b. 20 June 1931, Larvik, Norway. ‘I have only one tiny little piece of music. That’s all my work,’ composer Arne Nordheim stated, ‘I rewrite it again and again. It’s an obsession in a way.’ From this ‘tiny little piece of music,’ Nordheim has created many forms and explored strange channels, combining instrumental, vocal and electronic resources in unusual, dramatic and fascinating ways.
The young Nordheim was studying organ at the Oslo Conservatory of Music when hearing a performance of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony seduced him to the idea of becoming a composer (although he was to leave the conservatory without the training in compositional craftsmanship that he was looking for). He began creating new music at a time when many were hostile to such experimentation (the Trinity Church in Oslo went as far as to ban works by Györgi Ligeti) and vociferous in their dislike of the music he composed. He became active within composers' organisations, notably chairing the Norwegian Society of Composers and the organization New Music. Recognised as an iconoclastic and controversial figure, he was invited to write about music for Dagbladet, the major newspaper in Norway, via which he ridiculed members of the Norwegian music community who refused to recognise the value of new music.
Rejecting Norway’s folklorist history, Nordheim was inextricably linked with the arrival of musical modernism in his home country. Working with a Steinway piano, a small synthesizer and ‘electric pencil sharpener,’ his work includes a piece incorporating poems in German by Rilke and Biblical text in Hebrew and scored for soprano, cello, mixed chorus and orchestra (Wirklicher Wald). He wrote for saxophonist, pianist, drummer, and for jazz vocalist Karin Krog and taped sounds that include German machine guns and a Norwegian toilet (Solar Plexus). Nordheim set Italian poems by Salvatore Quasimodo to music scored for orchestra and magnetic tape (Epitaffio), composed music for trombone and tape inspired by Lewis Carroll, and constructed a piece for violin with electronic delay written for an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee. Solitaire featured Nordheim’s transformations of a human voice reading words by 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, while for the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994 he envisaged a global concert broadcast to and from five continents via satellite. Such practices and methodologies attracted younger Norwegian musicians such as Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) and Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere), who reworked material from Electric for the remix album Nordheim Transformed, in honour of his 70th birthday.
Given his subversive musical history, it must have been with great irony that Nordheim received his home - the Grotten or Grotto - from Norway’s government in recognition of his outstanding artistic achievements.