Interview: John Erik Kaada

John Erik Kaada (or KAADA as he is known in the music world) is known in his native Norway for his solo albums, his film music, and his rock trio Chloroform. Milan Records recently released the soundtrack album of Kaada’s score for O’HORTEN (2007), Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. (Read my review of the O’HORTEN soundtrack here.)

Last week, Kaada joined me from Norway for a delightful half-hour phone interview to discuss his current projects and his score for O’HORTEN.

* * *

JIM LOCHNER: Thank you for calling. I really appreciate it.

KAADA: Sorry it took some time. I’ve been working my ass off on different projects and my inbox has just been filling up with administrative stuff…There have been so many projects.

You’re not just a film composer. You have all these other different musical careers going on.

Yeah, I guess you could say so. I’m actually currently writing a ballet and an opera for the Norwegian State Opera. We’ve just gotten this great new opera house in Oslo…It’s this huge, fantastic building and they have ordered me to write an opera and ballet for them.

Is this the one that’s being built in the water or that a different opera house somewhere else?

Yeah, it’s the one being built in the water.

I just happened to see a picture of that on the internet and it floored me. It looked so great.

It’s fantastic! And they just told me that I have 670 artists at my disposal. [laughs] I could write whatever I want. It’s a big kick!

Oslo Opera House

This is going to be a very big, big project.

Yes it is. It’s going to be a “monster opera,” where we’re writing about the monsters in fairy tales and how they interact with each other. The daily life of trolls and monsters and the underworld in our Norwegian fairy tales.

So when is this all supposed to debut? The opera house isn’t even fully built yet, is it?

Oh yeah, it’s finished now but the first show will be in Spring 2011.

Well, it does take years and years to get those operas done.

Oh, it takes a lot of time, just to write out all the voices and orchestra and everything. It eats up all my spare time. But it’s really fun. I’m learning a lot by jumping into a different tradition, because I don’t really know much about opera at all. And I haven’t been to many opera shows that I like. So I’m kind of searching whatever has been done before and I’m just trying to find my way in, by the past, which is inspiring.

It’s also means that you’re necessarily hidebound by all the traditions that come with opera. It allows you to be freer to explore other things that people who are much more traditionally-minded may find it a little bit more difficult to do.

Absolutely. And on several of the compositions that I have been writing, I have stopped myself because I noticed that I wrote something which sounds like how I think an opera should sound like. Suddenly, I’m not writing my own music anymore. I’m writing something that I associate with that opera tradition. I have stopped myself several times. [laughs] I need to realize that and find out what my music would sound like on the opera and do my stuff instead.

It sounds like a great project.

It is, and it’s really fun. It’s nice for me also to get out of my studio once in a while. With the film music job, it’s a little bit isolated. You work pretty much on your own. But [with] the opera there are a lot of meetings, and you talk with the dancers, and singers. It’s really nice to get in touch with the artists, and listen to what they really want to do. It’s different kind. When you do film music, you’re the boss, together with the director, of course. You get musicians in, you hire them to do the job, and bang bang bang, record, record.

How did you become involved in film music?

I just kind of fell into it. It was almost a coincidence. A friend of mine made a movie with no budget in Norway ten years ago. It turned out to go really well. The film was a success at the cinema in Norway, and many described that movie as a turning point in Norwegian film history because there were a lot of artistic risks and things that we did that everybody thought the movie was really fresh. We got a lot of attention for that movie. It was called MONGOLAND. I made cuts of American ’50s music, lots of doo-wop style in the doo-wop tradition. Lots of oom-ba-ba ba-boom-ba-ba, that kind of music. It generated lots of attention. From there on it’s just been going steady since and it’s just now the last few years that I’ve actually started to see the film music job as a real job. I’ve always thought that when they call me and ask me to a new film, I always felt this just had to be the last one. This is just too good to be true. But the films just keep coming in. [laughs] So I guess I have to start to see it as a job now.

You’ve done quite a few movies in the last ten years. It’s not like you do one every two or three years. You’ve kept up a steady stream since then, as well as your other musical projects, with Chloroform and your own solo albums and everything. It’s not like you have much of a time for a breather.

I get bored pretty fast, so I like to do stuff all the time. It’s a really nice job, and to do music is still fun. So I try and do as much as possible. But I have to say, I’m just doing two movies a year. In 2002, I did five movies in a year and that was just too much. I got overworked. So now I’m really careful with what I put my hands into and just try to calm down a little bit. [laughs]

Let’s focus on O’HORTEN for a minute. On most films the composer comes in at the last minute and doesn’t have hardly any time to write the score. But apparently you came in from the very beginning, before they even started filming.

That’s the way I like to do it. [laughs] If they call me up and they say, “Hey, Kaada, we’re working on this movie.” Then I ask, “How far down the path are you?” And if they say, “Oh, we have just started cutting the movie and we’re almost done cutting it.” Then I just say, “Thank you for calling.” And they get someone else on the job. Because then it’s no fun at all to work on it. You just get in when everybody’s anxious and everybody’s really tired of the project. The director and the producer, everybody’s just nervous. That’s why I need to be in there from the beginning, so that everybody starts to think music from an early point. Because everything gets so much better. The director starts to think about music when they are cutting the movie. They really don’t know what they’re missing. If you start to think about music already when you are filming, and even when you are scripting and writing, when you go in and do the music, the music just gets sucked into the picture in a more natural way. It’s more like a unity.

It’s better to have your music on their mind than a temp track.

It’s much, much, much better. I find that to me it’s really important. I try to do something new on each project. It might not be revolutionary in terms of what has been done before by others. But I told myself I need to do something else on each movie. I don’t want to repeat myself; I try not to repeat myself. I need time to come up with a new universe, a new soundscape. It just takes time to make good music. One or two months is just not ideal to make art. [laughs]

O'Horten CDWhat attracted you to the script of O’HORTEN?

I think it was the openness. There was not much dialogue. There’s not much talking. The movie’s just about an old man who retires and he’s just walking around a little lost. It all sums up with him ski jumping from the biggest ski jump in Norway. It was more like the quiet, strange thing that an old man is starting to live his life at the age of 67. It was an intriguing plot. It just sounded like a movie that needed something strange and unusual. [laughs] And that was inspiring, much more inspiring than on work you’ve heard before.

How do you find those moments to score when you’ve got nothing actually necessarily happening onscreen, it’s all sort of this internal dialogue within these characters, and this old man trying to find his new life after all those years of working?

It’s really hard to describe because most of the stuff in film music, it’s usually an intuitive process. It’s difficult to put in words. You just have to experiment and see what works. The most challenging thing with this movie was that the music was not to dominate the characters.

You certainly don’t have tons and tons of Hollywood strings in there.

It was very easy to run over the characters so I had to do something that kind of built up underneath. There was a process that he was going through. It’s so difficult to put in words.

How did you come up with this group of instruments that you chose and different combinations? How did you come up with this unique sound? This is not certainly something we hear in scores here in America very often, if at all. Because most of our executives wouldn’t put up with it.

[laughs] No, and that’s sad for the American film industry, I guess.

That’s a whole other conversation!

I guess it comes from me collecting instruments. Almost every day I’m on eBay and I’m buying all the strange instruments I can find. That’s more like the reason. It’s not like I think, “Oh, I need this. I need this timbre on this scene.” I just pull out whatever I have in my closet with instruments and I just play around. It’s more like a playful process where I just make a lot of stuff with my instruments. It’s not every movie that I can use all these instruments, so it was really nice for once to get to use them. Yeah, I collect instruments. I have maybe 500-600 string instruments. I have a building filled up with different crap. [laughs] I need to have a lot of toys to play around with. When I’m bored or get uninspired because I don’t know what to do, I just pull out something else and I think, “Hmm, I wonder what this one sounds like today.” And then you get going. That’s maybe why I can do so much music also, because I just jump from instrument to instrument and keep it going that way.

That’s an interesting way to do it and certainly with a bunch of different instruments, it would keep your mind constantly revolving a bunch of different harmonies and timbres.

Exactly! And different tunings. You end up doing stuff you wouldn’t think of if I was sitting with a notepaper…The instruments bring up the chords and the melodies sometimes. You just do what the instrument tells you to do kind of.

For O’HORTEN, did you come up with the soundscape first or did you come up with certain themes? How did that score take shape?

I delievered a CD to Bent Hamer, the director, before they started to film. I think it was maybe 60 minutes worth of music, maybe 40-50 tracks, really short tracks. And he just pointed out a few of those, three or four. He was unusually clear about what he wanted to have. Usually a director often has a hard time making decisions that early on. Bent Hamer was really clear. He just said, “We will use this theme, this theme, and this theme.” I’ve never encountered that kind of thing. He made up his mind immediately and just followed his gut. He just picked out a few things and then I made a few variations of them. He also told me about the opening sequence in the movie which is a chopper scene where a helicopter flies over the mountains and the train. He told me he needed some music to go with that scene. I actually made that track before they started to film. They used it on the set with headsets. I don’t know, it might have inspired them to do something. I don’t know if it made much difference. At least it’s a good feeling to know that maybe my music made them make some different decisions based on music. I don’t know. At least they had it on their ears while filming. That’s really a good feeling.

The score really does fit the movie. Because it’s winter—I mean, I’ve never been to Norway—but I picture it very cold, very snowy. And you have these very open sonorities in the score. And the main character has this sort of empty feeling, like what is he going to do with his life. So the music, whether intentionally or not, because you started it so early, if it helped the filmmaker, it just matches perfectly.

Oh, thanks. I hope so. I don’t know. [laughs] But I would really advise all directors to get in touch with a composer as early as Bent Hamer did on that movie. It just feels wrong to put music on when the all the pictures and everything is cut, all blocked together. You will miss all the great interaction. And there is just too much good stuff that can happen if they get the music in early. So I don’t know why they don’t call the composers at an earlier stage.

We’ll have that discussion some other time because that’s a long one!

[laughs] I know, I know.

John Erik KaadaDo you have any other film projects coming up?

We will start to work on hopefully the next Bent Hamer film this autumn. I think he will maybe start filming this winter, but I’m not totally sure when he will start. But at least I will have my music ready when he starts. [laughs] But that’s one of the projects, a new Bent Hamer movie. And I’m really looking forward to it. This script is really good. I’m not sure when it will premiere. Maybe 2010, 2011. Probably 2011. That’s one of my projects.

It’s not like you don’t have anything else to do, right? You have plenty to occupy your time in between.

[laughs] There’s always something. I’m actually spending my spare time studying electronics. So I’m going to school.

Electronics for music or electronics in general?

In general. I hope to use it to make my own instruments. You can go on to my blog where I take pictures of the instruments I make. It’s

John, I really appreciate your time. Thank you for calling. I hope to talk to you further when it gets closer to your opera, and your next film. We will keep in touch. I really appreciate this.

Thank you, thank you. It was really nice talking to you.


  1. thanks for putting this up! Kaada is a fantastic composer. Been following him for years

    1. You’re welcome, Olav. It was an enjoyable conversation. One of the best things of this blog is that it has introduced me to some new composers. I’ll definitely be following Kaada’s work in the future. Can’t wait to hear that opera!

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