Mette Nielsen

Mette Nielsen is a Danish composer. At Nordic Music Days she is presented with the piece “Songs from your childhood” performed by Ylajali. It’s a Norwegian premiere.

Mette Nielsen often works with what she calls the almost unison or imperfect unison – a state of friction that opens up space where small differences become clearer and micro-tones and sounds are made audible.

She embraces both chance and control as coexisting parameters. In one series of pieces, the musicians receive instructions via iPods put on shuffle: the musicians receive instructions with the composer’s voice directly in their ears, while at the same time a significant amount of control is relinquished as the shape of the piece is randomly created through the iPod’s shuffle function.

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Nielsen studied at The Danish Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus with Simon Steen-Andersen, Niels Rosing-Schow, Jeppe Just Christensen, Niels Rosing-Schow, Hans Abrahamsen, Bent Sørensen, and Hans Peter Stubbe-Teglbjærg.

Mette Nielsen received Pelle-Prisen, The Axel Borup-Jørgensen Composer’s Prize, Carl Nielsen, and Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen’s Grant, the Anckerske Grant and a grant from Astrid and Aksel Agerby’s Memorial Foundation. Her music has been played by Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Adapter, Ensemble TM+, SCENATET, FIGURA Ensemble, Athelas Sinfonietta, Bulgarian female choir Usmifka among others.

You seem to have a very strong connection with childhood, memories and nostalgia in your musical thinking. Can you say something about this?

One of my early memories is about sound: I am lying in my bed and I cannot sleep. I hear the silence, which is this massive sound – it’s scary but also interesting. I find that I can control the sound with my voice – when I sing, the noise of the silence becomes accompaniment to my song. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand that sound, and I have also spent a lot of time trying to understand my childhood. And that probably seeped into my musical thinking.

You sing in the female Bulgarian choir Usmifka! Tell us some.hing about that! Is this a place for you to seek power and energy? How does this color the composer in you?

I have been singing my entire life, so it is great to have a place to use my voice. And there is raw female power in this music. I relate to the dissonant chords and drone-singing – it reminds me of the noise of the silence or of a machine, and the way I would sing around and between the pitches of that noise. I also think I have become better at writing for voices by singing in and writing for USMIFKA.

The festival theme is «truth?». Can music be “true”? Is this something you are struggling with in your compositions?

I certainly think that music can have integrity. I sometimes get this icky feeling, when I listen to something and I think “this music wants me to be sad now”, and I don’t think the music is sad. I feel the integrity, when the music is just there, and I get to have my own feelings. But I can’t explain exactly why or when music is this way – most likely it is just my subjective feeling. I try not to have an agenda about how the music should make the audience feel, only about what I want to say.


Is music, often wordless, freer than other art forms? Any thoughts on this?

Music isn’t any more or less free than other art forms – it is just different. One of the nice things about music is, you can communicate something without words. The flip side of this is, if you have something specific to say, it can be very difficult to do so without incorporating other artforms. But if you are trying to describe a sound, that you have only ever imagined and which cannot be found in nature, it is equally difficult to do so with text as it is with music. One is too precise, the other not precise enough. Trying to do it anyway is the creative process.

Songs from your childhood

This piece was composed for my debut concert from the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus. In the concert I explored childhood, memories and nostalgia in different ways. The opening of the concert was “Songs from your childhood”, performed by the women’s choir USMIFKA.

In the piece, songs from the singers’ childhoods are used as raw material – as found objects. We are surrounded by children’s songs which we may or may not know. Maybe they become a blur to us, maybe they spark memories from our own childhoods, maybe we freeze in a moment and listen to the songs as abstract sounds.

The songs we used to sing as children, or which our parents and grandparents sang to us, is something we all have in common. We all have memories of children’s songs, and they might be some of our most personal memories. “Songs from your childhood” will sound different with each choir which performs it, as the different singers sing the songs from their own childhoods. Choirs from different cultures will sound still more different from each other. But it will still be the same piece.