On the phone at dawn with August Rosenbaum, a pink southern heat is beginning to rise out of the ground, and the Danish pianist and music director is seeing a very different scene. “I’m looking out the window in Copenhagen, and it tends to be super grim and rainy all the time, so you can’t escape this very Scandinavian melancholy...I guess when I use music, it has this melancholy undercurrent. It can be uptempo, it doesn’t have to be slow. But there’s a melancholy I look for in music.”
Cultural exchange, and the shift in perspective that it can bring, is essential to the artistic growth of August Rosenbaum, a classically trained pianist and composer, whose third album, Vista, arrived November 23rd.
“From the outside,” he began, “Denmark seems like a super privileged place, where culture is something that is very prioritized. For me at least, my family had a lot of musicians.” Although Rosenbaum’s stateside pop presence has until now been strictly liner notes, he’s accomplished in Denmark, a recipient of the Danish Music award for “best new jazz artist” for his solo debut, Beholder, and nominee for the Nordic Music Prize, among other accolades. Rosenbaum has collaborated in avant garde contexts with artists like Sven-Åke Johansson, Zeena Parkins, and Nils Frahm, as well as as well as writing string arrangements for MØ, Quadron, and Rhye. Recently, he helped pen a score for a “noise ballet” with Kim Gordon, a “crazy project on all levels. A ballet noise installation in the royal theatre in Copenhagen...It was amazing to meet her, I’m a huge fan, she just has this great, artistic, straight attitude. A straight way of approaching things, that was very inspiring.”
All of the aforementioned names embody an elite strata of new music, and Rosenbaum himself is beginning to define his own sonic space, lending an experimental ear to concert hall jazz and smooth R&B. Growing up in a culturally-rich household meant Rosenbaum was exposed to theatre, by his actress and director mother, and to cabaret music by his grandfather, who was an entertainer first, musician second. “I’m very motivated by my grandfather. [He] was a cabaret pianist...of a very “entertainment” style. He did these late night shows in Copenhagen at small cabarets, where he would play a white grand piano with candlelight, and do little skits to entertain people. He was a man of…class (laughs). That was his thing, and he did it until he died a few years ago, at 90. He was definitely a big inspiration. That was my coming into music, playing old jazz tunes, a lot of American music, but also sort of the Scandinavian, Nordic tradition.”
Rosenbaum seems to simultaneously revere and cringe at the opportunity he received as a young performer. “I guess it wasn’t so popular growing up. I was kind of the only kid doing that in school. I even participated in competitions when I was very young. These horrible competitions where parents would take their kids and make them play Listz, or Shupert or something, and the jury picks a winner. I would be the only kid that would play Thelonious Monk or something, so definitely was a little off…” Jazz occupied his home life, and also formed a bridge between the Danish quietude and a wider, more eclectic world. “I remember getting this Bill Evans album called You Must Believe in Spring, it’s actually a pretty late one of his recordings. I got that on CD. I remember it had a huge impact. I think it was because it was a bridge between the theatre music being played at home. [The title track] by Michel Legrand, a French song composer. That one really stuck with me.” And on “You Must Believe in Spring,” itself adapted from a Legrand composition for 60s musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, you can hear an influence on Rosenbaum in Evans’ thoughtful, deliberate piano chords.
He imagines music as a necessary force, invisible in life’s essential moments. “The way I grew up, listening to artists like Air, for example, I had a very clear goal that this music could be a soundtrack to your life, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a theremin or an 808. We didn’t give it much thought whether we were playing experimental music or whatever. It was whatever felt natural to do. You don’t have to have 16 bars and then the pre-chorus. It was a very open landscape.” He also recalls riding bikes, “on a late summer evening, blasting some Air, or Massive Attack, or Portishead. That’s the kind of mood that I wanted to fit. Denmark is super flat. I guess that’s why we ride bikes. In the fall, it’s very vibrant for one second, full of fall colors, and then the next second it’s hibernation for the next few months, and you just have to do yours to get through.”
After his debut, he began to work closely with Robin Hannibal, one half of the duo Rhye and a three time Grammy nominee. The work on Vista began five years ago, between various music projects, such as the scores for films like Laughter in The Dark and the moody short, Backwaters. “I started out doing it with Robin in this basement, working in Copenhagen. He moved to LA in 2010, and I moved to New York, so we’ve been tracking each other down in different parts of the world to get it done. Everything we did in a room sitting together. He’s an inspiring friend, and I admire him very much. We started out in small rooms, and it got bigger along the way. And it’s all re-recorded, with real instruments, strings and horn players, everything.”
His creative energy thrives in new settings, from theatre to film to ballet. “They rub off on each other in a way that I really like. There’s obvious differences between businesses, or whatever. It’s very different working with film people and theatre people and the music industry. But on an artistic level…but it’s all part of the same language. That seems kind of banal to say...but it’s organizing some sort of emotional storytelling. I like that aspect. Whenever I’ve done collaborations on other people’s projects in other disciplines, I very much get the need to do something for myself. This new album has been boiling for five, six years on the side of going back and forth between these other types of work.”
“I consider myself as opening up, on a musical level, to the world. We are all so well-measured, Scandinavians, we can be so conservative in taste. I like having spent time in the States, mostly in New York and LA, there’s a big mash up of music that is natural...I like that people are able to get into so much different stuff. There’s so much to choose from, and we just don’t have that in Denmark. I think this music belongs in both places. It hails from Scandinavia, but it belongs in the world.”
It seems as if Rosenbaum’s ultimate goal is not just to conquer the Atlantic, but to construct a universal, emotional drama. “I’m very inspired by Ennio Morricone, both me and Robin. He’s a hero. You can’t put a finger on him. What kind of genre is it? Such a big accomplishment to transcend that question. All his sounds and the way he puts them together are so surprising, simple, and timeless. Him and Ryuichi Sakamoto, I’ve listened to him a lot too, and I watched a lot of films and scores. I’m also a fan of more modern composers, John Brion for example, he did some of the early Paul Thomas Anderson. Johnny Greenwood. Johann Johannsson.” This goal informs how he approaches the piano, an instrument whose sound is entirely canon, recognizable, but still might have a few secrets to be discovered. “I’ve been trying to turn it upside down, play inside the piano, and prepare it and all sorts of ways. Right now I’m very inspired by simple melody, harmony, creating very simple, emotional music. Just playing.”
Ross Devlin is a writer born in Glens Falls, New York, currently living in Memphis, Tennessee. In addition to music, he's covered the 2016 Olympics, environmentally-friendly investment, and the world's largest tree house.