Norwegian composer Ingolv Haaland spent four years meticulously composing the nine songs that appear on his new live album being released next month. A process – combining Arabic instrumentation, Western arrangements and Cambodian singing – that was all-consuming.
“It took insane amounts of work to do this,” the blond-haired musician – an assistant professor at the University of Agder in Norway – said last week over Skype.
“Of course, when you work 20 hours a day over months, it’s not really healthy. But you have to show people that you can do it.”
Haaland recorded the new album, Live in Concert, in late March with Cambodian singer Ouch Savy, a longtime collaborator, and the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra at the Kilden Performing Art Centre in Norway.
The music, a wall of sound, ranges from cheerful to dark and eerie, with the tracks driven by Haaland’s ethereal grand piano and the multinational orchestra’s atmospheric strings. It was the orchestra that proved the most difficult to arrange for Haaland.
“Combining strings with Arabic instruments – nobody does that, because they say it can’t be done,” said Haaland.
Written for his ongoing PhD, titled How to develop a signature sound?: A performers perspective, the songs were part of a “quest for [his] own musical identity” and a chance to “push [his] own artistic limits”.
Haaland said that he had assembled “only the best people” to perform them live, musicians like Palestinian lutist Tareq Abboushi, Lebanese percussionist Rony Barrak and Savy, who Haaland lauded as “maybe one of the most skilled singers I have ever worked with”.
The Norwegian met Savy in Cambodia in 2009. Having spent time in Lebanon and Palestine, he observed similar note-bending and haunting melodies in both Arabic and Khmer music.
Looking for a way to combine the two, he consulted a friend who worked at Cambodian Living Arts, who introduced him to the 28-year-old.
Savy – a protege of blind chapei master Kong Nay – sang on both Haaland’s Journey and last year’s Asian Flow. Most of the songs from Live in Concert came from Asian Flow, though they are rawer and more powerful live, with freshly improvised solo sections.
While the live project was challenging for Savy, she said it was also rewarding to represent the Kingdom abroad.
“When I did the concert, all around me were foreigners. I felt very proud to be representing Cambodia,” said the softly spoken singer.
Though Savy originally planned to be in Norway for only a few days, she happily extended her trip to two weeks when asked to perform for a local Khmer association.
“They told me that they had not heard the chapei or traditional Khmer songs for many years. I was happy to play for them,” she remembered. “Some people were crying.”
Savy also went to a music academy in Sweden to host a workshop on traditional Khmer singing.
After the concert, which Haaland called a “once in a lifetime event”, the composer said he felt intense relief.
“I was so happy all was finished. I was exhausted,” he said with a laugh.
“It was sort of crazy to think really big and out of the box [for this concert] because nobody believed it was possible to do this,” he said.
“But for me, it’s really important that if I say something, I deliver.”
Live in Concert will be available for purchase on December 15 at Monument Books as well as on iTunes and Amazon.