Ola Gjeilo’s “Northern Lights”

Today, we share with you an article written by Rachel Robison, a member and soloist of the ACC, concerning the work Northern Lights by Ola Gjeilo, which will be featured on our October 8 “Star-Made Shadows” concert…

In every concert’s repertoire, there is at least one piece that truly connects with me on an emotional or spiritual level, or both. I mean, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and everything. One such piece the ACC will be performing on October 8 is Ola Gjeilo’s Northern Lights. Gjeilo, a young Norwegian composer is well­ known for his sacred texts set to modern melodies, his hauntingly beautiful harmonies, and for naming his pieces after who or what inspired its creation in the first place. Northern Lights is no exception.

The text is from the Song of Solomon, chapter 6: You are beautiful, O my love…

“Sweet and comely as Jerusalem, As terrible as an army in full array. Turn your eyes away from me, For they overcome me.”

Gjeilo’s inspiration for this piece is beauty… the beauty of the exquisite prose reflecting the words of Christ to His bride, the Church… and the beauty ­ the terrible beauty ­ of one of nature’s most powerful phenomena, the aurora borealis . He wrote Northern Lights in the winter of 2007 while staying near Oslo, Norway. Having grown up in the southern part of the country, he had only seen the northern lights once or twice in his life. However, as he was reflecting on the text, he thought about the terrible beauty (in this case meaning “formidable”) that is so profoundly displayed in the aurora. “It is one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I’ve ever witnessed,” he says. “And it has such a powerful, electric quality that must have been both mesmerising and terrifying to people in the past, when no one knew what it was…”

While doing the real thing little justice, photographs of the aurora show a raw, primal beauty that pulls at the spirit of adventure in all of us. How can something so scientifically simple as solar particles colliding with Earth’s upper atmosphere inspire such awe? Or imagine viewing it from the
International Space Station as a swirling, green cloud reaching more than 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. Two years ago, the crew aboard the ISS was treated to a spectacular show as the station actually flew through the aurora during a period of particularly heavy solar activity. “Words can’t describe how it feels flying through an aurora,” said European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin… Swimming in an ocean of glow… In some moments it feels like Earth is actually alive.”

Gjeilo’s a cappella Northern Lights starts off very quiet and serene, with sopranos and altos taking turns with the melody. The lines build and then pause in a dissonant chord before moving on to the “B” section, which again features the melody being passed between the women’s parts. The piece climaxes with all parts coming together in another breathtaking dissonance on “…for they have overcome me, my love.”

The denouement features a reprise of the first section, with some slightly different harmonies, and then the piece ends with a sustained note from the altos and the rest of the parts slowly diminishing into a soft pianissimo. I can very clearly picture in my mind a crackle of green swirling above my head, coming to a peak, and then gradually dimming away.

“I’ve always wanted my music to reach as many people as possible and to hopefully touch as many people as possible,” Gjeilo says. I’d say he’s succeeded on both counts.

-Rachel Robison