Friday, February 20, 2009

Interview with Heinrich Christiansen, Transcript, Part 2

Here's the transcription of the second part of my interview with Heinrich Christiansen! You can find part 1 here, and there is more to come. Don't forget, the King's Chapel Choir, which he directs, is performing an hour-long concert at 5 pm this coming Sunday of the music of Poulenc at King's Chapel, Boston.

Part 2:

H: So I did the six-year degree, and then I did a soloist’s – which is kind of like an artist’s diploma – I did the soloist diploma which was another two years.
A: And was that also in Denmark, or was that what you did in Paris?
H: That’s what – so, I was enrolled in Denmark still, because that meant that I got some funding from the school in Denmark, but I did the actual coursework in France, so they accepted that I just transferred. Because I’d been with the one teacher for six years, so I think that he was OK with me going off to France and getting some new input, and then I just came back and did –
A: That was lucky.
H: Yes. So you do a public so-called debut recital, and that’s your soloist diploma requirement, you just do that one recital, so then my old Danish teacher helped me prep for that, so, you know, he had some say in the whole thing. So that how it worked.
A: And how old were you then?
H: The soloist’s debut was in 1994, so I was 27 or so. So I had been in school for my entire life, up until that point. Although, you know, it got less and less structured as it went along, because…I remember having that thought, you know – in high school I was so over-committed, because I had a full course-load in school, of course I was there every day from 8 to 3, and then I went to the music school, where I probably had, say, 5 or 6 hours of lessons a week, and then you had to practice and do your homework, and I was the most over-committed teenager you’ve ever seen, right? And then when I entered the conservatory and all of a sudden you only had, what, ten hours of classes, maybe, per week? And all of a sudden you had all of this time. It just felt like the greatest luxury. And then in Paris I only had one organ lesson a week, so there was a lot of time to kick around.
A: And you were living in Paris.
H: Exactly, because that’s how it worked out, it was easier for me to enroll at the conservatory.
A: And did you get a job, then, too? Was the first organist job you took the one in Sweden?
H: It was the one in Sweden, was the first time I worked full-time. So that’s not a typical thing for most American students. You would not be able to make it through school until the age of 27 without actually really ever holding a full-time job.
A: But did you have a part-time job?
H: I’d worked in the summers, you know, from when I was 17, I used to substitute in churches. So I had one particular church in my hometown where for I don’t even know how many years – so I was in my mid-twenties, let’s say eight years I was the regular substitute, if you will. So I was there every summer when the organist was away on his vacation, and when he had a weekend off I came and filled in for him. So that was good, that was excellent preparation, obviously, for learning about these various aspects. Because again, it’s a pretty composite job. You have to play the organ, but you also have to conduct choirs and you have to – just sort of the various communication admin aspects of being a church music director, right? So that was good preparation for that, because again, the program that I was in was not so much about – it’s the kind of thing you’re just supposed to pick up somewhere along the way, how to deal with all of these workplace relations, and all these sorts of practical aspects that are not strict--
A: How to handle your minister.
H: Yes, you know, that are not strictly about the musical training, right? That’s what you hear often, that people feel like they go through this long, long program that has some very specific goals, but then you get thrown into this position and more often than not you have learned a ton of stuff that you’re never going to use, but this very basic – and often work-psychology-type related and administrative skills that you just never had a class that taught you how to do that, but you’re supposed to just know or pick it up as you go. Reality and school sometime disconnect.
A: So then Sweden. Did you speak Swedish? Did you learn it?
H: I did not when I first came there. You can sort of get along –
A: If you know Danish.
H: Yes. It’s funny these days when Swedes and Danes get together, because of globalization, I think there’s a big difference even between when I was a child and now, that often these days when Swedes and Danes get together it’s just easier for them to speak English, because then they’re sort of on common ground. Whereas if they each speak their language, which is what people used to do – you know, my mother, for instance, who’s 65, and she has some friends in Sweden, and people of that generation, when they get together, they see each other a couple times a year, they just sit down and each speak their language, and then there are certain words that they don’t understand, but they manage to communicate. And so you can get by doing that. But then I’m very interested in languages in general, so I just felt – I didn’t want to be the Dane, in that respect. Because sometimes you meet people that have lived for years and years in the other country, and still kind of speak their native language, but just exchange the words that are not easily understood, and then you get this bastardized thing that doesn’t really sound like anything anymore. Like I had this uncle who moved to Norway and lived there for years and years and years, and he would send a Christmas tape every December that we would all sit around and listen to, which was very quaint and fun, but you know his language was just not to be believed, because he was surrounded by Norwegians every day, so he had that kind of lilting tone that the Norwegians did, but the words that he was using were still really Danish, because I guess he just wasn’t conscious of the difference.
A: And he never really learned Norwegian.
H: Yes, exactly. And that’s what you hear sometimes. So I just made a conscious effort to learn Swedish, in terms of being able to actually write it, and I think I always had a heavy Danish accent, I don’t know that I was fooling anybody, ever, but it’s a beautiful language, so that was part of the fun, was learning that.
A: And what kind of church was that, and what kind of experience?
H: That was a Lutheran church. At the time, the state church in Sweden was a Lutheran church. And that’s another interesting thing about Scandanavian countries versus the U.S. is because at least historically, it’s been so homogenous that everybody was the same denomination, and church is not really a defining factor in your identity because – you know, often in the U.S. you see people that a big part of their church life is their social identification with this particular denomination. Often the heritage plays into it, so you have this feeling that you’re honoring previous generations sometimes, by sticking with your family church. Or sometimes there’s a conscious choice that you don’t want to be associated with this dogmatic church that you grew up in, and so you switch. And you see very little of that in the Scandanavian countries. For one thing, they’re very secular. But also it’s just not – it’s just kind of a given that everybody’s Lutheran, but if you ask people on the street, I think they’d have to think about it to tell you what denomination they were, because it’s just not really a thing. I remember learning it when we were in grade school and it was a big thing, what kind of church is the church, because it’s – it’s the one that’s there, there’s a church in every neighborhood, but why would you – how could it be any different? So again, it’s a different view of denomination. It used to be very institutionalized, especially in Sweden, they used to have this – that the tax and census authority was hosted in – I’m sure it goes back to ancient times when in rural villages the only person, maybe, who could read and write was the pastor, so he would keep the various ledgers, you know, not only the church ledgers but also keep track of the town. A little bit like in New England, you know, when the town government and the church kind of used to be one and the same, right? And so they kept that until into the 1990’s. So if you moved, you had to go to the church parish office to tell them that you were now living here, and so they were the ones keeping track of the census and where everybody was. And so part of the whole tax system also went through there. So you had this big office, because you needed people there to keep track of all that, that really had nothing to do with the church. And then they got rid of that right around 1990. And then eventually they separated church and state in 2000, because, I guess, through that they came to realize that the two really had nothing to do with each other, and they should not be mixed in. There’s a long history of church and state being brought together that was separated out, so the church was an independent thing. And also church tax, and so they changed the whole structure, although I think still to this day church tax is – the state will process the whole thing for the church and then hand over the money, just to make it simpler in terms of administration. But it’s just – so that’s kind of what we were talking about before, what’s normal, you know? Because it’s so different from what goes on here. Which is true, by extension, of the whole arts and music scene, because pretty much everything traditionally was funded through tax money, and so there are a lot of organizations that essentially get their entire budget from the state, or by far most of it, and are not used to this concept of private funding. And so you don’t see nearly as much of these little grassroots arts organizations that we have here everywhere. And you know, again, it’s great that there’s funding for the arts, but it also means that if you’re not in one of the systems, or with one of the ensembles that gets its state funding, it’s very hard to get something off the ground if you want to start your own thing, because it’s not as common, and people are not so philanthropically inclined, because they’re used to thinking of, well, that’s something the state takes care of, and why would anybody ask me for money to do something like that? So again, it’s just a very different world that way. And sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.
A: Now, you ended up playing an instrument that’s always played in church. Were you religious at all as a child?
H: As a child? No.
How did you – was there any reconciliation that had to take place with the “Oh, I guess I’m going to be in church for the rest of my life.”
H: Not really, again, because it happened when I was so young that I wasn’t conscious of those implications, really. I just thought, “Oh, this is a cool instrument.” And then as I got a little bit better at playing at it, people asked me to play in church, and I very much enjoyed it, and I love being a church musician. There’s this old cartoon I had, that, you know – what was it? “If you’re a church musician, you please both God and people.” Whereas if you’re – I forget how it went. And I think there’s something to that, you know, that you get the best of all possible worlds in being a musician, and being in that context of something larger. So I didn’t ever feel a conflict, but I didn’t really grow up – again, because church is not a defining thing, my parents didn’t go to church, and this is true for probably 90% of Danes – but they do go to church to have their kids baptized, they do go to church to get married, and they have their burials – everybody has a funeral from a church, you know, you don’t have funeral parlors. And in those times of transition, certainly people feel – and the vast majority of kids when I was growing up were still being confirmed. In the eighth grade there was time set aside in your school schedule, you know, on Wednesdays from 8 to 10 you went over to the church and you had your confirmation class, and that was the regular thing to do. So even in this very secular society you would have folks that were – you figured the church is always there, and you didn’t feel the need to, I suppose, go there every Sunday, but at the times that really counted in your life, that’s where you wanted to be. Which is a nice thing, that it’s still a cultural must-have in that sense. But it’s tricky for a lot of people working in church like that, because it does feel like from Sunday to Sunday nobody cares and nobody wants to come to church and be part of it, but they want you there when –
A: When they need you there.
H: Mm-hm.

(to be continued!)

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