Ode to Light

The double CD Solitaire (BOLT RECORDS BR ES11) is an uneven but useful collection of the work of Arne Nordheim, Norway’s most famous electro-acoustic composer. It’s a new selection and has been digitally mastered, but a lot of the content here has been previously released by Rune Grammofon and Aurora Records; hard-core collectors may want to check what they already own before investing. That said, there are five unreleased cuts available. Bolt Records of Poland have an agenda, which is to showcase the electronic and electro-acoustic music produced at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, perhaps in the belief that it has been overlooked in the history of electronic composition; and to restore to prominence the name of Eugeniusz Rudnik, the producer and sound engineer at said studio, and a composer in his own right. Previous collections have already been noted at TSP, including Boguslaw Schaeffer’s Assemblage, and the Blanc Et Rouge 3-CD box set.

Nordheim came to Poland in 1967 to assist at the opening of the Henie-Onstad Art Centre. He was given the opportunity to work with Rudnik in the studio, and all five pieces on disc one – recorded between 1968 and 1971 – were realised there. These include three of his famous works, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Warszawa’, and ‘Pace’, all of which were also published on the Electric CD in 2002. 1968’s ‘Solitaire’ is organised around a juxtaposition of two harmonic series to create a very ambiguous tone, but it also has literary origins – it’s based on a poem found in Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire. The booklet also notes that at the opening of the Art Centre, the figure skater Sonja Henie was in attendance, wearing a diamond ring with a jewel called “solitaire”. It caught Arne’s eye; he’d already been thinking about a composition by this name. You may be able to detect in the music ideas about “the refraction of light” which activated Nordheim’s imagination.

Some two years later, Josef Patkowski commissioned the composer again and the result was ‘Pace’. This is a work with a message, and the message is about human rights…the idea was to create a very ethical and socially aware composition, yet one where the intention is concealed. A human voice reading aloud from the UN Declaration of Human Rights has been transformed through extensive modulation, speed variation, and passing the sound through various filters. While the sounds are totally abstract (bell-like tones result, much like a good deal of Nordheim’s music), the underlying intervals are something we can still recognise as being human speech. As such, the piece has a quiet authority and indeed passes on subliminal impressions of stability and peace, reflecting Nordheim’s capacity for quiet and modest contemplation of his ideas; he was also receptive to Rudnik’s suggestions about structure. Apparently, they still play this piece in Oslo over the PA when it’s time to go back into the concert hall.

Another impressive composition is ‘Ode To Light’, receiving its first publication on this album, and it’s associated with an outdoor sculpture by Arnold Haukeland, who is also to be credited for the overall concept. The sculpture is in place at a park near the Centre of the Blind in Skjeberg and together with this sound-work, it forms an installation. The music is especially notable because the tape playback is controlled by a light sensor. The idea was for the music to present an audible analogue to the sculpture, and equip blind people to visualise the music to some degree, by touching the planes of the artwork (and presumably activating the tape playback, although this is not made crystal clear in the printed notes here, so I’m unable to confirm). This is certainly one of the more “three-dimensional” works in the set, with its shifting patterns, subtle changes in texture and timbre, and the way that these shimmering drones fade in and out like passing clouds in the sky, suggesting the intersections of solid shapes in space. Unexpectedly, the “trilling” tones of the music attracted nightingales who flocked to the sculpture, adding their birdsong to the installation. Nordheim was delighted, and tried to programme a performance that would leave gaps of silence and allow the birds to “take a solo”.

In 1970 Nordheim staged an installation in the Scandinavian pavilion of the World’s Fair in Osaka. There was a lot of interest in multimedia and acousmatic music, and Stockhausen was getting in on the act with his Expo composition for three shortwave radios and a sound projectionist operator. Nordheim however used tape loops for his ‘Poly-Poly’, and arrived at an ambitious collage using materials similar to the earlier ‘Warszawa’ (also included on this collection), which drew on tapes found in the library at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. It’s an impressionistic semi-narrative radiophonic portrait of post-war urban life, comprising fragments of voices and spoken word (all of them heavily distorted and largely unintelligible) with crying children and unusual electronic sounds, gradually becoming more aggressive and bellicose, even resembling muffled explosions or machine-gun fire. What we hear on the CD is the “concert” version of ‘Poly-Poly’, called ‘Lux Et Tenebrae’.

All the above works – major compositions, all realised in Poland – make a strong case for the significance of Rudnik and his studio in the history of Nordheim’s artistic career. The second disc is not quite as focussed and feels a little diffuse in its curation. There are two short 1960s works – very good ones – which were in fact recorded for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, before the composer even came to Poland. However, there’s also the exceptional 19-minute ‘Colorazione’, where Rudnik is present behind the ring modulators, and both he and Nordheim are filtering the Hammond organ of Kare Kolberg in real time. This dramatic and eerie dronework, another masterpiece of controlled subtlety, prefigures techniques that would later be used by Faust and Kurt Graupner, to more anarchic ends. It’s also one of the few “performed” works in Nordheim’s repertoire, which is mostly about playback of pre-recorded tapes.

Then we have four short pieces, also composed in Poland, but only recently discovered; they are excerpted from a longer work (it has 12 pieces in all) and surely it makes more sense to hear the totality of the composition, for which I direct you to the Dodeka CD (Rune Grammofon, 2003). The title may be making some allusion to the 12 disciples. On the other hand it’s not clear if they were intended as a complete composition or, as the booklet would have it, were “snippets” resulting from studio work which could not be integrated in the larger Poland compositions. I’ve not been able to find when ‘Awaiting’, ‘Distance’, ‘Crossroad’ and ‘Summa’ were in fact composed; one online review refers vaguely to “30 years ago”, but it’s misleading for Bolt Records to give the date as 2003.

Also on this disc: three installation works whose origins are not quite clear to me, but may have been realised by repurposing some of the raw material from these published compositions. These include ‘Stille, Kepler Tenker’ which was originally done for an art exhibit installation using two cassette decks playing on auto-rewind; what we hear is a reconstruction of a varied and rather “bitty” composition. ‘Alfa Alfa’ is more satisfying. It’s part of a larger installation work for a natural sciences building in Norway, and the notes speak intriguingly of how Nordheim could move sounds from one room to another. It’s certainly possible to imagine these precise and enchanting sounds bringing to life new possibilities in any given enclosed space.

Besides the above reservations, I’m slightly disappointed by the presentation; visually the package is elegant, but very spartan, and the notes, presented in three languages simultaneously on each page, are rather hard to read. But these niggles aside, there is some excellent music on this collection which, if you don’t already own any of the above recordings, would make a solid introduction to Nordheim’s delicate sound art.