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Interview with Composer Ola Gjeilo

Interview with Composer Ola Gjeilo

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

If you’re looking for a common thread among all the works of composer Ola Gjeilo, here’s the place to start: From his earliest days playing the piano, all the way to a successful career as a choral composer and a solo performer, the foundation has been improvisation.

“I think I’ve always gravitated toward improvisational art,” Gjeilo said in an interview this week with the Corvallis Repertory Singers. “I’ve always gravitated toward artists who are improvisation-based,” – people like the pianist Keith Jarrett or the film composer Thomas Newman – and even artists who you wouldn’t necessarily classify as improvisers, such as the architect Frank Geary or the glass artist Dale Chihuly. (Gjeilo admires how Geary and Chihuly tended to work in an instinctive, playful manner – much like a jazz musician might.)

The Repertory Singers will perform one of Gjeilo’s best-known works, his “Sunrise Mass,” at a concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22 at the First United Methodist Church, 1165 NW Monroe Ave. in Corvallis. 

The concert kicks off the Repertory Singers’ 2023-24 season. It’s a season built on the theme “Illumination: The Journey of Human Spirit,” and Gjeilo’s 30-minute “Sunrise Mass” seems a good fit for the season-opening concert.

“Sunrise Mass” is a spiritual and metaphysical four-movement work intended to take listeners on a journey meant in some ways to evoke human development, beginning in space (the first movement is titled “Spheres”), moving through birth and rebirth (the second movement, “Sunrise”) and onward to grounded adulthood (the third movement, “The City,” and the finale, “Identity and the Ground.”)

Gjeilo said many of his compositions – even the choral works – start with improvisational work.

“I tend to do very free kind of improvisations in the beginning at the idea stage for any piece I write,” he said. At the earliest stages, he said, “I try not to stop myself” by being too self-critical. Later, he’ll go through that work with a critical ear, delete most of it and build off the ideas that generate a creative spark.

“Sunrise Mass” grew out of another Gjeilo ambition.

“I had always wanted to write a Latin Mass,” he said. And so, when two chamber choirs in his native Norway commissioned him to write a piece, he seized on the opportunity.

Why the desire to write a Latin Mass?

“I can’t say exactly what it is,” he said. “It’s just something very inspiring about the text.”

There’s another reason: “Latin in general is so lovely. It’s almost the most perfect language for singing, I think.”

In fact, Gjeilo has written a sequel – “Twilight Mass,” which will premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York on Nov. 13.

“I like the idea of having a sort-of sequel with a sort-of opposite title that can complement the ‘Sunrise Mass,” he said.

One big difference between the two works is that “Twilight Mass” features a piano part – and Gjeilo will travel to New York to perform the part at Carnegie Hall.