Interview Oyvind Torvund

Das Gespräch fand am 10. Februar 2011 per Skype zwischen Oslo und Berlin statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

Some of the sounds you work with seem almost ugly. Or at least they seem as if they are not meant to be beautiful. Is this a criterion when you design a sound, compose a sound? Or do you not think about it and they just happen to be that way?

I don't think about ugly and beautiful. But I might think of something as being raw and something that is more idyllic. These might be similar categories to what you are thinking of. But I mean ugly is a negative word and raw for me is very positive. So raw in the unshaped sense of the word. That means also that it is closer to nature, closer to animals, closer to something untouched by will, I mean my will. But still you can argue that it is a kind of stereotype of the raw. So it is also a fixed element in that sense.

So it's an artificial rawness.


An artificial nature?

In some pieces.

The question for me is, where does the composer come in? Ugly and beautiful are terms from the art discourse. When you say that you like something to be raw, are you focussing out of the context of art onto something else? Do you know what I mean?

I don't know exactly if I understand what you mean. I am stuck with my brain and my conception of these things. So if I think about being inspired by animals, it's then not that I go to live with animals for a year. It's more superficial than that. I think about the animal and I bring it into the piece, hopefully.

I guess the question is, why is it important to have something that has not been touched by your will? You are a composer after all.

I try to have as many approaches to making music as possible. Or at least to think of a piece that can include a palette of different approaches. And then it's often one part of it that I want to be very organic, and other parts I want to be very clean and conceptual. And what I feel most joyful about when making music is to make combinations and to compose with these elements. And then it's important to have materials that are as characteristic as possible. That means that the organic part should be very organic, which is to say: untouched by me.

When talking about ugly sounds I wasn't really thinking of the organic aspects. I was thinking about certain electronic sounds like in the computer game piece Krull Quest, where the sounds are harsh and aggressive. They are not natural. And they don't stand for something natural. It refers to a super artificial technology. That is then also an option of the raw?

You are right. I think I have said untouched twice now, and it is not something I think about, that is should be untouched. So it is more that the rawness can be represented, and then I want it to be as raw as possible. And when writing for instrumentalists, when I want this rawness, I may become present in a certain way of playing, which is clumsy or I might strive for a certain expression which is not polished.

When I listened to your piece Neon Forest Space I asked myself: Why does the clarinet get to play such a beautiful part? And are the other musicians not envious of the the clarinet? But I guess that is not the point.

No, it just turned out to be like that. It turned out to be almost a clarinet concerto.

But he gets to expose his instrument with all its beauties and all the sound qualities that the instrument builders were going for.

As opposed to the fact that there is no cello vibrato and no beautiful cello melodies in the piece?


I think it was not a plan to make this kind of division in the quartet. But the clarinet has a very pure tone, and it can remind us of an electronic sine wave tone. It's somewhat neutral. And in this combination with a lot of noise, like for instance in the instrumentation of the folk melody, the melody can be quite pure.

I understand. You mention the folk melody, which arises out of musical figures that in the beginning reminded me of an etude. It seems almost as if there are quotation marks around the music saying "etude". It seems almost ironic. When you talk about using many different approaches you emphasize the object character of the music. So are there in fact quotation marks?

No, not really. I think of the work as a collage. And it's all written seriously. But there is a sort of narrative in the piece. The way the piece is built form-wise has some kind of psychedelic narrative. (lacht)

And it ends with an eternal dream of the natural forest? And is the end then an awakening or a drift away?

No, the way I think of it is that it is a walk into the forest at the end, and you have the call and response from the ensemble, the recorded ensemble in the forest. I was thinking about being inspired from something you hear in nature, so the way I wrote it was: some melodies should be really archaic, which you can imagine hearing in the forest, and that the ensemble should then learn it directly from the forest.

Nature becomes the teacher.


So it is a little bit like a Bandrom situation only that now nature is teaching the musicians how to play.

In a live situation you will hear the forest sounds and you will hear a tape of the ensemble playing in the forest. And they are responding to this live.

It would like to talk a little about animals. You said you are inspired by animals, and especially by wolves. Do you think animals are capable of making music? And what is so special about animals making sounds?

I don't know if they appreciate music but certainly they make sounds and this is part of the sounding world that I as a composer can use as material. And the reason I find it inspiring is maybe that it is something that is very old, older than the musical tradition and the musical tradition that I am relating to as a composer.

So it is has this archaic aspect.

Exactly, in a musical sense it is kind of neutral, because it represents only itself. This is of course a simplification, because if you take wolf sounds, it is a big cliché to use a howling wolf. It is a musical cliché, so it is not neutral in that sense. I still find it inspiring to work with these combinations and to work with simple tones and chords together with a wolf. And I find this mythology of where the music comes from in different traditions. There are myths and fairy tales about that different melodies came from the musician having directly contact with an animal or an animal-like creature. Especially in some Norwegian folk violin melodies that are said to be learned from the devil or a creator resembling the devil. And then this kind of mystical quality has always been of some interest to me, especially since the music is not that dark. I mean it is interesting to have this historical background for the melody, and you can believe in it or not.

There are recordings of groups of dogs singing together, and when you listen to it you automatically start interpreting it in a musical sense. You can not listen to dogs singing and ignore the fact of your listening habits. You also have musicians wear masks. It is a scary thing. Are you turning the musician, the highly trained professional, into an animal?

I mean it's something I have been experimenting with and it comes from this fascination for shamanistic and ritualistic things. When I am working with "highly trained musicians", as you say, then I often have an idea, and the easiest thing to do is to put a mask on the musician and then you suddenly get a completely visual element or the music then comes from someone else. So again, it is a kind of a game where you change the rules of listening, if you are in the same room.

Talking about the "highly trained" musician, the only piece of yours that I would call proper contemporary music is the orchestra piece How Sound Travels. All other pieces are a little aside from what the normal concert life requires a composer to do. I don't know if you agree, that you are maybe side-stepping from the normal concert life. But if you do, did you at one point make that decision not to use the crafts you have been taught?

Yes, at one point I started missing the freedom that I thought I should have as a composer writing contemporary music. So for me it was very important to at least have the feeling of freedom. And I mean freedom and that I can use every material I want. And at some point when I was studying at the academy I felt that the fascination for the contemporary classics, which I love, like pieces of Xenakis and Scelsi and Nono, you name it, I felt that pieces written for a sinfonietta with electronic sounds today were a bit emptied. It is not easy to go on in only that direction, so I felt that the future will include more materials and more approaches. And for instance, well, it is a common feeling when you are studying, you feel overwhelmed by the tradition you are entering and at the same you can feel a bit stuck in it. So then what to do? What I have been doing is maybe to just explore quite different approaches and ways of making music. And of course this has all been done before, but by including teaching situations as one section of a piece ... I can list the different approaches, but it really comes quite natural to me. It is not made in desperation, that I elaborately make a plan for "how different can music be", but it comes from free thoughts, I hope.

Earlier I used a word you didn't seem to agree with, which is the word "ironic". Is the way you are conceiving pieces not on some level also a commentary to the music life? Is there irony involved?

Let me think. When I make simple, stupid melodies, it is not as a commentary on simple, stupid music, but because I want to make it.

But it could be read as a commentary on overly complex music.

No, no, no. For me, I am striving to be like a child and make really infantile basic melodies, when I write melodies. And then you can say with regard to complex music that that is a reaction, but then it is a reaction to that I want to make the music I want to make. I don't think about it, maybe I did when I first started writing music, it sounded like a bad Xenakis piece maybe or a Brian Ferneyhough piece. I was imitating because I wanted to have the energy that their music included. But when I write music now I don't think, "Oh, I can't write this melody, because then the music scene will be very upset." (lacht)

I am imagining the music scene being upset.

It would be a shame if they were. But that being said, I would hope that more artists would feel more free, because the conventions are there, you can hear the conventions, and I am not talking about style, just about visions and sometimes, when you are at contemporary classical concerts, you can be at these concerts and you can get the feeling that this used to be utopian music and now it's a style. So I don't know. I don't have any answers, but I believe in freedom.

I am somewhat irritated by the child-like state of mind. I don't know if you mean innocence and naivité. I don't think you are naive, but maybe you strive to be naive?

I like parts of my music to be really naive. Naive in the Art brut sense of the word. I mean the quality that naive artists can achieve, if you know what I mean ... It is a bit hard to explain but I think there are very many parameters you can work on. When working on a melody for instance, the interpretation of a melody, there are so many microlayers and hard to notate factors that could heighten the quality of the melody. One of the things that is really fascinating for me with the folk music is the freedom of the performer to shape the melodies in real time. And that as an interpretation it really can mean something and that it is felt. So that the musical material does not need to be very complex but the complexity lies somewhere else. And this is something I like to work on also with my own music, with the very simple melodies, but maybe that the quality lies within the interpretation and microvariation of it.

OK. There is one word that keeps coming up for me, which is authenticity. I asked earlier about the object character of the music as opposed to something subjective. And you said what you do feels proper at the moment, so it becomes rather subjective. Does your music have anything to do with authenticity?

It might have that. The theme is up in the music. I think it is more a play of different authenticities. But I mean, take one example, in my more visual works with teaching situations for example, it is very clear that this is a constructed situation where one teacher is teaching some melodies to a bigger ensemble. If it were my intention that you had the feeling that this is the real stuff, "Oh, we have this folk musician who is teaching, oh, this is the way it has been done for centuries", then I think I would have worked in another way. I am more using this method or way of making music, and then something else happens.

Something else happens? With the music.

Yes, with the music.

When you conceive a piece, like the Album cycle, is there a certain agenda, that you begin with, like: I will have a cheesy keyboard sound, I will have Baroque ornaments. Do you lay it out before you start writing the piece, saying: These are the things I want to integrate, these are the things I want to be dealt with?

No, it is not that super clear. That piece was about collections and also about collections of very different approaches to music. So I was thinking to myself, what is an ornament, and why do I like ornaments so much. Well, I guess the answer for me is that in an ornament a lot of things happen in a very short time. It reveals the rules of the music in a very short time, because one thing is the musical material, another thing is how is it varied and what are the rules to sustain. Is this very abstract?

Not at all.

Then I thought, a lion's roar can be an ornament in a way and it is interesting to put that together with a Baroque ornament. And then you get this very stereotypical collage between the rawness and the cultivated. And this can be very, very simple and very stupid, and it can also lead to some more interesting, complex relations between the cultivated and the raw. And in this cycle it is a very basic rule that you have a straight beat and on each beat there comes a new sound. And then you have the Baroque part, which is made out of the idea to make this hyper harpsichord, where the typewriter is emphasizing the mechanical sound of the harpsichord. And this is based on some pieces by Couperin, where I took out the ornaments of two different pieces and made that the basis for the piece.

So what you just described was laid out beforehand, but the actual piece developed as you were writing it?

Yes. When I was writing these pieces it became clear to me. To work with a straight pulse and one ornament on each pulse or on each beat, then there are certain things you can do with it. You can make melodies that go in-between and have random collections, associations of one sound to another, or you can have microvariations like you are scanning one object with a different layer each time. Maybe it is not possible to hear this. These are just ideas that are inspiring to me.

But it could not happen that while you are writing a piece that in the middle of the piece you think, I need to record the forest, and then you jump up from your desk and go into the forest to record. The recording of the forest will always be there before you start writing the piece.

No, it can happen that I jump out of the window, as you said. I like this freedom in the process: OK, this is what the piece needs now. It is nice in the process to become a bit surprised by where it goes. Otherwise it is just filling in, like being an employee at your own company.

OK. I kind of like the idea of being an employee of my own company.

Yes, but you can mad at yourself as your boss. And you have to do all the work that the boss said you should do.