He cracks his whip over the press, “the communicators”, as he calls them with badly concealed contempt. But perhaps we are the ones who listen to him in the end, rather than the public he composes for?
“Do I compose for the public?” he asks rhetorically, in an effective counter-attack right at the outset. Humour is his weapon as he continues his advance, but so is his insight into what music can be, or perhaps is, which he has acquired from his studies in composition and theories about the nature of sound.
“I am not a performer, you see, but a composer. This means that composition is my occupation while instrumentation is my hobby. And instrumentation is not playing. The performer plays. I was trained to play the cello and the piano. They never became important. Not to me, and certainly not to my audiences. In my work as a composer, I am happily aware that I must not impose my own instrumental limitations on the performer. On the contrary, I should try to extend the performer’s opportunities with something that I myself cannot perform. Then it’s the performer’s job to satisfy the public. You might say that my pleasure comes from the performer’s pleasure in playing my music, while the performer’s pleasure comes from the public’s pleasure in hearing it.”
Olav Anton Thommessen, who has participated more frequently in Norwegian press debate than he has performed in Norwegian concert halls, loves the country he berates, explaining this simply by saying you have to pay a certain price for material well-being.
“The price is that you don’t think too much. But the fact that all this material well-being has not immunised us against uniformity gives food for thought. It’s called democratic diversity, but in actual fact we have reduced ourselves to a state of cultural hamburger, where the communicators believe that the public doesn’t know anything because they are not experts at any profession themselves. Therefore they don’t believe that we musicians know anything either, although it is we who make our living from teaching and interpreting and communicating. We’ll leave it at that. But that’s not where it should be left. I buy The Guardian every day though. That is also possible in Norway. So I get a bit of Le Monde and a bit of Washington Post too. A fantastic newspaper. If anything has happened in Norway, I mean something important, you’ll actually find it in The Guardian as well. So I’m perfectly happy.”
But is he? Forty-eight-year-old Thommessen, who was awarded the Nordic Council’s Music Prize in 1990 but whose monumental cello concerto for Truls Mørk has still not been performed at a concert in his own country? “Oh, it was a wonderful experience just to be able to sit in the studio during the radio recovering, being the only audience at a performance of your own concerto. Quite absurd. But fabulous. Also fun to write a chamber opera, Hermafroditten (The Hermaphrodite, 1985), which had its première at the Kungliga Teatern Studio in Stockholm and has never been heard in Norway except at a guest performance of the Swedish production at the Bergen International Festival. That was quite absurd too. And just as fabulous!”
“This is your second year's leave from your job teaching composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. What do you spend your time on? You don't just sit at home and complain?”
“I don't complain at all. I've chosen to live here, dammit! I have lived everywhere. As the son of a diplomat, I grew up all over the world, and spent several years studying in the USA. You know, over there they also have diversity, but for me it is difficult to live with a freedom of choice that means, among other things, that you have to pay your grocer extra not to slice your bread. Streamlined, fashion-led freedom of choice isn't it? I said I wanted to slice my own bread. That's true enough. But I didn't want to have to pay for it not to be sliced. That's why I live in Norway. And am happy.”
“But what are you working on at the moment?”
“Yes, to the point, as they say. I'm working on a commissioned work, which may even be performed for all I know, but that doesn't matter because I’m writing a viola concerto for Soon-Mi-Chung, a joy in itself, for the 75th anniversary of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. At the moment I feel more like a viola than anything else. You see, you begin as a cello and end up as a viola. It's a wonderful instrument. You can't force the viola. It has to be allowed to sing.”
Olav Anton Thommessen finds his greatest musical pleasure as a listener. He believes it is due to his childhood - what else?
“As the child of a diplomat I was dragged round the world and dumped in the strangest surroundings. ‘Here you are,’ said fate, ‘make some sense out of it!’ So it's a matter of how you tackle it. Things often go really wrong for the children of diplomats and missionaries and correspondents, because the parents maintain their role as upbringers on the basis of conflict. The diplomat who becomes accustomed to controlling the world outside the world. The missionary who becomes accustomed to controlling it by forcing his culture on others. But you are travelling, just like you do in music, so as a child you are driven into your own mind. For me, Beethoven became a constant, a fixed point that did not change, but which moved me constantly, because we had a record collection from a grandfather, the grandson of poet Jonas Lie, who painted constructivist pictures in the USA, including some of the construction of the Panama Canal, and became an important presenter of artists from Europe and other parts of the world, including pianist Percy Grainger, which made grandfather a suitable head of the National Academy of Design. I heard Caruso sing and Rachmaninov play, on 78 discs, and Toscanini had good taste, you know. I was driven into the realm of the listener.”
“Is that why you have composed a lot of music ‘by others’?”
“Twelve out of 150 works are based on the compositions of others. That is a consequence of my experience of listening to music. Which hardly makes me less creative. It's not a matter of stealing, or even of competing with the old composers, just finding out what the hell it is that takes place in a piece of music. The music has its own narrative dramaturgy. Something happens in the tonal picture. That is what I want to say something about, compose something about, so that my music is not only my music but a commentary on my music - and the music of others! Music as such, if you understand me. I pour it on. I like music that roars. Bur it isn't a matter of dividing the forces of sound info a hierarchy, rather of making them equal, contemporary, so that everything happens here and now. It isn't avant garde. And it isn't muzak either. It is probably what they would have called post modernism, if the term had been fashionable. It's the instrumentation that helps me to differentiate the sound picture, clarify the voices, so that it doesn't end up as a porridge of sound.”
“What are you trying to achieve by this?”
“Some modernists intended to achieve nothing, I mean no emotional or ideological effect. A noble thought. But many noble thoughts have proved to work badly in practice. Music has to work. But for what purpose? That is the ethic of music. The composer has an ethical responsibility not to force the oboist to fight in a pool of mud with the clarinettist. But he also has a responsibility to bring the listener, through the performer, into an open landscape where he doesn't force opinions on him. Fortunately, the listener has no expectations of the contemporary composer. We can't confirm anything for him, because nobody listens to us anyway. Grieg was killed by success as a 24-year-old. That won't be my problem, anyway!”