On Articulating the Existential Scream

An interview with Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim
Arne Nordheim. Photo: Ines Gellrich

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: What is a composer’s essential motivation? For some the answer is entirely elusive, for others it is crystal clear. Can you remember how you got started in music?

Arne Nordheim: I have been fascinated by all kinds of music since my earliest childhood. I always stopped when there was music nearby and even as a child I listened to the radio a lot. I remember that when I heard Beethoven’s Second Symphony, I became somewhat cross when I realized that this wonderful music had already been composed. I would like to have composed that symphony. It began there, without a doubt. At least my general enthusiasm started there in any case. I was simply completely crazy about music; it was the only thing that interested me. A piano was fantastic, a revelation. I had an aunt who had what we Norwegians call a ‘hymn-bike’ (harmonium, ed.)—a little organ you had to work with your feet. The fact that the notes didn’t stop—that was unbelievably exciting. So I held down the keys and stamped away to get enough air—and then came the sound. I can still remember the sound of that harmonium. It was a game to enter into the sound. I was around 7–8–9 years old.

My school songbook only had tunes. When I visited my aunt, I took the little book with me—School Songbook, it was called, and I still have it—and then I harmonized the melodies. I always wanted to get into the sounds, be inside them. In our house in Larvik where I grew up, we had a storeroom with an iron door. I loved that iron door because it made a fantastic sound when you closed it. It just kept on sounding for a long time. That was a great experience and I had the feeling that I got right into the sound. Later I had the same feeling when I worked with electronic music. For example, in the studio in Warsaw, where there were excellent opportunities to explore the possibilities of sound, once more I heard the iron door from my childhood. It’s there in several of my works.

AB: Was it a big step to go from playing the harmonium to deciding to become an organist?

AN: No, it wasn’t. But I didn’t really decide to become an organist, it was more like something that developed naturally. My father played the violin and built violins, too. He played all the pretty melodies and loved it. His father was a farmer who had never been taught to play the organ but could play it never the less and really liked it. So when the church organist got sick or couldn’t play for some reason, they would send for my grandfather. That was very likely the reason that my father’s greatest wish was that I should become an organist. It was actually his wish. For my own part, I thought it was deadly boring to play those four-part hymns. So I quickly lost interest. But the decisive moment for me—I can date it exactly, even the actual decision, it was the eighth of February 1949—was when I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony, The Resurrection. It was the first time I had heard anything by Gustav Mahler, and it moved me deeply. But it isn’t so much the music that animates me, it is more the existential scream that I am trying to articulate. And I am still working on it.

AB: When you mention Mahler I am reminded of your work, Tenebrae, for solo cello and orchestra. It begins with a long pedal point in the strings like one of Mahler’s symphonies. Tenebrae is not a study in the style of Mahler but one notices the inspiration from his tonal poetry. I am also reminded of your early work, Aftonland. One of Per Nørgård’s early works is also based on Pär Lagerkvist’s poem. Was this poem for you what Hans Bethge’s Die Chinesische Flöte was for Gustav Mahler?

AN: It is obviously difficult to speculate on another’s thoughts, but I would imagine it is the same. Actually that leads to a completely different discussion, for one could find it puzzling that Mahler used this material. There is an unbelievable amount of kitsch in Bethge’s translation, both in the language and in the imagery. There is something problematic about it, but musically Das Lied von der Erde is overwhelming. It is so strong and that is the principal thing for me. The fact is that Mahler successfully articulates the existential scream. It is like some of Francis Bacon’s portraits that I saw in Louisiana (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, ed.). They are splendidly Mahleresque—this great cry for help.

AB: Mahler searched our subconscious for some form of collective consciousness. Layers of history are involved, and I imagine that you want to connect with that. From what has been written about you, it appears that opposites like light and dark, life and death, are your main concerns. You approach major existential questions by reusing historical musical experiences.

AN: I would say that you can reuse the experiences, but you can hardly reuse the articulations. It has to be the experiences that you use again. They have a great recycling value.

AB: You have talked about the primal scream. What is it you want to uncover in your own experience of music? Tell us why you are so fascinated by Mahler’s Symphony and why it has affected you so much.

AN: It was very likely Mahler’s recognition of that fellowship of loneliness and desperation that you can only find by searching deep in the human mind. In a certain way we are all alike in this respect. At that deep level we are all a part of each other and there are no boundaries with respect to body, soul, clothing, houses and so on. I think those are the depths Mahler reached. Of course he also uses obvious texts and messages, but that’s not what is actually important. The most important thing is the emotional strength that he is capable of articulating. That’s what engages us at the deeper level. That’s Mahler’s strength; he attains it with the help of little things, strange things, folklore and sentimentality, the fragmentary development of formal parts, and so on—a procedure for which he was violently criticized in his time. In the reviews of the time he was criticized for using historical material, among other things. He is a great puzzle, an enigma of vast dimensions. He has never ceased to fascinate me.

AB: You use the human voice like Mahler did. Is your use of the human voice also the means by which you reach these deeper levels?

AN: Yes, that’s it, for there is the direct connection to the strongest feelings, through the articulation of the voice and the fact that it belongs to a person who steps forth. And if it is very successful it is not even necessary to hear what is being sung, but you have to hear that it is a human voice. That a person is trying to reach you. That is important.

AB: Tell me about your texts. They’re certainly not simple prose texts. They are the classics, Dante, the Bible, Ovid—great literature. What is it you find in those texts that can satisfy your desire for self-expression?

AN: In this literature I see the sovereign expression of that shared loneliness. That’s the most important. And next, it is the need to make a text ‘sound’. The sound of human presence is my concern. I also like to work with several languages at the same time. I have a work called Wirklicher Wald (The Forest of Reality) for soprano solo, cello solo and choir—actually the voice and the cello are equally important. At one point the soprano sings part of the Book of Job in Hebrew while the chorus sings a text by Rainer Maria Rilke in German. Here you have the dual situation, characteristic of mankind—it happens to many people. The soprano who sings in Hebrew and the chorus that sings the German poems in a chorale-like setting form a configuration with the cello moving between them like some sort of mediator, on one side leading the way towards the choral mass, and on the other, leading away from the choral mass towards the soprano, who then takes the lead.

So, what should we call it? It’s a multi-layered technique where one layer is put on top of another, over and over. A technique that fascinates me.

Art and society

AB: Speaking of texts in general, I note that you, Olav Anton Thommessen and Rolf Wallin, have all received the Nordic Council Music Prize and that in their acceptance speeches your two colleagues expressed a very unequivocal skepticism about the possibilities for art in a commercialized society. But in your case, I don’t have the feeling that you would use art as a direct means to criticize society. However, as always with you, there are exceptions. In one work you have a person reading from the Declaration of Human Rights. How do you feel about the possibilities of using art to denounce monstrosities and of applying art directly as a political tool?

AN: As far as music is concerned it is very difficult, if not impossible. But I believe that a composer—and, taken as a whole, all creative artists—only have one thing to do and that is to make their art as good as possible. Poets should write good poetry, composers should compose good music. It is, well, a guideline, but something that is very important for me. And I hold myself to it. Better string quartets: better world!

AB: Allow me to go back to your first works. I am curious to hear you describe what you encountered when you went to Oslo as a young man. What kind of music scene was it?

AN: In the first place, the idea of becoming a composer was so crazy that no-one could conceive of it. It was considered necessary to try to obtain a position in life, something secure that you could fall back on. Then you could compose in your free time. But basically I was never particularly concerned about that. I didn’t listen to all the warnings. I wanted to compose and I began to compose some string quartets. The first was played in Stockholm, the second in Copenhagen, the third in Oslo and so we come to 1956.

AB: What I am aiming at is that in one way or another the social situation must have limited your creativity. After all, you went abroad.

AN: Yes, that’s true. One ran up against a wall everywhere. There was no-one to take this music seriously. We had music, but no-one paid any attention to it. That is, until we established Young Nordic Music (Ung Nordisk Musik). Today it’s called UNM, and it continues to be an active organization to which I am greatly indebted. Music was taken seriously there. The first two one-movement quartets that I composed weren’t so successful, but the third one in 1956 went really well. It is simply called Strygekvartet (String Quartet). Today it is performed in an extraordinary number of places. The quartet has torn itself away from me and I have let it go, but it continues to sell.

AB: You were in Paris early on and studied musique concrète.

AN: Yes, that is half true. It is a story that I have tried to resist for a long time, but it doesn’t seem possible to get rid of it. I was there and there was musique concrète and the great figures were there, Schaeffer and all the others. But there wasn’t any sort of course of study; it was more a question of going to concerts, making introductions and analysing works, explanations of how a work was composed. I learned an incredible amount from that, but it wasn’t anything like a systematic study. So I have to clarify that bit of history.

AB: One tends to contrast the two movements that came from Paris and Cologne. Did you also find this to be the case?

AN: Yes, there was a real loathing between the two. I was also in Cologne, and Cologne was very tough in one way or another. You took the system as it was, no-one changed anything. But I am a trial-and-error composer. I need to change things all the time, all the time make it a bit better: a little rounder on the edge here and a little sharper there. That’s the way I have to do it. As a composer I rely on trying things out. In Paris you did nothing but try things out and then throw out the bad. And it all ended up with a long string of tape with numbers on it and a journal with directions on how to make things work. These journals hung on the walls down there. I experienced it even more strongly when I went to Warsaw where they used Polish Radio’s equipment. There were real opportunities to get into the world there, a lot farther than in Paris—or than they wanted to in Paris. Even then they were a little under Karlheinz’s dominance.

AB: You have always been on admiring, but critical terms with Stockhausen and his music. You have spoken positively of Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte, classic works made with very simple technology. Gesang der Jünglinge is a work that also uses human voices, and you were working with timbre at that time. What did you learn from that school?

AN: What I learned resulted in the works I made in Warsaw. That was the result. In Warsaw the human voice was used as the starting point in many different ways. The voice that reads the Declaration of Human Rights . . . ‘all men are born free’ . . . was a commission from the Polish Radio, and I thought that it was an appropriate text. Those were hard times in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s and that text belonged there. You don’t hear it, but it is there. First and foremost the voice has many parameters, for example, amplitude, that is the strength of the voice, characteristics of the attack, the building up of the formants that are characteristic of an individual voice. All of this serves to guide the processes. It is a kind of cannibalism: you consume your own stuff and then feed it through the system.

AB: Now you are already far along the path of what could be called the third direction. You didn’t choose Paris, or Cologne, but Warsaw. The first time I went there I met Josef Padkowski. He is a scientist and was also very involved in electronic music at the point in time that you were in Poland. I got the impression that the equipment they had there was some of the best anywhere in Europe. Can you describe the scene when you arrived and explain exactly why it had to be Warsaw?

AN: Studio Experimentalne was a studio that had been built from scratch. Much of the equipment consisted of modified instruments that were normally used for electrical, electronic and acoustical measuring—you had filters and ring modulators of the kind that made it possible, for example, to send several conversations through the same line. At one end the signal was encoded and at the other end it was decoded. But if you didn’t decode it you got a result that could be extremely exciting—something we were always looking for. They simply built the equipment that they needed for each task, with old-fashioned soldering and so on, and it was often necessary to lash wire around the apparatus in order to avoid humming and things of that sort. So it was all very lively and inclusive.

The Poles had invested so much in it that they had a whole team just to make equipment. There was, for example, a chief of instruments whose only task was to design and build whatever was needed. A very creative and positive environment. And just then Josef Patkowski, the director, commissioned a piece from me. Pace, that is, Peace. He had heard Solitaire, an earlier work I had composed in the studio, that he liked very much.

AB: Recently the works from this period have been issued on CD: Solitaire, Pace, Warszawa, Poly-poly and Colorazione. Poly-poly was, as far as I can remember, premiered in 1970 at the Osaka World Exposition in the Norwegian pavilion. How did you set to work on it?

AN: In that work I tried to get an overview of everything that is found in sound. I began by assembling all the material. All human sounds. All sounds from known things, daily situations, kindergarten, everything from children at play to test shooting of new products at a weapons factory. Everything is there, I think. Everything that is representative is there. First I made a list of categories and then we set about the work of assembling the material. We found a lot. There were six sound programmes running at the same time. They all had differently timed cycles of rotation. They also got displaced in relation to each other, like Mars in relation to the earth and the sun, so the paths of the planets are hinted at. That is partly a salute to Kepler, so you could say Johannes Kepler is also included.

As all of these programmes were running we had to make some calculations so that it didn’t just become a great big thick stew. We had to get some assistance with the calculations from some friendly mathematicians. They contributed a model and we put in all the sounds. Silence was one of the elements of sound, you could say, for silence was just as important as sound. The proportions had to be so that there were ten seconds of sound and seven and a half seconds of silence. Little rules like that were built into the piece. It ended up being a large, slow, simmering soup of associations, like when you look into a pot and see the stew cooking, some places bubble up. So we let it simmer there in Osaka. We figured out that if we used the numerical proportions that we gave to the arithmeticians it would take 102 years, 3 weeks, 4 days, 11 hours and 17 seconds before the layers would fall at the same place again. That means that those who were at the premiere would long be dead when the piece was finally finished. For practical reasons the piece lasted only the six months the exhibit was set up in Osaka, and then the whole thing was no more. But luckily some of it has been saved on the CD you mentioned before so that one can hear how it sounded in Osaka in 1970.

AB: There was also another exhibit in Osaka in 1970, a famous round auditorium where they played Stockhausen’s music. Did you visit the German pavilion?

AN: Yes, except that I wasn’t there during the opening ceremonies, as I had been working on the preparations and tests in order to get our own exhibit up and running before it opened. When the World Exhibition opened I travelled home, so I didn’t get to be in the exhibit itself. But naturally I went around and saw that there were several music installations and Stockhausen’s was rumoured to be truly impressive. But in typical fashion there was a sign outside that said Eintritt am strengsten verboten (Entrance Strictly Forbidden). So we never did get in. But I know that they were there and that they set up various things. But we didn’t make it inside so I didn’t experience it at all.

AB: You never experienced electronic music coming from many directions? That was Stockhausen’s vision of spatial music even at that time.

AN: No. But you experience it with extraordinary brilliance if you have the opportunity to perform Kontakte correctly. It is a spatial piece. And in Gesang der Jünglinge he works with five channels. That’s a mystery. Why five? It’s an old idea that life is ordered by the four directions of heaven, and so there is the fifth . . .


AB: Around 1970 Stockhausen changed direction aesthetically-speaking. He composed Mantra in 1970, where he began to notate again after having written intuitive music—well, not written intuitive music. There was also a change in your music. There was a soundscape piece like Floating . . .

AN: Yes, it is a soundscape piece. What I was concerned with in Floating—and that I later purified in Greening, which I composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic—was the technique of over-layering. I put one sound on top of another, in fact it’s a minimalist idea. For example, large parts with tutti divisi in the strings, counterpoint in forty-eight parts, are allowed to unfold. Actually, extreme demands are placed on the listener who has to sort out and make forms from this sea of sound. He has to think himself into the sound and form it himself from within. And motifs reappear again and again, simply because they lie on top of each other. Known materials become new along the way; it is quite fascinating. That’s what happens in Floating and in some of my later works. I can’t see how composers can survive without repetition. It remains a prime constituent of form. Repetition. I have some sort of private terms that I use and I came up with one, ‘memorables’, meaning motifs or structures with strong enough peculiarities that they keep on being remembered. And the idea is captured in the term.

AB: What you call ‘memorables’ includes recycling your own things. Do you use a kind of formula that stands up to being used again in other works?

AN: That’s right. In the piece called Greening I would say that materials from Floating aren’t recycled, but that the basic idea about over-layering and complex counterpoint is. This is probably a typical example of a place where I re-use things: not note for note, but big segments are recycled.

AB: As we talk about your works from this period I’m starting to think about the Polish school—Penderecki’s Trenos—and Lutosławski . . . and also a little about Xenakis. Not because I would accuse you of plagarism but concepts like aleatoric counterpoint and graphic notation became part of your world. Were you inspired by these composers—and perhaps also by the sound world of Ligeti?

AN: Yes. I can certainly see your point and you are not far off the mark. For, what happened in Europe while we were, so to say, encumbered by serialism? Was it not precisely a piece like Penderecki’s Trenos? Wasn’t it a shock? A joyful shock with an inherent feeling of freedom to match the violent, strong emotional impact that naturally reflected the work’s background. It is a song of lament. He released this huge scream—there it is again—that had been walled up for so long. It didn’t seem possible to escape from that and so, as a very young man, he did it. Yes, I can easily recognize myself in it. Lutosławski’s idea of controlled aleatory was immeasurably interesting as theory, and it also served him magnificently in practice. So it was no wonder that one was influenced by the significant works that he produced. In addition to its pure emotional strength, his music also showed incomprehensibly elegant craftsmanship. I have to say, I was very impressed by Lutosławski.

The function of criticism

AB: Then came some works which on an expressive level approach the late romantic sound. I’m thinking of Stormen (The Tempest)—your music for the ballet. At that time certain writers maintained that your music was influenced by late romanticism and that you fell back on the expressive means of earlier periods. I have heard you reply to that criticism, ‘Yes, well, it is just that the listeners have changed, not I’. Is this a polemical statement? Or just how do you look back on it?

AN: You can certainly consider that to be a polemical statement because obviously I have changed, and obviously the listeners have also changed so that they are no longer aggressive toward the new, but are more open to it than they were before. In a way you can say that we have taken steps towards meeting each other. And if I may say so, it has been a beneficial encounter and has generated a number of works worldwide that I believe we can be happy about today.

AB: Now I would like to ask you about something your colleague Olav Anton Thommessen wrote about after listening to a work of yours from the time of Greening: ‘I find a lot of conflict in the balance between the exposition of the material and the compositional drive. Because of what I regard as his unwillingness to take a definite position I am often frustrated and so listen with a reduced intensity’. You have said of your critics that you sometimes cannot relate to their criticism because they don’t grasp the intention of your music, that they take as their starting point something completely different from that which is built into your music. Can you relate to Thommessen’s criticism?

AN: No, I don’t understand it. I see no conflict. I think it is, if I may say so, a typically negative observation from a colleague. So I see nothing other than that I must have disturbed Thommessen and unfortunately weakened his ability to judge (laughs).

AB: In Denmark we are accustomed to thinking that we have a history of frank discussion and that ours is an open society with no tradition of creating schools of thought. In Norway are you also openly critical and is there free exchange of experience? For all I know, Lasse Thoresen and Olav Anton Thommessen are adamantly opposed to producing ‘clones’. But does Norway today have an open-minded climate that fosters discussion?

AN: No we don’t, and we basically never have had one. I don’t know the reason why. There is no open forum in Norway of that kind. Whatever comes out comes across as the kind of criticism that you just cited by Thommessen. Critics are uncomfortable with such a forum or they simply don’t find it interesting.

AB: So you have not had much criticism, positive or negative, in Norway compared with what you have received abroad. Where and how have you found the motivation to continue to work?

AN: The motivation is there. It comes from one’s own impulse. I produce in a regular stream. But in Norway there is no tradition of discussing the issue. Perhaps the spectrum is too narrow so that everyone avoids it—you know—it is often incredibly uncomfortable both to be criticized and to criticize others. The goal is, after all, to move ahead. One must compose better works. The next piece must be very much better than the last, and the next one better still. We each sit on our own mountain top.

AB: But you have the opportunities and the potential to create a tradition of exchange. You yourself have been a newspaper critic. How did you see your role at that time?

AN: I was quite critical then. My columns were probably more concerned with contributing information than advising colleagues. I was concerned with the activity of informing, writing on festivals abroad, selecting phenomena and writing about them. I had the opportunity, that’s right. But it was a small pool at that time; everyone knew each other.


AB: I would like to revive an old topic of discussion. It has been said that modernism has a ‘definite project’. You have spoken about the collective loneliness, the primal scream, the forgotten experiences, and about what the Germans call ‘declining cultural values’. Does your ‘project’ comprise something beyond a fascination with these things?

AN: That is a very big question. I have to think a little about that. I do have a project and a need for an acceptable formal shaping of musical actions. They have to fall into place for me. Quite simply, I need to have a project that I feel comfortable with. One is circumscribed by one’s own artistic potential and inventiveness. That is what I try to achieve and if I find something in the ‘declining values’ and feel it is right, then I use it. But I don’t follow any school or movement.

AB: Let’s try to be a little more specific. Let’s take the work, Eco. It deals with the history of the suffering of mankind. Again we have the opposing elements, from chaos to stillness, from the virtually apocalyptic opening to total quiet. It is your technical means that I am interested in. The way that you realize your thoughts.

AN: What is there in Eco? There is text and a chorus, orchestra and soloist. They cooperate on articulating a text. Again, like a scream. We are back to the cry. That is my project.

AB: Adorno called Schoenberg’s music a seismograph of fear. You’ve turned back to the scream so many times during our conversation that it leads me to think of his description of Schoenberg’s music because this includes expressions of decline, loneliness, dissolution. And when I look at what has been written about you there are some notions that crop up again and again—death and loneliness—and also the notion of church bells as something that provides a connection with nature and the past. Could you say something about the things that repeatedly preoccupy you from one work to another?

AN: Let me try, and by a happy coincidence I’d like to refer to Eco from 1967, a typical work in many ways. In its delight in the acoustic it is also a typical work of the time, particularly in its circling around my personal and, perhaps, private needs for expression and my longing for contact and handshakes across time, space, the grave and history. Salvatore Quasimodo’s poems present us with a large reservoir of allusions that have their sources far back in our cognitive development and it is as though these Italian poems seamlessly slide into David’s Psalm 137. This unnoticeable literary transition is mirrored in my work by the sounding flow. In an extremely slow process these sound pictures can change colour. By means of constant overlayering and hollowing out of the sound I obtain a building material that mirrors the poems’ primary expression in time and space—blessedly free of the terror of semantics and demand for meaning. Eco is therefore one of my typical works, and in it I can sometimes detect memories of the music I have never heard.

© Anders Beyer 1998

The interview was published in Danish, ‘At artikulere det eksistentielle skrig: Interview med komponisten Arne Nordheim’, Dansk Musik Tidsskrift (Danish Music Review) vol. 70, no. 6 (1998/99): page 199-204. The interview was also published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.


Arne Nordheim (1931-2010, Norway) has written works in most genres, but princi- pally for the orchestra. At one time very active in electronic music, but with Eco for soprano, two choirs and orchestra he began to explore the post-electronic world of sound in extended instrumental and vocal techniques.

In 1994 his music drama Draumkvædet was premiered at Oslo’s Norwegian Theatre as part of the official cultural programme of the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. A recent Violin Concerto was followed by Nidaros, a large work for soloists, choir and orchestra commissioned for the 1000th anniversary of the city of Trondheim and premiered in the Nidaros Cathedral.

Nordheim’s scores are published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen and recordings can be found on the Norwegian Hemera and Aurora labels, among others.