Magnar Åm - Spegle det (1988)
(b. April 9, 1952)
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 singular 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 found a strong sense of the importance of maintaining a singing quality in every voice. He also realized the vital importance 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” http://www.listento.no/mic.nsf/doc/art2002100715014263789883
“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
In connection with a performance of spegle detI conducted in May 2009, Åm wrote:
It is the same with mirror it as with all other music I write or improvise. It is a report from my inner work on becoming more and more a whole human being, to come more and more to an understanding of what it means to exist. In this work I always grab hold of something that lies so deep inside me that I need help in making it conscious. I get that help by letting music climb forth and give it form and by trying to feel it in everyday life.
A perusal of the score reveals fragments of text that appear on top of some of the staves. These are not meant to be spoken or recited. They rather act as a clarification of the music and can be read as a poem:
at any time
but this dawning, bright
not too hasty now
shy, like a mirroring in air
but it’s coming
one with all wounds
and our quiet
the window is open
fly in, fly out
In Åm’s music the texts he writes always arrive after the music has been composed, as was the case here. One can, without difficulty, see a correspondence between text and music. “Scream” for instance, is underlined by a rough tremolo tutti chord played fortissimo (measure 18). “One with all wounds”: again a loud tremolo in the strings and painfully high notes in the clarinets (m. 88). “But this dawning, bright” marks the beginning of a slow canon (m. 51).
The rather unusual extended techniques further contribute to bring forth the spirit of the text. The work utilizes Åm’s characteristic brand of atonal polyphony, inspired by his beloved Fartein Valen (1888-1952)
This work is a real gift to young players, in the way it meaningfully introduces them to “avant garde” techniques. The marvel of mirror it is that it asks of the musicians that they become children again, performing silly actions in a game that has a strict set of rules. It stands as a sort of archetype for keeping the innocence of childhood alive in oneself and it mixes seriousness and playfulness in a wholly convincing and balanced way.
spegle det (Åm almost always writes the titles of his works in lower case) received its first performance at the Bergen Cathedral on February 15th 1998, by the Grieg Academy Chamber Orchestra conducted by this writer. A performance of the work by the same orchestra and conductor, given nineteen years later, can be watched on YouTube.
Ricardo Odriozola, October 10th 2019