At musical performances, if boredom sets in, the listener faces a limited palette of acceptable recourse. Should she interdigitate through the interminable aria, fix her gaze upon the slumping violinist in the back desk, or—the path of least resistance—simply fall asleep? For some time, when beset with concert boredom himself, the Norwegian contemporary composer Øyvind Torvund has had a remedy at the ready: dreaming up alternatives to what might be happening on stage. Could a flock of angels eavesdrop at an EDM concert, miming the roaring beats in their own dulcet tones? What if a troupe of xylophone players took flight in the forest, dodging birds while a pianist down below echoed their phrases? Would society survive a woodwind duo set loose in a parking lot, kicking cars to activate their alarms, then tooting along with what they hear?
Since 2015, the 47-year-old Torvund—a burgeoning presence on the European contemporary music circuit, with increasing inroads into the United States—has been testing the bounds of his absurdist musical logic with a series of works for different chamber ensembles, inspired by his habit of envisioning alternative performance scenarios, titled “Plans.” On stage alongside the performers, slideshows of Torvund’s own scrap paper doodles—the “plans”—are projected, depicting proposals for impossible musical situations. Against that backdrop, performing musicians deliver his notions of how these situations might sound. On screen appears a doodle of a violinist who, in the course of teaching an insect a folk tune, plays through the inconvenience of suddenly bursting into flames; on stage, meanwhile, the actual violinist hacks away at a tune that is all but drowned out by distortion. In another plan, an on-screen “paranormal opera” conscripts five vocalists, a theremin player, and a spiritual guide charged with making the audience levitate; on stage, a single soprano blearily sings an ascending scale.
Within a field better known for its clanging dissonances, esoteric abstractions, and funereal dress codes than for its sense of fun, Torvund has found success on the basis of a singularly playful sensibility. Across electronics-infused works for chamber ensembles and orchestra, including “Plans,” electronic distortions nuzzle against Hollywood strings, Foley sounds tip their hats to Norwegian folk, and animal noises hold hands with the prelapsarian vistas of Ravel and Debussy. His scores herd together sounds from across time and space, incongruities that strike the ear as wholly intuitive, and whose effortless humor has been known to leave an audience in titters, which are in fact amongst the rarest sounds in contemporary music. Upon first hearing Torvund’s work five years ago in a graduate performance class at Stony Brook University—a galumphing interlude on homemade string instruments, performed by percussionist Russell Greenberg, that Torvund had christened, and perhaps could only be described as, a “Mud Jam”—I felt that I’d fallen through a trapdoor in the church of classical music, crash-landing in the thick of whatever madness and delight drive a person to make music in the first place.
In a notoriously self-serious genre, Torvund is far from alone in his interest in humor and lightheartedness, though his sound bears his unmistakable stamp. Early in Torvund’s career, his hijinks were courting resistance: Following a performance not long after he finished his university studies, one Flemming Bye-Jacobsen—the pseudonym, as it happened, of three students at the Norwegian Academy of Music—wrote at length to the Norwegian music magazine Ballade, condemned one particularly effusive Torvund creation, as well as one by his colleague Maja Ratkje, as a “cry for attention.” Years later, however, Torvund’s reach is expanding internationally, and at a time when the Nordic countries have earned widespread recognition as a hotbed of musical activity, with artists from “a collective population smaller than that of Texas” among today’s most prominent names in classical music. Over the past two decades, the region has also incubated an exploding experimental classical scene, where spirited eclecticism of genre and discipline has become a norm—an approach that, particularly within Norway, owes no small debt to an enviable public arts funding system. Even amidst such creative flourishing, Torvund has emerged as a leading emissary, having captured an approach to experimental art music that dares to kindle delight.
A gentle, bearded giant with a mild, meandering way of speaking, Torvund lives with his partner, the artist Lise Herland, and their three children on the island of Hølsnoy, about 20 minutes by boat from the city of Bergen, in the interest of peace and quiet. “I’m not a provocative person,” Torvund told me. “But I’m told that I sometimes have provocative ideas.” In early January, I met Torvund at his studio in downtown Bergen, meandering through the region’s peculiar morning darkness; from his large window, we watched the winter sun plod across the sky shortly after 10 a.m. On scrap paper, he scribbled a doodle: Imagine that there’s a cymbal by the beach, there’s sound coming off the waves, and it’s also raining eighth notes. He paused for a moment, as though contemplating adding more. He told me: “It’s natural to me to ask, can I turn this place upside-down?”
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Torvund’s doodling habit is perhaps genetic: He is the child of two artists, the renowned late Norwegian sculptor Gunnar Torvund and the painter Berit Marie Friestad. His sister, Ingrid, is an artist as well, while his brother, Benjamin, is a building engineer. Growing up in Kviteseid, a municipality of the Telemark region, Torvund discovered the guitar in part via his uncle, Helge Torvund, an amateur player who daylights as a prominent poet and psychologist. “It was just the sound of it, just hitting the string,” Torvund recalled. “It felt like, I want to hear this again.”
The seven-year-old Torvund eventually corralled a group of mostly disinterested neighborhood children into a band called Cats and Dogs, though Torvund was soon the one being asked to join local groups playing metal, rock, and blues. At 16, on a school trip to London, he received his first taste of a live string quartet, though not just any string quartet: the high-voltage contemporary music specialists of the Arditti Quartet, performing a work by Anton Webern that employed sul ponticello, a silvery shriek produced by keeping the bow as close to the bridge as possible. To the teenage Torvund, it was practically heavy metal. He’d never thought much about composing before, but now he wondered if the classical world might have a place for him.
Some years later, Torvund applied to the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. It took him three tries to get in—his enthusiasm, for a time, outpacing his readiness for the school’s academic demands. In 1998, when he was accepted at last and arrived at the capital for his studies, a newly adventurous cultural sphere was taking shape: the result, galvanized by the pivotal discovery of oil four decades prior, of a formerly introverted farming nation now opening itself to the world. At the Academy, in a country unencumbered by the historical pressures of canonical giants such as Beethoven or Bach (in the classical echelons, Norway’s best-known composer, Edvard Grieg, is considered a corporal at best), students felt empowered to chart their own creative paths. “We were a bit cocky, maybe,” recalled Torvund’s friend and former classmate, the composer and author Eivind Buene, who is now an Academy professor. “It was a bit of a ‘Home Alone’ party.”
Torvund began drawing unlikely lines between noise and improvised performance, which he loved for its rawness and heft; chamber music, which he loved for its intimacy and focus; and Norwegian folk music, which hadn’t made much of a dent while he was growing up, but which he came to love later for its transportive power. With Academy musicians, he began to explore the freewheeling juxtapositions that have become his signature. To describe these works can feel like setting up a joke: Have you heard the one where a clarinetist, cellist, percussionist, and guitarist jam alongside a tape of howling wolves (2005’s “Wolf Studies”)? How about the one where a symphony orchestra, electronic musician, and noise musician (playing feedback guitar) toast the imminent apocalypse with a mélange of lush orchestral cliches and synthesized hisses (2017’s “Archaic Jam”)? Eventually, the composer’s taste for unlikely sonic alliances spurred a search for forms that went beyond music alone. The PowerPoint, typically an augur of somniferous university lectures, gets its second wind in Torvund’s works as an expressive tool: In “A Lecture on Ornaments” (2004), a chamber ensemble performs sonic analogues to a display of ornamental art images, while the salmagundi-style “Untitled School” (2014) coordinates Ravel samples, pointillistic piano, and experimental campfire tunes with a compilation of history-spanning artworks.
Early in his career, inspired by a visit to the German contemporary art exhibition Documenta, Torvund probed the possibility of a work that might extend so far as to take over an entire city center. He wondered: Could experimental music be conveyed just as organically? Could it zip off its academic straitjacket and sidestep its staid rituals, proving itself to be as alive and accessible as anything musicians might conjure together in the course of a jam session? In the resulting “Bandrom,” staged in the Oslo neighborhood of Grønland, he taught musicians from the contemporary music ensemble Oslo Sinfonietta warped folk melodies by ear that they would, in turn, teach other musicians inside a camper van, into which audiences could duck in and listen. Other listeners had the opportunity to travel to and from the van in their choice of car—one with a live drummer performing alongside a tape, another blasting bass on a behemoth car stereo.
Colleagues involved in the production recalled to me an atmosphere of wonder. Torvund, though, remembers an aftermath of conservative muttering—“I mean, I had Oslo Sinfonietta at my disposal, and I did this,” he said. Yet the composer himself was not entirely satisfied. In four productions of “Bandrom” over two years, each as sprawling as the first, his expectations were continually at odds with reality: The folk musicians found Torvund’s warped folk tunes to be too difficult to convey purely by ear; the acoustics weren’t right in the camper van; the audience wasn’t concentrating; the critics were confused. Five years later, Torvund proposed a similarly elaborate vision, “Forest Construction,” for the German festival Donaueschingen Music Days: a “sonic carpet,” a moving sound installation constructed from recordings of musicians he had sent into the woods to imitate animals. This, too, didn’t quite satisfy the composer, the acoustics of the “carpet” being trickier to manage than he’d thought.
Fed up with managing the logistics of his outsized dreams, he wondered about trying another tack. Could there be serious musical potential, he asked himself, in something more concrete—even the sounds of easy listening? Thus came a passel of beatific works that, in light of their predecessors, could be considered pragmatic: among them, “Sweet Pieces” (2016), a candy-coated work for orchestra, solo synthesizer, and solo percussion, and the iridescent “The Exotica Album” (2017) for the Bergen-based contemporary ensemble BIT20, succinctly summarized by the journalist Philip Johnson as “John Zorn hanging with Stockhausen in Martin Denny’s kon-tiki lounge.”
With “Plans,” whose first iterations emerged in 2015, Torvund feels that he has been swiveling back to his earlier ambitions, though now with the wisdom of hindsight. The doodles—which, many years into writing, he has realized owe a debt to the surrealist panels of the late Russian artist Ilya Kabokov—suggest a universe in which the composer can have his visions and hear them, too, free of logistical inhibitions. Though themes recur—folk music, noise bands, a general disregard for the laws of physics—each scenario is self-contained, divided often by “jingles” and title cards, as in a television show. In one sense, “Plans” is Torvund’s concession to the reality of creative work: You can’t always get what you want. The sounds themselves, as Torvund often scribbles in the introduction to “Plans” slideshows, are propositions, invitations for the listener to imagine her own. In another sense, however, the work is his most ambitious yet, proving an imagination for music-making that thumb-wars with the limits of possibility.
The sounds of “Plans,” as with all of Torvund’s projects, have materialized over extensive exchanges with his players. Greenberg, the percussionist, showed me one of the “countless” messages that Torvund sent him while drafting a score, including a three-minute video of the composer spinning cymbals along the floor of his studio and watching them slowly clatter to the ground, followed by a text: “Is this a thing?” (Yes, Greenberg surmised, in his own video reply—depending on the size and type of cymbal.) “There’s a real care for performers,” Greenberg told me. “He wants it to be fun. His music lets you be yourself, and it’s like that in the working process.” Torvund’s scores are dotted with cinematic indications at which the performer can smirk privately behind her stand: One is to play “like smashing cars with a sledgehammer” or “with the tension of ten punk bands before they are about to start.” Many of Torvund’s current collaborators began working with him during their school days, and the long-honed levity shows. At a workshop last December for an in-progress work, in which chamber music is periodically interrupted by sitcom-style jingles, I saw the rehearsal itself start to mirror a family sitcom: The violist Bendik Foss, cracking Harry Potter jokes during breaks, might have been the zany uncle; in the back of the room, the percussionist Håkon Stene, creating Foley effects by blowing pipes in water, played the puckish next-door neighbor.
Amid Torvund’s expanding calendar, certain concerns have persisted. The project of translating his notions to musical notation has been a particular thorn in his side, especially since he has started to write for orchestra, which entails less flexibility than writing for chamber groups. Under duress, he reminds himself to try and forget what he knows, to tread back to a room where his imagination can breathe. “It’s maybe a stupid way of thinking, that a ‘skilled composer’ would make [writing] so easy,” he said. “But maybe there’s no other way around it than the way I’m doing it, because it’s wrong in the right way.”
In March, a few weeks before Torvund’s trip to New York for his Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, we met at a café near the Oslo Konserthuset, where the Oslo Philharmonic had just finished recording an all-Torvund album to be released next year; as if in a nod to Torvund’s sonic palette, the café was playing easy-listening jazz. To him, he said, the flourishing Nordic scene feels less like a solidifying set of approaches than a bunch of people in the same place realizing what’s possible—and that a wide-eyed work like “Sweet Pieces” can rear its head in the capital’s premier concert hall. He wonders, occasionally, how comfortably his approach sits within the contemporary music scene at large, where, even with an increasingly broad range of approaches, a certain seriousness still seems to hold sway. “It can feel like it’s the wrong scene to be in, you know—it can be lacking the freedom that you want to have,” he had told me. “But I love music. So it’s—yeah. It’s the right scene.”
Last November, one of Torvund’s long-delayed plans finally did come to pass: “Symphony for Kunstnernes Hus,” commissioned by the exhibition center in Oslo for its unfortunately-timed 90th birthday celebration in 2020. Torvund had envisioned an hour-long score for the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, featuring solo percussionist Jennifer Torrence and electronic musician Jørgen Træen, in which each section of the orchestra would be split into separate rooms. The idea was for listeners to wander through the domains of percussion, strings, winds, electronics, and brass, all coordinating grand themes and noisy distortion via click track; the totality of the work would exist somewhere in between. At the premiere, the crowds trailed the music, Tantalus-like, from room to room (the brass room, at the peak of the players’ crescendi, prompted the most desertions). Occasionally, I passed Torvund bobbing anonymously among them, in his expression a hint of wariness, like a sleeper fording an unexpectedly crowded dream.
As the hour went on, the audience began to sediment along the staircase. People leaned on each other’s shoulders, stretched their legs, or held their knees together along the steps. Together, they were an awestruck fire hazard, craning their necks towards the ceiling as the crush and ebullience acquainted themselves in the air. When I returned to the space a few months later for a gallery opening, part of me was surprised to find that they were no longer present. And yet the music, in some far corner, might still have been knitting itself together. ¶
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