A voice to match the majesty of Norway
If you think Sissel Kyrkjeb¿ is not a household name in Utah, there are certain households you have not considered. Like the home of Orem resident Erland Peterson, whose children awakened each Saturday of their lives to Norwegian pancakes on the griddle and Sissel on the stereo.
Peterson, a former president of the LDS Church's mission in Norway, has plenty of company in his enthusiasm for the Norwegian singer. Her recordings are heard in many Utah homes with someone who once lived in Norway. And, the clear, pure voice of Sissel - she goes by her first name professionally - has probably even echoed through your own home, unbeknownst to you. The haunting, wordless voice heard in James Horner's film score for the movie "Titanic" belongs to her.
By the time Horner heard Sissel's voice on a tape of Norwegian folk music, and recognized it as the sound he was seeking for his 1998 film score, her singing was popular throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia. Early recordings celebrating her native culture endeared her to Norwegians and led to solo performances in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. She has sold more than 9 million solo albums worldwide - a number nearly twice as large as the population of Norway.
Horner wrote Sissel's parts in the "Titanic" film score specifically for the qualities of her voice, "using it like an instrument," she said. She watched the movie's evocative scenes of ice and immensity in the North Atlantic as she recorded the tracks, "so I could get the tensions and emotions of the pictures into my music."
Translating geography into music is one of Sissel's gifts. She grew up just outside the ancient coastal city of Bergen, "called Capital of the Fjords," Sissel said in lilting English during a trans-Atlantic telephone interview. "It's surrounded with mountains and the ocean. I would say it's the most beautiful place on Earth, of course.
"I often say that nature shapes your personality and your mental health," she said. "I was brought up in nature, in a very relaxed atmosphere - a life filled with harmony and love. The people living in Norway are so lucky living in this beautiful country. That gives us a lot of positive thinking. I feel very Norwegian because Mother Nature is such a big part of me. I'm so proud of my country."
Fans of Sissel's music say they can imagine the peaks and fjords of Norway when she sings. Utahns with connections to Norway already are making plans to be present when Sissel performs here for the first time this week - at a concert on the Brigham Young University campus and with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its weekly international broadcast.
Jason Henderson, vice president of Frontier Scientific Inc. in Logan, has known about Sissel since her career was just taking off in Norway nearly 20 years ago. He met the singer twice while serving an LDS mission there from 1986 to 1988. The first time, Sissel signed albums for Henderson and his missionary companion outside a concert hall in Bergen. The hopeful missionaries signed a copy of the Book of Mormon for her.
Henderson was surprised when the pretty young singer recognized him later in Oslo and greeted him with a traditional Norwegian "klem" - a cheek-to-cheek hug. Though pleased, Henderson was "pretty uncomfortable," since LDS missionaries are expected to keep the opposite sex at arm's length.
"All the missionaries I was with have her albums," Henderson said. "She just has a really wonderful voice."
Missionaries in Norway liked the fact that Sissel was a wholesome-looking performer whose songs were "things you could feel comfortable about listening to as a missionary," he said.
And, like the Norwegian people who embraced her music, missionaries loved the way Sissel's music captured the beauty and serenity of the Norwegian landscape and culture. Robert Jones, who served a mission to Norway in 1989 to 1991, created a Web site dedicated to Sissel and her music in 1997, and still updates it with news about Sissel.
"Her earlier albums, in the Norwegian language, were a reminder for me of the experience of living in Norway," Jones said.
Sissel said she was surprised at first to learn that she had a fan base in Utah made up mostly of one-time missionaries. She said she has "never attended a Mormon church" but is nonetheless delighted to be performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a program that celebrates Norway's 100 years of independence and the Norwegian roots of many members of the faith.
"I love to sing with people who have belief," she said. "That is very special."
Singing religious songs with the Tabernacle Choir might remind Sissel of her childhood experiences singing with a church children's choir in Bergen, which she cites as an important influence on her angelic vocal sound. At the BYU concert, her song list will be more diverse.
"I started singing a mixture of folk, classical and popular music in the 1980s. Nobody had invented the words 'classical crossover' then, but I've always been doing this. . . . It will be fascinating to see how American musicians play Norwegian music. They say music is the international language - we'll see if it works."
The sizzle of Sissel
Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjeb¿ performs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the de Jong Concert Hall in the Harris Fine Arts Center on the Brigham Young University campus, Provo. Tickets are $12. Call 801-422-7664.
Sissel will perform with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, accompanied by the Orchestra at Temple Square, on a May 1 broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" from the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. The broadcast airs at 9:30 a.m. on radio, television, cable and satellite. Doors to the Conference Center open at 8 a.m. After the 30-minute broadcast, Sissel will sing additional selections for the live audience.
KBYU Channel 11 will broadcast a PBS special, "Sissel in Concert: All Good Things," today at 3 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m.