A series of coincidences /
How I got myself into this
Every journey has a beginning. I believe that reflecting on how I got involved in the method of recreating recordings could shed some light on how I developed my way of working with it. To do this I have selected some fundamental experiences from my musical background that I believe ultimately led to this research project.
The stubborn pupil
I grew up in a family of professional musicians with a mother who is a singer and a father who plays the organ, harpsichord and piano. With music going back several generations on both family sides, it was perhaps not so shocking that I would also choose the path of music. It was however never my parent’s desire that I should become a musician, so whatever talent I possessed, I was never forced to play an instrument. Inevitably, I had piano lessons with my father in periods. When or if these lessons would happen, was restricted to whether I practiced regularly or not. In my case, there were periods of extreme motivation to learn certain pieces that I became obsessed with, but little desire to endure any kind of “pianistic school.” My motivation was fueled by the music I loved and I would sit at the piano and play by ear, not by reading music. I would occasionally “trick” my father into demonstrating for me the pieces I wanted to play on the piano so that I could imitate him rather than learning from the score. In fact, I did not learn how to read music properly before I was about 14 years old (which is allegedly hopelessly late in the world of classical music!).
Not yet having become exclusively obsessed with classical music, I started playing in various bands from the age of 13, first on synthesizers and eventually on the Hammond Organ. I learned the songs I played as well as the solos by ear. Through my Hammond Organ playing, I also discovered jazz music and consequently began taking private lessons. Through these lessons, I learned the basics of a systematic method of imitating recordings (in this case “picking up” the bass line, harmony and melody from recordings of organ-based jazz groups). My teacher, Steinar Nickelsen, was at the time a student at the Jazz Department of NTNU, where this systematic method of learning by ear is taught to the students. I learned from Nickelsen that the melody should be internalized mentally before trying it out on the instrument. I was also encouraged to be able to sing the melody I had picked up from the recording before trying to play it. There are certainly many alternative ways of doing this, and like anything it is a skill that needs years of practicing to truly master. It was nonetheless my first encounter with a systematic method of playing by ear.
At age 15 I realized that I had to make a devoted choice of direction should I wish to pursue musical studies. I fully committed myself to classical repertoire, which in the end lay closest to my heart, practicing systematically for several hours a day to “catch up” to my peers.
Tangueros del Norte
The year I turned 16, I entered the Education Programme for Music, Dance and Drama with classical piano as my main instrument. I was consequently invited to audition before an ensemble called Tangueros del Norte – a band of eight exceptionally talented young musicians playing Argentine tango in Trondheim, Norway(!). I had never played a tango in my life, but found that my classical technique combined with some improvisational skills was useful. I joined the group, a decision that would be a life-changing event. The success of the group the coming years included a critically acclaimed recording, several awards and prizes, trips to Argentina taking classes with several of the greatest musicians in the genre, concerts on live radio and television, as well as performances at major music festivals throughout Norway. I would later play in several different tango groups as well as embark on a solo career both as a performer and composer rooted in this music. My experience as a “tango pianist” is relevant in the far-reaching implications beyond this research project, as we shall later see. In relation to the recreating method, studying Argentine tango music by systematically imitating recordings for several years probably cultured me into appreciating the potential that lies in such a method.
Historical instruments and musical guiding
During the summers of 2009-2014, I worked as a guide at the musical instrument museum of Ringve in Trondheim. Ringve has been a great source of inspiration and has helped to form me as a musician in several ways. My duties at the museum would include guided “musical tours” to an international audience. This meant not just guided tours, but also performing on historical keyboard instruments, as well as playing tourist concerts and recitals. As we shall see, Ringve Museum also played a fundamental part in my artistic results with regards to this project. Having a father with expertise in early music performance practice on the harpsichord and the organ, it was also natural for me to have a keen interest in early music instruments as well as performance traditions from an early age.
Sigurd Slåttebrekk and David Dubal
In 2008, I began my bachelor studies at The Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. During the first academic year, I had two major and formative encounters. The first was the professor, pianist, writer, painter and radio host David Dubal. A year prior to this I had purchased a DVD documentary entitled The Golden Age of the Piano, hosted by David Dubal. It was one of my favorite documentaries and therefore it was exciting to experience him in person. I attended an open lecture about the recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov where we listened to his recording of the third Grieg Sonata, which he performed together with violinist Fritz Kreisler. The passion and knowledge Mr. Dubal inhabited was infectious, and his appearance was dramatic - almost stage-like. Already having a certain interest for historical performance traditions, I was amazed by the recordings he presented - how different they sounded! What made this even more intriguing was that this was a recording Rachmaninov, who died as “recently” as in 1943. How could performance traditions have changed so much in such a short time?
Four years later I found myself at the Manhattan School of Music in New York as an exchange student. I had the pleasure of taking the class Pianists of the 20th century with Professor Dubal – our second encounter. This class influenced me deeply. The students were encouraged to appreciate the historical performance traditions heard in old recordings and to compare these to modern-day ones (including our own). It is difficult to explain exactly what it was in these old recordings that resonated with my own taste. At first it might have been the “freshness” of hearing the music played so differently – in the world of classical music, where so many recordings seem to resemble each other, and where the seemingly canonic understanding of how the composer would have wanted the piece to be played seems to be so strongly rooted. It was for me very satisfying to hear that this music could have other dimensions. In relation to this, my own interpretations were not at all provocative or particularly “interesting” at this point. Rather they were quite conservative, but still – even if what I heard pretty much collided with my own performances, there was something about this kind of playing I was drawn towards.
Going back to 2009 and The Norwegian Academy of Music, I attended an open lecture and consequently the viva voce of Norwegian Artistic Research Programme fellow Sigurd Slåttebrekk and his project The notes must embrace the bars, not the bars the notes. Here was a famous Norwegian pianist using the method of imitating and embodying recordings in relation to the historical recordings of Edvard Grieg’s pieces as played by Grieg himself! Suddenly I saw a link between the experiences I had from the old Grieg recordings through the David Dubal lecture and this research project. Sigurd Slåttebrekk talked about recreating historical recordings and the artistic development that comes out of it – a highly experimental approach for most of the audience I am sure, but for me this all made perfect sense – this was something I could do, this was something I had experience with. I was already using this approach in tango music – could it also be done with classical solo repertoire? I knew that the timing was not right yet, but at the same time it had been a fundamental realization.
Vocal accompanying and all that jazz
Back at the Manhattan School of Music in 2013. Having already mentioned the classes with Mr. Dubal, there were two more weekly classes that greatly influenced me with regards to the method of recreating recordings. The first was the Jazz Piano for Classical Pianists class, taught by Joan Stiles. Since my private Hammond Organ lessons, I had taken a year of lessons at The Norwegian Academy of Music in jazz piano as an elective course. To follow up on this I took the class that was specifically tailored for classical pianists, and taught in groups at the Manhattan School of Music. Though my expertise as a jazz pianist was far from advanced, I was more experienced than the beginners in the class and Joan Stiles offered to teach me privately instead. This got me into working with imitating and improvising more actively again.
It was, however, through the Vocal Accompanying class of Prof. Raymond Beegle that I made the most important discoveries with regards to this research project. The course was taught like a master class – each pianist paired with a singer to perform a new lieder or romance every week in front of the others attending. The teacher was strict with those who came unprepared and made them perform regardless. There was always a shortage of practice rooms and due to the already very hectic time schedule, it was difficult to find enough time for rehearsing with the singer in advance. Being slightly desperate and stressed, I came up with the rather strange solution of working with recordings. Every week I would learn the piano part of the new piece as fast as I could manage and then quickly find a recording to imitate and play alongside. I didn’t care much about who the singer or pianist on the recording was, as long as it was performed in the same key that I was playing it in. I remember feeling a bit conflicted – almost like having a red devil on my right shoulder, whispering in my ear that that such a method is harmful to chamber music or accompanying. How could locking yourself by carefully imitating a single specific interpretation possibly do anything but weaken your skills? But on the left shoulder there was a white angel insisting that I should trust my positive experiences from imitating recordings in the past. The results were quite incredible. Even though I had hoped it would be beneficial, I was very positively surprised! The fellow student I'd been paired with usually sang a little differently than the recording I had been playing alongside, meaning that the accompaniment had to be adjusted from what I had been imitating. Although experienced in chamber music, I now seemed to be more flexible in adjusting my timing than before. Perhaps working so closely on someone else’s interpretation and timing had somehow made me more flexible rather than restricted?
Working as a classical pianist since 2013, I have used the method of imitating recordings countless times in preparation for chamber music concerts and accompanying. It has helped me with further developing my abilities as a pianist and at the same time prepared me for this research project. A couple of years before going into this research project, I stumbled upon the historical recordings of Ricardo Viñes. I became curious about the man behind these wonderful historical performances, and started to investigate. The more I read, the more intrigued I became. It was almost shocking to me that I had never heard a word about this leading pianist in Paris at the beginning of the 1900s, who premiered the majority of piano works by Debussy and Ravel.
Although imitating classical chamber music and playing alongside recordings is in its ultimate form extremely complex, I considered recreating virtuosic solo repertoire to be the highest peak of the mountain. Throwing in the aspect of a historical performance style that is dramatically different than modern-day performances into the mix, makes it even more complex. I was ready for a challenge!
 An electrically driven tone wheel-instrument used in jazz, gospel, rock, R&B, soul and pop music.
 Secondary upper school in Norway.