Niels Rønsholdt is a Danish composer born 1978.
He is presented at Nordic Music Days with the work Civilization, performed by the Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta, Vocal Art and the composer himself. Conducted by Tim Weiss. It’s a Norwegian premiere.
Rønsholdts works include experimental operas, installations, performances and concert music. He works with a kind of ‘method composing’ where conceptual constructions involve performance, text and a musical expression that often reference mainstream music or early musical forms.
Rønsholdt is educated at the Royal Academy of Music Aarhus with Karl Aage Rasmussen and Bent Sørensen and in Berlin with Helmut Oehring. He has been commissioned by esteemed international ensembles and performed on top European contemporary music festivals as well as in the USA, China, and Australia. Niels Rønsholdt has a.o. received the Junge Akademie der Künste Berlin scholarship, the prestigious three-year grant from the Danish Arts Foundation and Augustinus Foundation Anniversary Grant. He is currently associate professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music Aarhus and has been curator, lecturer, editor, jury and board member, etc. on numerous occasions.
You say that ‘Civilizations’ is an attempt to deal with the right to history and culture as well as the concepts of heritage and civilization through music. Is this typical for your approach to art and music?
Music is a product of culture, it is a manifestation of a certain time and place in history. Music being much more than a momentary aesthetic satisfaction means both artistic potentials but also an obligation to unfold this potential, to make music about something more than i.e. structural details or momentary emotional expressions. That being said, music is also always here and now, it is sound that unfolds right in front of us, beat for beat, bar for bar. I find exactly that combination of cultural manifestation and musical now extremely fascinating.
The festival theme is «truth?». Can music be “true”? And what about music history?
Music is very deceptive and seductive. In that sense, music is untruthful, in a way it always lies. I love that about music. I think the search for ‘true’ music is a boring quest, I would much rather work with the lies and deceptions of music. I have the feeling that there is always a hidden story to music, there is always something resonating along, something not being said, which might be the most important.
Is music, often wordless, freer than other art forms?
In a way, I agree that music has special freedom because of it’s universal, or wordless, nature. But do we want that freedom? It is as if it also makes music distant from reality. Maybe that’s why music more often than not go into contact with other more concrete forms of expression, words first and foremost. The notion of absolute music is very specific and not that common, historically and culturally. Like a magnet or an unstable chemical substance, music seems to seek connections to reality – it seems to always avoid what makes it special, actually. And I fully understand that.
Do you have any thoughts on music’s role in our identity? Do you think of your self as a Nordic man?
Yes, I certainly do. And I have thought a lot about that because ideologically I prefer not to. I think of globalization and de-nationalization as great accomplishments of modern culture. And yet, when I smell the wet forest, feel the sea, sing an old song, walk through the summer morning I feel deeply connected to a specific place. Maybe this double feeling is also part of being Danish: We are very connected to the continent (Germany!) and still there are some typically Nordic characteristics – the language, the rain, the light, etc. When I am south of Denmark I feel very continental, when I am north, I feel very Nordic. Always this duality. My recent piece ‘Country’ is about this topic of the relation between the individual and the homeland. It is shaped as country-like duets between a man and the soil, the native land, and I have tried to both underline and undermine the idea of authenticity and belonging.
You work with a kind of ‘method composing’. Where do you find the ideas that get you started?
There are many levels of ideas in a piece of music. To me personally, writing music without a conceptual frame – an overall idea – doesn’t make sense and feels half-hearted. At the same time, the frame itself is nothing without the material, the actual music. In the process, I have to fall in love with the material, even if it initially merely played a role as a vehicle for an idea. This is connected to what I call ‘method composition’, where I engage in a material that is not ‘mine’ to begin with. I let a certain cultural manifestation – in the shape of music – colonize my thoughts and emotions which ultimately allows me to speak through a different language like it was my own.
‘Civilizations’ is a piece about the colonial relation between Denmark and Greenland in particular and the (post)colonial heritage of Western Europe in general.
In ‘Civilizations’ century-old recordings of Greenlandic drum singing are “civilized” through the addition of western harmony, instrumentation, and structure. A speaker voice describes and comments on the process of civilization both in musical and general terms. Eventually, the musical material of the drum singing samples is recomposed into choir music which is sung live: “We take the song from your mouths, we complete them, then we put them back”, the speaker announces.
‘Civilizations’ is an attempt to deal with the right to history and culture as well as the concepts of heritage and civilization through music. The piece is not about Greenland or the colonies, but about me – us – the shameful heritage of exploitation, racism, and devaluation that our generations of Western Europeans have difficulties handling properly.