Øyvind Torvund. Photo: Synne Sofi Bårdsdatter Bønes

A synergy of sketches

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November 15, 2023

The family man from Frekhaug has been involved with music all his life. Still, it wasn't until a documentary about Frank Zappa appeared on TV that this year’s festival composer, Øyvind Torvund, thought about writing music.

‘I have always been a music nerd, and as a young guitarist in a band, I started playing blues, metal, jazz and free improvisation. Rock and jazz were the driving forces behind my interest in music, and I didn't get into classical and contemporary music until much later, he says. 

Torvund grew up in Kviteseid in West Telemark but has kept the Rogaland dialect he spoke at home with his parents. Unconventional musical influences reached the young music lover, even in «tiny» Telemark. 

‘There was no internet when I was growing up. If you wanted something special, you had to order it, so the few things I got hold of, I looked at and listened to over and over again, says Torvund. 

John Zorn's influence 

‘When I went to upper secondary school, I got hold of a record by John Zorn at a music store in Bø. I was interested in Faith No More and bought the record because the band's vocalist, Mike Patton, sang on it. 

‘After that, I heard a rather peculiar album with John Zorn and the Japanese noise artist Yamatsuka Eye on vocals. The album was called Torture Garden and was a mixture of noise, metal and country in a hardcore format where none of the songs lasted more than a minute. That record had a significant influence on me. 

In a program about Frank Zappa that he recorded on VHS, the spotlight was very much on Zappa as a composer, not just a musician. 

This ignited a spark in Øyvind Torvund, and he sought out the world of composers.  

Freedom – for better or worse 

Øyvind Torvund studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) in Oslo. He did not get in the first two times he applied, but he did not give up. From his student days, Torvund remembers the environment particularly well. 

‘I experienced the Norwegian contemporary music environment I encountered when I started studying in Oslo as inclusive and with a great mixture of styles. In other educational institutions, there can be a much stricter style; you have to master a modernist expression. In Norway, the education has – for better and worse – probably been freer, but that means you also feel free to incorporate all the music you’re inspired by if you can find a way to work with it. Some of the teachers who inspired me a lot at the time were Olav Anthon Thommessen, Ivar Frounberg and Lasse Thoresen, he says. 

A great consumer of culture 

As a graduated composer, Torvund lived in Berlin and Oslo, where he was a great consumer of culture and everything from theatre to the visual arts could inspire him. 

‘We lived right next to the Black Box Theatre in Oslo, and I saw everything there for a while. Verdensteateret had many moving and overwhelming performances, and the noise and improvisation scene in the early 2000s were also good sources of inspiration. I’m inspired by theatre and culture in general. Going to Documenta or the Venice Biennale was always inspiring, and before we moved to Frekhaug, I went and saw everything that was music, visual arts and theatre all the time, says the composer. 

Nowadays, Torvund takes the boat into Bergen when he has to work in the studio, but otherwise, he spends a lot of time in nature at his home in Frekhaug. Quiet surroundings in the countryside are also better suited for the writing process, he feels. 

‘I still go into the city to experience things, but when I'm working on new music, it helps to shut myself away for a bit and write without too much external influence. 

Grieg and real nature 

Torvund is inspired by nature and society around him, by the natural and the electronic. 

‘I like music that is romantic, and music I think of as nature romantic. But then I also like to think about all the smaller, perhaps psychedelic sounds in nature, those that are found naturally and can remind you of electronic sounds. The mirroring of sounds is one of the things that fascinates me the most. That you can find sounds that sound modern and exciting in bubbling water or an insect, he says. 

And what does he think of his Norwegian national romanticism colleague, Edvard Grieg? 

‘He has been played a lot, but I like it very much. There is, after all, a reason why his music is played so much. But it can be nice to hear some recordings of real nature in between the Grieg music, says Torvund. 

Øyvind Torvund. Photo: Synne Sofi Bårdsdatter Bønes

Sketches, ideas and plans on paper 

In his compositions, Torvund works a lot with ideas and what they may become. 

‘I really like the spontaneous, perhaps especially combined with something a little more thought through. I like that things work within a certain context. If everything gets too thought through, it gets a little tired. This stems from my improvisation days, says Torvund. 

‘In my creative process, I work a lot on circling in on an idea. The idea becomes clear without me having created any thoughts about how it should sound, but I have kind of a sense of it. I often try to approach the music by writing words and drawing, and not directly via notation, and thus, I’m always getting closer and closer to the idea. This is where the sketchbooks and how I work with them come to interact, he says. 

The composer often uses quick sketches and drawings in projects that have “Plans” in their title. The ideas are sketched out as plans for future music and are displayed on a screen while the musicians play the notes. 

Illustration: Øyvind Torvund

‘The drawings describe a fairly concrete idea, almost like stage directions. They can include impossible things like music coming from the clouds or objects that break the laws of physics. And then, the ideas unfold in the music, says Torvund. 

Sketches from previous concerts show things such as an ensemble of flying xylophone players in a forest, or a group of chamber musicians who have spent the summer holidays with a pack of wolves and learned to imitate their owls. In Plans for Future Operas, the soprano tries to out-sing the sound of car alarms going off. 

Doodling a musical  

Torvund is sitting on a pile of outlined ideas. When choosing which sketch to work from, he uses music as the base.  

‘I consider whether I can make good enough music for the idea or whether the sketch can stand on its own with just one tone. I like the spontaneity of the sketched ideas, and their shapes with the musicians in front of them become a kind of utopian stage art. Wouldn't it be fun to have a singing cloud enter the stage, and then everyone in the room starts to float a bit? Or no, what about the next idea? That's how I work with a series of small situations unfolding. It's almost like doodling live, says Torvund. 

For next year's Bergen International Festival comes a new creation in his “Plans” series called Great plans for future musicals*. It is inspired by 50s musicals such as Singing in the Rain, Silk Stockings, and Kiss me Kate – all musicals with dreamlike choreography. But what does the musical of the future sound like? 

‘There will probably be a pinch of, or perhaps a big spoonful of, nostalgia. In the musical of the future, you can float around or splash into a whipped cream cake. I may have to show some drawings for it to make sense, says the composer. 

The work is a world premiere, and for Torvund, it is also his first musical. 

‘This is a brand new thing for me; I haven’t written a musical before. Those who are fans of old fifties musicals will hopefully be able to garner something out of my new interpretation, but it will be a bit psychedelic. 

A wandering concert in Grieghallen 

Symphony for all of Grieghallen will also see its world premiere during the 2024 Bergen International Festival. Here, the audience will be able to explore Grieghallen's levels, musical reverberations and the interplay of rooms as they wander around during the concert. 

‘I have considered this concert to be a bit like a festival. I have always liked the feeling of walking around different rooms and experiencing different, simultaneous moods and energies. In Grieghallen, the musicians will stand in groups, and you can decide for yourself how close you want to get to the various stages, says Torvund. 

His tip for the concert audience is to slowly walk around and stop where you think the music creates a nice blend. 

With his father at the Festival 

Torvund has plenty of memories from previous editions of the Bergen International Festival. 

‘The first time I visited the Bergen International Festival was in 1987 when I was ten years old and my father, Gunnar Torvund, was the Festival exhibition artist. 

Among other things, Torvund’s father has made sculptural adornments of Edvard Grieg, which stand at Johanneskirken, Troldhaugen and on the dock at Kjødehallen. 

‘With parents who were visual artists, I was very used to going to openings, so during the Bergen International Festival, we wore our finest clothes, went to Fløyen, and I bought comics at the antique bookshop. 

Not looking to shake the norms  

From previous experiences at the Bergen International Festival, Torvund remembers Vinge/Müller's staging of The Wild Duck in 2009 very well. 

‘There was fantastic energy, excess and punk mixed with tradition. There is much to love in those productions, which are both transgressive and use hand-painted backdrops. I am almost envious of the incredible excess and energy in their performances, Torvund recalls. 

The staging of The Wild Duck created a lot of controversy in the media. Torvund told VAN Magazine this autumn: “I am not a provocative person. But I am sometimes told that I have provocative ideas.” 

His own contribution will probably not shake the norms as much:  

‘No, I haven't thought about that for a second – fortunately. Making the music is a big task on its own, and I just try to make it as good as possible, says Torvund. 

Øyvind Torvund. Photo: Synne Sofi Bårdsdatter Bønes
Øyvind Torvund at the 2024 Bergen International Festival

*Great plans for future musicals has been postponed due to illness. A new date for the concert will be announced later.

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