Bells For Splitting Reality by Olof Cornéer is a focused journey of contemporary piano arpeggios set against a generous canvas of negative space.

black and white portrait of Olof Cornéer wearing a hat and standing in front of a body of water

Bells For Splitting Reality by Olof Cornéer doesn’t rely on a narrative or symbolism to construct meaning. The beauty of his album is its focus on an effect, specifically the arpeggio. An arpeggio is often described as a broken chord. It’s when the notes of a chord are pulled apart and played one by one. It’s a kind of deconstruction. However, the true beauty of an arpeggio lies within its construction. Olof Cornéer is a composer of arpeggios. He assembles his music one note at a time. It accumulates piece by piece until whole.

Think for a moment about the assembled images of David Hockney. They are more cohesive than a collage but more fractured than a still image. They manage to contain the unique relationships between parts while still producing a vivid and striking whole. Like the visual art of David Hockney, Olof Cornéer’s piano tones accumulate. His album, Bells for Splitting Reality, conveys the sound and splendor of assemblage.

David Hockney's famous 1985 photo collage of a chair
David Hockney - "Chair" (1985)

Why are you interested in the arpeggio?

I was on a desolate island in Sweden a few years ago and I was playing around, making new music with my laptop in the sunny garden. I started making bleepy arpeggios in order to take me back to the electronic music I loved in the '90s, stuff like Black Dog and Aphex Twin. After a few days, those sessions became the start of my Night Gestalt-project. This was in 2010. Since then, I have been thinking about arpeggios all the time. In a way, an arpeggio is everything you need from music. It’s a melody, obviously, and it creates a rhythm. But the notes ring out in space (and in your head) and therefore also create harmony. Because of the repetition, you get a feeling of something static and flowing at the same time.

All that said, the songs on Bells For Splitting Reality are different than those kinds of arpeggios! At least in the way I talk about them here. One note is played at a time - through the whole piece/album - but there is no repetition. The rhythms are repeated, but there is actually no repetition when it comes to the notes being played. I guess patterns - instead of arpeggios - is a better way of talking about this music. There are rhythm patterns, melody patterns, and structural patterns layered in different ways to create new patterns. Often as canons, mensuration canons, and others. No single note on this album is played ’just because it sounds good’, everything makes sense and is there for a reason. At least it makes sense to me anyway!

Early electronic music utilized arpeggios because mixing equipment had a limited number of channels one could use to combine different sounds. As a solution, synthesizers simulated the sound of a chord on a single channel. If you listen to a synthesizer closely you’ll notice that it produces a sound made from a quick pattern of individual ascending or descending notes. In other words, a synthesizer is an arpeggio. Olof Cornéer started experimenting with electronic music at an early age using a 4-channel recording device called a Portastudio. It’s fun to imagine him playfully experimenting with synthesizers as a child not knowing they would later launch his successful music career as one half of the EDM electronic duo Dada Life.

Tell me about the influence electronic music has had on your work as a composer and why you’ve decided to branch into another genre?

I have been creating electronic music since I was a kid. First with computers and a portastudio and trackers such as soundtracker on Amiga 500, later house and techno music. I have been releasing albums and EPs since 2001. I guess it’s in my blood. Then in 2014, I became sick and hospitalized. That changed everything. I have been dreaming about ’classical music’ since I was a kid but I never wrote anything I was happy with. But then, at the hospital, I started writing again. And finally, everything just worked. I wrote Part 1 from Bells For Splitting Reality the first two days in that hospital. On the third day, the drugs made me too tired to create anything, but it didn’t matter. Later, when I was feeling better I could go back to that feeling and keep going

I think two things made it possible. First, I saw everything so clear: what was important and what was less important. So I realized I had to do it, it was ’now or never’. Secondly, I didn’t bring a midi-keyboard so I had to place the notes with my mouse. That forced me to think in a new way and I couldn’t rely on known phrases that your fingers almost automatically play when you sit at a piano. When I was feeling better I knew how to go back to that place inside of me, so I have just kept going. This piano album/piece is the first thing I have written that I’m happy with, but I also have a wind quintet I have just recorded as well as a choral piece I’m working on right now.

Unlike visual art, the balance of positive and negative space in music is easy to overlook. After all, music typically fills the silence. On the other hand, a skilled musician uses silence to their advantage. For instance, Olof Cornéer provides a generous amount of negative space to accentuate the slow decay of sustained tones. Similar to a synthesizer, the notes blend together. However, Olof Cornéer cleverly inverts this perception by punching each pattern of notes through with force and clarity. It’s the musical equivalent to Rubin Vase. At one moment you can perceive only the negative space, a volume of notes slowly decaying. At other times, you’ll notice the positive as each note of the piano pierces through.

Example Illustration of the Positive and Negative Space in Rubin's Vase
An example of the "figure-ground vase" developed by the Danish Psychologist Edgar Rubin in 1915.

How do you compose music? What is your process?

It usually starts with an idea. An idea of a pattern or a structure. Or even more, an abstract idea: something that can’t be translated into words. (Which, by the way, is one reason why I love music: it can’t be translated into words and it doesn’t need words to reveal it’s magic!) Creating music then becomes a way to work with that idea. Sometimes that means testing the idea. Sometimes just ’dressing it up’ - if the idea is the structure the finished music is the building.

I don’t think of my music as ’beautiful’ or try to make it give you a certain feeling. Of course, I hope it is and I hope it does that to people but that’s not why I create it. I create it just because it’s an idea that I want to exist and since the music is based on an idea it sort of exists without me creating it to start with. It doesn’t really need a listener or creator. That’s the way I think about it.

Support and learn more about Olof Cornéer’s music and sound art at olofcorneer.com

Piano played by Oskar Ekberg

Released by Kning Disk

Photography by Andreas Hellström

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