Four Nordic Songs brings together pieces that were written for different female singers during a period of thirty years. It was not until the last one, The Border, which I wrote for my wife’s 50th birthday in 2006, that I realised that all these songs were, in addition to love songs, songs that (in their Nordic background, reflecting this area’s nature, light and peripheral location) discussed the ability of men and women to attain a more profound understanding of each other across gender lines. This theme is addressed in more depth in The Night: the kind of love that would wither in the light of day – the “society” that two people can create all by themselves, which cannot be deciphered by the rest of the world.

While both The Border and The Night arise from the desire to map out the art of the possible, By the Fjord is a song about the impossible: the love between the Norwegian anarchist Hans Jæger and his best friend’s fiancée, the painter Oda Lasson, later Oda Krohg. My novel Oda! (Insel Verlag 2008) is based on Jæger’s self-revealing writings of the 1880s, and takes its point of departure in Karen Blixen’s motto, “Longing itself is a pledge that what we long for exists.” Their dramatic love affair shocked the Norwegian artists’ community and exerted considerable influence on painter Edvard Munch, for one.

Summer Song was written for the opening of Randi Stene’s first Summer Song Festival at Ringve, Norway’s national museum for music and musical instruments, near Trondheim. This song elaborates on the themes touched on in By the Fjord: the possible versus the impossible, man versus woman – the eternal fear of being found wanting, the longing for approval that everyone feels in one way or another.

The mysteries of love are a recurring theme in the poetry of John Donne (1572-1631). The fact that he expected to be remembered as a great preacher rather than a great poet says something about his existential point of view. Great poetry – although written in the manner of a particular period – is, in an important sense, timeless. I have been working with Donne’s texts for over thirty years. His poems were set to music even in his own time, by John Dowland among others. The intellectual energy in Donne’s poetry, which was always receptive to the metaphysical, is also nurtured by emotional excitement, and it is this unique combination that has held such powerful appeal to me as a composer. Despite the often elaborate construction of his poems, they also have a singular clarity, a deep longing for harmony, in striking contrast to the conflicts in love or existence that form their subject matter. Thus all his warnings, as in The Prohibition, where he writes “If thou love me, take heed of loving me…”, at the same time give us new hope. In several of his poems he also accompanies love literally to the grave, and writes about death as the ultimate opportunity to achieve the final union of man and woman, without denying life, ecstasy, the moment.

It was my friend, Donne expert Dr. C. K. Thomas Tseng, who asked me, on an ECM tour in Taiwan in 1996, if I could write a John Donne suite called “The Light” when I, in an earlier attempt to delve musically into Donne’s poetic universe, had written “The Shadow”. Later, when we were finishing the work in the recording studio, Manfred Eicher said that both Four Nordic Songs and The Light, although they were written four hundred years apart (and with no comparison intended), dealt with the same thing – they were Songs of Love and Fear.

Ketil Bjørnstad