Music Is Breathing: An Interview with Composer Ola Gjeilo

Renowned composer Ola Gjeilo expounds on his creativity, from his inspiring improvisation to his carefully selected lyrics.

Ola Gjeilo is one of the most often performed modern composers, and a quick listen to his music will explain why. His songs are full of beautiful movement, with powerful melodies and harmonies blending into sweet sublimity. Ranging from the moving ‘Evening Prayer’ with its soul-piercing saxophone solo to the wrenching power of ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ Gjeilo’s music is brilliant and captivating.

Discovering along with the Audience

Emily Cardé: Ola, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. To start off, can you describe your creative process?

Ola Gjeilo: Piano has always been my instrument. I started playing when I was little and was improvising very early on, because I had a pretty good ear as a child. I could pick up on music I heard and play it back. It took me a while before I started to read music and experience music that way; improvising is something I’ve always loved to do.

To me, the master of improvisation is Keith Jarrett, my favorite jazz pianist. He pioneered the fully improvised concert, where everything is completely unplanned. It’s an exciting feeling, never knowing what’s going to happen, discovering something new with the audience.

My composition process starts out in the same way, with me improvising on the piano or a keyboard. I record a lot of ideas on my computer. I’ll take my favorites out of those ideas, put them on my iPhone, and go listen to them in a park or something. I try to step out of myself as much as possible and experience an idea from the outside, to see whether it’s something that really touches me. When I find an idea that lights a spark, I start to build on it.

I don’t often compose from A to Z—it’s usually more like a puzzle. I might even start with the ending and build around that, while never really writing down any music in score form until it’s pretty final.

Emily: How often have improvised concerts led you to making music that you kept afterwards?

Ola: Actually, I can’t remember that ever happening. But I’ve definitely done sessions in recording studios where I would rent a couple of hours just to improvise, and have ended up using some of those bits in pieces later. I’ve also used an entire improvisation and not changed a thing a couple of times.

Film Music without a Film

Emily: How do you select lyrics for your pieces?

Ola: I get a lot of poetry books, read through them, and write down all the poems that I like, creating a bank of poetry that I tend to pull from. There are a few poets that I perhaps use the most, but it really could be anything—whatever inspires something in me. Sometimes the person or group commissioning a piece have their own suggestions for lyrics as well.

Emily: How has your interest in film soundtracks influenced your musical writing style?

Ola: What I like about a lot of film music is its evocative nature. It seems to conjure up images, even if there’s no movie there. I love music that allows listeners to imagine their own stories in their minds as they listen to it. So I kind of think of my music sometimes as writing film music without a movie—a soundtrack to whatever is on your mind or around you at the time you’re listening.

Emily: What is it like hearing a completed piece being performed by an orchestra or a choir?

Ola: It’s always exciting. It can be very enjoyable if they do it just the way I intended it to be, or it can be enjoyable because they do it in other ways that I hadn’t intended. People bring their own ideas into it, and that lets me discover new aspects of the piece.

Emily: As a modern composer writing in a more traditional style, how do you think your music blends both tradition and modernity?

Ola: To be honest, that’s something I’ve never thought about in a conscious way. I think I’ve always written whatever music feels natural to me, regardless of whether it sounds modern or more traditional. I don’t think genres and labels matter too much in terms of whether people are touched by art or not; that comes from something deeper than choice of style, in my experience.

Emily: A lot of your music draws on traditional religious forms and content. How does that fit into your music?

Ola: I love setting sacred text, especially Latin. There’s so many beautiful Medieval Latin texts, and Latin is such an incredibly singable language. I also enjoy setting sacred texts because it deals with something that is bigger than ourselves, something that is transcendent and spiritual.

The Immersive Power of Music

Emily: What piece of music that you’ve written are you most proud of?

Ola: It’s hard to say. I do like big sounds—lush, symphonic music with the biggest palate possible. So I like my Sunrise Mass (for choir and string orchestra) quite a lot. But all my pieces mean a lot to me, in different ways.

Emily: The Sunrise Mass was actually my first introduction to your music, and it’s one of my absolute favorites. What inspired you to write it?

Ola: So glad you like it! Apart from what’s actually in the text, there is a secondary layer to the mass. I wanted it to journey from the most transparent and nebulous kind of space, then gradually become more and more grounded, more and more human. So the first movement, called ‘The Spheres,’ starts out as if you are floating in space. As the mass progresses, it becomes more active, and dramatic at times. The last movement, called ‘Identity,’ ends with a big chorale, because I always found the simple chorale to be one of the most grounded musical expressions. So I wanted the mass to go from the more spiritual to the more human, while hopefully retaining and deepening the spiritual aspect through the whole journey. It’s also a metaphor for human development—from a baby to an adult with a fully formed identity. That’s why the last movement is called ‘Identity.’

Emily: What inspires you to write music?

Ola: I can’t really help myself; It’s like breathing; I just love it and have to do it. That’s how I’ve always felt, even when I was a kid. I knew I wanted to be a composer at a very early age, so it was never really a choice or a conscious decision at any point.

Aside from that, music just feels good. Even though it can be challenging to create at times, I always want to do something that can hopefully touch people’s lives in a meaningful and inspiring way. That’s a big part of my desire to write music and reach as many people as possible.

Emily: Why do you think people can relate to music in such a powerful way?

Ola: I think it’s because music can be very immersive. It is an art that can take you on a journey—like for example film and theater, music can connect us to a new world for a minute and deeply connect us to whatever it is we are experiencing. I think that kind of immersiveness has the potential to be very powerful, transcendent, and inspiring.

Learn more about Ola’s Music on his website.

Emily Carde
Emily Cardé is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and the editor of the Create channel. She eagerly seeks out adventure, friendship, good food, and beauty. Eventually she hopes to go to graduate school to study literature and writing, but this year she will be serving as the resident director at PHC. Emily has loved writing for years and constantly seeks out material through the lives and stories of the people around.

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