The pianist and author Ketil Bjørnstad used to separate his two professions strictly: here the well-known author of numerous novels, most of which were translated into several languages, there the classically educated pianist who has made himself a name with numerous albums on the famous ECM label.
His book trilogy about the young pianist Aksel Vinding is about to change that. Its three volumes "To Music", "The River" and "The Lady in the Valley" (published by Insel Verlag in Germany) with their fictional protagonist Vinding unite the intimate musical knowledge of Bjørnstad, the musician with the psychological depths and intricate description of characters Bjørnstad, the novelist is known for.
In a way a "soundtrack" for the books, the album "Vinding's Music" has now been published on ECM. It provides a fitting acoustic illustration on two CDs. The first one includes congenial compositions by Bjørnstad himself, the second one classical pieces the books reference. Thus fullfilling the circle: the music for the book, the book for the music ...
Carina Prange talked to Ketil Bjørnstad for Jazzdimensions
Carina: In the trilogy about the pianist Aksel Vinding "To Music", "The River" and "The Lady in the Valley"for the first time your life as a musician evidently and visibly permeated your work and views as an author. Did you deliberately keep these things apart before that?
Ketil: I was always skeptical to use music references in my writing, because I didn't want to make things too easy for me. I am glad I waited so many years before I chose to use music and my personal experiences to create the Vinding-trilogy.
I had a kind of distance, which was important, since the matter actually felt so close to meif you understand what I mean.
Carina: Like the Aksel Vinding in the book you had your debut as a pianist in public at the age of sixteen. The reader might wonder if there's an even closer connection or parallel between you and the Vinding persona, or if your experiences as a musician provide only small details…
Ketil: Well, my mother didn't die in the Lysaker-river. But I lived in the same street as Aksel Vinding, and I participated in the same competition. In fact, I use very much of the milieu at that time, but I never created characters that could recognize themselves.
Carina: Do you think that readers of a book long for or seek a connection between the protagonist and the book's author?
Ketil: I think every reader reflects on what could be experienced in the author's real life. Camus once wrote that every author should write about things they have experienced, in a way. I agree. That doesn't mean you have to write autobiographic. However, you have to write with real feelings and knowledge about what you are trying to write about.
Carina: As is written in the booklet of "Vinding's Music", the three books about Aksel Vinding "are novels concerning the importance of art, about the choices we make and of sorrow, longing and passion." You are known to go to the bottom of things in your books…
Ketil: Most important is perhaps to try to show how vulnerable we are when we are young. When we depend on listening to authorities from whom we don't know if they are profoundly right or wrong. When there's so many choices to be made, and every single one could be fatal for your life. It is also important for me to try to show how important art can be for surviving.
Carina: What do you try to do in this contextto carve out human psychology? To put philosophies on a test bed? What is your way of looking at humanity or at individual human beings?
Ketil: There's a lot of self-destruction in these books. And I wonder why we, as human beings, sometimes seem to reject life. What is the most dangerous thing? What the most difficult?
I try to reflect on a protagonist who tries to "have all of it". But who understands in the end that reconciliation is a value, whatever you might have experienced in life. I also try to reflect on resignation as something that could be positive: Vinding is a humble man when he sits down in the end to play Mozart.
Carina: "Vinding's music" consists of two CDs, where CD 1 is a set of your own repertoire. One or the other of the compositions might well have been written during the writing process of the books. Have they?
Ketil: "If Only" was written while I wrote the book. "The Stones, The River" as well. But when I went to the studio, I didn't try to plan anything. It was only this very special atmosphere, being alone with the instrument, the same way that Aksel Vinding was alone with his instrument.
Carina: How did you arrive at the present combination of pieces? In what way do these compositions represent the books in your eyes?
Ketil: It was the character of the improvisations in the beginning that made me chose the different pieces that followed. I wanted to create a mood that often appears when I play piano. And this mood also reflects the mood in the books, I think.
Carina: The second CD contains pieces of composers that play an important role in the books. How did it feel to listen to these compositions in concert with the knowledge of their connection over the books? Did you experience them differently as a unit?
Ketil: Yes, they came up very strongly!
You know, I have often thought that the last movement of a piano concerto could be kind of "unnecessary". It is often a "happy" rondo-piece that totally ruins what has been said in the slow movement. To use just slow movements was in a way to "go to the heart" of the music.
Carina: You wrote in your liner notes "…music is a powerful source of inspiration for many writers…". That may very well be right! How about the "vice versa"is literature an important source of inspiration for music as well? We can probably say that nature is a source of inspiration that both music and literature share. Is "inspiration by music" therefore not an abstraction? Maybe like the "view on nature" filtered by "human nature"?
Ketil: I honestly feel that writers talk more about music than musicians talk about books, but I could be wrong.
About "view on nature", I am not sure I understand the question. But my experience is that inspiration by music could be very concrete. Authors mentioning one special song, for example. For me, music is seldom directly inspiring for my writing, but it was, when I wrote about Aksel Vinding.
Carina: You continue in your liner notes that in earlier times, "…a number of key players brought the most famous classical musicians of the world to play at the University hall under Edvard Munch's painting of the glowing sunrise."You refer to the painting "Solen", a motive, Munch painted in several variations…
Ketil: The Sun is a painting that represents a "back to life"-feeling for Edvard Munch, after his mental breakdown in 1908.
Here we could really talk about "inspired by nature"! Munch praises the sun arising over the Kragerø-coastline. It is a painting that gives hope and courage to everyone seeing it.
Carina: You have published approximately twenty lyric collections in Norwegian language. Isn't it about time to translate one or the other of these volumes to German or English?
Ketil: I have only two collections of poetry, but quite a few songs written in Norwegian. I have no actual plans for translations, but I am very fond of Shari Gerber Nilsen's translations of the "Four Nordic Songs" on the ECM-album "The light".
Carina: A short while ago you celebrated your 60th birthday. Thomas Brenner, the protagonist of your newest book "De udødelige" "Die Unsterblichen" (Insel Verlag) is about the same age. That is not really a coincidence, or is it?
Ketil: No, Thomas Brenner is not a coincidence. He was created out of my own experiences when your parents are not longer able to take care of themselves. It is also about a man who is not even able to take care of himself-but that is not a self-portrait.
Carina: If you look back on your life, can you name the three most important events or experiences?
Ketil: About the most important events or experiences, I am really not sure. But when I saw my Chinese born daughter for the first time, it felt like my heart would stop. It was an experience I will never forget.
Carina: What is your philosophy for life in 2012?
Ketil: Camus again! Trying to act as dedicated and with as many profound and unselfish moral perspectives as possible, in a world that is developing fast towards even more materialistic and egoistic behavior. As artists, we can remind people that life is not always about money, fame and position.
That said, we all have a responsibility for the increasing millions of poor people in the world. We cannot escape. We have to be engaged, have to find the best information, and we have to fightagainst glamour and the way of thinking of the billionaires and for what we think is right.
CD: Ketil Bjørnstad - "Vinding's Music" (ECM)
Ketil Bjørnstad im Internet: www.ketilbjornstad.com
ECM Records im Internet: www.ecmrecords.com
Fotos: Pressefotos (1: G.Røkeberg; 2: B.Ugland; 3,4,5: H.F.Asbjornsen)