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Magnar Åm - som eit blad på elva (like a leaf on the river) for solo guitar, 1983
(b. april 9th 1952, Trondheim)
First performance: Oslo, Universitetets Aula
25. april 1983
Magnar Åm (pronounced “Ohm”) was born in Trondheim.
His interest in music revealed itself from early childhood and he began to write small pieces around the age of eleven. He did this in order to make sense of his inner struggles. It was then that he discovered (in his own words) “what a helpful friend music can be”. He describes the process as “going around with an emotional knot and yet making something out of it that sounded beautiful and that others appreciated - a process of metamorphosis”. The piano (his instrument of choice) became “a very close friend”. (All the above citations, as well as much of the information under these lines, come from an interview with the composer I conducted on December 7th 2013 in connection with the writing of my book “Opus Perseverat”, Musikproduktion Höflich 2017).
As a 16 year old Åm travelled to Bergen in order to attend high school and get a musical education. He attended the U. Pihl School where he received encouragement from Kjell Leikvoll (1924 - 2019). Simultaneously Åm studied organ with Thorleif Aamodt (1909 - 2003). These organ studies culminated in a debut concert and the acquisition of an organist and cantor diploma in 1971. He also found time to take composition lessons with Ketil Hvoslef (b. 1939), conducting lessons with Magnar Mangersnes (b. 1938) and jazz lessons with the pianist Eivin Sannes (1937 - 2019). With Trygve Fischer (1918 – 1980) he learned score reading, using the old clefs.
Keil Hvoslef was the first person who gave Åm serious feed-back on matters of composition in a contemporary language. The single most important contribution from Hvoslef, as Åm recalls, was the search for freshness in every note, a principle by which Åm (and, indeed, Hvoslef) lives to this day.
In the obligatory conservatoire study of traditional harmony Åm strongly sensed the importance of maintaining a singing quality in every voice. He also realized the vital significance of the distance between the voices: how different two voices sound when they are close to one another in the high register versus the low register; the higher the register, the more consonant dissonances become. These realizations would serve him well in his later work as a consummate choir conductor and composer of choral music.
In return for free room and board Åm worked two hours every evening as a pianist at the restaurant of the Terminus Hotel. Given Åm’s inquisitive nature, he used this experience also as a learning process. He closely monitored the effect his music was having on the restaurant guests and adjusted his playing accordingly.
In 1971 Åm travelled to Stockholm to continue his composition studies with Ingvar Lidholm (1921 – 2017).
After his Stockholm stint, Åm moved to Volda, in the region of Sunnmøre, where he has lived and worked ever since (except for one year, in the early eighties, spent in Bømlo where he met and mentored the young Kenneth Sivertsen, 1961 - 2006). Åm soon became involved with the direction of several children and amateur choirs with which he was happy to experiment.
Magnar Åm’s production is vast and it includes two operas, music for orchestra, several concertos or concertante works, chamber music, music for solo instruments, multimedia and electronic works and a great deal of choral music, with or without instrumental accompaniment.
Åm considers that, particularly in music, the personal and the professional go hand in hand. He sees the creative in music as an allegory for the creative in life: each moment must be accepted as a gift. For him music is an intuitive exercise that can be useful in interpersonal as well as inter-musical relationships. Music, he says, presents a possible future that is for everyone’s best. Although artists often reflect, in their work, that which is wrong with the world, Åm feels it is important to offer hope through art.
“Time and space structured as music is a formidable tool for one who seeks to make conscious his deepest essence and meaning, whether one creates, performs, or listens. But the pleasure of allowing things to become habit is a tempting veil and a hindrance for all searching, also here. This is why I undertake the task of delving into odd ways of mediating music quite frequently – partly to awaken, partly to develop new rituals that can better strengthen the deeper functions of music”
MIC – Listen To Norway (website)
“In my music I try to appeal to all aspects of listening, including perception of direction. The music must therefore not only respond to the question of what the sound is and when it occurs, but also the question of where it comes from. Sound is like a heavenly body moving through time and space. Concert halls, however, are constructed to concentrate sound in front of the listener […] Nonetheless I often write for a three-dimensional space, placing sound both above and below the audience […] Through my work with electro-acoustic installations I am aware that the spatial element contains a potential for powerful experiences which cannot be realized by a single surface of sound. The difference would be like seeing a character step out of a cinema screen and become a physical body. The music changes from being a phenomenon that appeals primarily to the mind and imagination to something that evokes a physical experience to a much greater degree”
Sleeve notes to SONaR – 2L 51 SABD
As with the rest of Magnar Åm’s production, som eit blad på elva – notice the lowercase – can be seen, as a small fragment of a much larger entity. That entity is nothing less than Åm’s entire life work, which is very much still ongoing at the time of this writing. This is the reason for the lowercase in the titles of most of his compositions: spiritually, each piece begins where the previous one left off and acts as an anacrusis to the next one. Magnar Åm writes music in order to understand his reason for being here and in order to turn possibly negative aspects of life into something beautiful that others can enjoy.
“Elusive” is a pertinent adjective to use in connection with som eit blad på elva. There is a visual component to the piece, in that the guitarist is asked to turn on a revolving chair – in both directions and at different speeds – during certain passages of the piece. Naturally this also changes the perception of sound: a kind of acoustic surround effect happening in front of the listener. This auditory aspect can also be perceived in a recording. The guitarist is also asked to whistle in the central part of the piece. These two unusual activities – turning and whistling – give the piece an air of mystery. At the same time, the music is pleasant and not at all confrontational, even when it becomes agitated, as in the climax at the bottom of page 7 and top of p. 8. The places where the guitarist is asked to turn are always accompanied by mesmeric ostinati. The same is the case with the first part of the whistling section, although in that case the ostinato changes harmony, while retaining its pitch contour.
The Norwegian guitarist Njål Vindenes commissioned the work for his debut concert at the Aula of the Oslo University. He received financial support from the Norwegian Academy of Music. Vindenes recalls
The whistling part was Magnar’s idea, and Magnar is very good at whistling, so it was no problem for him. For me it was not easy, so in the premiere Ketil Solvik sat behind a grand piano on stage and played the whistling part on a sopranino recorder. In later occasions I have performed the piece many times with violin or flute. On my solo CD Sequenza Magnar does the whistling.
Vindenes has, on several occasions, used Magnar Åm’s recorded whistling in his performances of the work.
Although the music has a sense of continuous flow – much like the river the title evokes – there are several easily identifiable building blocks.
- The through-composed opening music returns at the very end, somewhat altered.
- The first chair-turning section (p. 3) is divided in two parts: turning left – ending on an upward arpeggio; turning right – ending on a downward arpeggio repeated six times.
- This is followed by a more stable sounding section that searches for an accompanied melody that never materializes. The melody only comes into its own when the harmony stops (p. 4, top four systems).
- The whistled melody – marked non vibrato – tenuously recalls the opening music. This vague resemblance is partly strengthened in the following six solo guitar measures, and continues when the whistling rejoins at the top of p. 6.
- A new chair-turning section begins, this time to the right. The whistling joins in on the second repetition, but without turning. This is resumed as the whistling reaches a high note. This is the piece’s climax, where the guitarist is asked to turn left very rapidly three times in succession while playing a chord in tremolo or rasgueado style.
- The “stable sounding” section follows, now with an altered melody after the polyphony falls silent (p. 8, systems 2-5)
-The opening music returns. It closely resembles the beginning, but the music lingers on some details. In the final statement of the original phrase, the guitarist turns slowly to the left, ending with his/her back to the audience.
In connection with the first performance of som eit blad på elva, Magnar Åm sent Njål Vindenes the following poem
Vere eit blad på elva
i trygg og trøystefull vals med
Ein flekk av haustgul glede
[To be a leaf on the river
in safe and soothing waltz with
A speck of autumn-yellow joy
The oneness made apparent]
English translation by Howard Medland
Ricardo Odriozola, 27. July 2022
German preface not available ...
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