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Fantasy Music: Interview with Martin Romberg

Oslo-born Martin Romberg studied at the University of Music in Vienna, Austria. The Norwegian’s works have been performed widely and, in 2007, he won the composer competition Concert For The Young Audience with the Bergen Philharmonic orchestra as well as one of two prizes from The Paul Woitschach Foundation for Symphonic Entertainment Music and the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. He lives and works as a full-time composer in Paris, France. His main interests include the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and the field of fantasy art in general, basing his latest works on folk legends and fantasy literature. He was interviewed by Colin Duriez for the Festival’s online magazine.

You have been inspired, I see, by The Mabinogion in your concerto for saxophone and orchestra, “The Tale of Taliesin”. Has the process of its composition helped you understand how J. R. R. Tolkien was creatively inspired by northern European and Celtic myths and legends?

The work with “The Tale of Taliesin” gave me for the first time the possibility of integrating Celtic elements and mythology into my music, and this labour led me, naturally enough, to Tolkien. In spite of my Norwegian background, I feel it as quite nourishing to work with Celtic culture. Not only is this because there exists a historical relation between our people, but also because Celtic culture and mythology up to this day seem to have been able to preserve their integrity and mystery, contrary to Norse mythology, which has been exposed to a rather annoying process of increasing banality and increasing taboos in the most part of the twentieth century (not at least due to the Nazi misuse of it before and during the Second World War). I am, however, impressed with how Tolkien managed to integrate parts of Celtic mythology – a Celtic “mindset”– together with inspiration from many other cultures, including the Norse, in his literature, and at the same time to stand forth as universal and unique. To me, the emphasis on Tolkien’s intentions to create an “English” mythology with his authorship is somewhat exaggerated, even if I understand the need behind this line of thought. I rather consider Tolkien as a universally valid author who is beyond local mythological limitations, and here his work has, in my view, its real value.

Have your recent travels in India and the Far East impacted upon your composing? Were your travels connected with your desire, as you put it, to “express our common humanity in art”?

Observing this from hindsight, I see that the interests which drew me towards Asian cultures for a large part was and is driven by a rather romantic search for the lost mysticism and metaphysics of our European civilization. This has probably influenced parts of my music subtly in the direction of the oriental, the “exotic”, at least at the beginning of my artistic career. In the romantic era it was precisely fantasies around the “exotic” that engaged many artists, although such inspiration was perhaps more likely to have emerged out of hallucinations from the use of opium and absinth than from a real experience. Today I recognize that true metaphysics are independent of the specific culture in which they occur but, at the same time, I have to say that my encounter with a massive spiritual-cultural continuity in a country like India, which has developed over the millennia, moved me profoundly and forced me to reflection on behalf of old Europe. In the West we always have the tendency to want to revolutionize, to tear up the roots, to “start all over again”, continuously and without rest. This tires me more and more, especially in regarding the conflict-filled history in the twentieth century. This uprooting is unfortunately something that takes place on a large scale in the whole world today because of global development, and I believe that we as artists are, whether we like it or not, forced to take this fact into consideration. Personally I see, on the other hand, a great potential in this globalization—the potential to reunite the human race, and the potential to express this in art. I believe that a revitalization though new myths of the mythical that is common and global, forged with the goal to reunite man with man and man with nature, can be a key to counter the negative effects of globalization. It is perhaps in the fulfilment of this current need that Tolkien’s ideas have played, and might continue to play, a role.

How did your interest in fantasy art and myth begin as a direct factor in your creative work? How much has J. R. R. Tolkien’s work been an inspiration and influence?

The fascination for fantasy art and mythology has always been there, but it was not until after the student years that I found the courage to live it out. The college and university world seems to have no suitable place for the study of these topics, I dare to say. There is something interesting that happens with artists at the moment when they make their confession to fantasy art and mythology: in that moment, so to speak, one comes out of the closet. In that moment you say goodbye to academia, goodbye to the need for university recognition, and you proceed on a personal path where the degree of artistic integrity corresponds inversely to the degree of a secure career. Old friends leave you and new friends join you. But for me this was a necessary sacrifice. I believe, as C. G. Jung, that society suffers from a dangerous lack of mythic consciousness. What the need for this mythic consciousness implies might take too long a time to discuss here, but for me it is totally essential to comply with this need as an artist. Thus I also found the courage to occupy myself with that part of Tolkien’s authorship which treats mythological themes, such as The Silmarillion, and it is clear to me that this literature is essential for that which I wish to express today. At the same time I hope to discover other, hopefully still living, fantasy authors who also work with mythological material, and with whom I could initiate an artistic dialogue. I recognize more and more the importance of working with material that “lives”, in the sense that it is conceived today, in our own time.

As someone born in Oslo, Norway, and who trained at the University of Vienna, Austria, why have you decided to make your home in Paris, France?

Partly by chance, partly out of subconscious choices that I must have made, and attracted by French culture—which means for me, as a Norwegian, a culture that has deeper, more complex and more nourishing roots than Norway can offer me, at least at the present. I don’t know what impression other countries have of the position of traditional culture in Nordic society today, but they do not really any longer constitute a living part of our current society. I have a need to feel that I’m participating in a cultural process that has its origin in historical continuity, and thus to find myself in an energy that I can transform into something artistic. Paris is to me such an energy centre, as Vienna was. These capitals are not only cultural centres, but have also an aesthetically nourishing architectural environment that inspires me, together with a certain “mystical” aura. In Paris, you can never be totally certain of which secrets still linger under the manhole covers.

I understand that you are working on a project, Quendi, based upon J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Please tell us more.

The main labour, the composition process, of this symphonic poem is already complete. Now awaits the world premiere with L’orchestre National de Montpellier in June 2010. This concert is a relatively unique opportunity to promote a Tolkien-inspired work to a classical symphonic audience. It is somewhat ironic that this is to happen in France, perhaps one of those countries where Tolkien has been most ignored in Europe. The piece is inspired by the creation myth of the elves in Middle-earth, and their first voyage to Valinor, a literary journey that almost insists upon being animated through music. Again it is the mythical in The Silmarillion that inspires me. Quendi is a work I believe in because I think I might have succeeded in finding a balance between narrative and magical elements, while at the same time keeping it simple and transparent. On the basis of this project, I have been inspired to quite a few other ideas for works built on The Silmarillion, particularly the first parts of this invaluable book.

Has that part of your work that is inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien opened up new insights into his portrayal of the creation of the world by music in the opening of The Silmarillion? (For me the Ainulindalë has enormous imaginative attraction. It is likely to have inspired the creation by Aslan of Narnia in his friend C. S. Lewis’s writings.)

I totally agree that Ainulindalë has a great expressive force. In my view it can stand up to the most beautiful of all creation myths from the history of literature, and I have an infinite respect for it. For this reason, it is not likely that I will ever put music to it, and I hope no one else will be rash enough to do so either. Any putting to music of the Ainulindalë might destroy its essence—that each and every human through his own authentic imaginary power has the right to space to create his own myth, his own music, his own relation to sound and vibration—the matter, Tolkien suggests, of which time really consists. What irony it is that something as musical as this myth only can live out its enchantment without music. But since the rest of The Silmarillion is near to an infinite source of musical inspiration I can live with this (for me, self-imposed) taboo.

Do you think music can come closer to Tolkien’s linguistic invention at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion than the visual as expressed in illustration and film?

To me the effect of music in itself lies closer to literature, because music more directly opens the way for the spectator’s personal mental projection of a story. Music actually can give even more liberty and space to imagine a story then the written word itself does. When it comes to Tolkien’s linguistic inventions, I can see definite musical relations in his constructed languages and his archaic, archetypical, style in The Silmarillon. The use of an archaic style in modern literature is something that has an immediate musical effect on me, maybe based on the fact that music, through its pure survival over the millennia, in itself is an archaic way of expression. Talking about Tolkien’s elvish languages, I am about to dive down into this universe in connection with a project I have that entails the composition of a work for choir based on elvish texts. I can say that it demands an enormous musical talent to create such credible languages as Quenya and Sindarin. They are thoroughly beautiful languages, and I am astonished at Tolkien’s linguistic authenticity and aesthetic sense. Here I would like to remark that it might be an interesting challenge for succeeding generations to continue to develop his languages and thus to prevent them from stiffening and dying as literary curiosities of a free-minded fantasy author in the twentieth century. I choose to believe that such an intention would be in the spirit of Tolkien, to “protect all growing things” by actually “letting them grow”.

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