Photo: Knut Utler

Nils Henrik Asheim (NO)

Muohta

The winner

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. The piece is in 18 sections, each inspired by a word in the Sámi language related to snow, as described in Inger Marie Gaup Eira’s PhD thesis “Muohttaga jávohis giella - The Silent Language of Snow”. Some words describe snow directly, others its impact on everyday human life – for example, ulahat means “an over-snowed winter trail which is barely visible”. Nils Henrik Asheim’s Muohta, for choir and string orchestra, 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.

Throughout his career as a composer, organist and curator, Asheim (born 1960) has shown a remarkable ability to open up art music to a range of other genres and potential new audiences.

Muohta for choir and string orchestra was composed as a response to Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons from 1801, and immediately followed the classical Summer at its premiere in the autumn of 2017.  Inherent in the work are uncomfortable undertones: while the nature of the seasons is changing slowly but worryingly in our times, the optimistic faith in science was peaking in the time of Haydn. Some of this is typical for the music of Nils Henrik Asheim: while reflecting a conscience about being situated in historical traditions and contexts, it also alludes to the past through contemporary soundscapes.

In Muohta, indigenous people are given a voice: the work takes its name from a Sami word for snow, and utilises 18 different words relating to snow. For a great part, it is a quiet piece, as if resembling a frozen landscape. But under the surface it is alive and vibrant, in slow, almost imperceptible changes, and at times in unexpected turns and contrasts – as when the choir is allowed to sing with full warmth towards the end. It demonstrates the composer’s original ways of creating attentive dialogues and connections between instrumental and vocal elements, sounds, words, and different timbre effects.

Throughout his whole career, Asheim (born 1960) has combined working as a composer, organ player, organiser, and curator with a remarkable ability to open art music to a range of genres and potential new listeners. As a composer and musician he moves freely between written scores, folk music, and free improvisation, collaborating with performers within art music, pop/jazz, noise, and electronica.

First performance: The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and Ensemble Allegria, conductor Grete Pedersen. University aula, Oslo. 28 October 2017.