What it takes

Tracing Arne Nordheim in the digital archives of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK)

First published in a pamphlet published by Arne Nordheim’s Composer’s Prize 2022, Hild Borchgrevink, editor and translation, with support from Arts Council Norway.

The original article in Norwegian

Opus 1

In a TV studio, inside a white pavilion scenography, surrounded by dried twigs and chiffon curtains, composer Arne Nordheim’s opus 1 is performed by The Norwegian String Quartet. The work was composed in 1956, before Nordheim’s music really started to provoke TV presenters and others aiming to rep- resent the voice of the people. And in 1990, when this specific broadcast was recorded, most opposition to his music was to a certain extent already history. By the time of this broadcast, Nordheim was seldom understood as the modernist-agitator of the 1960s. The black frames of his spectacles come over with a softer edge, and Nordheim himself seems softer too, even if conviction still radiates from behind his well-formed utterances. By this time, Nordheim’s role in a Norwegian public space is a natural and obvious one: first and foremost as a composer firmly situated in the tradition of Western art music.

The string quartet, recognized by Nordheim as his opus 1, lingers gently through its three movements. Some parts allow for more drama, but most of the time the music flows slowly and beautifully. Variations anchor the form of the piece and seem thoroughly planned. Manifold motives return regularly, while the free tonality might also point a listener towards early Schönberg: some sections resemble a kind of improvised twelve-tone music. Individual musicians are allowed to excel in long, deflecting, melodic solos. The cello stretches downwards with dark, stable tones contrasted by the violin in the upper register. Between them, the middle voices chop up more rhythmic side themes, while all of a sudden the whole ensemble runs off into homophone gestures stretching widely in register. The work fades out in a compelling way, as always in Nordheim’s music, in this case with recognizable motives in slow motion being forged towards top and bottom registers. The music itself points towards Nordheim’s later works.

The simple staging of the performance of opus 1 in the TV studio frames Nordheim as a modern romantic, and I would say bordering on the esoteric. Did someone aim to construct a utopian dream, to reshape music in the imaginary dimension of its creation, a dimension that, no matter what, does not in any way resemble reality as we know it now or could have known it in 1990? There are of course other reasons for this, and we expect a broadcasting house to have access to competent scenographers, but the fact that this old string quartet is staged this way, without any attempt to moor it to the ground, says something about the spirit of the times and how Nordheim’s music was understood at that point in time. Seen from 2022, the scenography appears somewhat hidebound and outdated, still connecting to other experiences of mine where Nordheim’s music meets visual expressions, as in the contemporary ballet The Tempest from 1979 or in the exhibition No -isms for me, please! at Henie Onstad Art Centre in 2013. The reason why the visuals seem fitting to me, even though I find them a bit daft compared to how highly I value the music, might be how they seem to emphasize that the qualities in Nordheim’s music don’t belong to the everyday.

The space age

Let’s jump back through the archives to the space age, where Nordheim is interviewed in a TV production aimed at a young audience, entitled Falkeklubben (The Falcon Club), June 3, 1969. I include the date for readers, as Nordheim’s name is not included in its metadata. Here, animations seemingly depicting space, shift to images of spinning tape recorders playing electronic music by Nordheim. The programme host opens the dialogue: “To me, this resembles music from space, would you say I am right?”

Nordheim’s development since his opus 1, both as an artist and as a public figure, is closely connected to electronic music. We know the story, about Nordheim who from the 1960s and onwards both took on and was given the role as Norway’s most important modernist composer, in a way that allows a person like me, many years later, to know the name Arne Nordheim long before I had heard any of his music.

The space age and television are, of course, each other’s best friends. But I would say that the modernist stamp put on Nordheim’s music in Norway during this time, differs from the optimism and excitement surrounding scientific experiments. The arts were barely allowed to join the party, Norwegian art music not so much. A colleague of Nordheim, the composer Bjørn Fongaard, ended up constructing his own micro interval guitars and tuning systems, as his musical imaginations could not possibly be realised by the orchestras of the time.

In the space context created by this TV show, Nordheim is presented like a clown or crazy professor: “Why do so many people dislike your music?” The host keeps firing preformulated questions at the composer, one after the other. He does not seem to take Nordheim’s answers into account, at least they seldom influence the “dialogue”. Nordheim answers smartly, perhaps (understandably, if so) slightly sarcastic. As if attempting to buy some time while wondering how to meet the sudden claims, he repeats the question, adding: “Well, that was unusually straightforward…” At the same time, he really strives to answer in a proper and truthful way: “I guess it’s because I work with elements that are not so common or familiar”, then describing how he does not create melodies and rhythms, rather sounds and colours, with the help of both orchestras and electronics. He goes on to teach us how to hoover (Nordheim’s metaphor) all possible sounds coming from a tam-tam. Here, the programme host actually seems a little excited.

Nordheim’s role as a public figure emerges from the interplay between himself as a protagonist (while he was still alive and able to contribute) and society’s image of him. Nordheim cannot devise his role alone. But he can be enthused, and it seems to me that being in the spotlight comes easy to him and makes him uplifted. He gladly plays the roles he is given, possibly twisting them to make the dialogue follow a track more desirable to him. For there is actually a spotlight at work here, a focus that contemporary composers of today are spared from, something that only a public media monopoly was able to offer selected artists of its time. I honour the way Arne Nordheim managed to manoeuvre that role while at the same time maintaining his artistic integrity. There is no doubt that this paved the way for future composers and the entire Norwegian contemporary music scene! Younger colleagues have sometimes felt the necessity to distance themselves from the images of a composer as a magnificent, romantic, tremendous figure that Nordheim has been associated with, as it left little room for other ways of being an artist in music. Such images have given emerging artists new challenges in how to justify their practice in society. If so, nothing could be better, contemporary music and all of its actors benefit from being challenged to set new standards and continually redefine what it might mean to create new music We benefit from having someone and something to hail or to oppose, from the existence of discussion.

“I don’t know what space music is.” Nordheim answers that he believes the association might derive from sounds being distributed with large distances between them, in which timbre is allowed to unfold. “But how it is out there, I don’t know, I believe it is rather silent”, he says, charmingly raising his eyes above his horn-rimmed spectacles. Someone has named an asteroid after Arne Nordheim.


István Korda Kovács’ film from 1974 depicts Nordheim as a composer at his best and it surpasses all I have seen about Nordheim made by NRK. It is extremely vital, placing Nordheim in its centre, confidently and persistently, with strong visual utterances accompanying the music: instruments explode and burn, in recordings from Iceland lava erupts from the ground, enormous patches of fog. The film performs its experiments warmly, allowing music to be in the foreground, folding out long sections of sound without any fear of shooing away listeners. Nordheim is allowed to talk about endless human pain, about how he as a person resembles his music, and about writing first and foremost for himself. The film lets conductor Yuval Zaliouk describe how Nordheim is occupied with death, not only in pieces featuring it explicitly, but in all of his music, as if this is a too important a point for it to be voiced by Nordheim himself, as if there was a risk of diminishing it.

So, a Hungarian (Kovács) was needed to ignite the mediation of Nordheim’s music. I strongly recommend watching this film in the archives! Strangely enough, every time I have clicked on it something has been wrong with the subtitles, they are somehow displaced. It undeniably gives an extra twist. In the middle of a fantastic section in the work Eco, for choir and orchestra, one can read: “I would like to polemicize a little against such filmed portraits. They always arrive at a point where family life is supposed to be exposed. Then the happy artist family is laid out, enjoying themselves in the living room, doing what is expected in a portrait of an artist. And at some point, the wife might declare something about the inner life of the man she is married to”. On the screen soprano Taru Valjakka is singing marvellously, dressed in a Finnish traditional costume. The subtitles continue: “I would have gone crazy if I had a husband who returned home at 4h40 every day expecting boiled potatoes for dinner.”

In general, Kovács’ film is a sharp contrast to how Nordheim was portrayed posthumously in NRK’s series Mitt liv (My Life) from 2012, which is a sentimental mishmash of a programme featuring “atmospheric” muzak between the scenes, while Nordheim talks about nothing but death and is presented with enormous amounts of pathos. Symbolically, his spectacles at the time seem almost unframed.

Another portrait by NRK on the occasion of Nordheim’s 60th birthday in 1991 is considerably stronger. Here the composer appears much more awake, defending the importance of society’s support for creative practices, without which we would be “standing perfectly still”. He accuses Norwegian cultural life for focusing too much on performance, defending creators. His work is allowed to be in the foreground, and the portrait even quotes the film discussed above.

Like the rim of his spectacles became softer through the years, Nordheim’s relation to society also changes with time – towards a more flexible one. By the end of his career he is quoted saying that he had actually been working on one and the same piece of music all along. I interpret him as if his practice, while undergoing many changes, has always been concerned with the same kind of musical form and musical poetics, and that the reasons for any big changes observed in the reception of Nordheim the composer might be found in society more than in himself.


Nordheim did not write another string quartet until 2001: Five Stages. It is a return. (We know the story inbetween). This piece is definitely wilder, it contains more playing techniques, is more varied in terms of dynamics and tempi, but it is still unmistakably Nordheim-esque in the romantic, extraterrestrial way, sounding a very long distance from the everyday and the ordinary. The music is, despite a certain playfulness, filled with longing, melancholy, shimmeringly beautiful timbres, lonely plains and landscapes.

I wanted to look up the word ‘return’, was unsure whether it would suit the paragraph above, wanted to see if I could find a better synonym. I used an online website that contains both official written languages of Norway, and I found, with excitement, that the dictionary of the dialect based on nynorsk, or New Norwegian, gives me an unexpectedly suitable metaphor in the only example sentence featuring the word ‘return’: “Returning to the terrestrial atmosphere after travelling in space”.

There is a story about Nordheim standing in the post office in the city of Larvik, and just before he sealed the envelope that would carry his first string quartet, opus 1, to the jury of UNM, a Nordic festival by and for young composers, he borrowed a pencil and made extensive changes in the score. He rewrote the whole last part of the second movement so that it no longer faded out the way the third movement does.

The history of science and of the arts is full of such inspired moments. Impulses do not necessarily lead to improvements, still the ability to grasp ideas when they appear, sometimes completely by accident, just from stumbling over something, or from a sudden thought, is first and foremost a gift! The potential of the impulse is everyone’s property. If ‘controlling your impulses’ is a composer’s deed, it should include consciously accommodating for their arrival. Arne Nordheim was both obedient and disobedient. What it takes is knowing which impulses lead to necessary changes, just like the young Arne knew on his way to the post office in Larvik.

Nordheim’s public role as a composer from string quartet to string quartet follows the trajectory of a projectile, where an impulse lifts it from the ground, flying. As it eventually lands, so did Nordheim’s life’s work. We can search for it again and again, and choose to pick it up. If we come across it, it is not by chance; we find it because we know it is there.

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