In 2018, Muohta was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize. The jury described it as “a piece of music that is at once acutely contemporary yet conscious of its history.” Read the complete nomination text here.
Muohta is the general word for snow in Sámi language, and snow is what the piece is about.Listeners are invited into a series of frozen soundscapes that span from meditative quietness to the odd contrasts of texture that may engender a sense of risk and unease.
The piece depicts slow changes that are barely visible or perceptible to human senses. When the piece was performed for the first time – along with Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons in Oslo in 2017 – the composer noted that the context had inspired him to attempt a step away from concepts of progress based on controlling nature, and instead engage with an indigenous experience of living with nature.
The piece is in 18 sections, each based on a word in the Sámi language related to snow. The sound of these words represent the only phonetic material used by the choir in this music. Some of the words describe snow directly, others its impact on everyday human life – for example, ulahat means “an over-snowed winter trail which is barely visible”.
The composer uses various composition techniques in order to obtain the desired richness of expression and soundscapes. The harmonic structure of the opening section appears, reminding of a baroque ritornello, five times during the piece, every time clothed in diffferent textures. At other places, hexagonal symmetrical patterns between pitches occur, inspired by the structure of snowflakes. There is also a clear influence present from the composer's experience with free improvisation, as events in various vocal and instrumental groups happen in parallel, as seemingly independent processes. Finally, the physical structure of snow phenomena inspire musical structures, i.e. wave-shaped rhythmical shifts, dissolving canons, doppler effects etc.
To get into detail with the phonetics of Sami language, the composer transcribed recordings of the 18 spoken words, played back at 3x slow speed. This resulted in passages where the choir pronounces certain words in a slow, "ghost-like" way, and also in the separation of the individual sounds in a word, detaching from eachother and becoming purely musical objects.
The 18 words for
— Simon Cummings, 5against4, 2020-11-17 ↗
...by turns delightful and disconcerting exploration of both the quiet and the uproarious majesty of nature, its 18 short studies acting like windows into a series of adjacent worlds, each one akin to a miniature snowglobe that Asheim shakes up and briefly watches before moving on to the next.
— Simon Cummings, 5against4, 2019-11-21 ↗
...on many occasions Muohta transcended the limits of what we would conventionally describe as ‘song’ or even ‘music’ – it became something like an epic folk ritual, a summoning or invoking of elemental forces of nature through the heightened and heavily stylised articulation of these words, like the slow, long-form casting of a spell.
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The jury's statement: "The 2018 Nordic Council Music Prize goes to a piece of music that is at once acutely contemporary yet conscious of its history. Our very first instrument, the human voice, is central to the piece whose sound world cautiously integrates language. Listeners are invited into a different experience of time, into a series of atmospheres or states which sometimes engender a sense of risk and unease.