Saturday 12 June 2021

An album that made people forget and enjoy: Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth talks about her new album inspired by memories of her mother's trumpet playing

Tine Thing Helseth (Photo Anna-Julia Granberg)
Tine Thing Helseth (Photo Anna-Julia Granberg)

In May 2021, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth released a new disc, Magical Memories on the Norwegian label Lawo Classics, her first new UK release in eight years. Recorded with organist Kåre Nordstoga in Oslo Cathedral during Norway’s lockdown in late August/early September 2020, the disc features an eclectic mix of pieces all of which have strong personal connections for Tine, starting with the pieces that she heard her mother, also a trumpeter, playing. I recently chatted to Tine, at home in Norway, via Zoom about the inspiration for the new album, borrowing music for the trumpet, her all-women brass group TenThing, always wanting to play the trumpet and the Spice Girls.

For the disc, Tine selected music that brought back memories for her, tunes that she had a relationship with whether pieces she heard as a child or music that she had played herself. And for Tine, all of them are beautiful tunes, music that she loves and hopes that listeners will fall in love with. There is another thread running through the selection as well, because many of the works on the album are the sort that are used to mark major events in life, from weddings to funerals to other special occasions. What she hopes is that many of the pieces on the disc will be ones that her audience also has memories of, or that they will develop those memories.

It is some time since Tine was in the studio, but at the beginning of 2020 she was thinking of a new album when 'everything stopped'. Then there was the possibility last Autumn when everything was still quiet, and despite restrictions, a recording with just the two performers was possible (in a way that an orchestral disc would not have been). The disc was intended to be positive, she felt that there was so much tragedy and despair, such a negative vibe, that she wanted to do something more positive, to produce an album that made people forget and enjoy. And now things are feeling more positive with the vaccine, it seems a good time to release it.

Tine Ting Helseth and Kåre Nordstoga recording 'Magical Memories' in Oslo Cathedral
Tine Ting Helseth and Kåre Nordstoga recording Magical Memories in Oslo Cathedral

As with some of her previous albums, the music is a mix of works written for the trumpet and those which she has borrowed. For Tine, the trumpet is like her voice, and she thinks of herself as a musician who happens to play the trumpet. So if she likes a piece and wants to play it, then if it works on the trumpet she plays it; when something is good music then it will work in different settings. There may be sounds that are different from the composer's original, but music is a living thing and for Tine, if it works well, it works well.

She also feels that when she takes a piece that originally had words, and plays it on the trumpet so that the words disappear, then the trumpet gives something different. The lack of words gives Tine more freedom, and she feels that the music is often great on its own. One reason for doing this sort of borrowing is that the trumpet repertoire is rather limited, and strangely for Romantic music there is virtually no solo music by major composers, yet the instrument itself is so expressive. There is such great music from this period, that Tine wants to play it too. She finds it natural to be curious and to constantly expand her repertoire.

Besides borrowing existing works, Tine has also played and commissioned a lot of contemporary pieces. Many contemporary composers have a real feeling for the instrument and know how to write for it. And when a composer is writing specifically for her, then they ask her what is possible and send her music, asking how it feels, so that creating a new piece can often be a collaborative process. A lot of contemporary music has been written for the trumpet, and Tine comments that there are not that many trumpet soloists around and what is great is that the music written for each trumpeter has such a different sound and approach. So, composers write differently for her than they would for another trumpeter. She regards it as a privilege to be part of expanding the trumpet repertoire.

Whilst some composers want to challenge the trumpet's technique, she is not into the sport element. She enjoys music that can be crazy, but not showing off for its own sake and she is also interested in showing sides to the instrument that people do not necessarily associate with it. But what it all comes down to is that it is fun to commission new work and to work with a living composer, to make music together.

The reason that Tine plays the trumpet is because of her mother. Both her parents played instruments (her mother the trumpet, her father the French horn), but as a hobby; Tine is the first professional musician in her family. Like the UK, Norway has a strong wind- and brass-band tradition, and both her parents played in a band. She grew up thinking that everyone played an instrument. Around the age of 10 or 11, she discovered that it was possible to make a living by playing the trumpet and decided she wanted to do that. And here she is.

Tine Ting Helseth recording 'Magical Memories' in Oslo Cathedral
Tine Ting Helseth recording Magical Memories in Oslo Cathedral

She was always focused on the instrument, so it was natural she became a professional trumpet player, all her friends at school realised. She found it strange that a lot of her friends had no idea what to do after school and had something of an identity crisis, and she thought she was lucky that she knew what she wanted to do. But, of course, she was rather naïve about how much work it would take, how much hard work. She has since realised that there is more to life than playing the trumpet, but a work-life balance has only come later. When she was 18 to 20, all she did was play the trumpet.

When I ask about inspirations, it is to non-trumpeters that Tine has listened to most. She names Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes as a major inspiration. He saw her perform when she was 18, and he gave her the opportunity to perform and played with her. She has ten different versions of the Beethoven Violin Concerto on her iPod, and finds violinists like Janine Jansen and Lisa Batiashvili inspirations, you believe everything they do and they are true to themselves. Another such artist, for Tine, is soprano Renée Fleming.

But she also listens to other genres a lot, not just classical. She is a child of pop and was a big Spice Girls fan when she was ten or eleven. She listened, and still listens to, an eclectic mix of genres from pop stars to indie and more, and it is this eclecticism that has inspired her. She did not grow up in a specifically classical music home, there were lots of genres of music played. And this crossing of genres is the kind of musician she wants to be, that she has to be, it is her identity.

Many people who do not have a relationship with classical music still love the trumpet and having heard it in so many different places and genres, Tine feels able to give something for everyone, from brass band lovers to the man in the street, who has a relationship to the trumpet which is rather different to their relationship to, say, the violin. She feels that she is lucky that people find it natural that she crosses genres, that she plays jazz. But she always focuses on playing the music with her own personality, so that it sounds like Tine Thing Helseth rather than her copying other performers. She does jazz but does it her way.

Tine Thing Helseth and tenThing
Tine Thing Helseth and tenThing

Later this year there are plans for a tour with her brass ensemble, tenThing, and Tine is hopeful that this will happen. This is an all-women ensemble that started as a fun project. They gave their first concert together 14 years ago; they were all studying together, and Tine simply asked girls. She had no idea that they would be doing it 14 years later. In ordinary circumstances, the group fits in two tours per year. Tine is the only fully freelance player in the group, the rest fit in teaching posts, and regular positions. Whilst having all women players is a gimmick in a way, it also provides a valuable role model for girls, showing that it doesn't matter whether you are a boy or a girl if you want to play a brass instrument. And she hopes that young girls come to the concert and see this.

The players are all good friends too so that it is nice travelling together on tour and it is this element, all being friends, Tine sees as being most important. Everyone trusts each other, socially and musically, so that gender is less important. People can be themselves in rehearsals which are a place where everyone can collaborate. She is the leader of the ensemble, but everyone contributes. Also, she finds that it has been an incredible journey, playing with others and shaping an ensemble. It has affected her as a soloist so that she thinks about blending with others whether it is other brass instruments or the challenge of blending with other instruments. So that on her new album she is exploring blending with the organ. This opportunity to shape an ensemble has been essential for her, and she feels she is inspired by other musicians.

There are a couple more recordings in the works, which she assures me will be very different from the current album.  But she hopes that come Autumn or Spring 2022, travelling will be getting more back to normal as quarantine makes it hard travelling so freely and causes all sorts of other problems too. When we speak she had been to Denmark playing and so was at home in quarantine, but she also has a lot of projects coming up at festivals in Norway.

Magical Memories - Tine Thing Helseth, Kåre Nordstoga - music by Charpentier, Bach, Nils Ferlin, Leif Strand arr Jarle Storløkken, Sigurjónsson arr. Jarle Storløkken, Grieg, Telemann, Mouret, Lindberg, Mendelssohn, Sommerfeldt, Sjöberg, Clarke, Per-Erik Moraeus arr. Jarle Storløkken, Henning Sommerro arr. Kåre Nordstoga, Purcell - LAWO Classics [Amazon]

For Tine Thing Helseth's full discography, see her website.

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