Although a piece of music has the potential to take audiences on a narrative journey with a clear beginning, middle, and end, the process of composition is rarely as straightforward. For Torvund, winner of the 2022 Berlin Art Prize, it is a matter of solving a particular kind of problem, albeit one that he has created for himself.
“I naturally want to combine materials that most people would say don’t fit together,” Torvund continues. “In order for me to be happy, those materials really have to be categorically different, which may be my way of making the world more complicated than it is.”
For example, Torvund may not yet know the precise shape and length of In the Clouds (2023), the title he finally bestowed on his new work, but he has no trouble explaining that it will attempt to unite tonally sweet melodic materials, mostly given to JACK’s strings, with white noise, as samples triggered by one of Yarn/Wire’s pianists. The idea occurred to him at a time when he was going to lots of noise concerts. He wanted to hear the wsssht sound of the extended static combined with the kind of richly colored tonalities found in the music of French fin de siècle composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Doesn’t everyone?
“If I was working with tonal chords and dissonant chords, that wouldn’t be so interesting for me,” Torvund explains. “Tonal chords and noise—that’s different. When you think about the form of those two materials, it’s hard to imagine how to combine them in time and space. I could only think of them separately, one and then the other. I didn’t know how to relate them to each other.”
Torvund’s Sweet Pieces (2016), premiered by the Oslo Philharmonic, is an earlier attempt at this unusual combination; the composition earned Torvund the Edvard Prize for contemporary music from TONO, Norway’s equivalent of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Percussion soloists deploy an array of acoustic and electronic instruments, including splash cymbals, high-pitched bells, and metal objects amplified with distortion, ring modulator, and pitch shifter effects. A keyboard with midi controls triggers pre-recorded samples of white noise and the “Casio crystals” of 1980s synthesizers, while microphones placed in the orchestra generate feedback through a PA system. Much of the focus in this frothy texture, however, is on the strings. Their sumptuous harmonies descend in cascading arpeggios and harp-like glissandos laced with vibrato. Dewy and glistening, Sweet Pieces is the music of fantasy.
His use of electronics may seem radical in the realm of the concert hall, but the technologies he favors are now half a century old.
Although the specific vocabulary of sounds and genres on which Torvund draws—lounge, free jazz, post-tonal modernism, and metal among others—are uniquely his own, he credits Christian Marclay (b. 1955), John Zorn (b. 1953), Frank Zappa (1940-93), and Captain Beefheart (1941–2010) as his early influences. Taken together, they represent a kind of late 20th Century American experimentalism that was made possible by their exposure to mass media and its technologies. The almost native integration of different artistic disciplines and musical styles into their creative work has been less a means for them to thumb their noses at a powerful establishment—although Zappa did that, too—than the result of forming deep relationships with popular, improvised, and visual traditions during their formative years.
Torvund, in specific, does not see himself as a disruptor. His use of electronics may seem radical in the realm of the concert hall, but the technologies he favors are now half a century old. Analogue equipment, and the digital devices that recreate it, provide Torvund’s music with both sonic warmth and the freedom to play through hands-on tinkering and the twisting of knobs. Devoid of cynicism, he is fully at home in orchestral and chamber music environments; this month, the Oslo Philharmonic is recording Sweet Pieces with Torvund compositions Archaic Jam (2017) and two Symphonic Poems (2019) under conductor Olari Elts.
“Some composers use popular music like ugly trash, as a symbol of the world gone wrong,” he says. “That's not me. I can't relate to that. I just want to have an open approach.”
It will perhaps come as no surprise that both of Torvund’s parents were visual artists. Born in 1976, he grew up in Kviteseid in Telemark, which he remembers as “all forests and trees in the middle of nowhere.” His mother studied classical guitar, and his uncle played the instrument as well. Torvund started to pick it up as a young boy and began private lessons around the age of seven.
“I was naturally drawn to the guitar, I wanted to hear music, and I thought about it all the time,” he says. “Whenever there was a guitar and someone who could play, I would ask, ‘Can you show me?’”
Torvund was not only interested in classical music, but every kind of music native to the instrument: classic rock, contemporary rock, metal, and blues. He loved old recordings by Robert Johnson and Leadbelly especially, not just for the music, but the crackle and hiss on the surface of the old shellac records. When he moved to the city of Skien to attend its arts high school as a guitarist, other technologies reigned. His friends at the time denigrated synthesizers, but they were beholden to cassettes. They taped older, difficult to access popular music from the radio and shared it with each other.
Before applying to the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, (bachelor’s in composition, 2002), Torvund spent some time studying Nordic languages. He continued to play guitar in rock and improvising groups, but his aspirations changed from being in a band to composing his own music. Bjørn Kruse and Ivar Frounberg became his primary teachers.
“Compared to other conservatories or academies, it was quite open,” he remembers. “I had professors with a range of views on aesthetics. What we wanted to do was really up to us. We were allowed to try to invent quite early on. Even at that time, my music included clear references to different genres and let them collide with each other.”
Torvund spent a post-graduate year at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, where he studied with Friedrich Goldmann, in 2002-03. At the same time, he launched Bandrom, which he describes as “a series of multidisciplinary events and performances involving a polyphony of independent concerts, slideshows, and installations.” Like the interdisciplinary “happenings” of the 1960s and 70s, these experimental gatherings helped him expand the reach of new music beyond the formal environment of the concert hall and build communities around it.
Bandrom also helped Torvund cement now longstanding relationships with ensembles. The first three events included performances by the Oslo Sinfonietta (2003, 2004, and 2005); Torvund was their composer-in-residence from 2003-04. The Norwegian new music quintet Asamisimasa performed at Bandrom events in Norrkøping, Sweden (2007) and Berlin (2009). Neon Forest Space: Asamisimasa Plays the Music of Øyvind Torvund was fully dedicated to Torvund’s works, including the title composition (Neon Forest Space), Willibald Motor Landscape, Wolf Studies, and Plastic Waves; it won a Spellemann Prize, the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy, for Best Contemporary Music Record of 2015.
Torvund’s other awards include his selection for the INTRO-Composer program administered by the Music Information Centre Norway and Concerts Norway (2007-09), a residential fellowship at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy (2008), the Arne Nordheim Composer Prize from Norway’s Department of Culture and Equality (2012), and a Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) scholarship in Berlin (2013). He was nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2014, 2016, and 2022.
Torvund has also held positions that complement his compositional activities, taking on curatorial roles and programming. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Parergon
(2001-02), a contemporary music publication; Artistic Director of the Music Factory Contemporary Music Festival in Bergen (2003); Co-Producer of the Borealis Festival (2005-08); and Artistic Director of the Norwegian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, nyMusikk (2009-11).
Tonight’s program opens with Plans (2023), which combines the performing forces of Yarn/Wire and JACK with the addition of flutist Laura Cocks, clarinetist Rane Moore, and electric guitarist Giacomo Baldelli. It is the most recent incarnation of what Torvund describes as an expanding catalogue of ideas that have previously taken shape as Plans for Future Keyboard and Violin Pieces (2016), 10 Plans (2017), Plans for Future Ensemble Pieces (2021), Plans for Future Operas (in progress), and the prospective Plans for Plans. Even Torvund’s plans have plans.
Torvund’s plans offer listeners an opportunity to contemplate the aspirational nature of a composer’s process, the limitations of composition, and its potential for failure, even if nothing on this program can literally crash and burn.
He says that the performance of his plans allows him to try out ideas that might grow into orchestral pieces or other ensemble music, however, the new pieces that they propose are impossible and cannot be realized. “I like to hear about plans for new works from others and especially about the ideas that drive them,” Torvund says. “I also like sketchbooks with drawings. The idea is to have a concert played live with projected images of sketches that involve something too spectacular to actually do.”
For example, a preview for Plans for Future Operas, a song cycle for soprano, keyboard, and projected drawings, presents the idea for a car horn opera in which a brass band creates live interpretations of sounding car horns, a Hammond organ harmonizes with a traffic jam, and a soprano recreates the patterns produced by car alarms. Other plans include a feedback opera that features a hanging, swinging guitar amp; a beach opera in which pithy song texts appear as clouds in the sky; and a séance opera in which a spiritual guide levitates the audience.
Asked if his plans are intended as satire, Torvund is unequivocal in his answer. “No,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the humor. It’s not cold irony. For me, it’s important not to cross that line.
“They’re dreams. They’re my dreams,” he insists, citing another composer’s work that was seemingly impossible: Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, in which the four players perform together from the cockpits of four different helicopters in flight. Torvund’s plans offer listeners an opportunity to contemplate the aspirational nature of a composer’s process, the limitations of composition, and its potential for failure, even if nothing on this program can literally crash and burn.
Torvund composed Untitled School/Mud Jam/Campfire Songs for Yarn/Wire, a quartet consisting of two pianists and two percussionists, who are ultimately responsible for numerous acoustic and electronic instruments as well as triggering projections during its performance. The piece, which premiered at Issue Project Room in 2014, originated with three contrasting movements. Tonight’s version will consist of the first two: Untitled School
and Mud Jam.
Musically speaking, Untitled School progresses through five numbered sections whose designations appear as headings on slides: “Scales,” “Textures,” “Chords,” “Imitations,” and “Jungles.” These headings would seem to signal the primacy of musical building blocks, even if “Jungles” have yet to be validated as a musical form in theory textbooks. But it is the music, Torvund says, that grew out of a collection of projected images and not the other way around: paintings of lions and tigers, some by renowned artists; colored squares; gilded pages from medieval manuscripts; embroidery squares with tidy stitchwork, and more.
“Images can be so concrete and set you in a specific place,” Torvund explains. “I long for that in music. I like it when you can push music out of the abstract world that it is caught in.”
Torvund took inspiration for Untitled School from Four Times Through the Labyrinth, a transcription of four lectures by German conceptual artists Olaf Nicolai and Jan Wenzel. The book offers a serpentine catalogue of labyrinth images that ask the reader to take creative leaps through time and space, “from the fable of the minotaur to the floor plan of IKEA,” as described in the book’s introduction.
“I like this didactic form,” Torvund says, “which can hold something less controllable or perhaps even chaotic. It seems like a lecture, but you don’t know what you’re learning.” Indeed, a listener’s experience may be one of searching for the connections between Torvund’s materials. Does the progression imply progress? Or does it call into question whether or not classification systems have meaning as a human activity?
Untitled School also references the iconic “Black Squares” of Kazimir Malevich, abstract paintings dating from 1915. As art critic Peter Schjeldahl explains, “Apart from a peculiarly Russian mystical tradition, which he exploited—evoking the compact spell of the icon, as a conduit of the divine—his work amounts to a cosmic ‘Song of the Open Road.’ It conveys sheer, surging, untrammeled possibility.”
For Torvund, his colored slides are not just “cold squares in space. Abstract art of this nature was oddly spiritual. Can we find connections between colored squares and non-figurative art like embroidery and ask if there is a reason for patterns to be like this? Is it because they are beautiful, or because there is a spiritual meaning?”