Primarily known as a composer of choral music, Noway-born Ola Gjeilo released his third album of solo piano pieces, Night, in 2020. Now living in the US, the album contains 18 pieces inspired by the twilight hours in the city of New York where he now lives.
Ola Gjeilo took up the piano at the age of five, and went on to study at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Julliard School and Royal College of Music. Along with two albums of his choral music, Night was also released on the Decca Label.
In the preface, Gjeilo writes:
‘I love the nighttime. I love the mood of night, and feeling all of New York City light up from endless skyscrapers. There’s something inspiring and even reassuring and calming about that to me.’
My goodness, aren’t we all in need of some inspiration, reassurance and calm at the moment?
The album itself had an interesting beginning, as Gjeilo goes on to write:
‘all the pieces on this album were created in the evening; I did several recording sessions at studios all over the city – free improvisations, some of which would later turn into these tracks. And it was so fun, I love working that way; just being completely open and directionless and not let my thoughts get in the way, until I eventually can edit, rework and shape them into coherent pieces.’
Whilst I hesitate to compare one composer to another, if you like the compositions of those such as Alexis Ffrench, Ludovico Einaudi and Philip Glass, perhaps with some Max Richter and Peter Maxwell Davies thrown in, these are for you.
Most of the pieces are just 2-3 pages in length and whilst all are inspired by the twilight hours, each piece exists, exquisitely crafted, in its own right. They all, as was the intention, have an improvisatory quality to them, though they are not directionless.
In some ways, the musical directions themselves are sparse. There are relatively few dynamic markings and tempo changes, and so far as I can see, no articulation. Directions suggest the pedal is to be used throughout most of the works, along with, at times, the una corda pedal. I hope therefore, that the intention is that these are pieces to make your own. The carefully chosen titles give a hint as to the character of each piece.
In the main, I enjoyed playing all the pieces in the collection, though some jumped out as being particularly satisfying to play. Sleepless, from its initial sparse opening builds to a pulsating middle section reminiscent of those bouts of insomnia where our mind race in all directions. This piece in particular reminded me of Max Richter’s music. Similarly, City Lights with its rippling left hand quaver pattern is insistent yet confident in its outlook.
I particularly liked the way in which Before Dawn uses what we often term to be a ‘Scotch snap’ rhythmic figure in the right hand, evocative of the birds rising from their slumber as first light appears. I thought this piece shared much in common with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness. Again, Quiet Streets was calming in its rhythmic flow, although the stretches in the left hand (for which there is little alternative) will prove problematic for many players. Dreaming had a beguiling melody which perfectly suited the shifting quaver accompaniment.
This is an evocative and beautifully-presented selection of pieces which would appeal to all age groups. They cross many genres and styles of music, yet exist as a carefully-crafted collection in their own right. I would suggest that the majority of pieces would suit pianists of around (UK) Grade 5 and upwards as there are some deceptively tricky moments.
Night by Ola Gjeilo, is published by Chester Music, ISBN 9781540090362, priced £14.50.
I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher and musician. You can find my Reviews Policy here.
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