A guide to my artistic practice with the organ
This is where I define my identity as an organist: Improvisation. Because I'm that kind of musician: A creator of sound. When I meet a new organ, we start a dialogue.
I give simple impulses, I get something back, I react on what I hear from the instrument and the acoustics of the space.
As you might guess, I am not so much into improvising over a given musical theme or in a certain style. Rather, I see myself conceiving sonic landscapes or musical situations.
The music might be spontaneous or a little bit planned. The plan can be a sketch on paper with graphics and keywords, made at the actual organ the day before the concert.
The duration of an improvisation can span from a few minutes to the length of a whole concert. It can fill in as a bridge between other pieces, or stand alone as a symphonic form.
This Soundcloud page is a sort of diary of my concert improvisation practice.
I think that two main sources influence my improvisation style: 1) my background as a composer and 2) my collaborations with free improvising musicians.
It's the composer in me that likes to devise multilayered textures and longer spans of musical form. The album 19.March 2004, Oslo Cathedral is an example - one hour of continuous, carefully planned improvisation.
Working with improvising musicians has learnt me to value the physicality of the instrument's sound. I enjoy to explore its border zones, looking for transitory sonic events that would defy conventional musical notation. The album 16 Pieces for Organ (2002) consists of spontaneous miniatures resulting from putting myself into certain mental states (which I nicknamed "learn to swim", "learn to wait", "learn to forget" etc)
Definitely an organ has a world of sound "between the keys". It is where the attack, the air flow, the timbre, the mechanical sound and the unevenness of details can act together and get new meaning in a new context. Not to speak of the innumerable possibilities that occur from combining sounds, overlapping, covering and uncovering, interpolating.
For me it all started through collaborating with singers. I aimed for a flexible organ sound, I wanted to escape the massive character of traditional organ music and instead flow with the voice. Hear the first results on the albums Engleskyts, Kom Regn (Anne-Lise Berntsen) and later Vox Humana (Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer).
Further collaborations with instrumentalists can be heard on Grand Mutation (Lasse Marhaug), and Pipes and Bones (Paal Nilssen-Love). New collaborations happen regularly, especially within the frame of Organ Night in Stavanger konserthus.
Below, a few videos from concerts:
Of course I also play repertoire. How can one forget one's first love for organ music. It's always a joy to pour from the treasures of early music, Baroque, French romantic, 20th century repertoire, transcriptions etc.
My place of work the last years being Stavanger konserthus, I have often sought organ repertoire that "talks with" the symphonic tradition. Music by composers perhaps familiar to the orchestra's audience, but that may not be your typical organ composers.
This led to my transcriptions of Geirr Tveitt's Hardingtonar and Edvard Grieg's Ballad. Especially the colourful Tveitt pieces have been a success in my international recitals. They convey a "Nordic" sound and folk-music-inspired timbres quite unusual for the organ.
Other composers whom I love to play in transcription can be Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner. It's also fun to do concerts in more popular styles with themes from film, opera, musical, once in a while.
Honestly, as a basically creative musician I would expect to feel less personally involved when performing repertoire. Somehow this is the case - though in the moment of performing, as for probably everyone else, I feel completely integrated with the music without any experience of "centuries' distance".
So what is my style of playing? Sometimes people describe it as "light, airy, transparent". Probably this character is enhanced through my choice of programme. I love to intersect improvisations as bridges between pieces, to cleanse the ears and create a surprising context.
Improvisations or not, it all depends on the concept. My basic idea of playing repertoire is to share the vast world library of organ music. Then, I can come up with f.ex. this recital. And if you can read this programme, you can also read some of my musical personality.
Nils Henrik Asheim plays 700 years of European organ music (2023)
Robertsbridge Codex: Estampie nr.1 (ca 1360)
Adam Ileborgh: Frowe al myn hoffen (ca 1448)
Thomas Tallis: Alleluia per te Dei (ca 1540)
Girolamo Frescobaldi: Partita sopra l'aria della Romanesca (excerpt) (ca 1613)
Antónío Correa Braga: Batalha de 6.tom (ca 1695)
Nicolas de Grigny: Récit de tierce en taille (1699)
Dietrich Buxtehude: Prelude in e minor, BuxWV143 (ca 1700)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Dies sind die Heiligen zehn Gebot, BWV 678 (1739)
Charles-Marie Widor: Symphonie nr. 6, 1.mvt Allegro (1878)
Max Reger: Benedictus, op 59 (1901)
Olivier Messiaen: Le banquet céleste (1928)
Jehan Alain: Litanies (1937)
Sofia Gubaidulina: Hell und dunkel (1976)
Philip Glass: Dance no.4 (excerpt) (1979)
Below, a few examples of my playing:
To write down what I create on the organ is, I have to admit, a challenge. But I am working at it ! In my catalogue there are scores for organ solo, organ with choir and not the least a few pieces for organ and orchestra.
This stuff you will easily find on the Works page of this website, using the filter organ.
The solo pieces Orgeleik and Koralfantasi are from early years. Then followed a gap in time, maybe a result of my turn to improvisation and following obsession with the phenomenon of sound in the moment.
Now I have plans for large cycle of short solo pieces. An Organ Book or something like that. You won't believe it but I have recordings and written sketches for this cycle that are more than 10 years old. Be patient !
My compositions for organ and orchestra are not typical organ concertos but more like the Sinfonia concertante - orchestra pieces with a highlighted organ part. I am fascinated by the way the two sounding bodies can complement eachother.
I have the best job in the world - as resident organist of Stavanger Concert Hall. Since its inauguration in 2013 I have constantly tried to re-invent the role of the instrument, in order to open it up to new audiences.
An important part of this role is to facilitate artistic creation and interaction. We have commissioned works and involved artists of various disciplines in collaborations.
The management of Stavanger konserthus has from the very beginning been willing to spend considerable resources on the organ activities. We are very proud and suggest this should be taken as an example to follow for concert halls all over the world. Few instruments or musical phenomena possess such a potential for fascination for a large audience as the thousand-years old pipe organ!
Our 65-stop Ryde & Berg instrument (Norwegian manufactured, proud about that too!) was inaugurated in February 2013 with a 3-day festival featuring the organ in all kinds of combinations, gathering more than 4000 people (!)
The ORGELFEST included a symphony orchestra, poets, actors and dancers, a choir, a Bach-relay of local organists, a rock band, a kids programme, a funky night club and a silent movie cinema - and of course, the finest international guest organists. The event was featured on Norwegian national television.
Since then it has been important to continuously develop programme series and concepts exploiting the organ's potential and appeal to various audience groups. In the media situation, nothing should be taken as granted and the ideas on outreach need to be redefined every year as times change.
The organ of Stavanger Konserthus had from the very start its own communication, its own distinctive voice. "The organ" has become familiar to Stavanger people as were it more or less a person. You will have an idea from looking at:
- the organ's youtube channel (check various playlists from our concert series)
- Stavanger konserthus' webpage (details on the instrument & current programme)
Of course we are immensely grateful to Stavanger Symphony Orchestra who let the organ shine several times a year, including international guest organists, symphonic repertoire, CD recordings etc.
The organ is also lent to educational activities in collaboration with the University in Stavanger, Faculty for Performing Arts
To mention a few elements of our own concert series (reflected in playlists on our youtube channel):
Orgelnatt (Organ Night) is my personal, experimental playground. It happens twice a year in Stavanger konserthus, sometimes elsewhere, it's different each time - apart from this basic condition: It's long.
So what is this about, basically?
For the audience, Orgelnatt is a long concert "where you can be sure to find at least one thing you don't like". In Stavanger konserthus we invited dance companies, folk musicians, collaborated with literature and video festivals, involved student milieus. Almost every time there are elements of vocals and electronics. At times we extended the event into the foyer and put up artist talks, pop-up performances or DJ's.
For me, Nils Henrik Asheim, it started in 2010 (before the konserthus epoch) when I was ready to transfer my experience with improvising musicians and cross-disciplinary work from the arena of Tou Scene (arts factory in Stavanger) to the church organ sphere.
I gathered some people with whom I had performed in duo: Frode Gjerstad, Paal Nilssen-Love, Elisabeth Vatn and Lasse Marhaug. We devised a programme of 2 hours alternating between duos and ensemble sessions and presented this in churches in Stavanger, Trondheim and Oslo.
Let's say this was the beginning, a first exploration of the format. Later on, Stavanger konserthus has been the arena, in addition to a couple of appearences in Bodø. The time should be ready for creating Organ Nights in many places! You hit me!
Here is the Dogma: The Pipe organ is at the center of the event, but it is also only a hub. Organ Night is not Organ Concert. It has to involve electronics, preferably also vocals, and it has to go on for a long time. It is a situation just as much as a concert.
Below are a few videos:
It's the most immobile and architectural of all instruments. The organ defines a space, it is a space. What if we dissolve the solid state of an organ concert and let the audience move in an out ?
I tried many times to invite the audience to move around, during a concert. Why? This is partly explained in the article "Lyden (og Messiaens orgelmusikk) blir til mens du går" in the book Lydkilder. Listening by walking in sound.
The first time I was able to make such a thing happen in an organic way, was in the 9-hour event Messiaen Complete in 2018. We used both two rooms of Stavanger konserthus - the classical concert hall and the multifunctional "black box" hall - located right beside eachother, with just a few meters of corridor in between.
This spatial solution made it possible to run a concert where everybody could choose one's level of participation. The video below will give you an impression of how one could navigate between the two spaces, also passing by the foyer and its food and drinks station, and the bird song gallery upstairs.
Creating and living the Messiaen Complete event was for me a groundbreaking experience that later led to creating the indoor/outdoor marathon Organotopia, a universe of people, stories, objects, voices and instruments set in the urban space. And musically, a "library of influences and a set of proposals for new music".
Organotopia happened at the Ultima Festival 2022 and is widely documented. How should I say it - this project acted both as a summing up and a new start. Into the pot of 12 hours of music I threw mostly everything I had worked on over the years, of classical repertoire and improvisation experience, of organ aesthetics and of collaborations with singers as the representatives of human vocal expression.
At the same time Organotopia is not at all about music but about social relations. The "Oslo version" of the project featured a collaboration with the young architect group Søstra100 who based their work on collecting stories from the neighborhood around Paulus Church and Birkelunden, Grünerløkka, Oslo.
I simply love machines. What is the organ, if not an elaborate machine, and what could be more logical than to extend its interface. I experiment with midi control, sensors, cameras and audio signals, and devise my own software.
I will post a lot more here.
The concert hall organ's façade is an eye-catcher of sorts. Why not use exactly this in a transformative way. I had the pleasure to work with amazing visual artists and learn a little bit of skills myself.
On Stavanger concert hall's youtube playlist Orgelnatt you will see some of the video mapping and light design done on the organ façade over the years.
Using a screen: In the Christmas programme Mysteriets ansikter (Faces of Mystery) I developed a way of animating classical paintings. The performance alternates between Baroque/Renaissance pieces and improvisations.
As for silent movies, I myself have created music for a few big epics: Murnau's Faust, Carl Th.Dreyer's Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil), Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the latter one as a double projection, combining screen and façade mapping and with extended organ technology.
See videos below.
My motto is: You have no idea how easy it is to play the organ! From here I run workshops in free improvisation for all age groups. And to improvise is a lot less frightening when you do it together.
A method I use a lot is to let two or more students play the instrument together. It can be a good way to focus on possible ways to build up the music.
I am also teaching individually through my professor position at the University of Stavanger.