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Interview in Fanfare

May 25, 2024


A Stairway to Heaven or to Hell? An Interview with Danish Organist Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen About their Album Stairway to Bach
People are strange
When you’re a stranger;
Faces look ugly when you’re alone.
(The Doors)
The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s was devoted to liberation, peace, and nuclear disarmament. These “strangers” wished for nothing but a world where all people, regardless of race, social position, and religious affiliation or absence thereof, could live together, enjoy the planet, and “make love instead of war.” It’s a world which all of us would love to pass on to our progeny, is it not? But sadly, it looks as if we’ve failed: We’ve brought our planet to the point of no return with global warming, we stand possibly on the verge of World War III, and the activists who still want to fight against this total failure are feeling a bit lonely.
Well, faces might look ugly when we’re alone, but let’s keep the hope alive that there is something that can be saved, despite all the misery of our time. We have improved in many ways, many things are so much better than back in the 1970s, and most importantly, we still have our trustworthy weapons, which are as powerful as nuclear bombs: music, lyrics, songs, and other beautiful arts. Take cinematography, for example: Watching the movies of Woody Allen, life seems far less miserable! Art and nuclear weapons each have a great impact, but the crucial difference is that art spreads the joy of life instead of nuclear death to all the living. And probably we aren’t so lonely, because life is still moving on and there are so many great people, hopeful artists and activists, who might look a bit like strangers, but in fact are simply the driving power behind of the common movement of motivated citizens of planet Earth who wish to stay alive and keep some space for us and others to live for some time ahead, even if it’s not that long (thinking of the climate crisis, which looms on the horizon).
Danish organist Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen has just recorded Stairway to Bach, an album of magnificent arrangements of iconic rock songs by some of the famous bands of the counterculture era such as The Doors, Pink Floyd, Queen, Savage Rose, Led Zeppelin, and Procol Harum, combined with music by J. S. Bach. The artists leave us listeners with nothing but a determination to remain “strangers,” to keep fighting. It is better to die fighting in a community of one’s own kind for peace and freedom than to sit alone, watching familiar faces coming out of nuclear-contaminated rain, is it not? I’m delighted to welcome Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen to our conversation in print at Fanfare.
Mr. Mikkelsen, a hearty welcome! I received this interview assignment just as I had fallen ill and felt very poorly. In the middle of a miserable day of fever, I opened your files and suddenly a feel-good change came over me. I forgot my health issues and, honestly, while reading your booklet and listening to your CD, I forgot about being a critic. I was such a happy listener and reader, who was lucky to have the help of such a brilliant artist as you are, to be carried out of health-related misery for a little while. Thanks so much for that!
The organ is an instrument with a very traditional image, isn’t it?
The organ is a very traditional and very old instrument, whose origins go back to ancient times. But it is also an instrument which is a whole orchestra in itself, and therefore it is suitable for imitating an orchestra, and it is that tradition that I build on when I play songs from the symphonic rock tradition on the organ.
J. S. Bach is a sort of Holy Bible in the world of classical music. Nevertheless, while he was walking around, working as a Kapellmeister, teacher, and dorm-keeper in Leipzig, and not least as a composer, he was a person of flesh and blood, and the interaction between his music and the original audience probably had a rather mundane character. How do you experience J. S. Bach when you come in touch with his music?
Johann Sebastian Bach is a very special composer for me. Firstly, because he has written so many absolutely fantastic organ works, but also because his music has a character of purity and complexity in a perfect balance. And then his music is extremely expressive: It can be festive, it can be dramatic, it can be heavenly beautiful. I myself have experienced how in crisis situations I have been able to find peace in my soul by simply playing a very simple organ chorale by J. S. Bach.
How old were you when you played Bach for the first time, and how did your relationship to the music change through time, if at all?
I started playing the organ when I was eight years old, and some of the first things I played were some of Bach’s simple works. My relationship with Bach’s music hasn’t changed over time, but I have a feeling of getting closer and closer to the core of the music as time goes on.
When I hear you playing Bach, I have the impression that you were out for a beer together. How did you earn such a familiarity and honesty with one another?
The familiarity with Bach and his music, which has grown stronger over the years, also means that I have gained greater freedom in relation to the music, just like when you sit in a confidential and honest conversation with a good friend.
Bach can sound complicated, even a bit scary, on the organ. As I recall, when I was about five years old I attended an organ recital for the first time, and after a couple of measures of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor I was scared. I started to think that Death was about to emerge, and I ran in tears out of the concert hall. When I heard you playing, I could feel for the first time in my life how close Bach is to the joyful side of life. How do you achieve this feeling in your performance?
The joyful side of Bach’s music does not arise by itself. It must be experienced and cherished on the basis of its opposite. The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that you mention is a dark and dramatic piece. In a concert, I would typically let the toccata be followed by a simple and beautiful chorale variation, which, based on the drama of the toccata, can appear even more beautiful. And it is in a way this dramatic juxtaposition that I use in the album Stairway to Bach, where I let Bach’s melodies appear as surprising moments. An example is in “People are strange,” which is melancholic in expression. Here, in the middle of the piece, I insert a section of Bach’s organ chorale “Ich ruf zu dir,” almost like a peaceful and heartfelt prayer in the middle of the melancholic mood.
I saw that you studied in Vienna, as have I. How was your experience there? Do you have some special memories from Vienna’s slightly crazy life as a music student?
I have many special memories from my student days in Vienna. I remember the city as an international cultural focal point, a place that attracted lots of foreign students and art enthusiasts. And then it struck me to what extent Vienna was full of contradictions. It is a place which for many years was and still is the center of avant-garde music and avant-garde art, while also being a city dominated by enormous conservatism. But the range of music was enormous during my student days. I went to the Vienna Opera every week without going broke, because the standing places were almost free.
Were you ever at the dorm in Johannesgasse 1? Did you hear the legend of the dead nuns who are buried in the basement and are supposed to emerge in the night to visit the students, who are disturbing their peace with their nighttime practicing? For us it was quite a funny story, and depending of the amount of wine we had consumed and cigarettes we had smoked the imagination of those nuns and their possible appearance was more or less lively. There was an organ in the Johannesgasse dorm—can you recall?
There were two organ departments at the Hochschule, and I studied at the organ department in Seilerstätte/Johannesgasse, so I don’t know the Johannesgasse dorm and the history of the nuns. But it does sound quite entertaining.
By bringing Bach and rock songs together in a single arrangement, you show in a masterly way that music is one body and genres are like different parts of it. Do you have similar thoughts?
Yes, and in fact I am working on an idea that many of the rock musicians also used, namely to use classical musical forms and transform them into rock music. Many rock musicians were classically trained and saw no problem in this fusion of styles. The best example is Procol Harum’s Repent Walpurgis, which in the original version contains both Bach’s well-known C-Major Prelude from the Wohltemperiertes Klavier and thematic fragments from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. Already when I listened to these works as a young and curious musician, it struck me to what extent this amalgamation of styles sharpens the intensity of the music and helps to make the music timeless.
The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s was desperately fighting for such legitimate things as being able to live one’s own life as one sees fit, to love and die in freedom, and to seek liberation from arbitrary social conventions. Since that time, the gap between conservatism and liberalism has grown. The organ has an image as a conservative and traditional instrument, and Bach is admired by a conservative audience, yet you bring it together with iconic rock songs of the 1960s and 1970s. Was it your intention to close this gap and liberate the listener out of this rigid conservative/liberal deadlock?
There is indeed a tendency for organ concerts to be aimed at a traditional audience, and I would like to challenge this perception. By playing these arrangements, where I mix Bach and rock, I actually manage to lure a much more diverse audience into the concert hall or church. For many, the old rock songs evoke nostalgic memories, and for younger listeners moving away from the traditional concert programs arouses an interested curiosity. Furthermore, it is also my experience that listeners who come to the concert out of nostalgic curiosity also want to be challenged with music that they do not already know, and here it is my task as a concert organist to find just the right balance.
You make it clear that there is no need for a conservative/liberal gap. We need tradition and the appreciation of history and culture. Despite all the gloomy circumstances, life is carrying on and every revolution one day will be a part of history. Music that once was youthful, popular, and up-to-date will become a historical and cultural heritage to pass on, like classic rock music itself. Would you agree with my impression?
That is absolutely true! The music that I have taken under loving care is precisely music that I experienced as a teenager as being youthful and up-to-date. But my children perceive music as an important part of a musical tradition and development. You can consider the music as an expression of a certain historical period, and that can be perfectly fine, because it is important to learn from the past. And it is a principle that I have cultivated in lots of classical concerts and recordings. But you can also challenge the historical expression by putting it into a different, new, and unexpected context, and something completely new and exciting can come out of that. That’s what I’m trying to do with this album.
I get the sense that the rock songs you’ve recorded on your album are actually built upon the classical tradition—similar to how we are used to seeing our own facial expressions on the faces of our children and grandchildren. So, would you say that the evolution of musical genres is similar to our own evolution through the life cycle as human beings?
In relation to my current album, your comparison makes good sense. The rock songs build on the tradition from the Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism, jazz, etc., in the same way that our children and grandchildren carry on and build on what we have given them, both hereditary and experiential.
Could we say that pieces by Bach in the context of his society didn’t differ that much from the songs of Doors and Queen to theirs?
A very large part of Bach’s music—including his organ works—was written for use in the church. But he also wrote music for performance in concert halls, and here you can say that, in the same way as the Doors and Queen, he made music for contemporary audiences. However, there was the big difference that in Bach’s time the lowest social classes could only afford to listen to live music of real quality in church. The concert halls were reserved for the upper class. So perhaps you can say that when Bach addressed the broad part of the population in the church with his music, he achieved the same as when the Doors and Queen played to a large festival audience.
In your program note you say that no matter what genre, you just love to play and to arrange good music. How can we name the difference between a good and less good piece of music? How can we possibly guide the audience, students, and our children and grandchildren through the jungle of subjective impressions? When does it represent a high standard of taste and when is it just good or not good at all?
It is a question with many nuances, and it is very difficult to answer clearly. Quality and taste are not necessarily two sides of the same coin, because taste is something that changes quickly, whereas quality should be something more permanent. Bach’s works are today considered high-quality music. But among his contemporaries there were many who thought his music was heavy and difficult to access. Taste had changed in favor of a lighter and more immediate style of music. Bach was actually almost forgotten shortly after his death, and it was not until almost 100 years later that his music was discovered again, and suddenly the qualities of the music were discovered and seen in a new light.
Perhaps you can say that the good music is the music that you can hide away and find many years later and still like?
This is actually what I experience when I play my arrangements of rock classics, where it suddenly awakens memories in people who listened to and were excited about the music 50 years ago. It has also been like this for myself: The old rock classics have been lying around, waiting for me to return to them again, to discover of what great quality they were. And when I allow myself to mix the music with fragments of J. S. Bach, it really expresses my enormous enthusiasm for both.
The Bohemian Rhapsody sounds to me like a marvelous classical piece, doesn’t it?
I have actually always experienced Bohemian Rhapsody as a kind of classical overture, where a mood is built and various elements are presented, which are ready for later unfolding. The same is true for Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond.
The City Awakes (an arrangement of a song by Savage Rose) sounds like a delicious paraphrase of Bach. Further, to me it has a certain traditional fairy-tale flair; I suddenly felt close to the world of Hans Christian Andersen as never before. Would you agree with my impression?
It’s interesting to me to hear that you experience The City Awakes as something like a Nordic fairy tale and H. C. Andersen-inspired. I can follow you: the Bach inspiration transformed into a dreamy Danish/Scandinavian mood! I haven’t thought about it before—maybe because it’s so close to my everyday life? But now I want to think about it every time I play the music.
Stairway to Heaven is such a nice piece of music, brilliantly crafted from the standpoint of classical composition (from my point of view)! But despite this, I would prefer to listen to your version and read the lyrics to it instead of the original. I was particularly taken by your improvisation with “the hint of Bach.” By improvising and mixing such different pieces of music, what personal guidelines do you follow? Are there any sort of rules? Is there any rule you would avoid breaking? Or could we say that rules are there to be learned by heart and then mindfully broken?
When we say that rules are meant to be broken, it is equivalent to saying that a tradition is meant to be broken. A good tradition is only sustainable if it can withstand being challenged. Good music can withstand being challenged, and that’s really what I do with my arrangements. Stairway to Heaven can easily stand alone. But by adding “a hint of Bach,” I feel that Led Zeppelin’s music will stand stronger in a new light, while the listener is made aware that “old Bach” still has something to offer.
In Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, you use quotations of “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” from Bach’s cantata BWV 147. What purpose would you say quotations serve in music?
The purpose here is the same as I mentioned about Stairway to Heaven. The quotes appear as small anecdotes that help to illuminate the basic content of the music.
I often quote poetry and prose in my reviews, with the intention of bringing old classics like Dryden or philosophers like Spinoza or even some historical essays related to the issue I am discussing in a certain context to the social and political issues of our lives in here and now. In this way, I hope that some long-neglected texts might get another life and gain relevance once more. Is it similar in music?
It is exactly the same in music. Procol Harum and Jethro Tull directly quote works by J. S. Bach, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and others. I continue on that path, and I hope that it can shed new light on the music that I play, but also on the old masters from whom the quotes originate.
“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Awake! The Voice calls us). Do you think that as a society we might wake up to sanity before it is too late?
For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we are simply obliged to wake up to reason. We are committed to doing everything in our power to pass on a good and well-functioning society to the next generations—a society that is dominated by peace and understanding of each other’s differences, a society that is based on peace, love, and understanding.
The counterculture fought so bravely and was determined to save the joy of life on our planet and equal rights for everyone; the most important cause of their rebellion was the nuclear threat. So here we are, possibly on the verge of the World War III. Is there anything we could be doing to try to be safe? What can be saved? Can music be of help in any way?
When I play music, it is not with a direct political message. This is also why I don’t relate at all to the lyrics that are part of the original rock songs. I relate only to the music itself. And here I really believe that music can bring peoples together. Music is a language that is deeper and stronger than spoken language. When I play a concert, I often think that there are people in the audience who can be deeply at odds. But by experiencing the music together and by experiencing that a cohesion can arise in the music, I actually believe that the music can help say to peoples: Here is something beautiful that we can experience and enjoy together. Let’s use music to learn to focus on the good, so we can pass on a better world to our children.
Many thanks for the conversation; I can’t wait to buy your album as soon it is released in May!
STAIRWAY TO BACH • Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen (org) • OUR 8.226920 (75:25)
THE DOORS (arr. Mikkelsen) Light My Fire. People Are Strange. THE SAVAGE ROSE (arr. Mikkelsen) The City Awakes. LED ZEPPELIN (arr. Mikkelsen) Stairway to Heaven. PINK FLOYD (arr. Mikkelsen) Shine On You Crazy Diamond. QUEEN (arr. Mikkelsen) Bohemian Rhapsody. PROCOL HARUM (arr. Mikkelsen) Homburg. Repent Walpurgis. A Whiter Shade of Pale. BACH Suite in e, BWV 996: Bourée (arr. Jethro Tull/Mikkelsen). Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068: Air (arr. Mikkelsen). Fantasia in G, BWV 572 (Pièce d’orgue, excerpt). Prelude and Fugue in g, BWV 535. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645

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