At the same time, he stands outside tradition with a wry grin and pop music from the 1980s in his back pocket. He is a member of the establishment at an early age, but still has at least one foot on the outside, wriggling its toes.
The reason why this position feels natural to him can be ascribed to his childhood on the island of Inderøy in north Trøndelag county, during which he tried out a variety of different instruments, and to his passionate interest in pop music during his teenage years. Or it can be ascribed to his successes and setbacks as a student at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, which included choosing to give up the guitar after two years of instrumental studies to change over to the composition course and do both his degree and diploma there.
Today, Jon Øivind Ness is a composer in continuous, serious, ironic dialogue with tradition. He speaks of his teachers at the Academy with gratitude and respect: guitar teacher Jan Danielsen, composition teachers Lasse Thoresen, Olav Anton Thommessen, Ragnar Søderlind and Bjørn Kruse. However, he is concerned to break away from the historical musical heritage the Academy represents. He says:
“My work has largely been concerned with re-conquering territory I believe to have been lost (at least for me personally). In my initial years at the Academy, I tried to find ways of writing melodically that would be “relevant” for me in 1990. After that, I tried to “reinstate” intervals like the fifth and the octave, seventh chords, major triads and, gradually, the sounds I cared less for: new music intervals like the diminished second, the augmented seventh, the diminished ninth, and the cluster sound. Moreover, I have recently been trying to approach the pure diatonic.”
In addition to other methods of research, Ness uses musical irony. Humour becomes a way of introducing “illegal” elements into music. A triad constellation that is used ironically in one context may perhaps be conceived as serious next time around. Furthermore, can clichés totally change their meaning in a new context? Can you generate complex musical structures from 80s pop songs? Why not?
Music is diversified by this kind of approach, rich in ideas, varied and witty, and everything is unified through the only real common denominator in Ness’ work: strong personal musicality. The composer is not interested in great universal principles, he prefers to celebrate the subjective:
“Only recently have I started thinking that, in art music more than in any other art form, we allow ourselves to be hidebound by traditional techniques. We accept the techniques of our predecessors and don’t consider that techniques based on the sonata form still partly dictate how our music sounds.
Because we believe that music has to consist of material that is exposed to some operation or another (whether it be traditional counterpoint, Boulez-like multiplication or spectral processing), our music actually sounds like this or that. Polyphony is a buzz-word. Why should music by polyphonous?. I don’t say that it shouldn’t be, but why must it be? How can we re-define polyphony?
Do we need to have material at all? Must the material be exposed to thematic or motivistic processes? Must you write a basson voice for a bassoon and a trumpet voice for a trumpet? What is a trumpet voice? Isn’t it just as ‘trumpetic’ to play ‘mrriiaaoo’ as ‘tootleitoot’?”
The composer asks more questions than he answers, at least verbally. But he emphasises one important fact:
“I am permitted to write the music I want to write. I don’t yet know if I have managed it, but at least I am trying to write the music I want to write.”