Interview with Bjarke Mogensen i Fanfare
March 3, 2023
Piazzolla and the Pursuit of Freedom: An Interview with Bjarke Mogensen
Bjarke Mogensen is as versatile as he is virtuosic. His discography alone demonstrates his disparate musical endeavors and their equally far-flung chronologies, encompassing everything from the works of Domenico Scarlatti to the Sound and Simplicity series by his fellow countryman Poul Ruders. He stretches the sound of the accordion beyond itself, as in the wonderful Shadow Pieces by Kasper Rofelt. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to grant this interview, in which we focus on his newest album, a portrait disc for the centenary of the famed Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. If, as in my case, Piazzolla’s uniquely multivalent take on the tango opens up a new world, so much the better, but Mogensen also performs and arranges the music with the respect duly accorded an established master. That respect is embodied by a blend of freedom and homage involving the music itself, and the techniques shaping it. As Mogensen will explain, the full scope of Piazzolla’s artistic achievements are presented in this expertly programmed conception, a listening experience that has technical brilliance and emotive variation at its heart.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to do the interview! Some of my questions will be obvious of course, and then I hope to get into some specifics regarding your new album, For Astor. Did you come from a musical family? How did music become your chosen path?
Because I grew up with my sister and grandmother playing the accordion, I was familiar with the instrument all my life, though the repertoire didn’t exactly inspire me much. Growing up on Bornholm, a small remote island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, I used to listen to my grandmother, who played the accordion when I was a kid. But the first real impression was in the early 1990s, when some of the greatest Ukrainian and Russian virtuoso bayanists at that time came to play concerts at the local music school. Those performances made me believe in the accordion as an instrument of great artistic possibility, and later on I also learned that there are several other traditions and styles that have similar or even greater appeal to me. My first teacher, Gregor Siegler, was in fact one of the early pioneers of classical accordion pedagogy. So my early studies didn’t start with genres such as the musette or tango, like many other accordion beginners, but with the classical keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, and Scarlatti, etc.
I think our readers will be interested in a little more detail concerning how you chose the accordion as your instrument. At what point did it begin to interest you, and what made that happen?
My older sister actually also started playing accordion a few years before me, and later on we often performed in duo together, winning competitions at home and abroad. She later chose a different path, and I lingered on as my curiosity for the instrument grew. Neither of my parents has any musical background, but they were always supportive. It was actually a kind of coincidence that made me choose to play the accordion. When I was signed up for the local music school, I remember my first choice was the piano. Fortunately, perhaps, my parents signed me up quite late in the season, and the choice of instruments therefore was limited to the only two options left available: the recorder or the accordion. Obviously, they weren’t the options I had hoped for, but today I am quite grateful that fate/chance sort of decided it for me.
Please tell us about your introduction to the music of Astor Piazzolla and why you’ve chosen to record an album dedicated to his work.
I was introduced to Piazzolla quite early in my musical upbringing, but I was not attracted to performing his music very much until a long time later, when I began my studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen. The tipping point probably came when I was asked to play a version of the famous Adios Nonino for soloist and symphony orchestra (one of Piazzolla’s many published versions); I realized how playful and free he was with his own compositions, similar to the freedoms you might find in the great Baroque composers who often make multiple versions of their own works, as orchestrated, reduced, or rearranged for different combinations of instruments.
How did you choose and program the various combinations of instrumentation on this wonderfully varied disc?
First of all, and most important, I wanted to present some of my favorite Piazzolla works in a personal way. Some of them are relatively unknown pieces, even for fans of Piazzolla, but I think they all have unique qualities that I sometimes missed on other portrait albums of his music. There is the harmonic inventiveness of Vibraphonissimo or the “Coral” that draws on the atmosphere of church music that Piazzolla knew very well from his studies of Bach, Vivaldi, etc.
Although it is related to the bandoneón, Piazzolla wrote very little directly for the accordion, so I also didn’t want to make this an album of bandoneón music performed on the accordion, but rather a different and personal approach on each track of the album where the accordion works in different layers of the music, either accompanying myself or the guest musicians I’ve chosen for the album or playing completely alone as a soloist.
Apart from that, what really made me decide on the instruments was playing with some of my favorite musicians, Mathias Heise and Johan Bridger, who are truly capable of making each of their appearances come to life in a unique way, regardless of style or mood.
The Danish Chamber Players and I have had great and ongoing collaborations already since I was a music student, and it was about time we released an album together, 15 years after our first concert together. The combinations of these seven instruments in this ensemble are rather unique but offer an orchestral sound, with the piano and harp being the foundation of the ensemble. These particular instruments were also included in almost all of Piazzolla’s own symphonic scores, so I found it very tempting to include the combination in my own instrumentation.
Let’s talk in more detail about For Astor. I liked the very natural way the duos led to the larger orchestrations. Did you program in this order purposely?
Yes, I meant the album to be a program that can be experienced track by track or as a whole, with a solo in the beginning and end.
Earlier, you talked about freedom in Piazzolla’s music. How do you approach that issue of freedom? What does it mean to you, and which of your previous musical experiences do you think draws you to the freedom in Piazzolla’s work?
As a classically trained performer, it is sometimes frightening to go into a recording studio with only a sketch of how the piece should be interpreted or recorded. I sometimes imagine that if Piazzolla had lived in the Baroque era, he would fit perfectly well in this context, and I often use my work with this period of music in my approach to Piazzolla’s tango nuevo. After all, didn’t composers such as Domenico Scarlatti, Carl Nielsen, or Piotr Tchaikovsky offer great examples of how to merge contemporary classical music styles with the folk music of one’s musical upbringing and the local community? I appreciate seeing that kind of parallel, and I always want to bring as much as possible of what I learned into my next recording project.
I recall from an interview I saw where Piazzolla states that about 98 percent of works is written down in his scores. The rest is up to the interpreter to contribute to the music. I find that approach very attractive, and it is liberating to work with an open approach to each phrase where the music varies with each performance, for example regarding ornamentation and semi- or fully improvised cadenzas. However, given these differences, it is sometimes difficult and a challenge to glue it all together in the mixing process. The recent years of collaboration with jazz-virtuoso harmonica player Mathias Heise (featured in a duet on this album) also had a profound influence on my approach to many kinds of music, and working with a percussion-Paganini such as Johan Bridger is always inspiring and great fun.
Please tell me a little about the instrument or instruments you use on this disc. How was the choice of instruments made?
I use two different accordions on this album, and they’re made by Pigini accordions. Most tracks have the Mythos Bayan No. 5 with reeds by Russian reed makers, plus a single track with my Pigini Nova Bayan with reeds by Italian reed makers. Both instruments are thoroughly serviced by the Ukrainian master of accordion fine-tuning, Viktor Melnyk.
They certainly are beautiful-sounding instruments! Did you say that overdubbing was used in this project? That sort of technology always fascinates me; can you talk about your use of it here?
Two of the tracks on the album have one extra layer of actual overdubbing. It’s my debut with this kind of recording method. The tracks are those on which Piazzolla used this technique himself.
This is just me being curious, but on the two solo tracks that bookend the disc, the bass notes are so vividly captured! I’ll say that in the other accordion recordings I’ve heard, there’s never been a sound so vivid and visceral! Can you tell me a little about way that sound is made?
One of the special characteristics of the Russian reeds in my instrument, Mythos, is that they have a rich and colorful sound in the left-hand bass notes which often surprises the listener. The Mythos accordion is considered by many to be the Stradivarius of the accordion, and only around 30 of them exists worldwide.
Well, it’s a gorgeous sound for sure; you’re fortunate to be playing that instrument and to be recorded as vividly as you are! Do you have any plans to record more Piazzolla, or maybe to work more with tango in general?
Well, as for recordings and live concerts, I will for sure come back to Piazzolla in the future, since his work seems vast and endless. However my upcoming 2023–24 albums have a different focus. I am currently recording some of the grandfathers of Nordic music, Edvard Grieg, Carl Nielsen, and Per Nørgård. The latter, by the way, also studied with the same teacher as Piazzolla, the legendary Nadia Boulanger.
Oh yes, Nørgård is a wonderful composer, and I look forward to hearing your upcoming projects. Speaking of which, what are some of the other projects, recordings, or concerts, on which you’re currently working? If you could achieve your dream project, what would it be?
Since I am already working with musicians, conductors, and composers that I consider incredibly inspiring, I feel that I have reached a place where I get to fulfil some of my musically greatest musical ambitions. A very concrete dream is to continue a project which I have already begun back in 2012, “Accordion Concertos,” recording some of the many neglected accordion concertos that exist or are being written as we speak. I believe the accordion in symphonic constellations has a great potential that still needs to be revealed fully before we can match the repertoire of the more classically established instruments.
It is sometimes a great shame that some of these pieces, if at all, only exist in live recordings from their respective world premieres and were never really recorded professionally. Hopefully we will see that happen in the next generation.
Apart from that, I am currently exploring the possibilities of my custom-built quarter-tone accordion further, where I commissioned a concerto by a Danish composer, Sune Kølster, which was premiered with the Cairo Symphony last fall. It is a completely new sound world that brings completely new possibilities.