An interview with Ola Kvernberg
This is the extended version of the article that originally appeared in The List Spring issue 2023 and was written in partnership with Olavsfest.
Componist and violinist Ola Kvernberg is one of Norway’s leading jazz musicians. His house/prog/dance/jazz fusion projects, Steamdome I & II, were received with incredible critical acclaim. The List sat down with Ola to discuss his career, Trondheim’s music scene, and the upcoming world premiere of Steamdome III at Olavsfest.
“I never really got to choose to become a musician, I just grew into the role,” says Ola Kvernberg. His parents worked as a doctor and a nurse, but their real passion was music. Ola began playing the violin at 3 years old under his mother’s tutelage, and he and his siblings barely remember a time before music. “My two sisters also became professional musicians, but we do have a black sheep in the family. My brother sadly became a doctor,” says Ola and laughs.
Ola grew up in a small community in Fræna and his childhood and adolescence were dedicated to music. When he was 9 years old, he started classical studies under Serbian violinist Jasminka Penjin who came from a completely different culture of music education. “She went hard, really hard,” says Ola. “But this was my Karate Kid moment — it was the ‘wax on, wax off’ montage. She basically picked everything apart and restructured and rebuilt my whole technique.” This cyclical process of total deconstruction and novel rebuilding followed him to Trondheim and has come to characterise Ola’s career.
Trondheim’s musical pull
Ola’s rebellious streak came through jazz. Until he was about 15 years old, Ola had mostly played classical and folk music. “I found old vinyl records with some of the fathers of violin jazz — Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen — and I felt this gravitational pull,” Ola explains. This was music that neither his dad nor teachers knew anything about, it was something that was completely his.
His passion for jazz led Ola to the Trondheim Conservatory of Music at NTNU. He had already played with jazz bands at the folk high school he attended, and even toured with Hot Club de Norvège, after surprisingly playing on stage at Djangofestivalen in Oslo with some of jazz’s biggest names. Being only 18, this is where he earned his prodigy status. However, it wasn’t until the Conservatory that the real deal began.
“The Conservatory was different from all other musical studies in Norway at the time. The concept was centred around students hearing. Instead of passively accumulating new information like music history and theory, they taught us to develop our ears and apply them as tools to become self-sufficient.”
Ola says the teacher would ask students what type of music they were into and then learn how to do it. Then once you learned it, they would drill you again and if you had missed a detail, like what exactly was happening with the bass in a particular song, you would have to go back and learn how to do that yourself.
“That’s the magical formula the Jazz Conservatory inserted into our brains, making us sort of scientists through deciphering the music we love.”
Defeating the ghost
Ola has now lived for over 20 years in Trondheim and has become interwoven with the city’s musical scene. However, he says it happened quickly and quite naturally.
“During my studies, there was about a radius of 50 metres where I would do everything. The Classical Conservatory was across the street and then my radius grew as I would get introduced to blues players, folk musicians, and many more,” says Ola. Today, Ola works a lot in music scoring for movies and he has the luxury of being able to summon any type of line-up he could dream of, thanks to the city’s diverse and close-knit music scene.
Ola and his fellow students used to joke about the ‘Oslo ghost’ tempting musicians to the big city as many were quick to go as soon as they finished. Ola stayed in Trondheim, both for life reasons (kids, etc.) and also because of the city’s unique music scene.
“You can walk to anything here in Trondheim and I think this is pretty significant. It creates an environment where, no matter what, you will bump into other music scenes and genres. The city has in that way influenced my music. The distance between scenes is even shorter now and that leads to a lot of crossover projects.”
The rise of Steamdome
Ola is an incredibly industrious musician, both as a violin player and composer. He’s played in more bands than he can count, had his own traditional jazz trio and bands, scored podcasts and over 20 movies. One of his biggest successes and most profiled projects has been Steamdome — born out of Trondheim’s Jazzfest — where Ola’s fusionist approach is on full display.
“I started to get into the dance music scene and got to know Todd Terje who released the fantastic album It’s Album Time. There was something that clicked for me right then with EDM, that hadn’t clicked the same way for rock or prog music,” says Ola. “What I like about it and house music was you have no choice but to feel. Your limbs just start moving because the music demands a physical response. It somehow resonated with the feeling I remember as a kid, the endorphin rush I would get from playing folk and gammaldans.”
This has created an electrifying atmosphere at live shows of Steamdome. People in the crowd lose themselves to the journey of musical exploration. The soul of jazz is still very much alive within Steamdome despite the diversity of influences. Ola and friends allow themselves to be swept up by improvisation when collective lighting strikes the band.
Steamdome isn’t only a product of fusion though, it’s also a result of Ola’s cyclical deconstruction and rebuilding. “Getting into EDM I applied the same methodology as I learned at the Jazz Conservatory. Going to the source and dissecting what powered it,” says Ola. “I approached Steamdome like a film, a bigger story. I’m inspired by large form composers, like Stravinsky, who could plant an idea at the one-minute mark and then pick it up again after 30 minutes.”
“I also took inspiration from film scoring. I’ve gotten really healthy beatings by directors through the years who might need you to completely change something even though you’re emotionally wrung out after the original. And I realised I need to become that director myself,” Ola explains.
“Our lord and saviour is music, so you need to do whatever it takes for the music experience. When I was younger I always dreamed of being front and centre, tossing my hair dramatically like an old-school virtuoso. But for Steamdome I sometimes just play bass synth for 10 minutes, which my younger self would never have believed I would do.”
To the solar system
Now the hugely anticipated Steamdome III has been announced and the scale is bigger than ever before. During Olavsfest on August 3rd, Ola will be joined by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra on stage in the Borggården courtyard next to Nidarosdomen.
“I kind of feel like a tick that waits in a tree until a cow passes underneath and then jumps down for its life’s feast. Steamdome III is the accumulation of my 20 years in music and playing it at Olavsfest is my feast of a lifetime.”
Olavsfest is a week-long cultural festival between July 28th and August 3rd which takes over large parts of Trondheim. There’s a thrum of energy throughout the city and Ola is dead set on bringing it to a climax.
“To continue the film analogy, part of my method has become to visualise the premiere performance. Now I know the location, the exact time we start, and almost down to the second when everything’s going to go down. I can see how the communication will be on stage, how I pass something on to the conductor, and how he’ll throw gasoline on the orchestra to light them up.”
And Ola isn’t kidding when he says he prepares methodically for live performances. He’s even researched exactly when the sun will go down in Borggården and incorporated it into the performance.
“We’ll have the greatest light engineer in this solar system,” says Ola jovially. “I want the people to feel the courtyard boil up in energy as we lower the Steamdome over it.”