March 4, 2015

Martin Alfsen (center), Tone Scott-Dahl
Pedersen, vocal coach (left), and students from Rønningen Folk High School in Oslo, Norway.
Photo: Donna Armstrong, 2015

Martin Alfsen, Norwegian musician, producer, songwriter and choir director, has been bringing his class of vocal students to UCLA for the last ten years to sit in on James Roberson’s Music of African Americans class and Michele Weir’s jazz vocal combo. Mr. Alfsen and students visited on February 26th and March 3rd this year. On February 26th Mr. Alfsen sat down with Donna Armstrong for an interview. For more information about Martin Alfsen, go to

Q: How did you get started as a musician?
A: I started directing a choir very young, and writing my own songs.  There was a big Jesus movement all over the western world in the 70s that inspired my generation. In the early 80s that’s when I started recording. A lot of choirs sing my songs—choirs in ordinary churches.  It used to be mostly the youth choirs but now the regular church choirs sing my music. It is inspired by African American gospel music. It also comes from the Scandinavian hymn tradition. I liked gospel music as a youth. I remember “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. When Edwin Hawkins came to Norway in 1974, that was when I first became aware of African American gospel music.
Q: Tell me about the school where you work and how you decided to come to UCLA.
A: My regular job—I work with the vocal class at a school called Rønningen Folk High School in Oslo, Norway. Students attend this school for one year between high school and college. It is a boarding school. They come from all over the country. I have worked there for twenty years. At this school it is important to find places to go—to go on some trips. I had a lot of contacts here in California, mostly people involved with gospel music. I was friends with Pastor Andrae Crouch. I used to manage his tours in Norway during the late 80s and 90s. I also wanted to come to California because is a nice place to come. It is a comfortable environment. There is a lot of snow in Norway now. We had a hard time getting out of the airport!
We came to UCLA in 2006 for the first time. I wanted to come to UCLA. I contacted you and everything worked out, so we kept coming. This is our tenth year! We attend James Roberson’s gospel music class and Michele Weir’s jazz vocal class. I teach gospel choir, so the students already know what that’s about.
Q: Are the students familiar with jazz vocal music too?
A: We have a jazz band at our school and the vocal coach comes with me to UCLA every year. We know about Michele Weir’s work. She is an authority. I’ve noticed the way that she works with the students. She has students make their own lead sheets. She teaches the singers to take the responsibility to make sure the instrumentalists have something to play.
Q: Tell me about your professional choir. You gave me the Songs of Praise and Worship CD last year, and I really like it!
A: Reflex is the name of my professional choir. We are well-known throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe. We have made about twenty-three albums—all gospel music. I write most of the songs. I compose the music and write the lyrics. Our most well-known song is “Like a Mighty River.” (1)
Q: How common is that—composing the music and writing the lyrics?
A: In the gospel music tradition, people do both—people such as Andrae Crouch, Richard Smallwood, and Kirk Franklin. In songwriting traditions the artists write both the music and the lyrics.
A lot of people in the choir Reflex are young—between twenty and thirty. Some of the people in the professional choir are former students from Rønningen Folk High School.
It is interesting that we should end up coming here. I was always such a Herb Alpert fan. I think I have all of his albums. The students think it is cool to be at the Herb Alpert School of Music. I loved the Tijuana Brass—it is so uplifting.
Q: Just like your music! Thank you, Martin.
(1)  In 1993, Reflex recorded the Alfsen song "Like a Mighty River" on the Denne Dagen album. The song became a Christian music hit, and was covered by a great number of European choirs and the well-known American gospel group "The Kurt Carr Singers", for their album Serious About It. From Wikipedia: “Martin Alfsen.”