Arne Nordheim (1931-2010)

June 2010 has seen the passing of one of Norway's most important composers: Arne Nordheim. He was a central figure in Norwegian music, who wrote the opening music for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, and who has stirred controversy as a modernist.

Norway has not produced many composers that have achieved international recognition, or at a high level of accomplishment. One thinks immediately of Edvard Grieg and his well known repertoire of popular works like the Peer Gynt, which seemed to introduce the techniques of the Russian orchestral masters to Norwegian folk music. Less well known, and more limited in scope is Geir Tveitt who used the Hardanger fiddle prominently in his multiple variations on a few folk themes.

Arne Nordheim, on the other hand, was a different kind of composer altogether -- but one which does measure up in many ways to international limelight, although he is rarely played on international radio. There are definite references and influences in his works, but he is most widely known as an avant garde, experimental composer who dabbled in unusual instrumentation and electronica.

Nordheim wrote pieces exclusively for percussion, for instance, and then took tedious instruments like the accordion and squeezed their full potential from them. I have found his work more exciting live than on record -- which is not true of all composers. His music has been electronicized for the modern age by Norwegian artist and admirer biosphere.

In more well-known pieces like Epitaffio, he seems to channel Ligeti and Schostakovich's early days, while in Doria there are clear signs of Benjamin Brittain -- not least through the vocal work of Peter Pears (Brittain's partner and preferred performer). The Tempest is one of his better known works.

Nordheim was ultimately an uneven composer, writing sometimes works of great genius and at other times works of incredible banality. It is surely his spirit of adventure and experimentation that single him out amongst Norwegian composers. He was an eloquent and unpretentious advocate for music, always open minded and clear in his opinions and enunciation. I hope he is remembered well.