The surface is slow - performing piano music by Morten Eide Pedersen

by Signe Bakke


Background and collaboration


The background for this project was a collaboration between Morten Eide Pedersen (1958 – 2014) and me on his piano works. Pedersen was a teacher of composition at the Grieg Academy, University of Bergen. He was a composer himself, always investigating and trying out new ideas, and he preferred to collaborate with performers during his working processes. Our collaboration projects, which lasted over eight years, showed the creativity of the composer and his way of opening up the traditional roles of performer and composer.


In 2006: A traditional composer- performer collaboration. I got the finished score of “Time and Bell …”, and we worked together on the performance, leading up to a concert.


In 2008: Morten Eide Pedersen invited to a seminar: Einar Røttingen, Torleif Torgersen and I were invited to perform the same piece, “Soccorsi”, in which dynamics, synchronization of voices and phrasing were left to the performer to decide. Our interpretations were compared, and the performer’s role and possibilities in the score were discussed. After this seminar Pedersen wrote an appendix to the score, in which he described various possible ways of interpreting the piece.


In 2012-13: Collaboration on three movements from the commissioned work “T.S. Eliot Impressions: Other echoes …”, “The light that fractures …” and “I know the voices dying …”, I was consulted early in the compositional process, and together we tried out sections from the scores. I had a chance to influence the score, but at the same time I experienced that the composer had quite clear ideas of what he wanted to hear. The scores were constantly revised and given more details up to the premiere of the pieces.


In 2013: T.S. Eliot impressions: “In this brief transit where the dreams cross // Ash Wednesday”. Surprisingly, I got a new and very different score: It was a piece in open form, and I was asked to compile nine pages of fragments into a self-chosen order following detailed guidelines. The fragments inspired me, and I intuitively decided on their order, shaping them and giving them specific characters. My creativity was stimulated, and the work sessions with the composer leading up to the premiere were incredibly exciting.


The piece “Time and Bell …” was added to the cycle, and we had plans to perform the cycle in its entirety. This plan was not carried through because of the composer's unexpected death in 2014.


It takes time to become familiar with new musical languages, and after my performances of the pieces, I always wished to continue working on the pieces and perform them again. Preparation time had been short – as often is the case with premiere, and the experience of playing the pieces at a concert led to new questions about my interpretation. I needed more time to go more deeply into this music.


This project is a result of my wish for deepening. To realize the plan of performing the Eliot cycle in its entirety, and to be able to present Morten Eide Pedersen’s piano works on CD has been a strong motivational factor for continuing work on these piano pieces.






Pedersen’s music is not settled. No performance tradition for his works has been established, nothing is written about him as a composer and no CDs with his music have been released.


I felt unsettled from the start, a former cooperation project had now become an individual project. Focusing on performance issues without the composer present made me soon realize that I didn’t know much about this music and was not really familiar with his style and aesthetics. To find out more, I investigated all of his works and studied the poems of Eliot to find underlying meanings. I discussed with colleagues and I listened to the music by composers whom I knew he was fond of: Morton Feldman, Salvatore Sciarrino and Luigi Nono. For me, Luigi Nono was the most interesting one, and I found similarities to Morten Eide Pedersen in his musical intimacy.


To continue to be in a state of searching


I realize that my knowledge of the composer influences how I perceive his music. He was investigative and searching, more concerned with the process than with results. And in his music, we find a state of “being” with space to wonder and to be in the unfulfilled: never settled, each time open to catching the moment.


Minimal music: never a superfluous tone


Morten Eide Pedersen’s piano pieces are all relatively short in length. He uses a limited material in his compositions, often choosing slow tempos and soft dynamics. To work with his piano pieces is to investigate “silent music”. But the music can also propel forward and be virtuoso and brilliant. Throughout, I experience a naked expression, with never a superfluous tone.


On slowness, intense listening and investigation of timbre, time and space


The word “listening” is much used in the composer’s informative texts to the performer. Morten Eide Pedersen often reflected on the perspective of listening: he was concerned with the important distinction between listening and listening attentively. But what does it actually mean for a performer to be attentively listening?


As a performer, I must actively be listening while playing, but at the same time I must create the moment and fill the slowness, also in the music’s own “listening to itself”. I can keep the lines together with singing tones, but in my work with this quiet music, I have gradually focused more on finding greater nuances - small changes in timing and more colours of timbre. This helps to sustain interest and to create connections. The music inspires to find a fragile sound and a sound which fills the room. There is a sense of presence and timelessness in this music, a here-and-now which catches both the past and the everlasting (See RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3).


Two of the piano pieces are composed at the limit of what is possible to do on the instrument. In these pieces, the notation is clear and detailed, with no choices for the performer. “Other echoes inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?” contains constant repetitions of the same tones. “I know the voices dying with a dying fall / Beneath the music from a farther room” contains many extended, single tones in pianissimo. Why did he compose these pieces for piano? I remember the first performance and the concentration necessary to make it function. And a new concentration is demanded each time, in new rooms, with new pianos. It would be much easier for a violinist to play these long tones. But I suspect that this “almost impossibility” is a conscious choice of the composer. A concentration is required of the performer, and it creates a special intensity of expression.


On freedom and precision


On performing a piece by Lasse Thoresen, the pianist Vebjørn Anvik said: “The degree of freedom given to the performer to influence the musical shape of these works has been an especially inspiring challenge. Listening to the clearly different “solutions” to these questions during the performances was a truly unusual and, in my opinion, very rewarding part of the studying process.” (The Reflective Musician: 2016)


The above-mentioned project is similar to our seminar in 2008: three pianists were playing the same piece and given freedom to influence the shape of the work. I agree with Vebjørn Anvik: “More freedom is inspiring and challenging”. And I want to add, being a co-creator challenges me to find new versions every time. I notice that this influences both my preparations and performances. There is no final answer, and the focus does not turn towards perfectionism, but toward finding good alternatives which can enhance expression. I am always looking to find new possibilities, instead of repeating those already known - never “settled”, but present in a different way.


Some of Morten Eide Pedersen’s pieces have a very precise notation, with complex rhythms and many indications. At the same time as the composer in some movements could give the performer great freedom, he had in other movements an expectation of real precision. I noticed this when I encouraged him to change a passage that was impossible for me to play. It was not easy for him to alter a single tone that made the passage more playable.


The liberty of the performer is restricted, clearly and rigidly defined. The composer experiments with the elements, with varying degrees of what is clearly decided and what is left up to the performer in the various pieces. One of his ensemble pieces is exclusively text-based, with pitches decided by the musicians. How the musicians should relate to each other is however precisely described, in that they must listen intensely to each other.


Concerts are experiences of the moment, and different possibilities of choice add an excitement to the performance. CD recordings are final; they are experienced as especially important. The open forms of this music made it so that I wanted my preparations to keep several possibilities open until the very moment of recording. How would the resonant chords sound on this piano? And how to improvise when improvisations should withstand repeated listening? I tried several different possibilities and discussed these with the producer. The recording sessions became more than normally investigative, this is how it had to be with this music. Cooperation with the producer functioned very well, but in this situation, I missed the composer, his presence and his own comments.

See video “T. S. Eliot Impressions” (in sidebar)

(with time indications)

  • Recorded at University Aula, Bergen, March 11th, 2019

  • First time performance of the entire cycle

  • Performed by Signe Bakke


00.00– 6.38: “Time and Bell have buried the Day [– at the still Point of the turning World]”
This piece imitates church bells. It is about slowness and timbre, and I choose a deep, singing sound that fills the room (see also RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3).


7.00 – 11.23: “Other echoes inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
To play all the repeated tones, increasing the speed, and slowing down the speed, requires great concentration. The score indicates con una energia intrappolata, “with trapped energy”, and that is what I feel. The grand piano barely responds, at the limit of what is possible – unpianistic and challenging. I listen intensely to keep up the tension throughout the whole piece.


11.56 – 14.10: “The light that fractures through unquiet water”
I imagine “the light” – in the right hand, and the “unquiet water” – in the left hand.  I use a lot of articulation, especially in the right hand. In the unfinished score, I can choose my own dynamics: small, differentiated nuances that bring out the forceful power of the light together with the beautiful play of evolving colours. The piece ends in the restless depth of the sea. 


14.20 – 17.30: “I know the voices dying with a dying fall / Beneath the music from a farther room”
A simple melody with long tones. Adagio, sempre pianissimo. Long, weak tones are dying out on a piano. Is this what the composer wants? But in order to make long legato lines, the tones cannot die out. The piece challenges me in all its simplicity, and I concentrate on making a beautiful, singing pianissimo sound that also reaches the last bench.


17.36: “In this brief transit where the dreams cross/Ash Wednesday“
This piece consists of nine pages of short fragments which I should assemble in a self-chosen order, repeating the fragments three times. The order and character of the fragments I have decided beforehand. The score opens for improvisation, and this time I let the moment decide: in the second round of the cycle, I let the improvisation go freely (see also RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3).


To work alone without the composer


There is a big difference between working alone with a score and working together with the composer. And when I look back at the project, it becomes clear that my experience of the music gradually changed with the passing of time, my memory of the composer becoming more remote. Towards the end of the project, I coincidently looked at a book I had gotten from Morten Eide Pedersen’s home after his death. There the writer John Berger, in writing about Giacometti, describes the change which happens with a work after the artist has died. Some reflections related to this text may explain some of my challenges during this project.


When the experience of the work changes


“Every artist’s work changes when he dies. And in the end, nobody remembers how his works were when he was alive”. (Berger: 1980, page 185)


I recognise John Berger’s words about the artist Giacometti and his works in the book “Konsten at se” (The Art of Seeing:). Working with the piano works of Morten Eide Pedersen was for me an uneasy process. My original plan of concentrating on developing the ideas of the composer had to be redefined. Instead, it became an individual project focusing on my own in-depth interpretational work. I still had the working sessions with the composer fresh in my memory, but the pieces became more and more detached from the composer, a change I was not prepared for.


“When Giacometti was alive, you thought almost of standing in his place. You thought of standing at the starting point of the path of his gaze, and the figure reflected the gaze back to you like a mirror. Now when he is dead, you take his place instead of thinking of standing on it. And then it is as if what moves first along the path comes from the figure. It stares and you catch the gaze”. (Berger: 1980, page 190)


When I looked at the scores again, I experienced them differently. The scores became very important now!


“Time and Bell …” is a meditation over verses from Eliot’s poem. I felt a kind of freedom while playing this piece, but is this freedom inherent in the score? Or was it a sense of mirroring the composer’s “aura”? The score shows precise, complicated rhythms, dynamic signs on each note, metronome indicating one eighth note = 52, and the text is “far away as a shadow”. And at the same time, it indicates “marcato - singing, not hard” and, equally important, “lines and pedal”. The instructions are many and detailed. Is there any room for interpretative freedom?


The compositional fragments of “Ash Wednesday” are coupled to a variety of verses from T. S. Eliot’s poetry. The first fragment is coupled to this verse: “The place of solitude where the dreams cross”, something which I had not noticed before. My performance had been loud and heavy. I tried again and again to play softly while listening actively, but my first intuition could not be altered.


The producer Jørn Pedersen joined in and looked at the scores with fresh eyes. The dialogue went something like this:


-    “Was the composer precise?”

-    “I haven’t considered that”.

-    “The dynamic signs are difficult to understand. Does he mean the phrase or single tones?”

-    “I haven’t thought of that, either. Why didn’t I ask the composer?” 

-    “The uneven repetition of tones does not function, and it sounds as if you cannot play them”.

-    “But the composer thought that the unevenness created a special expression, so why doesn’t it work?”

-    “What about making the eighth notes lighter?”


We try it out ...


A work mirrors its composer. I acknowledge that the composer’s way of being and his personality has highly influenced my relationship to the scores. His focus on the essential expression became more important to me than the details in the score. I interpreted ambiguities, contradictions, and misprints without asking. I was surprised by all that I had overlooked. I now realize that the composer’s general attitude towards performers influenced my sense of freedom. He had expressed respect for what the performer’s artistry may contribute to his compositions.


“The reason why Giacometti’s death seems to have changed his work so radically, is that his work had so much to do about an awareness of death”. (Berger: 1980, page 186)


I see similarities between Giacometti and Morten Eide Pedersen. A naked expression prevails in their art, and for Pedersen, awareness of death and eternity was expressed in his music and a part of his philosophy of life.


“...the work has become something else, a witness to the past instead of being…” (Berger: 1980, page186)


 Morten Eide Pedersen’s works now belong to music history, and I experience the piano pieces as part of a larger whole, the works of art of a full life. At the same time, they exist independently and are unchangeable, with immanent value.


CD and scores


All the piano compositions of Morten Eide Pedersen are now recorded on LAWO Classics (LWC1213).

Commented scores of Morten Eide Pedersen’s piano pieces will be made available on the National Library of Norway: https://www.nb.no/noter/

S C R O L L   D O W N

Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås

“T. S. Eliot Impressions”