The spectrum of music-making in Norway is as diverse as its variations in seasonal daylight - perhaps, it’s tempting to say, even a product of it. How else could a country produce both the infernal extremes of the black metal movement alongside shiny pop exports like a-ha? This diversity exists in the country’s contemporary classical scene as much as anywhere else. Here, we take a look at key musical figures in Norway’s modern compositional landscape.

Arne Nordheim in 1968 © Wikimedia Commons | Municipal Archives of Trondheim
Arne Nordheim in 1968
© Wikimedia Commons | Municipal Archives of Trondheim

Arne Nordheim (b. 1931)

Though not strictly in the category of the contemporary, having passed away in 2010, Arne Nordheim nevertheless remains an essential presence in Norwegian music. Indeed, such was his importance to music in the country that from 1982 up until his death he lived in Grotten, a residence next to Oslo’s Royal Palace bequeathed to people of special artistic merit (he also received a state funeral). Moreover, it speaks to Norway’s status as a haven for artistic freedom that this composer beloved of the state was not a conservative but a staunch experimentalist. He left the Oslo Conservatory of Music due to what he saw as its overly orthodox attitudes to theory, travelling to Paris where he studied musique concrète and electronics and later Stockholm, where he came into contact with Ligeti. Nordheim would become known for his “sound sculpture” installations, which used electroacoustic methods, though he was primarily an orchestral composer. In his 1975 composition Spur, for example, Nordheim uses the rarely-exploited sonic potential of the accordion to blur the lines between acoustic and electronic sound in concerto form. In this performance by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the soloist teases out low, synth-like drones and skittering high figures from the instrument, all the while contending with the orchestra’s ominous backing and leading up to a hectic cadenza.  

Ketil Hvoslef (b. 1939)

Ketil Hvoslef is a living link between Norway’s contemporary musical scene and its 20th-century past. His father was Harald Sæverud, the influential composer whose 1940 composition Ballad of Revolt gave voice to the anger at the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. Perhaps as a result of his father’s Neoclassical tendencies, Hvoslef’s music feels more accessible that some of his more angular countrymen. See for example his 2015 composition Jubeljahr (1765) mit dem Haydnsignal (watch a video of the world première), in which rousing chromatic figures in the strings are propelled onwards by martial snare rhythms, or Il compleanno (The Birthday), which despite its unusual writing conveys a sense of delirious fun. Other notable works include Hvoslef’s tone poem Mi-Fi-Li, his compositions for organ and his work for the stage and television.

Olav Berg (b. 1949)

Born in the small village of Kvelde, Olav Berg specialises in writing for wind instruments, with a slew of concertos for trumpet, clarinet and bassoon, as well as a number of chamber pieces for wind groups. This predilection for wind likely comes from Berg’s own instrumental exploits – in an earlier life, he played trumpet in the navy orchestra. His best-known work is most likely his 1982 composition for orchestra Poseidon, but you can get a sense of his more recent work from Ilze Klava’s performance of of his 2015 Viola Concerto with the Bergen Philharmonic.

Knut Vaage (b. 1961)

Knut Vaage © Observatoriet
Knut Vaage
© Observatoriet
Bergen native Knut Vaage is interested in the zones between composed and improvised music, having performed in the improvising groups such as JKL and the Anglo-Norwegian ensemble Fat Battery. That’s not to say he eschews traditional forms altogether, though, having composed full-scale operas such as Khairos (2013) and Song of Soloman (2010). He’s also an avid music educationalist, with a number of projects aimed at introducing young people to contemporary music, and a 2010 opera Veslefrikk angled toward a family audience. Chatter, with its rambunctious, almost filmic opening, gives a real sense of the composer’s playful attitudes to texture, the liminal groans and drones of extended-technique winds dominating the middle section. In the 2015 work Futuration, meanwhile, Vaage collaborated with music technician Thorolf Thuestad to expand the sound-spectrum of the piece, plumbing strange textural depths using electronics, bowed cymbals, saws and even a siren. Much contemporary music is presented as forward-thinking by dint of its atonality. Here, however, there is a genuinely exciting exploration of timbre. See it performed by the Bergen Philharmonic.

Henrik Hellstenius (b. 1963)

Originally hailing from the Bærum region of Norway, Henrik Hellstenius developed his compositional skills in Oslo and Paris, including a stint studying computer-based music-making at the avant-garde IRCAM institute. Now teaching music theory and composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music, he produces music in fields as varied as chamber and orchestral, theatre, film, ballet, opera as well as electroacoustic experiments. Watch Diego Lucchesi perform the aptly-titled concerto for bass clarinet Still Panic with the Bergen Philharmonic here. By turns tentative and aggressive, and punctuated by the odd shout from the soloist, the piece exploits the rarely-appreciated timbral range of the instrument, winding its way to an angst-ridden conclusion. On 23rd November, the Bergen Phil live streams its performance of a new work by Hellstenius for soprano and orchestra named As if the law is everything. Go here to tune in.

Marcus Paus (b. 1979)

Marcus Paus’ compositions might be seen as a reaction against the more challenging styles of older Norwegian contemporary composers, having been described as representing “a reorientation towards tradition, tonality and melody.” That’s not to say he’s a complete conservative, though. He takes influence from music from diverse cultures, such as Bulgarian and Chinese folk music, and in his Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra (seen performed here by Håkon Kartveit and the Bergen Philharmonic) he turns the percussion instrument to a semi-melodic role, the soloist surrounded by a bank of drums. The work’s drama and bombast is a marked contrast from the intellectualism of much modern Norwegian composition, and it’s tempting to view its instrumental pyrotechnics as a remnant from Paus’s days shredding guitar in prog rock groups as a teenager.

Ørjan Matre (b. 1979)

Ørjan Matre © Siv Mannsåker
Ørjan Matre
© Siv Mannsåker
Born in Bergen in the same year as Paus, Ørjan Matre studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music under Henrik Hellstenius. Matre is interested in assimilating indigenous folk styles but also in exploring postmodern collage experiments. His piece Händel Mixtapes for tape recorders and orchestra, for example, pits the recorded sounds of Händel’s music and the live sounds of the orchestra against each other, with the tape music gradually becoming subsumed in the acoustic swell. This video of the world première performance of his piece “...but from those flames no light…”, however, sees the composer take a different tack. Strangely-tuned harp hovers over glacial string movements, bringing to mind Morton Feldman’s spectral chamber works. With that and the Paradise Lost quotation of the work’s title, one is tempted to view Matre as a rather loftily-minded composer. However, the title of his 2003 work Attempted Birdhouse derives from an episode of The Simpsons. Like the Norwegeian contemporary scene itself, Matre covers a whole range of styles and registers. 

The Bergen Philharmonic’s performance of Hellstenius’s As if the law is everything streams live from 19:25 CET on 23rd November.