Close window
© 2009/2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

Wandering through sound: An interview with Arjan Kiel

Arjan Kiel is from Fryslan in the Netherlands, which still has an independent culture with a long history and a language that is closely related to English. He is looking forward with great anticipation to being at the Festival in the Shire next summer. Arjan is a versatile composer whose work now focuses upon composing for film, specializing in music for symphonic orchestra and choir. For the last two years he has collaborated with Jon Anderson, whom he describes as “the voice of Yes and Jon & Vangelis”. Arjan has also composed for the British The Lord of the Rings fan film Born of Hope.

The Festival magazine interviewed him. We first asked him about his Shire-like home.

Arjan Kiel: I’m living in the north of the Netherlands; it’s called Fryslan. Hundreds of years ago, Fryslan used to stretch from Bretagne to Denmark, but now it’s a Dutch province. The Dutch make jokes about us, like the English do with the Scottish! We still have our own language and culture—you can compare it to Scotland, or Lapland. The Hobbit was translated into Frisian this year, and I know the man who did that translation, Anne Popkema—he translates some Jon Anderson lyrics for us also! Anne told me that Professor Tolkien was about to study the Frisian language. It’s a sister-language of English, with Scandinavian influences.

Arjan, what led to your interest in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien?

I’m a late beginner! When I got home from watching The Fellowship of the Ring in the film theatre, I took The Lord of the Rings,which we had for years but never read, out of my bookcase and began reading  it from the end—starting with the appendices! And I was astonished at what there was: languages, heraldry, descriptions of dwarves and elves. I started reading there and read it everything—The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, the letters.

The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are very different works. You are been inspired by both. How did you approach The Silmarillion which some regard as a difficult work?

I loved The Lord of the Rings as a story, but also imagining a different world, this Middle-earth that almost becomes real. I always try to complete it if I’m in to something! That’s why I also read The Silmarillion. The world of The Lord of the Rings became larger and more complete. The “different world” has a lot more depth with the stories and backgrounds from The Silmarillion. You understand Middle-earth better—the history, and people. It differs from The Lord of the Rings, but I really love it very much.

What made you decide on your choice of particular stories and people?

As a film composer you start thinking in terms of characters that will need themes. With their themes, you can make a musical story, like a particular part or scene from one of the books. In the early days of the fan film  Born of Hope, I scored some additional scenes for Gilraen, Arathorn and the Dunedain.

What led you to specialize in music for symphonic orchestra and choir?

I always loved the sound of an orchestra. Although I have always worked in bands (Sister Sledge, and the Dutch reggaeband, Luie Hond) I also love the orchestra. Nowadays you can get amazingly good sampled orchestra sounds for your computer. I now can wander through a very realistic sounding orchestra and choir and work out my ideas. You immediately hear the result. You can directly print the scores out for real orchestra.

Who and what are your main musical influences?

These are especially the early symphonic rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Focus but also Rush, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa, and classical composers like Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. Not the very old composers, but music after let’s say 1880. Also there are the film composers, number one being, of course, Howard Shore. That great thing he did for The Lord of the Rings is unbelievable, but I also like John Williams’ amazing orchestration and themes very much, especially for Harry Potter 1, 2, and 3—amazing music.

What do you so love about keyboard and piano?

The variety of keyboards is so nice—Hammond-organ, Fender-Rhodes, the Clavinet and the analogue Moog, Prophet synthesizers. They all sound very good in their specific way and in their musical applications. I also include the piano amongst them. My love for the Hammond-organ sound is the biggest!

What is your vision behind your work being in both classical and modern modes (like film music and contemporary bands)?

It’s for me the same with all. You want to make good music. You choose a style or a sound to develop the musical idea. If it’s reggae, Sinatra-style big band, Zappa style, Rachmaninov or filmscore style, as long as the music is good, it’s okay! Every style has its “demands”; you can use each of them to express your idea, but it’s also nice to be different and see what happens.

Is your recent work on opera a completely new thing, or a natural development from your previous work?

For me it’s new, but I have always wandered through all styles of music. With the new technology of having good orchestral sounds for your computer, being able to get a realistic sound, I now specialize in this style of music. The Howard Shore music for The Lord of the Rings especially inspired me to become an orchestral film composer!

As you have composed under the influence of Tolkien what insight has it given you into how Tolkien is both traditional and modern? He is both steeped in ancient myth, legend and tradition, and a modern writer with global appeal.

Maybe it’s just like you say. Tolkien brought some ancient styles of storytelling, like myths and sagas, back to modern life. Maybe that’s one of the reasons for the big success of his writing—there are modern things that grab back in ancient layers. This is also one of the features I discover now in the music of composers from a hundred years ago. They are very modern, even now—not old-fashioned, but sometimes using ancient tools and sounds! It’s a bit like film scores. A lot of people like them, that normally would not listen to “classical”  music. I visited the Howard Shore symphony a few times. It’s great to see all kinds of people, and people of all ages, enjoying orchestral music.

Do you think that music is centrally important throughout Tolkien’s work?

It’s everywhere. At the beginning of The Silmarillion, there’s only music! And then there’s Hobbit music, and Elvish music, with people singing all kinds of songs.

Are more and more contemporary composers going to be influenced and inspired by Tolkien, as you and Martin Romberg have been, to name two?

After having met Martin, I’m also very curious about that! I have no idea. Maybe a lot of “us” will show up thanks to the Festival in the Shire!

How is your work likely to develop, in your new collaboration with Jon Anderson?

To work with one of your big all-time favourites is great! Jon is more into just melody and develops that in a great way. For me, harmony is more essential, so I can learn a lot from his melodic approach.

You have embraced new technology in your music. How has this energized your work as a composer and performer?

Thanks to new technology, you’re more and more able to directly develop musical ideas. Rimsky-Korsakov writes that he is very lucky to work next to the St Petersburg orchestra. If he has written a new idea, they can play it right away in the lunch break. He was lucky! With these new orchestra-sample libraries, you have an orchestra in your home computer. It works very well. But not only orchestras fit now into your computer—all other instruments are available virtually. To play the Hammond organ, you don’t need to go to a studio that has got one and record it there. You can do it at home, in your own time, on your own keyboard! Of course, real orchestras, and instruments, sound better in real life. That’s why performing to me always stays the same, just playing real music on real instruments!

Close window

Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.