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In All Honesty

November 18, 2018

Essay contribution to composer Ståle Kleiberg’s celebratory book for his 60th birthday (8 March 2018)Unknown.jpeg

Bjørn Kruse: In All Honesty

A bolt of lightning / Suddenly in the middle of the room / you are gazing into a face / that sucks you out of yourself … / Flickering features of a face in thin air / You imagine you see the guardian of vaults, / standing there with eyes aglow / With black, glittering garments, / he rips a nerve out of time / and beats it against the dark / No, what you saw was only the mirror / You caught in a split second, / in a flash of lightning, / your own gaze …(see footnote 1)

I am of the opinion that every single person, at any moment in time, is fundamentally an expression of the sum of their life experience, not only those of a lifetime passed, but also within that moment of now. It is like that instant glimpse in the mirror when it hits you that the image you see is the true you, as captured so well by Stein Mehren in his poem above. Just as certain as the immediate expression of self is a life utterance of the past and present, is that it also is an expression of hopes and expectations of the future. So is the artistic expression embodied with, and a reflection of, the entire temporal consciousness of the past, the now, and the future.

The experience of listening to music reminds me of the concept of a chronotope, taken up by the Russian philosopher and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 – 1975). He used it in his literary theory to denote the idea of how configurations of time and space (‘chronos’ and ‘topos’) are represented in speech or writing. A comparison to music experience is then readily seen, as is clearly evident in Ståle Kleiberg’s music. The moment of performing or listening to music is filled and enriched with memories of past and present life events, as well as an anticipation of future events.

The remembered life events are more often than not emotionally significant, associated with experiences that have left an impact of a personal, or even private, mark on heart and soul.

Similar concepts of time consciousness are found, for instance, in the book Phenomenology of Perception (1945), by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961), being influenced by the work of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) on the awareness of time and space, and the theory of retention and protention, as found in Husserl’s Lectures on the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1928).

Husserl’s ‘now’ is not an isolated point on a chronological timeline, but a spatial field in the consciousness of time. In this space of ‘now’ there is an immediate past, in the field of retention, and an immediate future, in the field of protention, as perceived on either side of the primal impression, as Husserl calls the instant moment of being. In a Bakhtinian sense, this spatial now may be termed a ‘chronotope’, a defined space of here and now. Inside this chronotopic dimension is where reflexivity rules the course of creative action, that immediate and intuitive spontaneous expression that mirrors the self in all honesty. Reflection differs from reflexion in that it refers to the thinking before and after the act, outside time, whereas reflexivity is what happens in the act, in time. Both of these temporal dimensions are of crucial value in artistic reflection, and is, of course, an essential and acuteparticipatory awareness found in all artists, composers included, and all those who participate in the experience of the art, as in the moment of listening to music.




This is what I experience when listening to Ståle Kleiberg’s music, for instance in recent listenings to his album with chamber music, Mezzotints (2015). The music triggers emotive and existential reflection, and it keeps my ear glued to the musical events as they unfold. I feel invited as a listener into Ståle’s personal narrative and I bond with his expressive urgency.

This is not always the case when I listen to some contemporary music which is based more on intellectual interest and analytical fascination. I have never been preoccupied with writing ‘interesting’ music as such, an attitude and approach I feel I share with Kleiberg, although not intending to compare my music with his in any way. In our western society, there exists an artistic ambition driven by the necessity to submit contributions to an ongoing aesthetic discourse taking place in a ruling professional society of contemporary music. The same seems to apply within societies of other disciplines of contemporary art as well. When the work submitted, it is subsequently accepted and found representative of the current intellectual aesthetical ideal and publicly performed as an expression of that society’s identity. The work is then officially stamped with a mark indicating that it qualifies as a genuine and valid exponent of (serious) contemporary music, deserving acclamation and support. In other words, those works which do not fill these criteria, however soundly crafted and conceptually grounded, are kept at bay.

Having supervised composition students for a period of almost 40 years at the Norwegian Academy of Music, I certainly can appreciate the need in our commercially driven society to support and guard professional contemporary music societies, where experimental interest and innovative boldness is applauded, justifiably so. However, there are also other venues where the quality of the music is measured more by the level of personal resonance and significance in the participant, be it as performer or listener. The music is appreciated because it resonates with personal or private references, and not because it fulfils and confirms an identity of belonging to a given social or aesthetic establishment currently in fashion.

For composition students today not to have their works appreciated by the hard core contemporary music scene is often a major challenge to their self-esteem, on a personal, artistic, and professional level. Ståle Kleiberg seems to have transcended these formal requirements of legitimacy expected of him as a contemporary composer. He has found and defined his own quality criteria in a convincing and impressive way. They seem lodged in a subconscious resource where the level of integrity is a personal and intuitive choice, expressing his ‘persona’, free of any cosmetics. Kleiberg does not seem to rest on a creative resource where the level of interest or novelty alone is a quality criterion. To be perceived and experienced as a credible composer, one should have to deal with a personal property of character, a true ethos of integrity and conviction. That would in my opinion apply to the nature of all artists, but all too many are beguiled by extrinsic models of structure and expression, form and content, to the extent that they find themselves held hostage to the demands of others and feel compelled to deliver works that answer to those demands. It is not to say that the competency of mastering composition does not require solid knowledge and learned skills, and that the composing process does not constitute the application of contemporary techniques. Kleiberg is certainly a composer who knows his craft. But he also demonstrates that these crafts have to be internalised and assimilated within the intrinsic fold of creative intuition. They should not serve the purpose of being a noble goal alone. For Kleiberg, I sense that the plasticity of gestural and dynamic properties in his music lies as a quality property of prime importance. To cite pianist Ellen Ugelvik, “Very often it is tempting to start to ‘explain’ the composition in technical or analytical terms, spoiling the pure sensation of a premiere.” (see footnote 2)


“The pure sensation” of music most likely refers to a sensuous experience, one that affects the senses rather than the intellect. As such, the composer is more often than not kept on the edge of the seat while attending a first performance of a work. It is not only for reasons relating to how the qualities of a compositional and dramaturgical nature are perceived and judged, of how it ‘works’ as an object of art detached from the composer. The unbearable agony of apprehension is also that the composer will catch that Promethean glimpse of self, as in Mehren’s poem, while also suspecting that the music will also reveal personality traits of the composer to the members of the audience that the composer never had foreseen or intended.

When heart and soul is invested in a work, it gives way to a personal vulnerability. The following story is a classic example of a composer’s sensitivity. Tchaikovsky wrote his famous 5th Symphony, first performed in 1888, and he was reasonably satisfied as he was nearing the end of the work. In one of his letters at the time, he writes the following:

I am dreadfully anxious to prove not only to others, but also to myself, that I am not yet played out as a composer. . . . The beginning was difficult; – now, however, inspiration seems to have come. . . . I have to squeeze it from my dulled brain. . . . It seems to me that I have not blundered, that it has turned out well.
Tchaikovsky seemed fairly satisfied, and he acknowledged that the symphony was an honest expression on his part, with the integrity and credibility that he strived for. Yet, after the
first performance, the work was not well received by the critics and he lost faith in its success. This mindset is perhaps also reflected in his saying, about his life in general,
“To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing”. This was Tchaikovsky’s existential chronotope, in the sense that this life view apparently constituted a place in time where his personal quality criteria dominated his sense of self-policing. Such self-imposed critique was applied despite, but also perhaps because of, exterior social conventions and expectations of having to fulfil ruling aesthetical ideals of his day, those ideals that were guarded by his critics and were used as a yardstick to judge the quality and validity of a new work.

The outstanding international appraisal given to Ståle Kleiberg’s works show beyond any shred of doubt that his music has transcended having to be legitimized by social demands of aesthetical correctness in order to be accepted as viable contemporary art expression. He also displays the well balanced and humble personality to endure that spontaneous authentic experience, a mirrored Promethean gaze of true self, which so convincingly is embedded in his art.

1 Stein Mehren, PROMETHEUS, from the collection of poems, Skjul og forvandling, 1990
In rough translation by Bjørn Kruse
2 From the Viva Voce on Ellen Ugelvik’s Artistic Research project, “The Soloist in Contemporary Piano Concerti”, 17 March 2017, at the Norwegian Academy of Music.
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