Cecilie Ore: ‘I did not choose composition, composition chose me!

While studying piano in Paris, Cecilie Ore realised that she was more of a creator than a performer. She switched to composition and moved to Amsterdam to study with Ton de Leeuw. This autumn her H2O-Trilogy for string quartet will premiere, and her choral composition Speak Louder! will be recorded for CD.

‘I come from a family of scientists’, says Cecilie Ore (Oslo, 1954), ‘but my mother was very interested in music, opera and modern art. In addition to the importance of natural sciences, I was also imbued with the value of artistic expression. I discovered contemporary music on my own, however.’

Cecilie Ore (c) Ketil Born

There was no piano at home, but the instrument nevertheless exerted a great attraction on her: ‘Wherever I was, I would always find a piano. I really wanted to learn how to play, but it was not until I was eight years old that I got my first piano lessons.’

This proved to be decisive for her development: ‘By playing the piano, I learned to understand music on a deeper level and realised that while composing you must always bear in mind the importance of interpretation.’ She studied the piano with Liv Glaser at the Norwegian Academy of Music and continued her studies in Paris with Suzanne Roche. ‘That was my own idea, but Liv Glaser supported it wholeheartedly.’

Golden move

It was a bit of a culture shock: ‘As a teacher, Roche was the total opposite of Glaser. She was one of Vlado Perlemuter’s assistants and I remember her as being strict and very focused on technique. In any case, education in France was much more authoritarian than in Norway and, in my opinion, more conservative as well.’

Yet it turned out to be a golden move: ‘I learned a lot from Roche, who organised fantastic meetings and concerts in her home in Montmartre. During that period I realised that I was not really a stage personality. I did not feel comfortable in the limelight and discovered that my inner need was rather to be creative.’

‘In hindsight, a career as a concert pianist had never much appealed to me, I think I am more of a back-stage person. My piano playing led me to composing, and I’m very grateful for this! These days I hardly ever touch the instrument anymore, though; the compositional process takes place inside my head.’

Ore now also understands better why she was so keen on going to Paris after graduating: ‘It was largely subconscious, and only much later the penny dropped as to where this urge came from. Once I had written my first composition, there was no looking back; it felt like coming home at last. It is not as if at a certain moment I changed my mind. I did not choose composing, it chose me!’


Besides her studies in Paris, literature also gave her a firm push towards composition. In several interviews, Ore mentioned she needs literature in order to compose. Does this refer to specific writers or books? ‘No, it is more general. I have always been a reader, so it was only natural that my first compositions were triggered by literature and language. On the one hand, a text can evoke mental images and trigger extra-musical ideas. On the other, music and literature have many aspects in common, such as timbre, rhythm, pitch and form. For me, working with text is like working with a sparring partner; it offers both resilience and ideas. Literature was a vehicle that helped me find my way into composing.’

Cecilie Ore: ‘Literature helped me find my way into composing. Working with text is like working with a sparring partner; it offers both resilience and ideas.’

In 1984 she wrote Calliope for solo soprano, after The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein. As in her later vocal music, Ore employs fragmented texts and countless repetitions, in a wide range of vocal variations. ‘This was still during my studies, when I was reading books about the functioning of our brains.’

‘I wanted to create a sound picture of how our mind freely generates associations, roaming around, forking in and out of new thoughts. Calliope was an attempt to create an inner polyphony of thoughts and a musical heterophony with only one voice: whispering, speaking, singing, shouting and otherwise. It is a piece that raises questions: For whom are we writing? Ourselves? Strangers? Or…?’

Ton de Leeuw

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

Heterophony, the repetition and variation of motifs in alternating sequences in different voices, often occurs in Early and Asian music. As an ethnomusicologist, Ton de Leeuw studied non-Western traditional music extensively, and he regularly used heterophony in his own work. Did De Leeuw perhaps spark off her love for this technique?

‘Certainly, that aspect of his teaching has been important to me. As a student, I had a period when I mainly listened to Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese ritual music, especially gagaku (Japanese court music, TD) and kecak (Balinese temple music, TD). It was a shock to hear how modern it sounded!’

There are more similarities with De Leeuw, who in connection with his own output often spoke of ‘music of being’, a concept he borrowed from Asian music. He contrasted this with Western developmental thinking and the tonality associated with it. In this ‘music of becoming’, a composition rushes from climax to climax, building up ever more tension that is finally resolved in the fundamental. This feels like a safe ‘homecoming’. Eastern music, on the other hand, is generally built from variations on similar motifs and rhythms. In essence, it is always the same, though it constantly changes colour, like a kaleidoscope. This gives the listener room for reflection, and to discern new patterns each time.


However different in style, a feeling of timelessness also characterises Ore’s work, and she readily admits being interested in the phenomenon of time. Between 1988 and 1992, she dedicated the tetralogy Codex Temporum to it, and in 1999 she completed yet another four-part cycle, Tempora mutantur. Both have been released on CD.

‘Fascinated by Asian music, I looked for ways to connect the Eastern way of thinking with Western musical ideas’, says Ore. ‘I wanted to create an open landscape but at the same time music that has flux and direction. This idea underlies most of my work.’

Cecilie Ore: ‘Ton de Leeuw was a very open and tolerant teacher. He did not try to force his ideas on me, but let me find my own way.’

Being Norwegian, how did Ore end up studying with Ton de Leeuw? ‘Two important role models for me in Norway were the composers Lasse Thoresen and Olav Anton Thommessen. They had both studied at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, and advised me to study with Ton de Leeuw.’ As with her previous studies in Paris, this choice worked out well: ‘Ton de Leeuw was an attentive listener! His way of teaching was very open and tolerant. He did not try to force his ideas on me, but let me find my own way. This required a great deal of independence, which not all students found easy to cope with.’

Ore appreciated it, though: ‘Ton de Leeuw held up a mirror and forced you to look at your strengths and weaknesses. His approach was hard at times, but in the long run it was really valuable. He did not wish to create epigones, but instead focused on discovering the uniqueness in his students. Thanks to him I learned to develop my own expressiveness instead of imitating others.’

She never mentally asks him for advice, though: ‘The core of his teaching was to make his students independent, and inspire us to view current musical trends with a critical eye, in order to look beyond them. Exactly what true teaching is all about.’


In perusing her list of works it strikes one that Ore seems to have a penchant for thematic, multi-movement works. In addition to the aforementioned cycles on the concept of time, she also devoted a three-part series to cloud formations under the overall title Cirrus. Coming autumn her H2O-Trilogy for string quartet will premiere.

‘Composing cycles is attractive’, explains Ore. ‘You can formulate ideas and reformulate them again and again, penetrating ever deeper into the musical material. In my H2O-Trilogy, for example, all the scales and harmonic structures are derived from the 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to oxygen. Which incited an abundance of major and minor seconds.’

Cecilie Ore: ‘In my H2O-Trilogy all the scales and harmonic structures are derived from the 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to oxygen. This incited an abundance of major and minor seconds.’

The trilogy is a ‘homage to and celebration of nature’, says Ore. ‘The first string quartet, WaterWorks, pictures the movement of water, starting from the high mountains, flowing through rivers, lakes and waterfalls and eventually ending up in the sea via the fjords, where it evaporates and returns as rain. Then the circle starts all over again. The next movement, Glacier Song, is an ode to ice and glaciers . The strings quote fragments from Purcell’s Cold Song, as a reminder of the little ice age in Europe. Morning Mist, the third and final movement, is about moisture and fog.’

Ore uses various musical means to make these concepts palpable. ‘It has long been taboo to write programmatically’, she says, ‘but with this cycle I wanted to challenge the modernist concept that music must be abstract. I want the audience to hear the water running, so I use dramatic scale- and trill-movements. With the use of extreme ponticelli I hope to make them experience the chill of ice, while rapid figurations molto sul tasto, and fingers that barely touch the strings evoke the feeling of being enveloped by the vague consistency of mist.’

Political and social themes

Another constant in her work is the engagement with social and political themes, which manifests itself ever more strongly. It began in 2001 with A. – a shadow opera, a chilling inner monologue by Agamemnon. This constitutes a long and fierce indictment of war, violence, and abuse of power. Six different voices – accompanied only by sparse gongs – speak, groan, shout or whisper fragmented verses by the Norwegian poet Paal-Helge Haugen. Gradually, we recognise the well-known Nazi excuse of ‘Ich habe es nicht gewusst’, recited in an array of voice inflections that send shivers down your spine.

The libretto was partly written in collaboration with Iannis Xenakis. ‘Xenakis was originally supposed to compose the music’, recalls Ore. ‘But when he fell ill, I was asked to take over. That assignment heralded my return to vocal music. It pulled me from the safe but narrow confines of contemporary instrumental music and threw me straight back into society. For all my subsequent vocal pieces I asked myself: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be civilised? From here it seemed natural to explore topics such as the death penalty, freedom of speech, misogyny, criticism of religion, superstition and the like.’

This led to impressive compositions such as the opera Dead Beat Escapement, about the inhumanity of the death penalty (2008); the choral piece Come to the Edge!, inspired by the mock trial against Pussy Riot in 2012, in which statements by the two accused women are quoted (2013), and Who do you think you are?, in which a solo soprano recites a chilling litany of (death) threats against women who dare voice their opinions (2014). In the at times hilarious Vatican Trilogy, Ore zooms in on issues such as a dead pope on trial, the gruesome murder of a pregnant pope and the fig leaf campaign that led to a secret closet filled with severed penises (2015-2017).

Man versus Nature

In 2019 she composed Speak Louder! for mixed choir, which will be recorded for CD by Ensemble 96 in September. The fourteen-minute composition targets overpopulation. Ore: ‘An important mantra repeated by almost every politician in the world today is growth. But where has this got us? Europe and many other countries are overpopulated. We use natural resources as if they were infinite.’

‘We exploit and steal the habitat of animals, birds and insects. We behave as if the world were created only for mankind and fail to recognise that our survival depends on the subsistence of other species. – And then we act surprised when Covid-19 comes along! We should really stop exploiting and overpopulating the world, and start treating nature with more kindness, understanding and respect.’

Cecilie Ore: ‘We must stop exploiting and overpopulating the world and treat nature with more kindness and respect. The dragonfly on my website symbolizes my concern about this.’

Her love of nature is immediately apparent on visiting her website, which opens with a larger-than-life photograph of a colourful dragonfly. Ore: ‘The image indeed symbolizes my concern for nature, but it is twofold. Years ago, someone said that my first string quartet, Praesens Subitus, was reminiscent of the movements of a dragonfly: standing still in mid-air, suddenly moving and then just as unexpectedly standing still again, and so on. In that piece, I investigate the relationship between horizontal and vertical events, between movement and stasis. ‘Indirectly, the dragonfly embodies the question: how do you create music in which Eastern and Western ideas are incorporated on an equal footing?’

Which brings us back to Ton de Leeuw: ‘His approach to Eastern music and its underlying philosophy remains a constant source of inspiration for me.’

This interview originally appeared in the August/September 2021 issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze. I translated it at the request of Norsk Musikkforlag, publisher of Ore’s scores.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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4 Responses to Cecilie Ore: ‘I did not choose composition, composition chose me!

  1. jee van minderhout says:

    dank je wel Thea voor deze mooie toelichting. Heel fijn om achtergronden in een zo duidelijke taal te kunnen verwoorden! en dat nodigt dan weer uit de betreffende muziek te beluisteren.
    Inspirerend. Veel succes en groet, Jeanne


  2. Goodson Patricia says:

    I am enjoying this blog very much and appreciate the introduction to wonderful music.


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