Some facets in the appearance of artists speak for themselves: In the inlay of his latest album "Omicron" you find a snapshot of Morten Birkeland Nielsen's dog, but since the musician doesn't have any official promo photo at hand, we agree that I will use the portrait from his FB page.
In the interview, on the other hand, the Norwegian proves to be keen to provide information, not only with regard to his ambient synth project BREIDABLIK, but also with regard to his youth in the musically exciting city of Bergen. As an interested contemporary without heavy metal ambitions, Morten experienced the first steps of Burzum and Mayhem from an almost neighbourly distance. His enthusiasm for electronic music, especially of the “Berlin School”, is not least reflected in his perception of the influence of those electronic pioneers on the hypnotic sounds, which produced a fascinating and disturbing echo in Norwegian Black Metal.
The autodidact humourously pays respect to the pioneers when he assigns BREIDABLIK's music to the "Bergen School Of Electronic Music" and, when talking about electronic music, he shows hardly any fear of contact in a broader sense, but rather outlines connections towards numerous genres that seem unlikely to be associated with his music - at least on first listening.
Hi Morten, nice to meet you, and to get a chance to talk about BREIDABLIK! Before we focus on that project, let’s chat a bit about earlier days: I guess that my first conscious perception of synthesizer music must have been "Zoolook" or "Oxygene" by Jean-Michel Jarre, and I can well remember my childish idea of this guy being sort of a sound magician, creating soundtracks obviously different to the rock music albums my father used to listen to. Some years later, I became aware of organist Bo Hansson’s interpretation of "The Lord Of The Rings". Both artists surely encouraged my open attitude towards such fantastic music, that I kept listening to even when I became a rather intolerent metal head. How about you - how did you discover "fantastic" / inspiring electronic music and what made you start composing your own music?
Although I grew up in the 1980s, a decade where the sounds of synthesizers were everywhere. I must admit that I did not care much about electronic music in my early years. As most other from my area, I was more into heavy metal with Iron Maiden as a firm favorite. However, with the release of Maiden’s "Somewhere In Time" in 1986, I became more conscious of how the synthesizer could be a vital and important element in music. At the same time I started my journey into the world of progressive music and soon discovered how the synthesizer could be used as a main instrument. If my memory serves me correct I bought Tangerine Dream’s "Rubicon" and "Phaedra" at a record fair in Bergen in the early 1990s, mainly because I liked the cover art. In the beginning, the music did not make a very big impression on me, but this did of course change over the years. It is amazing how something that was first experienced as too minimalistic and repetitive suddenly turned out to be highly detailed and complex with subsequent listening. I guess I just needed some time to digest and understand this form of music. It is mainly the German, and especially Berlin, scene that has inspired my own music. I have most of Jean-Michel Jarre early records, but I have not played these that often. I much prefer Zanov from the French scene. I am of course a big fan of Bo Hansson. His music is just amazing! Everyone who enjoy Hansson’s music should give Elds Mark (eldsmark.bandcamp.com) a listen! Really good "forest prog" from Breidablik’s guitarist Håkon Oftung (Jordsjø, ex-Tusmørke).
So how did I start composing my own music? Although I have been playing guitar since I was a teenager, I have never been very good at that instrument and I find it extremely difficult to compose music on guitar. So while my friends started out their musical careers in their mid teens, I did not have much to offer or any ambitions about being a musician. However, with home recording becoming more accessible during the 2000s I found the tools to record my own music. Things escalated when I bought my first synthesizer in the late 2000s. This was love at first sight and I found it far easier to compose music on the synthesizer compared to guitars. I was finally able to transfer the ideas that popped up in my head to actual recordings. My first recordings were poor attempts at ambient soundscapes with noise and random sequences, probably inspired by early Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. I did learn a lot in this period and I guess the overall quality of the music improved. Having met Håkon Oftung at an online music forum, I shared my recordings with him and this was later on released as the split-cassette "Songs from the Northern Wasteland" (the title being a homage to Michael Hoenig). My first full-length album "Vinter" was released on cassette in January 2017 and was fairly well-received. This led to a deal with Pancromatic Records and I have since released three LPs on this label ("Penumbra", "Nhoohr", and "Omicron"). I am really grateful to Tormod Opedal, the owner of Pancromatic Records for giving me this opportunity. I have been a vivid record collector since 1983 and releasing my own music is a dream come true (although I never thought this would happen).
One of the great things about being signed to Pancromatic Records is that Tormod Opedal has a very strong back catalogue with regard to synth-related music. He started his first label Uniton Records in 1980. The first release was Norwegian Fra Lippo Lippi "In Silence", which best can be described as a bleaker and even more depressive version of Joy Division, but Uniton also released classic Berlin School records by Rolf Trostel, Mark Shreeve, Conrad Schnitzler. After Untion, Opedal ran Cicada Records (Erik Wøllo, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Popul Vuh, and many others) for a couple of years before he started well-known Tatra Records (Apoptygma Berzerk, Holy Toy, Ym-Stammen). He was also involved in Moonfog Records (Isengard, Satyricon, Darkthrone etc.).
You live in a city which to me was the hidden capital of contemporary rock and metal in the North, at least roundabout ten years ago. Did you grow up side by side with some of those musicians who have become quite popular and successful, or have you been rather on your own or with some other "nerds" (from a metal head’s perspective) who focused e.g. on the Berlin school of electronic music - and then invented, probably with some humour, the "Bergen School of Electronic Music"?
I spent my formative years in the southern part of Bergen and this part of the town has many well-known musicians. Edvard Grieg lived here, and I guess Kygo and Alan Walker are the most recent "stars". In my neighborhood we were more into metal, and several of my contemporary’s from the area became relatively famous. I can mention Varg Vikernes, Demonaz from Amputation and Immortal, Jørn Inge from Old Funeral, Immortal, and Hades (Almighty) and the great folks from Helheim. Vikernes grew up just a couple of hundred meters from me. He was some years older, but was always a really kind and respectful person. Very talkative! I cannot say that I agree with his political views, but I surely respect him as a musician. I watched him play guitar at his home several times and he was extremely skilled and talented already from the beginning. His music has been very important to me. "Det som engang var" is probably the greatest BM song ever recorded.
Although I have spent many late nights with my friends from this scene I was never very into the metal-look and attitudes myself. It was mainly the music that appealed to me. So I guess I was pretty normal guy when I grew up, although with an above average interest in music.
Actually, I think that the Berlin School of Electronic music has been somewhat important for the development of Norwegian Black Metal. Burzum included several ambient pieces on his first albums that resembles early Berlin School. Euronymous was a big fan of German synth (Mayhem had an intro by Conrad Schnitzler on "Deathcrush" and Euronymous listened to "Cyborg" by Klaus Schulze the night he died), and the whole Dungeon synth thing is a direct ascendant from the German masters. There are also many similarities in the music both with regard to the somewhat cold emotional content and the repetitive structure of the music.
The "Bergen School of Electronic Music" is just something I came up with as a way of acknowledging that Breidablik music is inspired by the Berlin scene (Note that there is only a two letter difference between "Bergen" and "Berlin").
Did you find the name BREIDABLIK or did the name find you, and what was the intention behind?
I wanted a name that reflected my heritage and going to the old Norse mythology was rather natural. Breidablik was the house of the god Balder and is described as "the fairest place in the Norse universe and is a place where nothing unclean could dwell". I spend a lot of time walking in the forests and mountains here at the Western coast of Norway and the wilderness and untouched nature is the main inspiration for my music. The name Breidablik reflects this inspiration. Due to other uses (for instance an Icelandic soccer team), the name is probably a cliché in the Nordic countries, but I think that it may be perceived as somewhat mystical and exotic in other parts of the world.
"For those of you into ambient electronic music : this is a lovely euphonious album. Not spectacular, rather music for daydreaming and watching the clouds... without doubts, well-composed." - This was the English summary of my review that I had written before I realized that I somehow came back to "Nhoohr" more often than I had originally assumed. There was more in or behind the music, a certain vibe or whatever, that encouraged me to give the album various further spins, and so it ended up as one of my most-played records in 2019. From today’s perspective, I say again it’s really well-composed and the music floats naturally without ever sounding arbitrary. How long did it take you to create the album and in how far do you let the music guide you once you start playing?
Thank you for the kind words! While "Penumbra" was more or less improvised, I had a very clear plan and structure for "Nhoohr". The title and concept for "Nhoohr" just popped up in my head one day while I was walking my dog in a beautiful little beech forest here in Bergen. Nhoohr is an imaginary place that closely resemblance our own world, but that is untouched by humans. This a place where governed by the nature itself and everything is just clean and beautiful. The songs on the album represents a voyage through Nhoohr starting with the track "Arrival" which is supposed to draw the listener into this world. The travel starts with the track "At The Windswept Plains Of Nhoohr" which is a journey through vast, cold landscapes ending at the foot of a large mountain range. "Clouddancing" takes you over the ridges of these mountains. Climbing down again, you start your walk through the "Old Forest" before you enter the dark moors in the track "Strange Lands". Coming out of the moors, you watch the sun set with "Perihelion". There is also a Bandcamp bonus track called "Shadows". This track questions the future of Nhoohr now that hummans have entered and seen this world. I cannot really remember how long it took to get the album down, but I think everything was composed and recorded in about six months.
My fave track from "Nhoohr" must be "The Old Forest" which includes acoustic guitar and some samples which add a rather "sacral" atmosphere, easily inspiring the imagination of a forest as open cathedral in which all sorts of creatures have their home... What inspired you to write that track and in how far can electronic music become a guide to paradoxically leave the electronic world behind?
"The old forest" is also one of my own favorite songs from "Nhoohr". The guitar parts are obviously inspired by Ulver’s "Kveldssanger". As mentioned above, I find it difficult to compose music on guitars, so "The Old Forest" is an exception from the rule. While working on the album we sold our apartment and moved to a larger house. In this process, almost all of my gear was placed in storage for two months. The only instrument I had access to was my acoustic guitar (a beautiful Czech made Furch S22 jumbo) and this forced me to use the guitar as a creative tool. Originally, the song included a third guitar section, but I was never happy with this and replaced it with the ambient synth section when I finally was able to record the song.
I can see that there is a clear paradox between my vision for Nhoohr and the use of electronic instruments. However, I think that as long as the music triggers the specific emotions and perceptions that I want to transfer to the listener my goal is accomplished. As one reviewer wrote "Breidablik’s 'traditional' approach to synthetic sound, fits perfectly in the ever-growing body of art that is music. 'Nhoohr' is, in places, as beautiful in its own way as any music played on more traditional instrumentation".
Your new album is entitled "Omicron" and the press sheet states that it deals with circularity. My first association is the pre-monotheistic version of life going in circles (instead of linearity), and I’m convinced that such a concept could allow some constantly stressed people in hyper (fast) modern times to relax a bit more, and that idea goes well along with my perception of your music. But maybe I’m on a wrong track...?
I think your interpretation is right on track. Although there is a constant pressure for development and progress, most of the things in life do actually turn around in circles. Just think of the the planets and the seasons. Even our existence as humans can be described as circular. The circle of life continues every time new generations are born. Everything starts all over again at one point.
"Omicron" contains "only" two tracks, at least the LP version. So, you really started with a different approach than on "Nhoohr", didn’t you? And with Håkon Oftung you had a guest musician contributing guitar and flute, thus adding an even more "organic" feeling to the album...
Actually, "Omicron" is supposed to be one single coherent song, but due to the LP format, it had to be separated into two tracks. Commercially, this is probably a very bad idea and you will not see the album entering any charts. And I really do not care. I just wanted to challenge myself with making such a long composition, and I think that I accomplished the task. On Breidablik’s next album I will go back to "shorter" songs, that is, a length of 5-22 minutes.
I am really happy with Håkon joining Breidablik. While I am completely autodidact when it comes to music and can hardly play my instruments, he has formal education and is just extremely skilled. I love his guitar tone, perfect for this kind of music.
Are you aware of the so-called "Dungeon Synth" genre that has grown to surprising proportions in the underground and which creates keyboard soundtracks within quite narrow artistic borders? Which (other) developments fascinate you in recent years that maybe even have an effect upon BREIDABLIK?
Although one of my early tracks appeared on a DS-sampler some years ago, I cannot say that I am exactly updated on contemporary Dungeon synth. I am of course familiar with the old Mortiis/Haavard records and Jim Kirkwood’s albums and have some other 1990s DS in my collection. I am still stuck in the 70-90s music and I should probably aim at educating myself with regard to artists from recent years. With regard to new music, I ought to mention that I am responsible for a series of compilation album that include music from the Norwegian synth-underground. We have currently released two albums (one double) and has just signed a contract with Vidar Hanssen from well-known Beatservice Records (Biosphere, Xploding Plastix and many more). The albums can be downloaded for free from https://unts-untsplinksandplonks.bandcamp.com/
Of course none of my business, but curious as I am, you may allow me to ask about a topic besides music: I saw you sharing and commenting psychology articles, so you probably want to raise interest for certain aspects. Is this interest based on your profession, and if so, do you also reflect the "therapeutical value" of music?
I am a full professor in work and organizational psychology so writing research papers is the major part of my profession. I am trained in research and have hardly any knowledge about clinical psychology so I have not reflected about any therapeutic values. I am very strict with regard to separating my day job from my family obligations and spare time activities, so I simply forget about job-related stuff when making music. Of course, as I know a thing or two about perception processes I cannot deny that I may be using a few tricks from this branch of psychology as tools when composing.
Thank you, Morten, for giving us an insight into your world! Before we say goodbye: What surroundings do you suggest if people ask you where they should preferably listen your music?
I think that my music is best consumed at a place without any auditory or visual noise. Even though it can be difficult to perceive, there are actually many small things that happen in Breidablik’s music and it may require some efforts to fully appreciate the music. You should not listen to Breidablik, or any other form of human made music when being in the wilderness. In such cases, you should only focus on the music that surround you. That is, the wind in the trees, the waves in the ocean, the birds singing their beautiful songs, and so on. This is the most amazing music that exists!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to these interesting questions!