Wednesday 12 December 2018

Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith
Composer Andrew Smith's background combines two distinctive choral traditions, that of Great Britain and that of Norway; UK-born yet trained in Norway, Andrew has found a niche for himself writing choral music, though he is better known in Norway than in the UK. This seems set to change with the release of Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir's recording of Andrew Smith's Requiem on the 2L label. [available from Amazon] Combining choir, organ and improvising instrument (here the saxophonist Trygve Seim) the work is dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway.

Andrew was recently in the UK, to catch a performance of his music in Tewkesbury Abbey, and I took the opportunity to meet up for coffee and find out more about the Requiem and his approach to music in general.

The idea for the Requiem started simply as a commission for a piece for the girl's choir of Nidaros Cathedral (the historic 11th century cathedral in Trondheim). Andrew suggested a requiem in memory of innocent child victims. And from the outset, the work was to include improvisation. Some 10 years ago Andrew wrote a piece for the Norwegian group Trio Mediaeval and trumpeter Arve Henriksen which included improvisation, and Andrew was keen to work with Henriksen again and use improvisation on a bigger scale.

Lux - Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir
It was whilst Andrew was working on the Requiem that the shooting and massacre happened at Utøya. The event was close to home, members of the Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir had friends that were killed, and suddenly the Requiem was very relevant and it became a requiem for the victims of the massacre. It was premiered in 2012 and had three performances in the UK that year at LSO St Luke's, the Sage Gateshead and St George's Bristol.

The piece uses the basic structure of the Latin mass, with the Introit, Kyrie, Sanctus and Antiphon, and to this Andrew adds other Biblical texts (also in Latin) referring to the fate of children such as the story of Rachel.

Whilst the solo part had been written with a trumpet in mind, Arve Henriksen who premiered it was ill at the time of the recording and his place was taken by saxophonist Trygve Seim who quickly made the piece his own. Whilst the soloist improvises from the score, which governs where they play, 95% of their decisions are their own. The score of the work is being published simultaneously with the CD (by Norsk Musikforlag) so that groups are able to perform it and use the recording as a reference for the improvisation.

The piece came about because of Andrew's previous experience of Arve Henriksen ability to improvise, and it did not make sense of Andrew to notate the solo part fully. Also, Andrew sees it as making the piece flexible and adaptable, and different each time. The organist on the disc, Ståle Storløkken, is also a fine improviser, he is a leading Norwegian jazz pianist but also plays the pipe organ, and this gives a freedom to the organ part. Andrew feels that the Requiem is one of his most successful pieces, and is ironically the one where he has relinquished most control

Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir
Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir
When I ask Andrew to describe his music he refers me to a quote from the critic Alexandra Coghlan which he feels describes his music aptly:

…Smith’s compositions incorporate medieval textures and chant, which are reflected and inflected through [his] own contemporary idiom, blurring the modal clarity of plainchant with vivid cluster-chords and dissenting moments of chromatic or dissonant colour. The effect is at once familiar and unsettling in its strangeness – a distorted and original viewpoint on the past." [© Alexandra Coghlan]

The sound quality of Andrew's music is affected by the fact that he has sung chant for many years, and his writing tends to be modal. But his compositional style is not one that he has thought consciously about.

Andrew trained in Norway (at Oslo University) and there is a definite element of Norwegian folk culture at the back of his mind, and he has done arrangements of Norwegian folk-songs, as well as a quasi-folk piece for Trio Mediaeval and Hardanger fiddle. It is this piece which he is going to hear in Tewkesbury Abbey, in a version for vocal ensemble and cello, he rather likes the idea of the changes, feeling that such things help keep pieces alive.

So how did an English boy end up in Norway? Andrew's father was an organist, who got a job in Norway. Aged 14, Andrew moved with his parents and siblings to a small town in central Norway. The experiment must be counted a success as Andrew and siblings have all remained in Norway. It was very much 'in at the deep end', they started school a week after they arrived, and had intensive Norwegian lessons.

Andrew played the piano and violin early, but he was a reluctant pupil mainly because he was a slow sight-reader. But he loved doing the theory, and this gave him the tools to write music. Composition was always something that he did as a hobby, he would sit at the piano and invent tunes. He knew he wanted to compose, but to get into the composition class at the Norwegian Academy of Music you had to get to a certain standard with an instrument, and Andrew never had the confidence. So he stayed outside the system and did a course at Oslo University which was mainly theoretical. But ultimately he does not feel that he missed out. And in a relatively small musical scene like that in Norway, Andrew found his niche in choral music.

In his late 20s Andrew wanted to write symphonies and be avant-garde, but he feels he has reached a stage where he has to be realistic. And his choral music very much comes out of the groups he has sung in. He currently conducts an amateur choir in Oslo, something he enjoys very much.

When writing for choirs, he feels you have to be pragmatic, to convey ideas simply without compromising your compositional voice. He is currently writing a new passion setting, in Norwegian, for Oslo Cathedral Choir for liturgical use, and is also writing a cycle of advent antiphons for the New York-based choir, Khorikos. This latter arose because Andrew was one of the winners of the choir's composition competition, and they wanted him to write something more for them. Andrew comments that he loves the internet, being able to interact with choirs all over the world.

Andrew Smith’s Requiem, with the Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir, Ståle Storløkken (organ), Trygve Seim (saxophones), conducted by Anita Brevik, will be released on the 2L label [2L-150] in mid-December (available from Amazon)
The score is published by Norsk Musikforlag, available direct from

From the premiere of Requiem by Andrew Smith. With the Nidaros Cathedral Girls' Choir, Arve Henriksen (trumpet) and Magne H. Draagen (organ).

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month