Andrew Smith interview

The British-Norwegian composer talks to us about his requiem, a response to the 2011 atrocity on Utøya



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Andrew Smith was at home in Oslo when he heard the car bomb going off nearby. He dismissed it as thunder. The explosion, which killed eight people, was shocking enough, but later that afternoon (July 22 2011), the choral composer, like the rest of Norway, was horrified to hear news that the far-right bomber (local Anders Behring Breivik) had moved on to the nearby island of Utøya, where the Norwegian Labour Party was hosting its annual summer youth camp. There he murdered 69 people, almost all of them were Norwegian teenagers.

In a country of just five million people, with no history of terrorism, the effects were extensive – particularly as the victims came from all over the country – one in four of the population knew someone who had been killed or injured. In times of such anguish there is a need to respond. For Smith, it was to write a requiem.

The 43-year-old composer explains his motivation: ‘The general response was that the reaction shouldn’t be one of anger or revenge,’ he says, ‘but that we should bring the community closer together and take a stand against the kind of ideology that he [Breivik] represented.’ Smith had already been working on a commission. ‘The thing was,’ he says, ‘I had already started writing the Requiem before the tragedy on Utøya took place. It was originally for the girls’ choir of Trondheim Cathedral, and because I was writing for young people of a similar age to those who were killed, it seemed natural that it should reflect that event.’

‘The general response to the Utøya tragedy was that we should bring the community closer together'

Interestingly, Smith straddles two cultures, as evidenced by his clipped Nordic accent and long pauses that occasionally give way to a clearly British sense of humour. He was born in Liverpool to English musician parents. The family moved to Norway when he was 14, as his father took up a job as an organist. It puts him in an ambiguous cultural position. ‘When I am in England or abroad, I think of myself as Norwegian,’ he says, ‘but both my parents are English and so being English will always be a part of me. But although I share both nationalities, I feel that I belong to Norway.’

His musical inspiration for the requiem comes from Gregorian chant, with which he has been familiar since his days as a choirboy. What makes the work particularly different, though, is that it is not just for choir, as he has left ‘reflective spaces’ for the trumpeter Arve Henriksen to improvise. And this is what he thinks gives the requiem its nationality – Henriksen’s playing in a Norwegian contemporary jazz idiom.

Like Gregorian chant, the texts are all in Latin, but he has not only set part of the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass. ‘I have taken a lot out and only the basic structure of the mass is left,’ he says. ‘There is the Introit, the familiar opening, Requiem Eternam, the Kyrie, the Sanctus and I end with the In Paradisum. But I also wanted to include other texts that referred to the plight of children in the Bible. So there are references to Rachel weeping at the loss of her children captured by the Babylonians, Herod’s massacre of the infant boys, and Mary weeping at the Cross, at the loss of her son Jesus. All children who are innocent.’

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