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Nils Henrik Asheim

In 2018, Nils Henrik Asheim won the Nordic Council Music Price with the piece Muohta. Vocal Art and Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra will perform Muoahta at by Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Conducted by Kjetil Almenning.

Nils Henrik Asheim (b.1960) enjoys a combined career as composer and performer and is also active as an organ improvisator – in solo settings as well as alongside other musicians.  His compositional style is characterized by a modernist attitude. His musical output features a clear, audible structure and often a physical directness.

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Since 1991 Asheim has lived in Stavanger where he is active as a composer, musician, teacher, and organizer, and not least as the principal initiator of the founding of Tou Scene, an alternative center for contemporary arts in an abandoned factory building.

Asheim has made his mark as the resident organist of the new concert hall in Stavanger since its opening in 2012. Here he has displayed an innovative way of programming activities around the organ and managed to get a large audience for the instrument.

In 2018 Nils Henrik Asheim was made a Knight of the Royal Order of St.Olav.

You are both a performer and a composer. How do you use your musicianship in your compositions?

Almost always, I conceive the music as something being delivered from a stage. It’s about a physical, gestural side of the music. It’s about the relation between the sound, the body producing it, and the mind that has the urge to produce it. During the work I often imagine myself playing the different phrases, on some imaginary instrument. I even channel some of the composition processes into an almost improvisational method. The architectural side of the music, most often devised in beforehand, provides a counterpoint to this tendency.

What is Truth, in art? Are the wordless expressions, freer than other art forms? Any thoughts on this?

The most crucial factor for creating music that can be perceived as relevant is sincerity. Starting with oneself, of course. And yes, it is actually possible to lie in music. It is possible both to fool oneself and to consciously seduce large groups of people, as we know. So the freedom and apparent independence of music as an expression can be a camouflage. It is not always obvious whether music is true or not. Therefore, in music more than any other arts, there must always be a quest for truth.

Muohta – Language of Snow. Can you say something about how the Sami language and/or culture impacted this work? Is it reflected in any other way than as a foreign language?

The Sami language is used phonetically. The melody of phrases is a general source of inspiration. To me (as an outsider that does not know the language) it has a certain humble, introspective tone which I find highly fascinating. I think this conception resonates many places in the piece. Then, the single words are decomposed in sounds that are treated as musical objects, becoming sketches for a language of sounds detached from any semantic meaning. Also, the sheer concept of a language that I do not understand myself becomes a metaphor for a missing contact, in this case maybe a search for a lost contact with nature. This contact is something that I imagine is found in the Sami and other native cultures. That is the main reason for choosing the 18 Sami words for snow that became the lyrics of the Muohta piece.

What thoughts do you have about the composer’s role in the further development of the music and art field?

I see the composer as a person who opens up the different fields of art towards each other. In want of a common idiom for music, we can use our point of orientation, historically and laterally, to create new combinations.

MUOHTA – Language of Snow

Muohta is the general word for snow in Sámi language, and snow is what the piece is about.   Listeners are invited into a series of frozen soundscapes that span from meditative quietness to the odd contrasts of texture that may engender a sense of risk and unease. 

The piece depicts slow changes that are barely visible or perceptible to human senses. When the piece was performed for the first time – along with Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons in Oslo in 2017 – the composer noted that the context had inspired him to attempt a step away from concepts of progress based on controlling nature, and instead engage with an indigenous experience of living with nature.

The piece is in 18 sections, each based on a word in the Sámi language related to snow. The sound of these words represents the only phonetic material used by the choir in this music. Some of the words describe snow directly, others its impact on everyday human life – for example, ulahat means “an over-snowed winter trail which is barely visible”. 

In 2018, Muohta was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize. The jury described it as “a piece of music that is at once acutely contemporary yet conscious of its history.”

First performance: The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and Ensemble Allegria, conductor Grete Pedersen. University Aula, Oslo. 28 October 2017. A studio recording with the same performers is due to be released on BIS Records.

From the jury of Nordic Council music prize:

The 2018 Nordic Council Music Prize goes to a piece of music that is at once acutely contemporary yet conscious of its history. Our very first instrument, the human voice, is central to the piece whose sound world cautiously integrates language. Listeners are invited into a different experience of time, into a series of atmospheres or states which sometimes engender a sense of risk and unease. The piece is in 18 sections, each inspired by a word in the Sámi language related to snow, as described in Inger Marie Gaup Eira’s PhD thesis “Muohttaga jávohis giella – The Silent Language of Snow”. Some words describe snow directly, others its impact on everyday human life – for example, ulahat means “an over-snowed winter trail which is barely visible”. Nils Henrik Asheim’s Muohta, for choir and string orchestra, depicts slow changes that are barely visible or perceptible to human senses. When the piece was performed for the first time – along with Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons in Oslo in 2017 – the composer noted that the context had inspired him to attempt a step away from concepts of progress based on controlling nature, and instead engage with an indigenous experience of living with nature.