Life Begins at 40

This presentation of composer Rolf Wallin, winner of the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1997, sounds like a beginner’s introduction to the aesthetic of lightness.

Rolf Wallin smiler

Norwegian contemporary music has been attracting increasing international attention in the last decade, primarily due to the emergence of a new generation of performers and composers who speak the same language. Rolf Wallin has been at the centre of this exciting, vital group of musicians.

When Rolf Wallin was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize for his clarinet concerto, many people thought it was highly deserved. Here was a composer who could no longer be classified as “young and promising”, a composer who had demonstrated impressive breadth and equally impressive productivity. And since the clarinet concerto also proved to be a conceptually complete work that demonstrated deep understanding of the orchestral palette, a new work that actually aroused enthusiasm at its first performance, the prize was a reward for a composer who, in the unusual and innovative sense, has dared to trust his creative talent.

Rolf Wallin is a child of his time and of the 1980s musical scene in Norway, which was characterised by a kind of new-born, naive curiosity about all the strange things that existed out there in the wide world but found little response in our small pond. Apart from the people around Ny Musikk, the Norwegian section of the ISCM, there had been little or no interest in the developments that were taking place in the international composing community in the post-war era, although it must be said that two men had apparently wandered from Oslo to Darmstadt once in the 1960s and come home to tell with fearful enthusiasm about all the awful things that were happening down south. If German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger was correct in stating that industrialism passed Norway by causing hardly a ripple, it is equally true to maintain that continental modernism had a similarly limited effect on our musical tradition.

The advantage for the 80s generation that gradually emerged on the Norwegian musical scene was obvious. The wheel had to be re-invented. The world had not yet been interpreted to death, so there was room for this as well. Our isolation was about to be penetrated, and it was up to Wallin’s generation to do it. To put it simply and brutally, the Norwegian musical community was provincial, fearful and ignorant in matters relating to the development of contemporary music. It was Wallin’s generation that assumed the responsibility, not only for putting things into perspective, but for creating them.

The 80s generation had to start more or less from scratch. Trust between composers and musicians was at a low ebb after the cultural wars that never came to Norway. With a few honourable exceptions, the Norwegian musical community’s knowledge of new trends in contemporary music was at about the same level as the Japanese soldier who was in the jungle for thirty-five years after the end of the second world war without discovering that peace had been declared. In Norway, people had been indulging in trench warfare for several decades with non-existent weapons against an enemy who had long since made his peace.

The conflict between musicians and composers now seems to be over. Only the media appear to jealously guard their ignorance of the importance of art music for contemporary society.

Lightness and heaviness
There is nothing superficial about Wallin’s work; nevertheless, lightness is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe his aesthetic. There is nothing more odious in this than discreet homage to one of my literary ideals, Italo Calvino, who talks about this type of lightness in one of his American lectures:
“When I began my career, the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his own time. Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual.”

Calvino tried to work towards a “heavier” form until he realised that heaviness in itself was no guarantee that his art would be more truthful. But is it possible to make this type of absolute statement and say that what is “slower” is more correct than what is “faster”? Is the “light” less worthy than the “heavy”?

I shall allow these questions to remain unanswered because they indicate a position in my understanding of the energy radiated by Rolf Wallin’s music. This doesn’t mean that Wallin finds it particularly easy, even if you sometimes have the impression that good music runs out of the end of his pen more quickly than other people manage to think a new thought. This boy (because he is still a boy, at the age of forty) has actually also created two works, performed by himself, which are currently being played at everything from international electronic music conferences to official dinners for representatives of business and government. You will find no other composer in Norwegian, or for that matter Nordic musical circles today who has managed, to a similar degree, to re-formulate the role of the composer and re-create the performance situation with himself as performer.

Did I say light? It wasn’t meant to be anything but an honour. Why should we always be striving for the heavy, the “weighty”? Rolf Wallin’s lightness has weight by reason of its elegance, by reason of the fact that it contains an inner lightness which means it is well composed. We are not talking here about a “brilliant pen” in the sense that he writes so well because he thinks so badly. On the contrary, what you seek time and time again in Rolf Wallin is the symbiosis between the well thought and the well formulated, the unusual ability that is seen in those who have both skill and talent. People of his ilk do not grow on trees. They have never grown there.

This concept of lightness, which we have only touched on, is therefore not derived from a need to write “light music”. It is rather a method of giving a certain type of energy to his material. And this is where I constantly have to pause in the case of Rolf Wallin, because the two people who have influenced him most directly in recent years possess precisely this lightness. Perhaps it is the creative resistance that has arisen in the interaction between these two people that has made Rolf Wallin what he is?

The names which, in my view, cannot be avoided are performance artist Kjetil Skøien and composer Asbjørn Schaathun.

Music as performance
Rolf Wallin had demonstrated his interest in the interaction between different art forms in several projects, but it was through his cooperation with Kjetil Skøien that he seriously began to study the connection between musical and dramatic expression. Kjetil Skøien was in many ways a solitary pioneer in a Norwegian context. He demonstrated a playful attitude to artistic expression which strongly contrasted with conformist Scandinavianism. Was it possible to take the liberty of mixing genres as freely and untraditionally as Skøien did?

The fact that many people regarded this type of mixture as something that sullied the pure, formal aspects of development can only be a problem for those who believe that artistic development must be linear and easily understandable. But it is precisely here that we find some of the most interesting aspects of Rolf Wallin’s growth and part of the key to understanding why his music is developing in such exemplary fashion towards the end of the 1990s. Because the freedom he achieved a decade earlier by cooperating with jazz musicians and performance artists, and which was gradually expressed in solo performances where he rubs balloons and actually plays on his own body, is distilled into transcendent form when he turns to the computer and goes into a clinch with it for a quite different purpose: to understand and utilise emerging chaos theories.

There was nothing superficial about Wallin’s and Skøien’s game; on the contrary, they radiated the best elements of their cooperation in a dramatic presence where humour was an implicit consequence of the absurdities and actions the two of them performed.

Not that humour was unknown to the modernists of post-war music. The music of a Vinko Globokar (incidentally one of Rolf’s teachers in the USA), a Mauricio Kagel or a Luciano Berio, all composers with whom Wallin feels an affinity, sometimes contain elements of great humour, whether it be ironic comment on the classical tradition or a kind of esoteric criticism of fossilised musical rituals.

Composition and system
However, cooperation, and perhaps particularly his association with Asbjørn Schaathun, also led to increased consciousness in Wallin’s work, primarily because the younger Schaathun became his guide to the central European tradition. Schaathun was the person who, more than any other, set the agenda for the performance of recent central European music by establishing the Contemporary Ensemble at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, later to become the Oslo Sinfonietta. Schaathun was totally alone in Oslo circles at the beginning of the 1980s in terms of his knowledge and deep understanding of post-war avant-garde music, and it was he who sought and almost forced public debate on a large number of important young composers and their works. At that time, Schaathun himself was also writing works that represented a new type of compositional thinking in Norway.

What he was able to help release in Wallin was probably mainly an understanding of the experiences of modernism and how a young, creative artist could utilise them in a context as different and inexperienced as the Norwegian one.

In this connection, close contacts with a new generation of musicians were undoubtedly of decisive importance. The common area of interest that developed between composer and interpreter in ensembles such as K4, Cikada and the Oslo Sinfonietta, and subsequently the BIT 20 Ensemble in Bergen, was decisive in enabling the young composers to see their aesthetic visions sculpted and interpreted at a level that made them justly proud of their own work.

“It was, in a way, like coming out of prison because I discovered that new possibilities were revealing themselves in my meeting with this interesting and extremely capable generation of performers,” says Wallin.

No ivory tower
From what has been said already, it should be clear that Rolf Wallin is not an isolationist, devoid of opinions. Although he must sometimes desire a more spacious tower than the three-room apartment on Oslo’s east side in which he has been camping for almost ten years, it’s really a matter of roots. Rolf Wallin has no roots, but he has legs that take him around the capital – on his bike for most of the year. Environmentally aware, radical (not in a party political sense but in terms of attitude) he asks critical questions when they have to be asked. He shakes things up when the opportunity arises, without this seeming out of place. When he was awarded the Nordic Council Music Prize in Gothenburg, he actually met with understanding and positive interest in his views when he used his speech of thanks to live up to his role of critical intellectual in the best sense of the term.

The theme he chose for the Nordic politicians on this unique occasion was the relationship between market forces and freedom. Speaking on the topic of events in Russia since 1990, where they have replaced political tyranny with market tyranny, he took the opportunity of shedding light on the effect of these developments on Russian art.

He went on to address the straitened circumstances of modern art, regardless of social system. Is the dictatorship of the masses, in principle, any different from the dictatorship of the market? Of course there are significant differences, but in the final instance both tend to demand the same: simple, easily understandable statements that can be recognised, calculated and exploited.

He thereby carried on an important tradition from his own teacher, Olav Anton Thommessen, who stresses the necessity of formulating one’s opinions at the right time and speaking “to the point”. The foil is sometimes a better weapon than the cannon. It depends upon the distance – and the battle.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.6 - 1998 No. 2
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