Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo considers himself to be really lucky. In just five short years, he has been able to make a successful career for himself as a freelance composer — a challenging career choice. Gjeilo's dream was to live in a big city so in 2001, he moved to New York City to study composition at Juilliard. He then spent a few years studying in London, and then he headed to Los Angeles to explore film music. In 2007, he attended the national convention for the American Choral Director's Association in Miami. He was lucky enough to have two of his pieces performed at that convention. "And that's a huge deal," Ola explains, "because there are hundreds of conductors in the audience. And so if they like your pieces, that could mean so much. That's really when I kind of broke into the choral scene in the U.S. for the first time."
Charles Bruffy, the artistic director for the Phoenix and the Kansas City Chorale was first introduced to Ola Gjeilo's music at that convention. Shortly after that, he invited Gjeilo to be the composer-in-residence for the Phoenix Chorale. Northern Lights is a new release from that ensemble highlighting eleven choral works by Ola Gjeilo, and Gjeilo is gratified by the attention. "It's rare for a working composer to have a full album dedicated to your music," Gjeilo admits. "But I was also lucky to play piano on a few of the tracks and to be a big part of the recording which meant a lot to me."
The first piece Ola Gjeilo wrote for the Phoenix Chorale is the one that convinced them to bring him on board as their composer-in-residence. It's titled Phoenix, and was written for the ensemble's 50th anniversary season. "I'd never been to the desert before in my life, you know, growing up in Norway, we don't have anything like that," Gjeilo explains. "So that piece was definitely inspired by my first impressions of Phoenix and the desert. I have to admit, the text was kind of a servant of the music, in that the music sort of came first in that piece. I was thinking more symphonically. I wanted this big, lush sound for the choir."
Gjeilo says his most successful piece is Ubi Caritas. It's one of his earliest works, a piece he wrote even before he came to America. "I think it's a very accessible piece," he says. "It's not crazy hard and it's a piece that can be done by choirs on all sorts of levels. So that's been wonderful. It's very innocent sounding, I think. It has a sort of purity, which makes sense since it was the first piece I wrote for choir."
One of my favorites on this recording is titled Dark Night of the Soul. On this piece, Ola Gjeilo works to create a continuous groove on the piano — and he looks back at some of his LA experiences. "I think there's definitely a sort of cinematic quality to that piece. I really love to listen to a lot of film music, and most of my favorite living composers are actually film composers. So I felt that that should be reflected in my own music as well. Because I wanted to write music that I wanted to listen to myself. I think that piece really brought together a lot of things that I'm really passionate about, and I always wanted to give the piano more of a prominent role in a choral piece." I don't think you need this last bit of the quote
The title track, Northern Lights, takes Ola Gjeilo back to his homeland near Oslo, Norway. He had few opportunities to witness the northern lights growing up in the southern part of the country and so when he finally experienced the incredible light show, it made an indelible impression. That's what he was thinking about one cold winter's night as he was composing in an attic looking out at the moonlight as it shone on a frozen lake. "And I was working with the text, Pulchra es, which is about this sort of beauty that's so strong it's almost overwhelming. It's described as terrible beauty. And I just thought, that must have been what the Northern Lights felt like to the people in the old days when you didn't really know what it was. I just kind of imagined what it looked like to them."
At age 34, Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo is pretty lucky to be making a living as a freelance composer. But then again, he never imagined himself doing anything else, "I just love the freedom of it," he explains. "I love to be able to use most of my time being creative, being able to work from inspiration and not from routine. It's something I always wanted. And I believe if you really want something, and for the right reasons, then it usually happens."