Bjørn Morten Christophersen, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I would say the classical tradition from Palestrina to Ligeti plus some of my living Norwegian colleagues in particular. I started out listening to and playing the most popular works in that tradition as a kid and I have been digging deeper into more unknown works and composers since, understanding more and more of the popular ones too. In addition I should mention the strong Nordic choral tradition, wind band tradition and the Golden Age of film music. I grew up in a school band and sang in choir as a student and have played the piano most of my life. As a professional I started out composing mostly for film and TV 15-20 years ago. All these areas have a significant influence on how I write. At certain points in my professional life as a composer people with some power in the Norwegian music life have trusted me with commissions that have brought me further in many ways – luckily I would say.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The pandemic has really been difficult. I had as many as three large-scale oratorios scheduled for performance in 2020-21. They had been occupying most of my time for several years then but were all cancelled one by one shortly before their premieres, one of them at the actual dress rehearsal on The Norwegian Opera & Ballet’s main stage, actually. Because a performance often makes way for new commissions it felt like being set back many years when I had to put the scores back in the drawer and feel somewhat useless. Large-scale works are difficult to re-schedule so it was a time of much frustration and insecurity. Otherwise it goes up and down all the time. It’s not a safe way of making a living.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

For me creativity flourishes best within a framework. Therefore a commission, a specific instrumentation, an occasion, a «concert deadline» can boost the process. Works that I just write for my own sake are rarely finished. The exception was a set of piano pieces called «Piano Diary 20/21» which I wrote during lockdown – after two of the cancellations mentioned above. Each day with a blank schedule I wrote one piece between breakfast and lunch as a kind of an artistic rescue operation for myself.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Like a particular commission, working with specific musicians is often very fruitful and makes way for creativity, searching for hidden spaces in material you think you know. I usually like to work a bit with musicians early on in the process, listening to their playing, exchanging ideas etc. before I lock myself away to write the actual piece. On the way I might catch up with them to try out things or adjust the course, but often I also finish it «secretly» to avoid too many opinions during the process. I usually have a lot of opinions on my own work, which can be more than enough to cope with. Writing the «Concerto for Violin and Strings» for the Taiwanese violinist Ai-Ling Chiu was one such fruitful collaboration. For example she has quite small hands which makes high registers more idiomatic than a lot of quadruple stops for her.

Of which works are you most proud?

Difficult question! All my pieces represent different stages and phases of my compositional process. I should highlight «The Lapse of Time» which was my first all-evening oratorio with large forces. I felt that I took quite a few chances writing it, from developing the libretto from Charles Darwin’s book to harmonic and orchestrational inventions. Then it was a great pleasure going to the first orchestral rehearsal and immediately feeling that this will actually work, that it’s going to be fine. The orchestra sounded bigger than it actually was yet still transparent and fresh. Darwin’s poetic language performed in a church with passages of sacral moods worked almost surprisingly well. I should also mention “Requiem for Sailors at War», which might be my greatest achievement so far in terms of duration, forces, compositional complexity and emotional depth combined. It took a lot of research putting together the libretto from letters and diaries by Norwegian sailors during World War II and making a 90 minute piece for such large forces that actually works throughout with a great emotional impact on the audience felt like a really big and meaningful task. I tried to put myself to the side and let the victims of war speak of their lifelong traumas through an intense musical drama.

I might also mention a small piece for trumpet and organ called «Sentimental Pebbles»(Pebble Dream) written for my brother’s wedding. Just a pretty simple tune but it really has a life of its own., perhaps, «The Wind Blows Where It Desires» for three trumpets, which is virtuosic both in terms of compositional work and for the performers. I felt that I made some new textures and sounds there, and I think the piece works emotionally.:

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Composers usually don’t like putting themselves in a stylistic box. We want to be individuals. Nevertheless, during my studies I more or less wrote myself through various styles and epochs from Renaissance to Modernism and I’m still harvesting from what I learned, trying to combine techniques in new inventive ways while keeping a dialogue with the tradition all the time. I think of myself as a musical story teller. I try to take the listener with me on a musical journey, sometimes surprising, sometimes more as expected. I suppose the large scale works sound somewhat Romantic in spirit, but my tonal language is expansive, moving between the simplest triads to the most complex tonal ambiguity. In terms of instrumentation I think quite strictly, almost classical in attitude and try to get the most effect out of the available forces although I often include so called extended techniques too. If a piece is challenging to play I hope it is rewarding both for musicians and audience still.

How do you work?

Quite slowly, actually. Although I usually aurally imagine “the piece” as soon as I start thinking of it, I more and more like to do research early on in the process. Researching texts, playing techniques and listening to lots of works with similar instrumentation makes me dig deeper into emotions and compositional possibilities. Then I try out various strategies and paths through singing, playing piano and sketching on old fashion paper. At some point I hopefully feel that «this is page 1», this is the key! I usually combine handwriting, piano playing, singing and other more percussive body sounds throughout the process. I try things out on instruments at hand. When I feel ready for it, the work gradually moves into the computer, but I move back to paper late in the process quite often too. I feel more flexible with the available tools now than I did 10-15 years ago. I think there is always a connection between the initially imagined sound and the final piece but what I hear in the beginning is obviously not the final work completed. Perhaps it’s a narrowing down process from an open, nearly borderless musical landscape to a specific musical object, i.e. the score.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t have any definition of it, actually. If a piece is performed and perceived more or less as I hoped, it’s successful to me. Even better if I feel that I have taken some chances and learned something on the way too. It’s always a thrill whether I will make it to the final barline with satisfaction or not. Of course it’s a pleasure when pieces start to live their life on their own and are being performed and listened to without my interaction or even knowledge, but as long as most of my time is occupied with composing it, that part must feel meaningful. Otherwise I’d better quit!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Think about how much performing musicians practice their techniques in order to do their job properly without embarrassment. Composer students should also practice composition a lot. It’s not enough to have a good idea. You must be able to follow it through. You don’t have to know everything, and it doesn’t matter where you start out from stylistically, but it really helps to have a compositional base you know really well and to build and expand from there, I think. In addition, you need to make friends with musicians and get to know those in charge of getting your music played. Unfortunately, I was too shy myself, and I still am. It took me a long time to be able tobuild on successful performances and to this day I still have difficulties with it. Some people spend a lot of time promoting themselves and that’s clever but I’m not good at it – but experience helps modest composers.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Speak enthusiastically about classical music whenever possible. Tell interesting stories about it and raise relevant topics with it – both global and private topics. Music is always perceived in a context. If we wish to recruit new listeners, we need to make it relevant in their context. Most classical music was written in a very different time from ours. If you invite new listeners into the concert hall for the first time expecting them to find meaning in the long stream of sounds labelled a Brahms symphony, you might need a bit of luck. Just as social media works, try giving them small bits firstalong the lines of ‘if you liked that, perhaps you would like this too…’. For those who are already caught up in classical music I don’t think we have to act like pop idols but rather focus on what the music might say.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

It is really an industry. We just pretend it’s great art…

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

I’m working on a commission called «Credo et Credis» forthe Oslo International Church Music Festival in September and have just completed the«Squabble Measure Overture» which will be premiered in February by the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Then a song cycle and some other pieces are in the pipeline. In ten years, who knows. I don’t plan that way. I don’t like the word «career» that much, actually. If I had pointed out a course for a career as a student, I would have missed a lot of the opportunities I had along the way.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect is boring. Happiness and unhappiness make one feel alive. I don’t seek unhappiness but sadness, melancholy, difficulties and crises are parts of me like everybody else.

What is your most treasured possession?

My ears.

What do you enjoy doing most?

As little as possible – for a while.

What is your present state of mind?


The Lapse of Time is an oratorio based on strikingly poetic excerpts from Darwin’s revolutionary book On the Origin ofSpecies, written by the Norwegian composer Bjørn Morten Christophersen. The work is a tribute to the evolution of life on earth and draws musical links between natural science, religion and art. Released 24 March 2023

The Norwegian composer B. Morten Christophersen (1976-) has written music for orchestra, choir, chamber ensembles as well as film music and stage music. He has also written more than 150 arrangements, most of them for orchestra. Christophersen has collaborated with Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, The Norwegian Opera, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, Royal Norwegian Navy Band, Ålesund Chamber Music Festival, Schola Cantorum (Oslo), Ensemble 96 as well as Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and others. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Musicology, University of Oslo and has been teaching composition, arranging, harmony, orchestration and counterpoint there since 2003. In 2016 he completed his PhD on the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen’s sketches and music theory exercises.

Photo credit : Fartein Rudjord