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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Tord Gustavsen interview

 Tord Gustavsen

'...I have received several emails from people saying that one of my albums has formed a valuable companion in their journey working through grief.

Tord Gustavsen (b. 1970) is an internationally renowned contemporary jazz pianist. He tours extensively worldwide, and has been a bandleader of a trio and a later ensemble, both of which bore his name. His music has received widespread critical acclaim:


The trio, with Harald Johnsen on double bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums, has been described as “unique in jazz, blending the distinctions between chamber jazz, classical and pastoral music”. Other glowing reviews have identified a wide range of influence, from Spanish and gospel music to Keith Jarrett. To this listener, his work combines the subtle melodic inventiveness of Bill Evans with the refinement and restraint prevalent in modern Nordic jazz.


Before studying music, Gustavsen completed a higher degree in musicology. He wrote a lengthy thesis on the paradoxes of improvisation which drew on his previous study of dialectical psychological theory. He gave some in-depth and thought provoking responses to my questions in our recent interview. I for one will not be missing the London performance as part of his UK tour next year.

'When things work well, when we feel we’ve done a good concert, when I feel I’m using myself well and giving my gift to the world - then, the benefits clearly outweigh the burdens.'

JT: It seems to me you see a great connection between the workings of the mind and musical creativity. You have a degree in psychology and have applied your interest and knowledge to a thesis on the ‘dialectics of improvisation’. What benefits do you think formal study of music would bring to a practising mental health professional?

TG: That depends on the kind of studies in question. The benefits could range from almost nothing to mind-blowing! Music theory, music history or practising an instrument are very different fields of study. To grow in the field that I am particularly interested in, one must enter into the dialogue between playing and reflecting on playing, whether one is playing an instrument oneself or reading about how musicians experience playing. And one should look for studies in the psychology of music where parallels between music making and lovemaking are explicitly brought to the fore. I humbly suggest my essay ‘The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation’ as one of these.



JT: Can you tell us what practical benefits you believe playing or listening to music has on an individual’s mental health? Is jazz and improvisation different in any way?

Jazz will almost always have an element of improvisation – ranging from small variations of a theme inside a fixed form all the way into freely improvised large-scale forms and improvisation without tonal structures. Other genres will also have degrees of improvisation – and, indeed, much of what I have to say about improvisation could also be said about interpretation. But making these distinctions is not my main focus. 


Then, regarding possible benefits of music for mental health - a huge question with great individual differences. What I can say for sure is that for most people who are touched by music and/or make it themselves, there is a powerful connection between mental states and musical landscapes. But this connection can operate in a multitude of ways – some artists actually make melancholic music feeling great, some make uplifting music during depression. Others have a more obvious connection of emotional correspondence between art and life – where you can ‘hear’ their sorrow or feel their joy through their art. But for all of us, I think life and art influence each other, be it through correspondence or polarity.


Do we work through our grief or give shape to our longing through music? Yes.


Do we celebrate life and love through our music? Yes. But via an infinite number of positions on this continuum from correspondence to polarity or tension.


As for simply listening to music, I have heard so many touching reports about music making a fundamental difference in people lives. Music can form ‘soundtracks’ to our lives’ phases. It can carry symbolic meaning and emotional triggers, filling us up, energizing us, making us pensive, opening us up for reflection and meditation. And music can sometimes help people get through tragic loss. I have received several emails from people saying that one of my albums has formed a valuable companion in their journey working through grief. This really adds a fundamental aspect of the feeling that it is all ‘worth it’ to me. The communal bliss of playing music – when it’s really working – is in itself more than enough to justify it. But all the practical and financial hassles of life as a touring musician can sometimes be overwhelming and exhausting. Feedback like this really adds to the meaning of it all for me.


JT: As well as your practice, recording and research, you tour a considerable amount- how does this affect the stability of your more ‘everyday’ life in Oslo? Does it put a particular strain on your mental health? If so, how do you cope with this?

It does put a few strains on my health, but it also boosts it. When things work well, when we feel we’ve done a good concert, when I feel I’m using myself well and giving my gift to the world - then, the benefits clearly outweigh the burdens. Also, it’s important to do some exercising and eat healthy on the road (although obsessing about it can be just as unhealthy).


Tord Gustavsen QuartetBut no matter how well one finds a way to do it, being on the road all the time is no good, especially not with a small child at home. After we had our child, I stopped doing most of my ‘sideman’ projects, concentrating more or less exclusively on my own ensemble. This meant going from being away more than half the time to considerably less, and not more than one tour of 10 days or longer per semester. That was definitely a good decision.


Furthermore, when I am at home, my days are far more flexible than those of parents working a straight job. Even though I practice, compose, plan tours and do a lot of administrative work to keep it all going, I can start at 10 or 11 instead of 8 in the morning and instead work more late in the evening. Thus I actually get to spend more time with my son than most fathers – I can take him to kindergarten late in the morning without stress and pick him up early.



JT: What musicians and artists have inspired you most? Would you like to select a particular piece of music that has special meaning for you, particularly in relation to what we’ve spoken about here?

Well, there is a long, long line of deep sources of inspiration. Let me mention only a few selected ones: Pianists Jan Johansson, Jon Balke, Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett. Composers Ravel, Shostakovich, Bach, Messiaen, Fartein Valen. Singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday from the jazz canon. Contemporary singer/songwriters Sidsel Endresen, Solveig Slettahjell, Susanna Wallumrød, Kristin Asbjørnsen, Hilde Kjersem, Synne Sanden – the Scandinavian scene has so many fantastic singers these days! And saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter in all his different musical phases.


I should also mention visual arts and literature – inspiration certainly crosses borders. I have done several projects combining music and poetry recitals, and I also worked for a while at the Norwegian film institute improvising music to silent movies.


I have to stop soon in order not to overload this interview with names and references! But I’d like to end with suggesting Buxtehude’s cantata Ad Genua from Cantates Membra Jesu Nostri – recorded by Concerto Vocale on Harmonia Mundi. This recording found me in a vulnerable and open and beautiful state on an off-day on tour in a rural German hotel 12 years ago. It’s about being embraced and nurtured in Jesus’ bosom - or at least that’s what I think it’s about. It’s comforting and spiritually nourishing, and ultimately (to me at least) it’s about finding the parent inside yourself to comfort and embrace your inner needy child.


You can interact and make love with this music and the lyrics and the sacred sensuality of it all – cry your heart out, and walk away humbled, yet strengthened, and perhaps less likely to sink into unconscious demands that your partner also be your parent.



  • Visit Tord Gustavsen’s official website here.


  • Listen to Tord’s selection of one of his favourite live recordings of his work here.


  • Listen to a live recording of ‘Still there’ from his trio’s 2007 album, ‘Being There’ here.


  • Read a further interview with Tord following his performance at 2012’s Montreal Jazz Festival here.




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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.