NXN Recordings' recent release, I Will Build You a House, is a collection of twelve short pieces by Andreas Ihlebæk, a contemporary Norwegian composer-pianist with an apparent respect for both classical techniques and popular sensibilities. The composer-pianist as an archetype has flourished across many genres of music over the past century from Folk and Jazz to New Age, yet it somehow still seems comparatively less visible in the realm of contemporary classical music. I was therefore drawn to the relatively rare opportunity to explore a release like this one.
The materials of the album itself seem to offer rather sparse information on Ihlebæk and his music: only that he has a multicultural perspective as an international journalist and that the album is 'about building a good place for listeners to exist and/or escape to, wherever they may be', hence the album's title. For whom is this 'house' being built? All of the signs seem to point to a general audience not necessarily immersed in the culture of classical music. For one, there are no program notes to speak of. In addition, the compositions are all single-movement works between three and six minutes in length, consistent with the listening habits of those accustomed to popular music. Furthermore, the titles of the twelve works are all short and fairly colorful if not programmatic: for example, Come Summer, In Search of Gardens, She Flies, etc.
Further underscoring this apparent sensitivity to popular listening habits is how Ihlebæk's sound world addresses the qualities that general audiences seem to be currently seeking in the piano music they consume. A simple search engine autocomplete test on the partial phrase 'piano music for' can reveal some of the most common searches people have performed relating to how they are looking to use piano music. As of early June 2021, the top four results on Google in the USA for this autocomplete test are [piano music for…] 'sleeping', 'reading', 'studying' and 'relaxation'. On YouTube, the results are 'sleeping', 'studying', 'concentration' and 'reading'. In short, qualities conducive to those activities are what the public seems to look for in piano music. In contrast, nobody appears to be Googling 'piano music for working out' or 'piano music for dancing'.
Listen — Andreas Ihlebæk: Come Summer
(track 1, 0:00-0:29) ℗ 2021 NXN Recordings :
Whether Ihlebæk specifically did any such research in preparation for recording this disk I do not know, but the resulting parameters of his pianistic sound world seem remarkably well suited to those ends just mentioned. The dynamics, for instance, never audibly surpass mezzo-forte in loudness. Nor do the tempi ever seem to exceed andante in their overall aural effect. Extremes of register are generally avoided except in brief moments, and never does the music audibly employ staccato or marcato articulation - only legato with near-constant use of the sustain pedal. Even the action of the instrument itself, whether by mechanics or microphony, seems to produce a softer attack than most pianos I have heard on record. Every one of these sonic parameters seems finely controlled to create an atmosphere indeed suitable for sleeping, studying, reading, concentration or relaxation.
Listen — Andreas Ihlebæk: Sleep on it
(track 2, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2021 NXN Recordings :
Once we open ourselves up to the self-restraint of this sound world, the richness of Ihlebæk's harmonic palette and motivic inventiveness is nonetheless soon revealed. Here tonality, modality, jazz, blues and post-tonal harmonies combine freely on a common plane seemingly governed by an intuitive awareness of resulting coloristic and acoustic effects. In addition, Ihlebæk firmly grounds his compositional materials in motives that are simple, memorable and ripe for continuous variation - a technique he uses consistently and effectively throughout the disk. As a fellow composer-pianist, I would be interested to know which aspects of the music have been compositionally predetermined and which are improvised in performance. Do these compositions allow for interpretations that would materially differ in the hands of another performer? If so, how could they differ? What role does the score play?
Listen — Andreas Ihlebæk: One More
(track 3, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2021 NXN Recordings :
In I Will Build You a House, Andreas Ihlebæk effectively reimagines the role of the composer-pianist as a conduit for classical technique in service of popular needs. In so doing, he finds the proverbial 'freedom in fences' and achieves a rich expressiveness underneath the veil of subtlety and self-restraint. I therefore find his creative decisions well judged, and I foresee this disk as having the potential to resonate with many audiences, both classical and non-classical alike.
Copyright © 9 June 2021
John Dante Prevedini,