Interview with Arne Norheim

On 19th May 2003 Julian Cowley visited Arne Nordheim at Grotten, his home in central Oslo. Nordheim was generous with his time and warmly hospitable. They talked for several hours. The following transcript is extracted from that conversation.

JC: You have moved between different musical languages, both from one work to another and within an individual work, combining languages for your own expressive purpose.

14.08 / 2013

AN: I’m excited by the possibility of expressing one thing in one language and another thing in another - and they turn out to be very much the same. Different in language, different in meaning, different in semantics, but the message turns out to be the same. I hear only this little tiny piece that’s in all my work. But I rewrite it, time over, again and again – something like an obsession, in a way.

JC: You have managed to find an international language while also working within a culture that for a long time has looked to folk tradition as a resource.

AN: I attended a course at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, and during that course they announced that there was going to be a large presentation of electronic and concrete music in Paris. I went and there I heard Pierre Schaeffer and I was very much taken by his music. Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul and his railway piece, which is so well known now. This was in 1954 or 1955. It was two weeks only, a kind of mini-festival created by French radio. There were demonstrations of slowed down speed and all these new techniques. Pierre Henry was doing the most interesting things, for me. Later we heard from the great guru in Köln [Karlheinz Stockhausen] who in my opinion has made some of the most important pieces for electronics. You can say whatever you like about Stockhausen – and people do – but he’s a genius; his mind is so fabulous. And what did we do, in Norway? [he smiles]
In Norway we do have fantastic folk music. Grieg was aware of this. My favourite of his pieces is the Slåtter (Peasant Dances) Op. 72. And also his variations for piano, Ballade Op. 24 – very beautiful. Both take material from folk music. He was a genius too. I listen to folk music to see if I can find a true expression of the need for serenity. I adore the hardanger fiddle. But also I have a liking for what Stockhausen called dreckige klange – dirty sounds. I like wild sound: crushed metal, or whatever.
The conservative nature of the folkloristic thing was unacceptable to my taste, so I was fighting against it in a way. For some years my music wasn’t performed in Norway, although it was performed for several years at International Society for Contemporary Music festivals, around the world. I had a connection with international musical life, but I couldn’t bring the hardanger fiddle there.
I brought home to Oslo a whole package of beautiful sounds produced in the studio at the Institute of Sonology. Then I went to the broadcasting corporation in Norway and said I have these ideas, and they were so open and said go ahead, here is a room, equipment, a technician. I made a piece called Response for percussion and electronic sound. That was played for the first time in 1966.

JC: So your technical training in electronic music started in Utrecht. Before that were you writing in traditional forms?

AN: Yes, string quartets, song cycles, piano pieces – some of them have gone, just disappeared ... and may they rest in peace. [he laughs] I wrote in 1956 a string quartet which now is much performed, by good quartets – that’s very funny.
I wrote a song-cycle called Aftonland (Evening Land) in 1959. It is very much indebted to my early work with electronics; there are some special sounds in there. Working with electronics you learn to think forward quickly and at the same time see the same thing happening, going backwards. Many of the sounds I work with in my instrumental music comes from electronics.

JC: There are certain instruments you seem to favour – cello, trombone ...

AN: I like the cello, because it is such a warm instrument. So is trombone, which is part of the respiratory system. I‘m writing a trombone concerto just now. I adore the concerto form - I need that dramatic contrast, one alone against the masses, that humanistic approach.
Cello is so bodily; part of the whole body. Embracing the instrument – that’s a wonderful thought. And I like cello for its rich possibilities of creating unforgettable melodies, and its reference to the great literature of the cello.
My cello concerto, Tenebrae (1982), was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, a creator of enormous emotion, enormous vibrato. He said, I will not give you any directions where you should go with the piece; I won’t push you in any direction. However, ... [he laughs] when you write this piece please leave a space open for this picture. Think of a boring Sunday afternoon in a garden in Baku [Rostropovich’s birthplace in Azerbaijan], filled with old aunts having a nice time, laughing and playing games, and then little ‘Slava’ had to go to his room and practice a Bach suite. Can you do that for me?’ That was funny and inspiring. So I did. The aunts go to the door, but don’t open it. They don’t want to disturb little ‘Slava’, who is concentrating, so they peek through the keyhole to see if it is really him playing that well. He was a very funny man.

JC: Who in music history have been important to the development of your own ideas?

AN: Very much the old music - I’m much attracted to the Renaissance. I remember all the things we were told that you shouldn’t do, and I then discovered that composers such as Monteverdi had been doing just those things hundreds of years ago. So then I thought I could invent a new functional harmony, using that. It was a matter of inventing formulas so that moving an interval would have consequences for the whole piece. If you listen to the opening, and also to the end, of my ballet score The Tempest you can hear this movement under or over or around, and at the same time these harmonic fractions which I think could be used as
a new way. But I don’t want to sit down and write a book about harmony. I prefer to write music.

JC: And you love the sound of bells...

AN: Bells were my childhood. I was not brought up in a religious way so I didn’t go to church, but I was very curious about it and liked to listen. Very early I was allowed to play the church organ, and eventually I was given a key so I could go and switch on the motor and just play. I was 12 or 13.
I was then asked by the church if I could ring the bells. I went on a quick course in bell-ringing. I can remember the wonderful feeling of having that church key in my hand, feeling a bit cold. And I would run up all the stairs and ring the bells. On the other side of Larvik were my parents, listening. My father had a torch and sent me a light signal so that I could see that he had heard me and was satisfied with my ringing.
There are many bell sounds in my work. It comes from there. The bell sound has always been present in my life and you can hear it in all my pieces. I can’t avoid it – that’s not possible. I’m proud of it. I said that I like the sound of crushed metal – that too goes back to when you are 12 and need to make bell sounds that reach the house of your parents, or the girl you are in love with.
I went to China with a Norwegian committee that donated a bell to the Imperial Bell Museum in Beijing, and I was allowed to hit the biggest bell you can imagine. China is a beautiful country. It’s Das Lied von der Erde everywhere, a totally Mahlerian landscape.

JC: The open-minded musical context of Warsaw has been important to you...

AN: Warsaw – my love .... In 1965 I had a piece performed at the Autumn Festival, Epitaffio, for orchestra and electronic sounds stored on an old-fashioned open reel tape. To take care of the diffusion for Epitaffio in Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall I was assisted by Luigi Nono. That’s another piece that is still performed. .... Strange.
In 1967 I was commissioned to write a piece for the Nordic pavilion at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. I made Poly-Poly, with sounds of different length and programmes of different length; six on top of each other and running all the time. It would play for 108 years before repetition occurred. After 108 years you went back to zero. It was a kind of enormous celestial thing. To create this material I contacted Warsaw and asked if it would be possible to create it there, in Polish radio’s experimental studio. Immediately there was a phone call saying you are most welcome, come at once. So I travelled back and forth, over a long period. Very quickly I memorised the timetable of flights. I created raw material in Warsaw, then I came home to Oslo and went to my friends in the broadcasting corporation and they gave me support to compose actual works.

I went out onto the street in Warsaw to make recordings, with my superb technician. We had a beautiful Swiss machine. But we couldn’t use those sounds. It was just the sound of some crazy Norwegian and a weird Pole running around with a tape recorder. That’s all it could remind you of. Impossible to use that. So I worked in the studio, and also used sound from their archive, including the machine gun that I used in the piece Warsawa. I think that studio is dead now. After I left they got into thinking that they could use precomposed programmes, such as Moog synthesizer, which is so boring.

JC: Did you feel part of a community of composers in Warsaw?

AN: I was very taken by the works of Lutosławski and his way of liberating the sound. He was a fabulous man, a door-opener - he had a tremendous impact on people. Everybody knew who he was – even in the street. And Penderecki is an interesting fellow. His big pieces were revolutionary in a way, because musical life was in the hands of the serialists then, who got more and more complex. So much of their music is forgotten.
It’s possible to make a performance of my Poly-Poly, but first you must shrink the whole thing. At the same time I worked on a sculpture for blind people [created with sculptor Arnold Haukeland for Erling Stordahl's Centre For The Blind at Skjeberg. It uses photoelectric cells and thirteen sound channels,and employs a seemingly endless looping technique comparable to that of Poly- Poly]. That is still running. I was actually invited by the Centre to make a cantata for their opening. But I was fed up with cantatas, so I said I would like to make some music which will never end – it will always be different and never alike. In fact, every 108 years it will come full circle. They said go ahead. I must have had very good ability to convince people. [he smiles] Blind listeners should get an impression of what the sculpture is like. I used parameters of temperature, wind and light. Blind people usually lack light – so I gave them some light; I felt like God. [he laughs]

I like the idea that music is not just something which belongs to its creator, but that it can go on. And I’m interested in transformation; for example, the very simple formula that you put two things together and get a new thing which is called three. Much of my thinking goes in that direction. Combine number one with number two and number three, which consists of those two, is quite unique, a third thing - and so on. It’s never ending; it goes on for ever.

Our bodies are moving things, and the vibrations in the body create new vibrations which could be close to music. That is Pythagoras, who said everything is sacred, everything. I use that as inspiration. Working with electronics has made me much more aware of special strange things in sound. I hear, all the time, the presence of Pythagoras. Even when I hear a car is slowing down in the street and using its brakes.

I haven’t been working much with electronics recently but in June 2003 we are presenting 5 Kryptofonier, that is ‘hidden sounds’. A piece I made a year ago, for soprano, percussion, synthesizer and pre-recorded electronics. It sets ancient Greek poems by Archilochus. His texts were written on walls and the walls are collapsing and the letters, words and sentences are falling to the ground. They become meaningless, yet they tell a story, which I can’t find out – so I had to write some music.

JC: Could you say a little about how literature and music go together in your work? There clearly is a strong link.

AN: My father was very interested in poetry, and it turned out that quite near to Larvik, the small town where I grew up, lived one of the best poets in Norway, Herman Wildenvey. Early in my life I got acquainted with him and I stayed his friend up to the end of his life. He read his own poetry very musically, very beautifully. Dylan Thomas is the only other poet I have heard sing the language in that way. I have a recording of Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; it’s fantastic.
In school I was very taken with poetry written in English. As soon as the war ended I started to learn the language and I learnt by heart poems by Edgar Allan Poe. I still try to recite him from memory. “From childhood's hour I have not been / As others were; I have not seen / As others saw; I could not bring / My passions from a common spring.” Amen. Boring spring, eh? That’s Edgar Allan. I loved the musicality, but also the gloominess of his stories. “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven” - that’s gloomy stuff. And wonderful. So inspiring. I love gloomy things [he laughs].
I need these things to get started; I need something to help me to move. I need poems that can start me off so there is an enormous distance from where I am standing to the furthest point I can see. I need that distance to compose.

JC:You are interested in the experience of longing...

AN: Yes, I am.
JC: On your new release Dodeka (Rune Grammofon CD), you write that “Dodeka could be described as a general title for sound-evoked yearnings I have felt – yearnings that have been too resonant for me to forget”.That seems very personal. And yet in your song cycle Aftonland you set words by Swedish poet Pär Lagerkvist: “My longing is not my own / It is just as old as the stars.”
AN: I read a statement by Iannis Xenakis the other day, where he says that people try to escape themselves, but they can’t. If an artist is true in his work it is obviously something that belongs to that person and only that person. “What people call the consistency of the arts is not the merit of the artist but the law. ... We are prisoners of ourselves,” Xenakis says. The sad thing is that you cannot change the world; no-one can. You cannot create anything new. It’s there all the time, has always been and will always be. You can say, at once, ah that is his work; but one cannot create a world of one’s own. Each of us works in a closed room, a laboratory where you have all your instruments. You cannot get out of that.

JC: Dodeka has a wonderfully clean, fresh sound.

AN: Doesn’t it! It sounds fabulous. I was astounded when I heard it. That is Warsaw. That sound. Bright, based on sine waves, and altering voices. I had the raw material from those days but for the CD it had to be converted to digital because that is the way they are working now. I’m interested in this digital technology. It’s an enrichment, just beginning to find itself.
We have some very gifted young composers in Norway now. But I’ve never had pupils, no students. I was asked to teach at the music academy. They said you will have your own room, with a little plaque on the door. I said, no thanks. Here, in Grotten, I live in freedom. I’ve lived here for 20 years and do all my work here. I have a Steinway piano, a small synthesizer, an electric pencil-sharpener and lots of pencils to be sharpened.

JC: When you first sat down to compose using electronic resources...

AN: We had no time to sit down! [he laughs] We had to run around. Starting one tape machine after the other, to get a beautiful complex polyphonic sound.

JC: ...how did you decide, in this new world of sound, which sounds were good for you?

AN: The old-fashioned thing: I either liked it or disliked it. I only have to make the music that I like. The music I dislike, or even detest, is done so well by others [he grins]. So many are writing music that I don’t like. I write the music I like, the same piece, again and again; it my work through a lifetime.