When Tine Thing Helseth [TEEN-eh ting HEL-set] comes on stage, she possesses a lovely and unpretentious presence, rich humanness, and a genuine sense of wonder. The audience can tell that a rare and radiant performance is about to occur. So fluid and complete is the communion of this musician to her instrument, so beautiful is her tone, that her playing is the very definition of virtuosity, the essence of musical sublimity.
Not only does she appear on concert stages, at jazz clubs and festivals all over the world, but she has brought her prodigious talent to some pretty unusual venues, as well: the roof of Oslo’s City Hall for a moving memorial performance; the top of a mountain; a spare, darkened room for an intense, indelible “New York Times: In Performance.”
Her recordings are ventures in vision, with each CD offering a different facet of her versatile instrument. She performed four of the greatest trumpet concertos on her eponymous and acclaimed debut CD; while on Tine, she gave us the trumpet’s lyric voice and the awesome Hindemith Trumpet Sonata. On Storyteller, she transcribed songs with words into pure, emotive sound. Her beautiful Christmas album, My Heart Is Ever Present, is a perennial best seller abroad. She plays contemporary composers, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, and others too numerous to cite. She has even curated the Tine@Munch Music Festival at the Munch Museum in Oslo, bringing music, art, and writing together. Helseth’s creative appetite for delving and communicating continues to spill over. She most recently toured in Europe, playing the natural trumpet, an early instrument.
Her worldwide fans adore her, following her every move on social media. She generously gives them a close-up look at her career and the “strange life,” as she calls it, of a touring soloist. She takes them onstage and behind the scenes to rehearsals, dressing rooms, and practice sessions. She takes them under the supposed glamour to early morning wake-up calls, ironing boards, bad-hair days, yet another airport lounge. She shares all this and more with free-spirited joy, some self-deprecating wit, and a touch of healthy irreverence.
I spoke to Helseth at her New York City hotel on a rainy morning in late March. She was almost at the end of a cross-country tour with her all-female brass ensemble, tenThing, yet she patiently answered my rather abstract questions with integrity, affecting honesty, and eloquence. Here is what this inspiring artist had to say about music, the language of life.
—Emily Fragos for Guernica
Guernica: You have said that musicality lies deeper than any instrument. You’re famous for your exquisite sensitivity to tone, shaping, and phrasing. Are you wired from birth with this gift, can it be partially taught, are you inspired by others, and can you learn from them?
Tine Thing Helseth: I think you have to be born with it to some extent. You need to have it in you, so you can reach it. At the same time, musicality evolves over time with everything you experience. You definitely acquire several layers when you experience life. You discover more feelings inside yourself, and then you have the ability to transform them, to bring those feelings into your instrument, your voice, and then to get that across. That’s how you develop. With each experience, you have more to tell, more to show. The more I know about myself and the world, the more I’ll continue to develop musically and as a person, until I am not here anymore. It never stops. Everything is completely connected.
For instance, two years ago, I was away from the stage for half a year. I was exhausted. I hit the wall and was quite ill. When I came back and started to play again, people who played with me before and after said that I was completely new in everything I did. I like to think that music is the most important thing to me, but at the same time, pardon my language, I don’t give a fuck. No one dies. Do things. Be there in the moment. There is so much more to life.
Guernica: Dancers speak of having a compulsive, internal response to music, even though their outer selves may appear calm. They might feel excited, chaotic, euphoric. You’re so composed on stage, but I wonder if, as an instrumentalist, you have a visceral, invisible response to music.
Tine Thing Helseth: I think to some degree, yes, but it’s a little bit different for me, of course. How to explain: it’s like my language somehow. No matter what type of music I hear or play, it feels like I belong and I understand it. I appreciate all kinds of music in that way. It’s a language I understand. I feel it deep inside of me.
Guernica: Many performers say that being on stage is a secure place, because life might clobber you over the head and people might betray you, but music never does.
Tine Thing Helseth: I’m most vulnerable onstage and, at the same time, it’s my safe place. It’s where I’m not scared of anything; I’m not scared of life. I feel secure there. I feel like it’s in some way an escape from everyday madness. I’m in my bubble. I can get in touch with hard feelings, bad feelings, but I can do it without falling apart, in which case I can’t play. I can feel them without feeling them. It’s very strange. The feelings come through the instrument and not through me, so I’m not overwhelmed. I can channel them somehow.
What I want is to be an honest artist; I want what I do to be me. I don’t want to do extravagant phrasing just to show off. I’ve played with wonderful musicians who’ve played beautifully, but the phrasing wasn’t coming from inside of them. I don’t want to be like that. I want it to be honest, raw.
Guernica: What do you mean by raw?
Tine Thing Helseth: Unfiltered, no hiding, more naked somehow. Honest, naked, raw. It’s just me.
Guernica: Everyone talks about the inimitable voice you put out. May I read a quote by Miles Davis about his own trumpet voice?
Tine Thing Helseth: Sure, fire away. I like Miles Davis and Chet Baker, too, my two favorites.
Guernica: “I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it. I like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle, clear and clean straight through. If I can’t get that sound, I can’t play anything.”
Tine Thing Helseth: I do understand what he means by being in the middle of his sound, of his instrument. You should always be in the middle of it. In another way, I want my instrument to be able to show every aspect of my register of feelings, different timbres, different colors, atmospheres…everything. At the same time, being in the middle of the sound, the instrument, I see that as being a “me” kind of thing. In that way, I can relate. If I’m not in the middle of my sound, if it’s not my sound, then it’s not honest.
Guernica: Does it fail you sometimes? Can you always get that sound?
Tine Thing Helseth: Of course, there are times when you’re not feeling at your best—embouchure-wise. When it doesn’t come as easy to me, when I’m not in good shape, I really have to focus on it.
Guernica: Your trumpet voice has been hailed by many as being the most beautiful in the world, described, in part, as shimmering, soft, burnished, supra-lucid, poetic, able to access emotional extremes—from great joy to great sorrow—and the wide gamut of human emotion in between. When you play adagios, your voice can sound otherworldly, haunted, as if you have been abandoned on the moon.
Tine Thing Helseth: I want it to be my voice; that is the most important thing. I teach at the Academy in Oslo, and I tell my students: “Of course, you need technique, you need to learn all the scales, you need to have all of that in your box of tools, but what’s important in the end is this: really treasure your voice.” People ask, “What do you listen to? Who do you want to be like?” I don’t want to be anyone. I want to be me.
Guernica: People get obsessed with the brand of trumpet you play, the mouthpiece, the mute, the practice equipment you use. In a radio interview, you once said, in exasperation, “It’s not the trumpet! It’s an instrument; it’s a tool made of metal. It is me playing. It is my voice.”
Tine Thing Helseth: Good equipment is important so you can do what you want to do, but I am always asked, “What kind of trumpet do you play? It sounds really good.” It’s not the trumpet, it’s me. No matter what type of trumpet you give me, it’ll always sound like me. I still use the B-flat trumpet my mom gave me a long time ago. I might need to change it. It’s getting old. The mouthpiece is worn. I don’t know, I like it.
Guernica: A lot of people are intimidated by classical music for various reasons. You’re intent on taking down the walls between stage and audience, bringing disenchanted people back to the concert halls. Young people are flocking to meet you and to hear you play.
Tine Thing Helseth: It’s horrible, those walls. First of all, I come from a very normal, average family. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, and I’m the first professional musician in my family. At recitals I talk in between pieces, I make jokes. The minute I open my mouth to speak, the whole boundary between me and the audience flies out the window, vanishes, and I’m suddenly on their level, even though I’m up there on stage. I am on their level.
I’m not superhuman. I have my flaws, my vulnerabilities; I’m scared of things. I want the audience to see that. I have some abilities, and playing-wise I have an extreme ability to show all these human emotions, but I can show these emotions because I’m a vulnerable human being. You can’t say I’m a normal person—who’s normal anyway—because of my musical gift; but, at the same time, at the end of the day, I’m just like them, the same.
I want the audience to feel that they can experience something special and get in touch with a range of emotions when they listen to me. I want them to be entertained—which sounds like a bad word—but be entertained in the best way. I would like them to just feel: “OK, this is where I am right now. I don’t want to think about other things, like the stress of work, or whatever.” I would like the audience to be a part of something and not because I’m standing up there. I want to be on their level.
Guernica: When you tour with your all-female brass ensemble, tenThing, you often take your music out of the concert hall and into other venues like the mall, plazas, and public schools.
Tine Thing Helseth: We’ve done a lot of school concerts and workshops. I remember one boy who heard us play and his mouth dropped open for half an hour. What a reaction. The kids were all smiling. After concerts, I’m tired and I have to do a signing. Then I come out there and people come up to me and young people especially make an impression when they say, “I’ve been following you since I was a kid and you’re an inspiration to me. You’re the reason I play. I’ll listen to you forever.” Of course, I have to go out and meet them. It makes my day to know that I have that ability.
Guernica: The late pianist Glenn Gould gave up performing in person. For one thing, he felt he played his best Bach in his own home, in his pajamas, in the morning, on his own piano without a noisy audience present. Why not just record him at home and get a perfect performance. He made a good point, but was he missing something?
Tine Thing Helseth: I love to play for audiences. I have to practice, but it’s boring. I really love being on stage, being able to be in the moment. I always play a bit differently. I love the spontaneity. I love how a day feels different, how the audience feels different. A CD will never be like a live performance. I don’t want to play flawlessly, be perfect. What is perfect anyway? That’s a horrible thing. You shouldn’t want to be perfect. I like to play without a safety net. Be out there. Things happen, but all in all, it’s so much truer. This is the kind of musician I want to be. Nothing can compare to the joy you feel during or after a great concert.
Guernica: I watched you playing a tune in an empty, darkened room on the New York Times “In Performance” series. This is a remarkable aperture into your artistry. You exhibit such a commitment and surrender to the piece. You palpably sink into the music and go from melancholy to sorrow to grief. A huge amount happens in a scant two minutes. It’s uncanny.
Tine Thing Helseth: Oh, thank you very much.
Guernica: Is this what you sound like without an audience, applause, orchestra, conductor—the trappings of a concert performance?
Tine Thing Helseth: That’s just me being me. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved playing tunes. I don’t care about crazy technique. Of course, you have to be able to do that, too, but the most difficult thing to play is a simple tune and have the audience feel that you’re in it. When you’re outside it, it’s only the instrument playing. It’s not from here, inside. Beautiful sound is great, but play a melody that comes from here. That’s what makes me happy. That’s what I love the most.
I remember when I wasn’t playing for several months. I was so tired. I was way down there. It wasn’t that I was tired of playing. I just needed to be away. There were other things I had to focus on and I just couldn’t play in the same way. I went to a concert with a good friend of mine, a great jazz trumpeter in Norway. I heard “Youkali” by Kurt Weill, which I’ve played a lot on the trumpet, and I started crying like a crazy person. From that moment, I understood exactly what I longed for the most. After two months away, I longed to play something I mean. I longed to just play that melody and have how that felt inside of me. It’s deeper than “I need to express myself.” A lot of people say that. It’s much deeper than that. I started crying because I missed it so much, because it’s one of the things I need to exist. That’s the one thing I need and love the most about playing, that’s what keeps me going, that feeling I get alone or in front of people.
Guernica: I watched another video of you playing “My Little Country” on the roof of Oslo’s City Hall at a memorial concert one year after the horrific killings in Oslo in 2011. I cannot fathom how you played so movingly with gusts of wind swirling and sea gulls flying over your head.
Tine Thing Helseth: This tune I played had already become a comfort for the people from the very beginning. Others had also performed it. They wanted me to open the program by standing on the roof. I had inner ear monitoring, so in one sense I felt that I wasn’t on the roof because I could hear the orchestra down below in my ear. The wind was blowing like crazy. It wasn’t like that in rehearsal, and it was almost dangerous. I opened my mouth and got so much air, I didn’t have to breathe in. It was very emotional. I also played three days after the attack. There were tens of thousands of people in the street. When I started to play, everyone was raising their roses in the air. I felt outside of myself.
Guernica: Your voice gave their sorrow voice.
Tine Thing Helseth: That’s what I want music to do. I played at the service in the church near where it happened, too. That was what I could contribute.
Guernica: You have said this about your instrument: “My trumpets are like my best friends. I miss them if I don’t have them around, and I get very moody if I don’t play on them. It’s very special, but they are one of the things I feel closest to.” That’s a passionate statement, to be fully alive, connected, feeling, expressive. Do you ever get to the point where you want to live without music, to put the trumpets back in their case and turn off—or turn down—the music playing in your head?
Tine Thing Helseth: Yes, definitely. I need that. You have to experience life; otherwise there is nothing to share. Take days off, go to concerts, a soccer game, the movies, do something totally different, travel somewhere without the instrument. I try to take a holiday, be there with my boyfriend, who also plays the trumpet. We’re going to Scotland and not doing anything related to music. We’re going to play golf and visit a whiskey distillery. I like to see how things are made. It’s also art. I like to go to exhibitions, see athletes in action. I like to see how things work; I like to go underneath the glamour.
Guernica: You give 100–120 concerts each year all over the world. How do you make the rigors of touring work for you, so you are not counting the days until you are home?
Tine Thing Helseth: I’ve been in the States for almost one month now, and that’s a long time, so I’m really looking forward to getting home to my apartment and sleeping in my own bed and having my wonderful view of the ocean out of my window.
When I was younger, I liked to think that I was privileged to tour. So many people would want this life. I don’t think like that so much anymore. I am extremely grateful for the life I have. I can actually earn money doing the thing I love the most, the thing that makes me feel so alive, so good. But I’m also allowed to be tired. I’m also not always wanting to go. I’m allowed to have all these feelings.
I have these abilities. How I got them? I don’t know. I was born with them.
Before, I liked to think that it was my responsibility to do this—and maybe somehow it is. At the same time, I’m doing it because it’s the time when I feel closest to myself, and that helps me to get in touch with my emotions in a different way. It makes me be a more honest person. It’s not my responsibility to show this to people. It’s my choice to do so. On the other hand, it feels like I don’t have a choice, because it’s what makes me me. It’s a very strange thing [laughs].
Guernica: As I see it, you were a child prodigy, already performing as a soloist at ten. Your gift put you on a path to greatness from a very young age.
Tine Thing Helseth: It’s never been an option for me to do this. Never. I feel like I have to do this. My inner drive tells me to do it, but not because someone else tells me to perform because I have this special gift. I want and need to do this. It’s my choice.
Guernica: You’ll be back in the States in October to perform in Philadelphia, and in December you’ll be in Cincinnati. On February 3, 2018, you’ll be playing two great concertos at Carnegie Hall: the Bach/Vivaldi and the Albinoni. Both have world-famous adagios. How do you access the emotions of an adagio? The choreographer, George Balanchine, used to say, “Suffer” and you’ll go deep. Some musicians insist that if you play a piece with absolute virtuosity, the composer will provide the profundity. It’s all in the notes.
Tine Thing Helseth: It’s a bit of both. First of all, you need to master your instrument in the best possible way. You need all the tools to express what you want to express. Think about your breathing, all the technical aspects; learn all you can. In that way, you need to be a virtuoso. But these two things, learning your instrument and starting to play music, should not be separated. From when I started, basically, when I was a little girl, there was something special about my sound, my way of phrasing. I loved exploring that.
When you play an adagio, you need to really be true to yourself, your emotions, be true, and then be able to let go in it. When I’m in it, I don’t think about it. I just do it. It happens automatically, because I’ve done all my work. You use all your tools; but, at the same time, you have to be completely in it, vulnerable, completely naked. Do not be full of ego because that will never work. That keeps you on the surface. Be in the middle of everything, listen to what the musicians you play with are doing, listen to the audience. Be in that moment which is so rare, so special. Be the center of attention.
Someone told me very early on, “When you come on stage, without doing anything, you have everyone’s attention.” I’ve never worked on this. I’ve always had that. It’s a great feeling. I can hear the audience listening. They want to hear what I have to say, and then I’m undressing myself somehow—my feelings. This is me. This is what I have to say. You can’t learn to do that.
Of course, I wear nice dresses, and I have my makeup on, because it makes me feel in the zone, but I could also come in my everyday clothes, no makeup, no anything.
Guernica: When you were nineteen, you recorded the classical trumpet standards by Haydn, Neruda, Albinoni, and Hummel to great acclaim. That’s a daunting assignment for such a young person.
Tine Thing Helseth: People said to me, “Oh, my god, that’s insane. Why would you do that? You’re too young.” My producer at the record label said that I already had something to say, so let’s do it. Again, I’m not striving for perfection. That doesn’t exist. I’m really connected to this music. The only thing that felt right, that felt real, was to record these pieces first. This was what I had to do. In ten years, maybe I’ll record this music again, with the same or a different orchestra or even in a live performance. I’ll sound different. I’ve developed. I’ve extremely developed. I don’t play the same anymore. It’s life. You’re very different at thirty from when you were nineteen. You’re at a very different place, but it’ll always be about being open and vulnerable. Then again, it’s my safe place.
Guernica: You also play jazz trumpet with TTHQ, Tine Thing Helseth Quintet, and you sing. People are totally surprised to hear your singing voice. It doesn’t sound like your trumpet voice or your speaking voice.
Tine Thing Helseth: I’ve always been singing since I was a young girl. I sang in a choir but not so much publicly. Now I’m writing my own music, pop-jazzy songs. The lyrics are very honest.
Guernica: I’ve heard you sing Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Tine Thing Helseth: I think you can hear in my own songs that I’m a little bit Joni Mitchell-inspired. I believe her, hearing her sing Both Sides Now and how she’s different now from when she was younger. You can really hear that she knows stuff. She’s lived.
It was terrifying at first to sing for an audience, but it’s a little less terrifying today, since I’ve done it a lot by now in public. I love writing my own songs. It’s extremely exciting. It’s a new side of me, but sharing with people is still a little bit terrifying.
Guernica: You transcribe so many works for the trumpet. You also commission a lot of new works, and you’ve written your own cadenzas for the trumpet. That’s a ton of work.
Tine Thing Helseth: I do commission a lot of new music. That’s important. It’s my responsibility to add my voice to the trumpet repertoire. That is a privilege.