Periphery without Center: On the Music of Øyvind Torvund
If there’s something to be learned from Øyvind Torvund, it is that we don’t know what music really is and when, where, how, and why it emerges. Nothing is sure; nothing is self-explanatory. Anything is possible; anything is conceivable.
On a sunny afternoon, a heavy bass booms in the Oslo neighborhood Grønland from a pimped up BMW, rattling the folkloristic figures of the small group of street musicians. But no one gets upset about the booming car: it is simply part of the concert scenario Bandrom 3 ("Band Room 3"). The car is a part of the equipment used in the piece, just like the street musicians, the SUV named Shamanobil manned with a drummer engaging in ritual-like gestures, and the trailer in which the street musicians study their repertoire as it is taught to them orally sound by sound.
The acoustic qualities—a rehearsal where the instrumentalists are taught orally, and the aggressive, dull sound of a car stereo system overloaded with harsh techno - are familiar to everyone. They are associated with music, but without ever being the subject of aesthetic consideration. In that Torvund spotlights secondary acoustic aspects of music and phenomena of music sociology, not only does this result in a different attention for these sounds, but a different music, “paramusic” in the best sense of the word.
In Bandrom 4, which was premiered in 2007, Torvund takes the Bandrom technique to a new level. Now it is Torvund’s own piece Tune Park (2006) being passed orally from musician to musician. Tune Park, resembling a catalogue, erodes the strophe-refrain principle from the tradition of Lied and pop music. The musicians wander through this wild “garden of melodies” according to rules of their own, only suggested by the composer. In Bandrom 4, the musicians learn to repeat individual phrases from Tune Park long enough to wear out the differences between the original and played out copy. The score fixing the work is no longer binding; the music’s work character is suspended for the time being.
What’s amazing about this scenario is not just its randomness, the music’s lack of center, but also the naturalness with which Torvund aestheticizes the non-musical and the pseudo-musical. This is not only true of the pedagogical situations in Bandrom: Torvund also uses the cries of wolves (Wolf Studies, 2006) the nasty twirping sounds of old-fashioned computer games (Krull Quest, 2004) or the dully sparkling presets of antiquated drum machines (Album, 2003).
Torvund gives special attention to the supposed triviality of ornament. In Foredrag om ornament (Lecture about Ornaments, 2004), the illustrations from an old French book are translated into music, picture by picture. The audience views the delicate arabesques while alto flute, clarinet, and keyboard provide Torvund’s musical garlands with trills and grace notes.
In the cycle Intro – Album No 1-2 – Plus Plus – Minus Minus (2003–04) as well, the ornaments become the center of attention. Torvund layers typical Baroque figures, the décor of garish 1980s pop, and stereotypical free jazz riffs, resulting in a tableau of musical ornamentation crossing styles and eras, oscillating between the exalted and the banal. The cycle Intro-Album… is reminiscent of rock music formats. Even if Intro is more a character variation than an introduction, even if the two “albums” are more like “leaves from an album” than proper records, these pieces are animated in their habitus with the playful freedom of pop music—“freely, with elastic beat.”
Øyvind Torvund, born in 1976, not only studied at Oslo’s Norwegian Academy of Music and Berlin’s Universität der Künste, but also worked for years as a guitarist in rock and improvising groups. Jazz becomes a point of reference in his Giants of Jazz (1999–2000), where he pays tribute to old masters like Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. In contrast, Power Art (2002) is reminiscent of the musical feel of hardcore power trios like Black Flag, even if a song by Henry Purcell is the piece’s foundation. Torvund also calls on his players to improvise, with instructions like game rules, leaving open the exact path the works will take.
Improvisation also plays a role in a through-composed orchestral work like How Sound Travels (2005–06). The score is based on a guitar improvisation: the feedback, flowing waves, and fluctuating pitch are then transferred to the symphonic apparatus. That How Sounds Travels is reminiscent of the sound color compositions of Giacinto Scelsi and György Ligeti makes it clear that Torvund is also a composer in the emphatic sense of the word. The avant-garde for Torvund is an aesthetic surface for projection from which he develops musical peripheries like ornament and the everyday, nature and popular culture.