..portrait of a composer - by Harald Herresthal
half composer Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim made his international breakthrough at the beginning of the 1960s, and since then his works have been played by the world's leading orchestras and performers.

He is regarded as the contemporary Norwegian composer who has achieved the greatest recognition beyond the borders of his own country.

Nordheim's name is inextricably linked to the arrival of musical modernism in Norway. In his roles as composer, music critic and champion of composers' rights, he ensured that international trends gained a foothold during a period

when Norwegian music was still influenced by national romanticism, as was the rest of the Norwegian art world in the wake of World War II.

Arne Nordheim grew up in a period when all forms of cultural expression in Norway were expected to reflect our national identity. World War II served to prolong this national-romantic viewpoint in Norwegian music history. Arne Nordheim rebelled against the time-honoured principle that national identity could only be evoked in Norwegian music by using elements of folk music.

..international communication
The young composers growing up during the war knew from personal experience what it was like to be isolated from the rest of the world. As soon as the war was over, many of them left the country for studies abroad. They had a pressing need to gain new inspiration through contact with people in other countries who shared their interests.

Much of the music composed by Nordheim's generation in the 1950s had links with international trends. Before, it had not been difficult to hear the Norwegian sound in music; now it was impossible to hear whether a composer came from Norway or from somewhere else in Europe. The struggle to break out of isolation came to play a major role in Nordheim's works. The underlying motifs of his compositions are almost always communication and international understanding.

..expanding the horizon
He wants his music to transcend barriers, to expand the horizon at all levels. A typical example of this is the cantata Nordheim wrote in 1975 in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. The 300 musicians were spread across five cities throughout Norway, thousands of kilometres apart. Their musical contributions were coordinated and united at the radio station in Oslo and were then broadcast as a coherent musical work in which the whole country sang along, both literally and symbolically. Thus Nordheim wanted to unite the entire country in words, sounds and images. In many ways this was a romantic, impossible project, as was the performance of Response for organ, tape recorder and four sets of percussion instruments at the Bergen International Festival in 1992.

With the aid of the latest technological innovations,

the organ performance at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim was transmitted directly to the video screen at the venerable Håkon Hall in Bergen, where the audience was surrounded by the percussion instruments playing together with the organist sitting at the organ in Trondheim. This was a modern simultaneous concert transmitted directly between two medieval Norwegian buildings.

..soundscapes of infinity
Arne NordheimWe can only speculate about what Nordheim would have achieved if his musical ideas for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994 had been approved: he envisioned a global concert broadcast to and from five continents via satellite. Innovative is also the word for the sound sculpture Nordheim created with sculptor Arnold Haukeland for Erling Stordahl's Centre For The Blind at Skjeberg. The objective of this project was to help blind people to sense the plastic space of the sculpture aurally. With built-in photoelectric cells and thirteen sound channels on the surface of the sculpture, the music sounds different each time. Nordheim used a compositional "infinity technique" for the first time in this composition. The soundscape is created by using pre-recorded tapes of various lengths, which meet at their original starting point only after a long space of time. This idea was further developed in the music for the Scandinavian pavilion at the Osaka World Exposition in 1970. Six loops of varying lengths would, if played continuously, not meet again at their starting point for 102 years.

..movement and change
It seems almost as though Nordheim sought to expand the timeframe of human life, to create a sort of parallel to life on earth, which has moved forward in a constant process of movement and change since the dawn of history. This must be another aspect of the thought processes that have inspired him to compose music that is a kind of compressed image of earlier times. In Dinosaurus for accordion and tape, Nordheim recreates a prehistoric world. Titles such as Nachruf and Spur bear witness to his sensitivity to and respect for the past. By choosing texts from Greek mythology and the great historical thinkers and philosophers, and by drawing inspiration from the music of ancient times, Nordheim is trying to understand and shed light on his own era, and to view his own mission as an integral part of a whole.

..in awe of humanity
Nordheim's musical journey is related to his awe for human existence. It is almost as though he wanted to free himself from his own place in time. Many of his works concern life and death, the dead (Epitaffio, Aftonland (Evening Land), loneliness, Earth, peace and human rights (Pace). His music is like waves on the sea of life, carrying with it memories of the past, while he tries to use it to interpret the future.

Where do I come from? What am I doing here? Where am I going? These are words and phrases that often inspire his musical imagination, not only because of the world of sound they represent or are shaped into, but also because it is challenging to let music express deeply-felt thoughts.

..a sense of wonder
Arne Nordheim was a thinking musician. He created music that is not intended to be heard out of its universal human context. He was one of those who have a sense of wonder at the mere fact of existence, and he addressed and should be able to reach everyone whose heart does the same. In his music, we can follow him in his exploration of time and space, colours and shapes, human beings and animals.

We can accompany him as far back in our collective past as we can imagine, and in a work such as Aurora, based on Psalm 139, and some verses from Dante's Paradiso, we can sense the presence of the Almighty, who strips us bare and sees everyone and everything. We can fly so high with him that we are blinded by the light, by the love that holds the sun and stars within its sphere.

It is difficult to remain untouched by what we hear. This has not always been the case.

..learning the craft
Arne Nordheim was met with all the opposition and struggles that we expect in a romantic vision of the genuine, genial composer. In 1949 he came from his home town, Larvik, to study the organ at the Oslo Conservatory of Music. Hearing a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 2 ("Resurrection") proved to be a turning point. It inspired him to become a composer. Even then he had visions of the kind of music he wanted to compose,

but where was he to learn the craft of composition? The Oslo Conservatory of Music was a conservatory in the true sense of the word. More or less the only music theory studies offered were classic harmony and counterpoint in the styles of Palestrina and Bach. To the great surprise of the director and professors, Nordheim skipped classes to attend rehearsals of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Did he really think he would learn anything there?

Yes, he had chosen wisely. The Philharmonic Orchestra was the only place in Oslo where you could hear relatively modern music and, not least, study the sound quality of an orchestra "live". Since then, the orchestra has been Nordheim's most important medium of expression. He left the Conservatory in 1952 without having received the training in compositional craftsmanship that he was looking for.

..a pioneer of electronic music
"I left the Conservatory of Music as stupid as when I entered it," said Grieg of his years in Leipzig. Perhaps Nordheim could have said the same. In any case, he continued to study on his own with a small group of fellow students. Together, they tried to comprehend contemporary music by studying expensive musical scores and recordings. Nordheim financed his studies by working on the docks, as a telegraph messenger and as a choir conductor. During his studies in Copenhagen, composer Vagn Holmboe introduced him to the music of Béla Bartók, and in Paris in 1955 he became aware of electronic music, musique concréte, which was based on recordings of music and sounds that were processed electronically.

Nordheim became a pioneer in the field of electronic music in Norway after further studies in Warsaw and Stockholm. The Nordic Music Days and the Young Nordic Music Festival were inspiring venues for young Nordic composers. Nordheim's meeting with the Swedish avant-garde and the Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti, at the time a guest lecturer in Stockholm, had a decisive impact on his development.

..international recognition
Nordheim had his breakthrough as a composer with the song cycle Aftonland (Evening Land) in 1956, and in the course of a few years he had written Canzona (1960) and Epitaffio (1963), works that attracted attention far beyond the borders of his own country.

In the 1960s, avant-garde music swept over Norway like a tidal wave. At that time Norway had still not managed to catch up with international music trends after the isolation of the war years. Many of Bartók's and Stravinsky's major works had still not been performed in Norwegian concert halls,

and Arnold Schönberg's twelve-tone music and the second Viennese School were almost unknown.

Consequently, it is not difficult to imagine how unprepared audiences and performers were for electronic music and other radical musical genres. Everything came at once, and the Norwegian music community was shocked. The Korean artist Paik's absurd musical theatre pieces caused a scandal and served to increase people's suspicion of the new music.

..forbidden music, public struggles
The congregation at Trinity Church in Oslo took the dramatic step of forbidding the performance of the organ works of Györgi Ligeti and Mauricio Kagel. At concerts in the Oslo University Aula, which was then the Norwegian capital's main concert venue, musicians refused to sing or knock on their instruments. Many performers were hostile to the new music. They said that they did not want to bring the Cold War and the problems of the world into the concert halls.During these years, Nordheim was extremely active within the composers' organizations. In his position as chairman of the Norwegian Society of Composers and the organization New Music (ISCM), he fought hard for the new music. He also influenced public opinion as music critic for the daily newspaper Dagbladet, where he used a barbed and articulate pen to ridicule those members of the Norwegian music community who accepted mediocre performances of the standard repertoire and refused to recognize the value of the new music. Nordheim struggled against the conservative press, and had no trouble dealing with contemptuous reviews of his own music. But when a reviewer on one occasion claimed that a commissioned work by one of Nordheim's colleagues was a waste of the taxpayers' money, he went in person to the editor's office and saw to it that this particular reviewer was never allowed to express an opinion on contemporary music again.

..the tempest
In retrospect one must stand in awe of the strength he had then. When both musicians and audiences were vociferous in their dislike and mistrust of the music he composed, it must have taken an enormous amount of self-confidence to carry on. Perhaps the answer is easy: he gained his confidence abroad. Epitaffio and Eco were first performed in Stockholm, Greening was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Zubin Mehta, Spur saw the light of day in Baden-Baden, Ariadne in the Netherlands, the ballet The Tempest in Schwetzingen, and Tenebrae in Washington. Magma was commissioned by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Tractatus was planned to premiere in Toronto, Canada. Moreover, it was not only leading orchestras that commissioned and played Nordheim's works. The fact that musicians such as Dorothy Dorow, Peter Pears and Mstislav Rostropovitch first performed many of his compositions for solo instruments also attracted attention. With support from these world-famous figures, Nordheim could face the Norwegian music community with his head held high, and the turning point and breakthrough for his position at home came when his ballet The Tempest was presented at the Norwegian National Opera and Draumkvedet was performed at Det Norske Teatret.

..national success, official accolades
The period during which Nordheim and his colleagues manned the barricades was the period that marked the beginning of music in Norway as we know it today.

The new music that soloists and professional orchestras struggled with forty years ago is played today as a matter of course, not only by professionals, but also by music students. This is now benefiting new generations of composers.

The secret of Arne Nordheim's success as a composer was his belief that the impossible is possible.

He knew what it meant to have to struggle both spiritually and materially. His turning point arrived in the early 1970s, bringing both artistic success and official accolades. In 1982 he moved into in Grotten, the Norwegian Government's honorary residence near the Royal Palace.

He served as a source of inspiration for the contemporary musicians of his time.

Harald Herresthal, 2001/2010
Norwegian State Academy of Music