Three-Dimensional Sound…

An Interview with Magnar Åm

In May, Naxos of America begins distribution of 2L, a Norwegian label known for releasing the world’s first audio-only Blu-Ray recording, Divertimenti, which 2lsubsequently received three Grammy® nominations. Founded in 2001 by Morten Lindberg, 2L’s mission is to achieve state-of-the-art sound and packaging within all future formats of classical music. “What we are seeing is a completely new conception of the music experience,” said Lindberg. “Recorded music is no longer a matter of a fixed two-dimensional setting, but rather a three-dimensional enveloping situation. Stereo can be described as a flat-canvas, while surround sound is a sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially.”

Of 2L’s many high quality and unique releases, one in particular jumped out at my colleague Collin Rae. He shared it with some of us and I was immediately taken by not only the recording and the music, but with the concept behind it and how it directly correlates to Morten’s statement above. The SACD hybrid/Blu-ray recording that I am speaking of is SONaR, a collaboration of Norwegian composer Magnar Åm and harpist Ellen Sejersted Bødtker. The sound on this recording is immaculate, the compositions and performances are beyond words (for lack of a better description).

We decided that in order to really undertand all aspects of this recording, we needed to go to the source, SO we interviewed Magnar and Ellen! You will find my chat with Magnar below. His thoughts on music and sound are intriguing, scratch that, they are downright fascinating. Let’s just say that he composes pieces that no concert hall in the world can yet accomodate. Why don’t I allow him to explain…

You’ve said “Music matters, as it brings to matter what is of no matter”. How did you become so fascinated by sound and how to make it a physical experience?

My fascination for sound is a gift of birth and heritage. My mother was always singing, even up to the moment when she started to press me out. The inspiration to work with music as something appealing to more than feelings and moods also dates back to childhood. I discovered the sense of orientation and that this sense could be cheated willingly by my own perception. Sitting by the window gazing at the snowflakes falling densely outside, I would after a while have a strong perception that the snowflakes were the reference point hovering motionless in the air and that I instead was in the middle of an upward movement, as if I were lifted weightlessly. This was a blissfull experience which I would seek consciously over and over again during our lovely winters. It was not the beauty or the quiet of the falling snow that attracted me, but the mere physical experience of weightlessness being planted in my body when I let myself be receptable and non-judging of what my eyes were seeing.

Because of that discovery I have been working with music as something that can transfer a physical and mental experience regardless of what likes and dislikes the listener would have. To me, music is not about whether I like it or not, but only about what it does to me when I open up. What I discovered in that early childhood – though not yet consciously – was that our senses can be turned upside down dependent on our thinking about what is reality.

Music has taught me a lot through the years; it has been my friend, helping me to dive into the unknown depths of being and come up with a form to it. In this way it has shown me that my deepest reality is not what I see. Through its physical appearance as sound-waves it has portrayed something non-physical. And it has given me some new traces to follow to make it even more physical and thus more directly effective in transfering the non-physical truth to my senses. It can be used like the visual snowflakes to leave my senses with a dual choice of how to perceive reality.

Can you explain your concept of “three-dimensional sound” and how it applies to SONaR and the techniques used to record it?

Three-dimensional sound is achieved when the sound sources are placed globally around you, that is: on your sides, in front, behind, over and under you. Many of my later acoustic pieces are written for such placement, but there is so far no suitable concert halls or commercial sound format for it. Therefore, an adjustment to the two-dimensional performance is necessary, that is: with the sound sources placed around you on a horizontal level, in front, behind and on your sides. This includes the present surround formats and the possible use of some concert halls. In this connection a stereo format and a traditional performance with the musicians placed in front of the audience will be the one-dimensional version, where everything comes from different points on a single line between left and right in front of you.

On SONaR only dette blanke no (this our virgin now) is written originally for a three-dimensional performance. It is then adjusted to a two-dimensional surround format recording by Morten Lindberg. He let the spatial lines of the score be transfered to a spreading out horizontally in the room so that everything had different distance to the different directional microphones and did the recording in a church of rather long reverberation so that the feeling of a large three-dimensoinal space could be perceived.

The first track on SONaR is vere meininga (be the purpose) for which you also wrote the poetry. Explain the creative process behind this piece and its meaningful text. Had you written the poetry before you decided to set it to music? Or did the music inspire the poetry?

The poetry was born gradually together with the music, as it often is. At some points of the composition process the musical idea appearing would be a spoken word or phrase. When that arises as a musical need I know there is a poem coming, although it is yet as unknown to me as the total music, and I know it will reveal itself and its meaning parallel with the music if I just keep on letting the piece unfold.

vere meininga was originally written for Chinese harp and string sextet. Were there any drastic changes that had to be made when developing this version for Ellen and her European harp?

The most conspicuous change is that of the cadenza. Since Ellen operates both the acoustic and the electric harp the possibilities of the electric harp and the contrast to the acoustic harp had to be made very clear here.

I am incredibly moved by det var mjukt written for soprano and harp. The translation of the text is heart-wrenching, yet uplifting. What prompted the composition of this piece? What mind-set must you be in to accurately musically portray text like this?

The original text is the English one, written by Clark E. Moustakas in his book HEURISTIC RESEARCH, Design, Methodology and Application. I teach a small subject called Intuitive Composition/Improvisation and Music Philosophy at Volda University College. And there we have his book on the syllabus list. When Ellen commissioned a short piece for herself and her son to be placed in between the two harp concertos of the CD I knew I would use Moustaka’s beautiful text, as I was just then citing from his book to my students. So I wrote the song to the English text and then made a translation fitting the music. When time came for the recording, her young son was already facing his break of voice and we decided to let the same soprano as in the last piece sing it.

To musically portray a text like this – or any text – you have to be able to recognize in yourself all the feelings hidden in the words, actually see yourself in the role of the author, and let music arise from there.

When Ellen commissioned dette blanke no, concerto for harp and angels, how did you settle on the concept of timelessness and weightlessness? At one point in the creative process did it become clear that two harps would be required to achieve this goal?

I have experienced that when I try to listen consciously to two or more different pulses simultanuously – and really try to keep track of all pulses, at some point my brain gives up. And as it gives up, there is a loss of sense of time, and to me that is a blissful experience, it’s like coming home. So in dette blanke no (this our virgin now), as the choir enters, to portray this side of “home-coming” there is in the harp part a set of repetitive lines with individually different pulses. For the ear consciously or unconsciously to be able to follow the different lines it was necessary to use different coloring of the harp tone in the different slow pulses and even bring in an additional harp, the electric one.

To remind or give the listener a trace of weightlessness – the other side of “home-coming” – I took the memory of me and the snowflakes and gave it a spatial musical setting, letting sound move three-dimensionally the same way.