the right work in case it’s not completely free is crucial – not too much openness and not too little. Among the audience, improvised music has its fans because they can co-experience the creative tension right away. The composer can experience a more florid situation, of hearing different wonderful performances of one and the same work.


HO, HE, HA, HI is a choir piece which encourages the choir members to contribute within some given sounds in a polyphonic/heterophonic spirit, avoiding too much homophonic melting together. There are 4 categories of sounding material, as suggested by the title. The conductor may indicate a common category by pointing up, down, left or right. The indicated category will be the common framework of musical material for at least 10 seconds, after which members are free to alternate with the other sounds. Reactions to the conductor are always to be delayed for approx. 10 seconds and followed individually. In this way, heterophonic structures may arise, based on listening to each other and individual impulses. The conductor has, like traditionally, the role of being an architect of the overall form, but not of pointing out individual details.