This interview originally aired on June 10, 2020. We rebroadcast it on August 12, 2020.
"I started playing piano when I was four or five, I think. So I started improvising and then eventually sort of composing at some point. And, and that's so the piano has always been my personal way of expressing myself as a musician."
Ola Gjeilo is a Norwegian composer who may be best known for his contemporary choral works. His latest recording, finds him back where he started, seated at the piano, where he improvised 18 pieces, that reflect his affection for his current home, NYC.
You came to New York City in 2001 from Norway to study at Juilliard. Is that right?
"That's right. Yeah. When I was 23."
So, what is it about NYC that makes you love it so much?
"New York City is...I don't know. I think it has like a soul to me. I think I love places that never sleep, because I don't. And I love the skyline. I live in Queens, so I live outside of Manhattan. And, but what I love about it is that I get to to look at Manhattan, midtown Manhattan. And I just love the look of that skyline, especially. And all the lights that are on all night. So that's a big source of inspiration for me. "
Your new solo piano recording is called Night, and it reflects those romantic nights in New York City, the city that never sleeps. Yet your music is quite calming.
"Yeah. That's the weird sort of dichotomy, I think, in New York City. Is that it is, you know, famously the city that never sleeps. But I also feel very at peace in New York at night. I like I love that kind of weird contrast."
So, these pieces were recorded in the evening at different studios around New York City. Why? Why did you do that?
"It was a bit of a quest. I had to check out, try out a lot of the major recording studios in New York City because I actually never really recorded much, even though I've lived here for a long time because we usually do my albums in London or in England.
So I wanted to just try out recording studios here and especially to try out their pianos to find the one that I loved the most. And I would just record a bunch of free improvisations every time, and I was like, let's turn this into the album."
You're also a huge fan of film scores, and I'm wondering if you might have been imagining a scene when you were writing these pieces.
"The more I try to have a preconceived idea or or sort of direct inspiration, the less sort of freedom it has, less authentic it turns out to be. So I try to be completely open and not think at all, really. So the titles usually come after the fact."
Okay, well, I'm gonna throw out some titles to you and you can tell me what you what you heard after the fact. How about "Shadows?"
"There's kind of melancholic darkness to the piece that is also, what's the good word? There's an ambivalence, I think, to the piece that eventually I think is sort of resolved."
"Polar" is another piece that's kind of dreamy, but it has a lot of forward motion. Tell me what you were hearing after you created that work.
"'Polar' is one and maybe more connected to, to where I grew up in in Norway, the polar circle runs through it. I live in New York City now, so I don't see stars at night when I'm in the city. Because of the light pollution. But in Norway, the sky was, you know, tons is just lit up with stars. And and there's sort of a big sky, you know, as if you're in Montana."
There are 18 improvisations on this recording. Are there any that have become kind of personal favorites?
"The one that's really close to my heart is, is one called 'Quiet Streets.' I'm not quite sure why, but I like it's very, very simple and kind of very innocent, very friendly kind of piece.
"I also I think I also feel strongly about the track called 'Still,' which is very which was the first single from the album as well, which is very more kind of freeform, but very intimate. The whole piece is very, completely quiet, and so I recorded it with the damper pedal down the whole time. I really like that, that kind of muffled sound and they kind of the ambience that gives you."
Nighttime romance in the city that never sleeps with pianist Ola Gjeilo.
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.