On September 15, Norwegian music composer Rolf Arvind Gupta’s oratorio Jordens Sang (Song of the Earth) opened the Ultima festival in Oslo. An oratorio is a large-scale musical composition for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Its text is usually based on scriptures.
Jordens Sang, an oratorio in six movements on the creation, destruction and resurrection of the Earth, is based on texts from the Vedas, the Bible, Friedrich Schiller and Robert Oppenheimer. Listen to it here.
Gupta, a contemporary composer and conductor, had already left Oslo and travelled to Trondheim to conduct a new concert when I tracked him down. So we spoke online over FaceTime.
Excerpts from the interview:
What has composing Jordens sang meant to you?
Jordens sang was a life-changer for me. I am trying to reflect on it at the moment. After all, a piece of music is outside of us. It is not me, it is just a piece of music. My sense of self-worth cannot be based on some artistic achievement. it has to be inside.
When the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Szilvay performed Jordens Sang, the audience at Konserthuset stood up and clapped for 10 minutes after the concert. You have had rave reviews, one comparing you to Mahler and Haydn. Could you tell me about the process of creating this oratorio? How did you start?
Do you want to hear the truth?
Yes, of course.
I was ill for some time. And broke. So I contacted the director of the Kristiansand Symphony orchestra, (I had been chief conductor there for almost ten years). I said “Do you know your orchestra has a centenary in two years. Would you like to commission a work by me?”
Which he did. And it went through the mill, and finally, when I received the commission, I was euphoric. For five seconds. Then I realised: Oh my god! I have to write this. I have not written music for 25 years. What am I going to do?
Did your choice of texts and music have anything to do with your own religious background?
My home town, Kristiansand, belongs to the so-called Bible belt of Norway, and I myself grew up as a conservative Christian. Which I certainly am not anymore.
The original idea was – when I was a child, I really hated the music of the conservative churches. I could not stand being there because the music really was awful. Very sentimental. It reflected the religion of the conservatives, which is very sentimental.
But by this time I had come around, I was not so full of anger when encountering Christian beliefs and so on, I was actually quite grateful because I was lucky enough to know the Bible inside out. Which is the fundament of Western culture.
Since this was the centenary of the orchestra in the capital of the Bible belt, I wanted to see if I could confront the music of that culture, and somehow incorporate that music into my composition as well. To sort of forgive the music, and come around really.
So I started with very simplistic religious texts, which are kind of naïve. I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, melodies like that. I wanted to see if I could make an abstract and imbue it with earth music. A reflection on the music in high artistic terms. I wanted to be able to communicate with the low and the high at the same time. With love and not with criticism.
And then I started thinking about my own ethnic background because it is an ethnic and not a cultural background. I am not grounded in Indian culture at all. I decided to look for texts from India. And of course, I started with the Upanishads and did not understand anything.
In the end, I realised I still hate this music from the church. It is not usable, so I have to throw it all away. But I hung on to my newborn interest in Indian culture, Indian texts and Vedic texts.
When you started working on this piece, I remember you called me in India from an island in Sweden. When I listened to the oratorio last week, in the first movement, ex-nihilo, the sound of breathing before the Earth was created, made me think of waves. Were you inspired by your surroundings while you wrote this piece?
I got the idea for the oratorio at a retreat in Fårö, in the Baltic Sea, where I was given a residency at the house of Ingmar Bergman, I even cycled around on his bicycle. He was a very tall person, so my feet could not even touch the ground.
I got the idea by actually reading these texts, and being there. It was a very strange, miraculous place. You do not know where you are. If you are in the North or in Serengeti or on the Moon for that sake or Mars… the nature there is so unique and strange.
Franz Johan Haydn, who lived from 1732 to 1809, wrote a huge oratorio in 1800 called The Creation that was extremely popular and still is. So that title was taken. I could not use that. But I used it as a working title.
I found this incredible text on the creation in Rigveda (X, 129). What I liked about the text was the hymn of creation, which was more a philosophical text than a story in the Bible, or in many other cultures where they say this happened and then that happened. But this was more a reflection on who created creation.
In the Bible it says god created man in his image, and I have always thought that is not true – we created god in our image. The image of god in the Christian tradition has changed, not just in the Christian tradition but in Semitic religions. When you go through time, the image of god is changing all the time. Now, in Norway or Scandinavia, She is a woman. Because we are living in feminist times.
That and the humble, deep and bottomless honesty of the philosopher who is writing this text in the Rigveda, who says that the great keeper of the universe must know who created all of this. And in the last sentence, he says, “Nah- perhaps he does not know either.”
The music I grew up with is music that comes from the European tradition. And there is a text, one of the most famous pieces, the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, where there is a piece which has become the Hymn of Europe.
An Ode to Joy?
Yes, but it is much more than that, Ode an die Freude. Actually, it is a French revolutionary text in many ways. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and especially fraternité, fraternity, that mankind should come together and we should be good people, and we need republics and so on.
It had an amazingly strong impact on the world, everybody has used that melody. Now in the European Union. All the dictators of the world have used it.
At one time they used it in Rhodesia as the national anthem. They used the text as well. It is amazing. Mao used it, Hitler used it, everybody has used that for their own benefit, actually. Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Ahne, what is the English word for that? Can you feel it?
Schiller says, “Can you sense the creator, world?” He is asking the world, can you sense the creator. And then there is no answer, there is a kind of glitch, and then he says, he must live over the stars. I have always thought this is a wonderful thing, because he does not say God exists, he asks if he exists and then, well, if he exists he must live over the stars. Very close to the Hymn of Creation, that text.
I was thinking of that and I started to make an apocryphal history in my head. Could Beethoven have known these texts? I started to investigate that and I found that someone had translated those texts from Sanskrit to German. I liked that very much because I am a Germanophile. It was Max Mueller. And then I looked at his dates and realised that Goethe actually read these texts, and everybody visited Goethe’s home. He was like a prophet or at least a wise man.
Schopenhauer was there, Beethoven and Goethe were in touch with each other, they could have met and they could have exchanged these texts. I like apocryphal stories like that because you cannot prove they are true and you cannot prove they are untrue.
Long after I finished, I discovered that Schopenhauer had had the Upanishads on his bedside table and that they comforted him. I cannot find the exact source for this but it turns out that Beethoven must have read some of these texts because in his notebooks he quotes them. I do not know about Schiller.
I actually put these two texts on top of each other, which is a crazy thing to do really, not just German and English, but to take one of the most famous texts in western music and superimpose it on this Vedic text. It seemed natural for me to do it, but I was a bit ashamed of it because you cannot do that. But I thought if anybody can do that, it is me, because I am half Norwegian and half Indian, so I just did it.
There were 160 musicians and singers on the stage at the concert. You have to know what an orchestra and a choir are like when you create an oratorio for such a huge ensemble, and yet present each texture individually. You have conducted music for many years. What was your life like as a conductor?
Well, I started as a pianist. My mother sent me to music school and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a musician. There has never been a choice, it was natural. I was quite young, and the educational system in Norway is not prepared for that kind of early musical maturity.
So I had to skip school, I mean I skipped two years and I started studying at the Conservatory when I was twelve, which is not normal in Norway. One starts at the age of eighteen. So I was six years ahead of the rest. Which was a wonderful thing but it turned out to not just be a blessing. To be ahead of others can be a curse too.
Were you studying in Oslo?
No this was in Kristiansand. It is the city of my mother’s family and the city where I grew up. And I started by playing the organ, I became a cantor, a church organist. So I learnt everything about the musical history of the Christian church.
Did you always want to compose?
I always knew that I wanted to be a composer. I finished my studies there at seventeen. I went to Oslo to study composition for five years, and already at the time, I knew I wanted to be everything. A pianist, a conductor and a composer. And then I continued my studies in conducting in Amsterdam and in Helsinki, which was very much in the vogue at the time, a lot of crazy conductors were coming out of their system.
It is in fashion now to have young conductors. Silly, because it is an occupation that you get better and better at as you get older.
Right now we have conductors that are really, really young. Klaus Mäkelä, who is the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, just fell down from the sky perfect, but that does not happen very often. It took time from I joined small orchestras, to more and more significant orchestras in the Nordic countries and on the continent. I thought I would be able to compose and conduct at the time. Surprisingly, those two professions are the most opposite professions you can imagine.
When you are a composer you need to spend long stretches of time alone. Solitude, pondering and meditation and studying, looking for the music. And when you conduct, you need lots of time. When you conduct, you are basically asked two things. Whatever you are doing should have been finished yesterday and it is very social.
You are working with people all the time, you have to firefight. It is, of course, a very lonely job because you are the leader of the group as a conductor, which means you cannot be part of the group.
I was conducting professionally for around 20 years. After being the chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra for a few years, I worked with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the important orchestras in Norway, I am very proud to say.
What made you stop?
After finishing there in 2013, I decided to take some time off. I have two sons, one of whom is 29. As you can imagine, I was not very present during his childhood. I was travelling and preoccupied with my career and myself. That did not pay off.
Did it backfire on you?
I realised I had not been there for him in life. I decided when my second son came around, that I was going to be there with him. He was born in 2009, he was four when I finished working in Kristiansand and I stopped travelling around conducting. I am very grateful for that. It was natural, you know, as I was staying home, to start composing again.
You come from quite a global family. Where did you grow up?
Yes, we are a funny family. My father was born in Delhi, my mother in Kristiansand, my brother in Toronto and I was born in Uppsala in Sweden. We lived for three years in Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm, and three years in Toronto. But I have been living in Norway since I turned six.
When did your interest in Indian culture develop? Did you listen to Indian music as a child?
I have never really been interested in Indian culture at all. On the contrary, I was always pushing it away. Many children, or people who have parents who come from very disparate cultures – tend to choose one or the other.
It is a strange thing in our family because my brother, who looks white, is the Indian one of us. Early on, he was interested in our Indian family and Indian culture and religion, and he has studied the history of religion, with Hinduism as his speciality. And myself, I look like I am 100% Indian.
I made a choice. I wanted to be a Western musician. I felt like a Norwegian, did not know my father very well, he never introduced us to anything of our Indian heritage, or background, more than heritage. He was not a musician, he was a chartered accountant.
It was actually my mother who took us to Indian concerts sometimes – if there were any in Norway. I just did not understand it. It is the total opposite of Western music. Because Western music, to put it simply, tells a story. It has a beginning and an end, there is a climax and a sort of Aristotelian concept of a story. Maybe it is just my interpretation of it, but in the East, not just in India, in the Buddhist way of thinking, you do not tell stories with art. It is an object. You look at it and you can look at it from different angles like a diamond. It shines blue in one direction and then orange in another. Indian music is very complex for a Western-trained musical mind. You find it fascinating, but then it becomes so complex you just give up.
You got knocked down while waiting for a taxi some years ago. Has racism affected you?
Anybody could get knocked down in a taxi queue. The thing with racism is that when you know you might be subjected to it, you are prepared for it all of the time, and basically what I have tried to do is to try and avoid it by being friendly. You never know if someone is being unfriendly to you. Is it because they do not like you, is it because they had a bad day, or is it because you are brown?
How has being of Indian origin affected your life as a musician?
I have never encountered racism in my musical life. I have been a chief conductor for two Norwegian orchestras. I belong to Norway amongst Norwegians, but when I take the tram, I am not Norwegian, at least until I open my mouth. So it has been lonely, it is lonely.
I have had a feeling of shame all my life. The shame of being myself. That is the worst part of racism. It is not the racism I have encountered, it is the racism I have in my own head.
I am half Indian and half Norwegian – but I am 100% Rolf Arvind Gupta.
Astri Ghosh is an actor, writer and translator.