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Ellen Lindquist

Ellen Lindquist is an American-Dutch composer living in Norway.
She is presented at Nordic Music Days with a world premiere, a piece for carillon performed by Vegar Sandholt, commissioned by Nordic Music Days.

The music of Ellen Lindquist has been performed throughout the world. Lindquist finds inspiration in the discovery of unique sound-worlds and thrives on collaboration, with dance, theatre, poetry, performance art and, particularly, devised music theatre — such as drömseminarium, a staged work for fifteen musicians based on the poetry of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. Her newest major work, Mantra (a concerto for Indonesian gamelan with Espen Aalberg and the Trondheim Sinfonietta) was released by BIS Records in October 2018. 

To see and hear more of Ellen Lindquist:

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Lindquist received her BA in composition from Middlebury College, Vermont, and both her MA and Ph.D. in composition from New York’s Stony Brook University, where she has also taught. Lindquist has also taught at Sweden’s Gotland School of Music Composition, and since 2013 has taught as Associate Professor at Trondheim’s NTNU Institute of Music. She is a member of the Norwegian Society of Composers and is currently working with support from a four-year Artist grant from Arts Council Norway. She lives with her family on the Fosen peninsula, near Trondheim, Norway. A deep respect for and love of the natural world is reflected in her work. Current work includes an international project in China’s remarkable Longyou Caves, a collaborative project with poet Margrethe Aas and Alpaca Trio, a new piece for Kammerkoret Aurum, and landscape music projects in Norway and Sweden. 

You are from the United States (Connecticut) and moved to Norway just 7 years ago. How do you, still a bit new in the north, see the contemporary Nordic music field? Is there a Nordic sound? 

As is no surprise from my name, a good deal of Swedish blood runs in my veins. I came to trust in that fact when I first traveled to Sweden in 1992: despite the fact that I knew no one, I felt somehow immediately at home, with landscape, with people. In 2007 I returned to Sweden, this time with a grant from the American Scandinavian Foundation. I worked in Sweden quite a lot during the years 2007-10, on Gotland and in Västerås. It was during that time that I started to hear from Swedish colleagues that my music had something ‘Nordic’ about it, a kind of melancholy, they said. I found that fascinating. 
However: I have now called Norway home for nearly 8 years, and I cannot say that I can classify the contemporary Nordic music field. It may be that there is a common ancestral voice that is rooted in a closeness to the natural world, and in a kind of melancholy—but my experience is of a remarkable diversity of contemporary Nordic compositional voices, including all kinds of exciting work across genres and art forms.

A deep respect for and love of the natural world is reflected in your work. Do you think truth/reality is an antonym for art and artificiality? How do truth, the natural and art come together for you?

I believe that we play a role in constructing our own reality, our own truth. It follows then that instead of being an antonym for truth/reality, art plays a role in affecting reality: certainly our own reality, but also the reality around us. I perceive the difference between ‘art’ and ‘artificiality’ as such: while art is of course ‘artificial’ (that is, not naturally occurring, but human-constructed), that which is artificial is not necessarily art. There is a spark of life-giving artistic intention which animates ‘artificial’ construction, through which it becomes Art. I would argue that in true art, that spark of intention provides a glimpse into some aspect of that artist’s individual truth. When we are affected by art, I believe that we have connected with that spark of truth in the artist’s intention, if just for a moment.

There is a line from Tomas Tranströmer’s poem Preludier (II) (from Mörkerseende (Seeing in the Dark), 1970), which I love:

Två sanningar närmar sig varann. En kommer inifrån, en kommer utifrån
och där de möts har man en chans att få se sig själv.
(Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside
and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.)

I am certain that there are many truths which exist simultaneously, surfacing in different combinations at different times. There is something about this meeting of internal and external truths which illuminates, exposes something important. It has to do with how our genuine self interacts with the truths/realities of the world around us.

For me, the natural world is an enormous source of truth, both in the unfolding of its natural laws and rhythms, and in sheer natural, un-‘artificial’ beauty. It is to the natural world that I go to ‘reset’, allowing full listening and intuition to take over. In this space, I am able to sense my own inner truth most clearly, and it is this that is perhaps my most important compositional tool. As far back as I can remember, it is through music and sound that I have made sense of the world around me.

But the truth/reality of the natural world is not only beautiful: it also encompasses the destruction of our natural world, through global climate change, drilling for oil in the Lofoten islands, destruction of slåttemark and blomstereng, unending production and disposal of plastic, thoughtless waste of good food thrown in dumpsters, and the list continues, seemingly endless. We are in the midst of an environmental emergency, and it will take many voices, among them the voices of artists, to turn the tide.

You are writing a new piece for the bells in Bodø Domkirke and visited them this spring. Can you tell something about the carillon there?
The piece will be played every day at the festival in Bodø. What is your approach to this commission, and what do you want us to listen for?

The Bodø Cathedral carillon is a beautiful instrument, built in 2012 with 50 bells (a bit more than 4 octaves) which were cast at the Royal Eijsbouts factory in Asten, the Netherlands. Royal Eijsbouts is one of the oldest and most respected bell foundries in the world (the deepest bell at Notre-Dame in Paris was cast there). (Interestingly, their remarkable bell museum, Klok en Peel, is only 10 minutes by bike from my husband’s family in the Netherlands!)

I am honored that Nordic Music Days commissioned this piece from me, and am so pleased that it will be played each day at the festival. The festival’s theme of Truth was of course foremost in my thoughts as I started my work. Thinking about the bells themselves, the concept of Truth soon merged with my focus on the rich overtones of the bells. I came to think about the concept of overtones, and the fact that in English we sometimes use the word ‘overtone’ to denote something which is present or felt, without being stated. I started to think about the overtones of a bell—some very present, some barely audible— as that which expresses the bell’s true character. Maybe our outward presence in the world can be expressed as our ‘fundamental’, while our true complex character is expressed by our own subtle, unique, felt-but-not-heard mix of natural harmonic and non-harmonic overtones.

When I talked with Royal Eijsbouts about the tuning of the bells, I learned that each bell is tuned to certain standards, but that in addition all of the bells in the set are tuned to one another. This reminds me of the Indonesian gamelan tradition, in which the entire gamelan (many instruments) is tuned to the lowest gong, which is called Ageng. The reason is spiritual in addition to musical: it was in the Ageng that the soul of the entire gamelan was said to reside, the Ageng that was capable of communicating with the gods.

Inspired by the gamelan concept of tuning all instruments to the lowest bell, I have built my new piece for Nordic Music Days upon the harmonics of the lowest bell in the Bodø carillon. It is an exploration of the subtleties of inner truth (represented by the complex overtones of the Bodø carillon), and the interaction of that inner truth with the ‘outer’ truth of the surrounding city and landscape.