Henrik Hellstenius is a Norwegian composer specialized in not just music, but sound. He is inspired by poetry, theatre and literature just as he is inspired by the music of modern composers such asLutoslawski, Penederecki and Gérard Grisey. It is Hellstenius’ goal to investigate sound, movement, rhythm and silence in his music. While Hellstenius is certainly trained in the music of Beethoven and traditional Western music, he prefers to reference newer composers and styles, including jazz, rock, extended minimalism (Morton Feldman) and the emotional music ofSalvatore Sciarrino.
As a young boy, Henrik Hellstenius began piano lessons in a town just outside of Oslo called Bærum. Fortunately his piano teacher was quite open-minded and, instead of getting frustrated and giving up on the boy for continuously improvising and composing instead of practising the Mozart pieces assigned to him, encouraged him to explore music in his own way. Hellstenius’ musical interests turned to jazz and rock during his teen years, especially the Keith Jarret albumMy Song and the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
While his interest jazz and rock was strong, it was acting that really fascinated Hellstenius, leading to his dream to become an actor. This dream was short-lived however as he changed his plans after hearingMusique Funebre by Witold Lutoslawski andThrenos by Krystof Penederecki during a history lesson in high school. These works captured his wholehearted attention; he found the “massive levels of sound”, strong “light tones” and “dark patterns of movement” so compelling that he abandoned his acting plans at once to pursue composition.
Hellstenius first studied musicology at the University of Oslo before entering the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo to study composition. As part of the curriculum, he followed a sonology course with Olav Anton Thommessen and Lasse Thoresen. The sonology lessons focussed on a form of musical analysis based on sounds and not written notes. He also came into contact with the ideals of the French Spectral School which focused on compiling harmonic and melodic information from “the analyses of the overtone spectra in the acoustic tones of instruments”.
In 1990, Hellstenius came into contact with Gérard Grisey after hearing his work,Partiels, at the ISCM World Music Days in Oslo. Grisey’s work enlightened Hellstenius to see music composition in a new light and inspired him to study with Grisey in Paris between 1993 and 1996. Hellstenius’Reading of Mr. G (2003) for percussion solo and chamber orchestra shows his appreciation of his mentor, as it is a free transposition of Grisey’sVortex Temporum. The work was written for Hans Kristian Kjos Sørensen and incorporates theatre and poetry with the music.
In Norway, Hellstenius belongs to a group of composers of the Pling-Plong generation, together with Ragnhild Berstad, Jon Øivind Ness and others. This name is a reference to their albumAbsolutely Pling-Plong (1994) which aimed to reach a broad public by showing that newer music, free of aesthetic traditions and ideologies, can also be accessible to the average listener. For this album, Hellstenius contributed his workStirrings Still (1993), from a text by Samuel Beckett, an author that provided Hellstenius much inspiration throughout his career.Stirrings Still is a work for ensemble that focuses on stasis, movement and spectral harmony.
A work of particular interest is Hellstenius’ Essai sur le temps double (1998) for the double bass, which he wrote the work in collaboration with Bjørn Ianke, double bass soloist of the Royal Danish Orchestra.
Hellstenius prefers to write his music in contact with the performers, as according to him, “they have something I don’t—an intimate knowledge of their instruments and ideas about how it can be used. This is extremely stimulating for me”. The work is composed of five movements in which the sounds of the instrument are explored within a single tone, along with many different colours and textures and figures which give the perception of different tempos.
Many of Hellstenius’ works feature a title that is connected with time, rhythm and movement. His three suites for saxophone quartet, percussion trio and harpsichord entitledImprints of Time, are a prime example. In these suites, Hellstenius “establishes shifting feelings of time against both multi-spectral harmonics and silence”.
A more recent work, the violin concerto By the Voice a Faint Light is Shed (2001) was the result of a long-lasting collaboration with the prized violinist Peter Herresthal. Hellstenius recycled much of his material from his music for the Norwegian National Theatres 1999 production of Jon Fosse’sDream of Autumn, which turned intoDream of Late (2000). The violin concerto proves Hellstenius’ early theory that sound alone can be meaningful. In this work, “the listener is swept up by the violinist’s bow as it creates a flood of subtle nuances in the high register, sometimes faint, sometimes demanding the listener to go with it, even if they do not know exactly what it is they are listening for”. Instead, the listeners are guided by the composer to really listen to the sounds, not the long phrases and melodic gestures or the interplay between soloist and orchestra.
Other sources of inspiration for Hellstenius have been the choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard, especially herBook of Songs which led to a violin and cello work of the same name, and Roy Andersons film songs fromSecond Floor, which inspired Songs from the Outsidefor ensemble.
Hellstenius has also delved into the opera genre, beginning with the modern opera buffaSera, with a libretto by his brother Axel. The opera is very concerned with the subject of sound and revolves around the angel Lilith, who has discussed her wishes of gathering and eliminating all the world’s sounds with God and the angel Sera, who brings the sounds of Earth to heaven to share with Abel, who loves all the sounds of the earth. Sera and Abel work together to prevent the world from falling silent.Sera combines many different elements in the composition, including French sounds, microtones, electro-acoustics, improvisation and slapstick along with traditional vocal and choral passages.
His second opera, Ophelias: Death by Water Singing (2005) differs greatly from Sera. The opera revolves around “a combination of young girls, witches and wily women, [who] are the dramatis personae in this chamber opera together with the mute ghost of the murdered king”. The libretto, written by Cecilie Løveid, breaks free of the traditional style of a linear narrative. The director, Jon Tombre, was able to change the score as he pleased, changing the order of the scenes, the instrumentation and other details. This manner of collaboration makes the opera quite non-traditional, as does the occasional rock-inspired singing.
Hellstenius’ album together with composer Ørjan Matre features Like Objects in a Dark Roomand the Violin Concerto no. 2 ‘In memoriam’ along with Matre’s violin concertopreSage. The concertos are performed by the virtuoso violinist Peter Herresthal in collaboration with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Rolf Gupta. According toGramophone, the abstract orchestral workLike Objects in a Dark Room (2007, rev. 2008-14) is “compelling performed” and the album contains “superb sound”.In Memoriam (2012, rev. 2013) is an especially interesting work inspired by Alzheimer’s disease, which leaves the sufferer with fragmented memories and much disorientation. The work explores the ‘dissolution of consciousness that this terrible condition produces’, a condition from which Hellstenius’ father died.
Henrik Hellstenius is still very actively composing and is currently a professor of composition at the Nowegian State Academy of Music in Oslo.