Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg brings his personal take on contemporary music to Brooklyn

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World-renowned cellist and two-time winner of the Danish Grammy award Jakob Kullberg is known for his close collaboration with Danish composer Per Nørgaard. But don’t call him a contemporary musician.

“I consider myself simply a musician or an artist,” says Kullberg. “I am interested in so many different styles.”

On February 2nd, the versatile and eclectic cellist, singer and all-around musician lands at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust for a performance that’s guaranteed to impress and defy all expectations.

Denmark In New York caught up with Kullberg to explore his musical inspirations and his unique collaboration with one of Denmark’s leading contemporary composers.

Denmark In New York: Jakob Kullberg, thank you for speaking with us ahead of what promises to be a busy week. What inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career as a professional musician?

Jakob Kullberg: I would say that I took up the cello before I had any notion of career since I started taking lessons at the age of five. However, as a young child I had some incredible experiences with a string orchestra conducted by my father called Aarhus Young Strings which toured to many different places across Europe and which afforded me an important feeling of camaraderie as we strived to play our very best in concerts in Paris, Rome and elsewhere.

Then later, while in high school, I think it became self evident that all I thought about was music in one form or another.

Denmark In New York: You are a highly accomplished musician, two-time Danish Grammy award-winner, and have been appointed artist-in-residence at the International Carl Nielsen Violin Competition. Is there a burden that comes with achieving such acclaim?

Jakob Kullberg: I perhaps don’t think along those lines. However, one thing that usually weighs heavily on the shoulders of a classical musician is the ideal of perfectionism.

In the particular program that I will be performing at National Sawdust, however, I have put myself in an interesting situation. Half of the program allows for that thinking about perfectionism. But the rest of the program puts me in a different expressive position where I will not only play the cello but also sing.

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Kullberg (r) and Nørgård (l) at work.

I am completely untrained as a singer and in the pieces where I both play the cello and sing what interests me is the inherent expression of the imperfect.

So, this music places itself closer to an ideal common to popular music. In fact, these songs which are by myself, fellow Dane and acclaimed composer Niels Rønsholdt, and Norwegian composer Eivind Buene all spring from a love for popular music. The songs are different types of hybrids between popular music and contemporary classical music.

You are currently experiencing what can be described a unique collaboration with Danish composer Per Nørgaard, who has dedicated the second movement of his concerto Momentum to you and your wife Gudrun as a wedding gift. How did your work relationship with Per Nørgaard come into being and what has it meant to you and for your career?

Jakob Kullberg: Indirectly my father led the way as he worked with Nørgård when I was just born. He premiered many works for choir by Nørgård. Having grown up with Nørgård’s music as a child but finding it too much, it was much later when as a young student I fell in love with Nørgård’s music as I listened to it on my father’s albums.

I was spellbound by his extraordinary duo for violin and cello called Tjampuan which I have recently recorded and which is available on Spotify. The way he could work with harmonic colours sent my mind spinning with inspiration.

I then slowly began working my way through Nørgård’s solo cello works and works for string quartet and ever so slowly I became the only cellist he would compose for.

I have been asked before how this impacted my career and it has obviously opened many doors for me that I am fluent in his musical language. But, to me, the more important thing is how he has taught me as a musician and an arranger, as well as how he has influenced me as a human being with his constant generosity of spirit and humour.

There is a little bit of Nørgård in everything I do — even when I make coffee! In fact, Nørgård used to show me how he would use his so called infinity series to calculate exactly how long the coffee should sit before it was ready for drinking.

On February 2nd, you will make your debut at New York’s National Sawdust with a repertoire consisting solely of Nordic composers. Why did you pick only Nordic composers and what about their music do you think will touch the New York audience?

Jakob Kullberg: I feel there is an abundance of profound contemporary classical music coming from the Nordic countries. Nørgård and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho share a talent for creating incredibly nuanced colours with their harmonies and orchestrations. There is something so rich and flamboyant in their works. Saariaho, I think, shares the very subtle and quiet expressions with Danish composer Bent Sørensen. Sørensen’s music is like a transmogrified beautiful silence, if that makes any sense?

So I think with their music it is a journey through different ideas of light.

You are described as an advocate of contemporary composers. What about them and their music speaks to you in a way that classical or modern composers cannot?

Jakob Kullberg: I consider myself simply a musician or an artist. I am interested in so many different styles of music and perform all or most of them regularly from Bach through Beethoven to contemporary classical music and these days more and more popular or indie-popular music.

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“I fell in love with Nørgård’s music as I listened to it on my father’s albums,” says Kullberg.

Each composer allows you to express in different ways. Some in an almost carnal way — at least, that is often how I feel about the music of Brahms. It’s very physical. As a performer of other peoples’ music I am a little like an actor sometimes, finding out how to express a personal message through whatever ideas and expressions are at my disposal in a composition.

So, if you asked me to choose a style of music I would not really be able to do so. Bach is very important to me and, in fact, all the classical composers such as Beethoven and Haydn are too. But then, Nørgård makes me wonder and piques my curiosity in other ways.

So to return to the question how it has impacted my career to work with Nørgård (and Saariaho and Sørensen) I would say it has given me exciting opportunities but with the potential stigma of being considered a champion of contemporary music. I am a champion of a select few modern composers just like I like to specialize in carefully selected composers that I feel I absolutely must play. So my contemporary exploits have been highlighted simply because the living composers I work with are top shelf.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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