• LTR041
    Otto A. Totland

The Norwegian composer and self-taught pianist Otto A. Totland, who also performs as one half of cult ambient-classical-drone duo Deaf Center, shares a new sixteen-track album, ‘Exin’, via LEITER. Available on limited edition vinyl as well as via all digital platforms from June 14, it was co-produced by Nils Frahm at his studio in the German capital’s famed Funkhaus complex in September 2023.

‘Exin’ follows 2021’s ‘Companion’, the final part of a trilogy of solo piano records that began with 2014’s ‘Pinô’ and continued with 2019’s ‘The Lost’. Given their intimate, subtle nature, many of these compositions have accumulated remarkable streaming figures, but Totland’s musical miniatures are as emotionally eloquent as they are technically elegant, with this latest set proving no exception. A humble man by nature, however, Totland’s keen to emphasise that his work isn’t intended to change the world.

“I want people to feel connected to my music,” he explains, “but at the same time, don’t take me too seriously. I don’t like pretentious people, and I don’t want to be one. If you want to listen to it, do that. If you want to read a book and just have the notes like an aroma in the background, that’s perfect too. I’m very happy with my creations, but I won’t get offended if you don’t like them.” In fact, if you ask him who he makes his music for, he’ll joke that it’s simply for his mother. “It’s not that far from the truth! My parents live close by and I have my piano at their home, so they’re always the first to comment.”

Totland, who was born and still lives in Porsgrunn, 150km south-west of Oslo, came to composing music for piano via an unconventional path. “My parents had good taste,” he elaborates. “They were really into the classics. But there are very few musicians in my family, and I was more interested in computers early on, like the Commodore 64. I got one of the first trackers where you could program beats, and that triggered an interest in working with computers generally. Then I bought a MIDI keyboard, and that then turned into sequencers. But I got fatigued. I longed for a more basic means of expression. I didn’t need all this equipment. I wanted to explore a fully analogue universe.”

Alongside Erik K. Skodvin (aka Svarte Greiner), a best friend since they met at school aged 12, Totland formed Deaf Center in 2003, with his pretty piano lines at stark odds with Skodvin’s more atonal, spectral contributions. “We’re polar opposites,” Totland smiles. “I’m two metres tall, he’s a small, thin guy. I’m more melodic, he’s full-on abstract. So we have to adapt to each other, you know? Eric has to be a little bit nicer to support my stuff and I have to go darker to support Eric. Then we get this combination that’s really special.”

If, nonetheless, Deaf Centre is the sound of two forces in opposition, Totland’s solo work represents the moments where he breaks free, although, he’s quick to highlight, “there’s always something sinister. I love to embrace the darkness in a beautiful thing.” Initially, however, he’d never intended to record alone. The Norwegian felt like he was merely a supporting pianist, not a performer in his own right, and instead required coaxing by multiple forces, namely Skodvin himself, Monique Recknagel, owner of bespoke label Sonic Pieces, and Nils Frahm, who’d released 2009’s ‘Wintermusik’ on the latter imprint and produced Deaf Center’s 2011 collection, ‘Owl Splinters’.

“Nils was like a third member,” Totland recalls fondly of the latter experience, “so although I wasn’t confident about recording solo, it felt like the most natural thing: ‘Come back, no stress, it’s going to be easy!’ That started a chain reaction that led to me sitting down and composing.” Frahm went on to produce not only ‘Pinô’ but also ‘The Lost’ in his old Durton Studio, while ‘Companion’ was recorded at Frahm’s Funkhaus studio by his regular associate, Grammy-winning engineer Antonio Pulli. All three were then released by Sonic Pieces, as were Deaf Center’s last two albums, 2014’s ‘Recount’ and 2019’s ‘Low Distance’ – which Pulli also produced – but on ‘Exin’ Frahm and Totland formalise their relationship, with Totland not only transferring to LEITER but also working more closely than ever with the celebrated musician over three intense days at Funkhaus.

Amusingly, Totland still wasn’t certain that Frahm was going to produce until he actually arrived at the studio. “Then the doors opened,” he remembers with fond amusement, “and Nils burst in with his crew.” Still Totland concedes, the process wasn’t always as easy as Frahm had promised him it would be. “One piece can take a day, so three days is a really short time for me,” he admits, “and when I work with Nils, it’s not only about praise. While I was recording the track ‘The French’, I heard him open the studio door, then he came to the side of the piano and said, ‘Do you know what I hear when you play this?’ I said ’No,’ and he said, ‘Well, it doesn’t sound good!’ So he drove me hard, but we always have a great connection, and if it’s not easy that’s because it shouldn’t be. And anyway, I really expressed myself exactly how I want, so I’m very happy with the album. This is the kind of music I want to listen to. That’s why I make it, to be honest. And,” he laughs one last time, “as long as my mom likes it, it’s fine!”

She will, it goes without saying.