Excavation, Exhumation, Autopsy

The Symphony Orchestra as Site

For a contemporary composer, writing for the symphony orchestra is not unlike arriving very late at a party. Even though the host greets you heartily, the dance floor is emptying and people slump around, content to their hearts desire by what they’ve already consumed. Some have split into groups, engaged in discussions started earlier in the evening, impossible to comprehend at this point. If you’re lucky you might be able to spark a light or two by a well-placed remark, but basically the best you can do is just try to blend in, to go with the flow. Maybe there will be a nachspiel, maybe not, the party peaked long before you entered and everything is in a tangible state of After.

This condition of being After is not exclusive to orchestral composer. It would be nice, for melancholy reasons, but present day culture is, for all its now-ness, in many ways acted out on the same terms. Hal Foster writes about the current condition of the After in art and theory and asks what comes after – or in lieu of – the alleged “end of art”. He coins a terminology of “living-on” in his essay “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse”,[1] one I’d like to pair with my own notion of “coming-after”. Although Foster speculates if the living-on might make do with the what-comes-after,[2] this after-ness is obviously a widespread notion. And it is difficult to imagine any art form where the feeling is so tangible as in the modern-day symphony orchestra. One can argue that the orchestra has been in a state of afterlife since the outbreak of World War I, just at a point where composers were challenging the then one hundred year old tradition of romantic symphonic writing, working from within the tradition, expanding and radicalizing its own tendencies and currencies. (Contemporary energies from the outside, like the historical avant-garde’s challenge to the institution and autonomy of art, had, with a few exceptions, very little impact on the orchestra.)

Needless to say, there has been substantial developments in the field of orchestral music throughout the 20th century. But after, say, the innovations of Gerard Grisey and the spectral school in the seventies, very little has been going on in terms of actual renewal in a broader sense.[3] And this in a time where the world of art has expanded and changed in profound ways. Yes, there is orchestral music being written today, some if it good, even great music. However, the opening up of the field of art has had weak resonance in the concert halls. The inherited structures and practices prevail, basically unchanged the last hundred years. What Hal Foster calls the labour of disarticulation, the redefinition of cultural terms and recapturing of political positions, has not had any obvious impact on the orchestral institution. And very few composers work with the orchestra as a situated practice. The structures and (im)possibilities are taken for given, and where much of the art world work in an expanded field of context and situation, the composers and conductors keep their gaze fixed firmly on the score.

It is also obvious that the orchestral institution by and large has steered clear of the curatorial turn in the arts the last twenty years and thus neglected the opportunity to open itself to new ideas and methods. The curator-as-artist has been criticized (not least by artists), but there is little question that this development has contributed to renewal in the institutions of art. And there is no question that the orchestral institution has failed to seize this moment. The artistic leadership of these institutions seems to have given away a lot of the power of programming to the superstar soloists and conductors. Instead of truly curated programs, the symphonic concerts tend to display the music that these power-players have on their repertoire any given season.

It seems more difficult than ever to re-negotiate the terms of the orchestra. Especially from the position of the composer. This may, ironically, bring the attention to new ways of looking at the situation. The petrified nature of the orchestral structure may well serve as an opportunity to examine it as a basically historical object. A petrified redwood-pine is a giant, but there is no organic growth in it. Or, to switch to my main metaphor for this essay: The orchestra has dug itself in so thoroughly over so many years that it ought to be a tempting site for the musico-archaeologist. In this text I will try to map out methods of excavating some of the energies and objects to be located in this place, and to see if this work can be helpful in an attempt to situate the orchestra within a historical and social context.


One might argue that style has been a somewhat under-communicated topos within the arts for the last couple of decades. Not much talked about, but non-the less important, as art historian Ina Blom discusses in her book On the Style Site.[4] She writes about style as a social site in which the relations between appearance and social identity are negotiated, and that it is insufficient to approach style just as an art historical tool or method of explanation. This view might be useful in dealing with the issue at hand: It is not musical style that constitute differences between divergent strands of contemporary music; orchestral music is in itself a style. The Symphony Orchestra (embedded in the shrine of the Concert Hall) is first and foremost a place, a site, and the situated powers and constituting energies of this site are primordial to aesthetic or ideological distinctions at work. The orchestra is in a curious position with regard to the ephemeral temporal quality of ‘classical’ site-specific work like those of Robert Smithson. The orchestral work takes place in buildings that are of our cultures most enduring kind. At the same time, the orchestral performance is transient, and the new work, premiéred, documented and often never to be heard again, is of a highly impermanent nature in spite of its ‘eternal’ qualities as score. In the same way as the operatic voice tends to define opera for many listeners, the sound-place of the orchestra itself has such a strong iconic power that it tends to overrule the distinctions we normally define as musical style. If we twist the perspective a little, we can regard the orchestra as a topos. As the word is applied by Erkki Huhtamo in his essay on media archaeology as topos study, we see a vessel derived from the memory banks of tradition.[5] And it becomes evident that the cultural meaning of the object – the work and its interpretation – to a large degree is moulded by its topos – the orchestra.

So, in choosing to work on this site, the composer has to relate to an orchestral tradition more or less regardless of the aesthetic and ideological choices at work in the sounding music. Many composers will object to this, and even maintain that their music has nothing to do with either past or present musical ‘styles’. They might go to considerable lengths to counter the centripetal force of the orchestra, in order to create something infinitely peculiar and different. But, ironically, the energies spent on these efforts tend to radiate back to the origins, to the friction of rubbing oneself against the orchestra. This tends to happen no matter how much one tries to cover the traces of the process. And indeed, like the surrealist frottage, a warped image of the original object is always traceable.

This could be said about many of the musical practices contemporary composers partake in. But I argue that the orchestra constitutes a certain agglomeration of power and historical significance that highlights its situatedness in a much larger degree than any other instrumental genre. One example on how the orchestral site transforms particular identities into its own image is Phillip Glass’ orchestrations of David Bowie-songs.[6] In this transferral the orchestration tend to soften the angularities and normalize the singularity that is present in the original recordings.[7] The particularites of sound and phrasing in Bowies studio-recordings are lost when the melodies and harmonies are re-situated in the orchestra. The morphology of the music, so important in signifying the musical identity, is replaced with the morphology of traditional orchestration. This approach might be regarded as an attempt to renew the orchestral site. But by failing to transfer any of the qualities of difference that sets Bowies music apart from other musics, Glass only manages to confirm the orchestra as museal site, that radiates more or less the same values regardless of the music emanating from it.

In many respects, the orchestra is an aural museum, primarily engaged with exhibiting historical pieces of art. I do not contend the legitimacy of this; it might even be the main raison d’être of the modern orchestra. When an artist is invited to work within the framework of a museum, the task of working within this historical situatedness would normally have great impact on the working process. But with composers, this is rarely the case. Most of us tend to treat the orchestra as if it was a blank canvas for us to display our profound abstractions on. And the concert hall is treated like a neutral white cube, as if the whole apparatus of the concert spectacle were of no importance to the work of art.

But of course it is. The limitations imposed upon the contemporary composer in dealing with the orchestra are legion and undeniable. The regulations are strict, and I am not talking about regulations of aesthetical expression, but the rules of production. To borrow a military term, we might call them rules of engagement, with respect to the rigid structure in working schedules, rehearsal time, the power of the travelling menagerie of conductors and soloists, the increasing focus on the box office, the fears and desires of the international brotherhood of concert hall-executives, impresarios etc. etc.

In this light, almost any new work of orchestral music could be considered ‘site-specific’, in that it is written for a particular place, a particular body of production and, often, for a specific occasion. Very few professional composers write ‘ideal’ scores for their drawers, but have to merge their artistic fantasies with the reality given by possibilities of performance and commissioning agreements. This is not necessarily all wrong; constraints have proven to be a driving force in musical creativity. But it underlines the specificity of situation, the framing of the creative process when involved with the orchestra.

Walter Benjamin identifies the uniqueness of the work of art in its ‘Here and Now’.[8] The uniqueness of its place of existence. What is the ‘Here and Now’ of the orchestral work? Is the performance of a classical piece a reproduction, or a repetition? Is it reification or a reanimation? Different answers to these questions imply different consequences.If one reads musical history the last hundred years as primarily a history of interpretation, the potential of reanimation becomes crucial in dealing with the work of music. From a critical point of view, however, the ever-prevailing narrow canon of ‘classical’ music points to a practice of reducing and reifying the outcome of complex forces (historical, economical and aesthetical) to a practical level of recognition and confirmation. And from the vantage point of the creator, it is not difficult to localize a great many repetitive features even in the first performance of a new piece for orchestra: There are repetitions of methods, of place, of the whole historical situation of the symphonic concert-event. In many cases it has a strong reproductive character, in the affirmations of traditions, structures and ideologies that are hidden behind the thin veil of autonomous art.

When it comes to the ‘Now’ of Benjamin’s expression, art music has long since lost the privilege of being contemporary. For the time being, too many heads are hidden in the sand, leaving much of this music in a weird limbo; on one hand, there is the bliss of ignorance in the pretence that it is possible to return to the safe haven of the structures and even the sound of ‘classical music’. On the other hand, there is the inherited rhetoric of ‘new music’, the idea of nie erhörte klänge and historical development still used as apologetics for clinging to the historical privilege of the composer.

The idea of treating the orchestra as site is a proposal for another way of dealing with this traumatic loss of the ‘Now’. It is embracing the position of the Coming-After. It is establishing a practice treating the orchestral medium and genre as somehow completed, but not resorting to post-historical manners of pastiche. On the contrary, this position demands a commitment to formal transformations and investigations, but within a wider contextual framework than the somewhat naïve idea of ‘the new’.



When entering the site of the orchestra, the first question many composers ask themselves is: What is possible to do in this place? How can I make this place sound? Another, perhaps less explored question might be: What is to be found on this site? This points to a distinction between creating musical space and investigating musical space. In my line of research, it follows that the latter is a viable approach to the modern-day orchestra. In other words: Having identified the orchestra as a site of excavation, it is time to start digging. Before I continue with this terminology borrowed from archaeology and forensics, I should state that I am not implying a discourse-archaeology in strict Focaultian terms, and no systematic descriptions of discourse-objects. This would be a much wider task, and a musicologist’s task, not a composer’s. My approach is rather in the everyday-sense of the word ‘archaeology’, digging into orchestral practices, not excavating whole ‘discursive formations’, but rather allowing for a phantasmagorical enthrallment with fragments of such objects found within orchestral culture, to see how they can reveal something of the structures they originate from and to spur the imagination to further work with these structures. I use the term ‘archaeology’ as an approach toward the orchestra, a mind-set, pointing to an alternative to unilinear history. And I take the liberty to point to two (admittedly Focaultian) perspectives on archaeology: In a definition from the field of media archaeology, archaeology is “speaking to the present and critiquing the present in examining historical objects.”[9] And in the words of Hal Foster, “[t]he purpose of any ‘archaeology’ is to ascertain what one can of the difference of the present and the potential of the past.”[10]

So, having said this, while spooning up the gravel from the social and historical strata of the orchestra, the composer tries to locate the timbral bodies to work with in the present. In the sedimentary layers of orchestral sound I might be able to find the one tiny bone that triggers something in me, emotionally, technically and intellectually, something that proliferates and becomes multiplied, setting off a whole process of speculation and creation. I like to think of this as an exhumation of the orchestral body. In reality, it is as much a question of exhuming the timbral ghosts from ones own memory, ones own body. It is about activating ones own mnemonic structures alongside the buried wishes and secret desires of the orchestral body itself.

To turn to the latter first, one might ask: What are the memories of a specific orchestra? If one imagines the orchestral body as a singular unity, with memories, traumatic as well as blissful, the composer has the possibility to work within the mnemosonic archive of the orchestra. When suggesting the orchestra as archive, let me refer to Thomas Flynn’s Focaultian definition of archives: “An Archive is the locus of the rules and prior practices forming the condition of inclusion or exclusion that enable certain practices and prevents others from being accepted as ‘scientific’ or ‘moral’, or whatever rubric may be in use at a particular epoch.”[11] In a sense, I would intimate that the orchestral culture as such could be regarded as an intersection of archives, the two most prominent representing two opposing regimes of storage: The symbolic (the scores of orchestral music), and the real (the recordings of orchestral performance). In my orchestral piece Standing Stones I stage a collision between these two regimes in the meeting between fragments of scores, treated with the devices of written music, and the same fragments from historical recordings, treated as sound-samples.[12] (The idea of the two regimes is defined by Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, following up on Lacan’s methodological distinction.[13]) On a more specific level, one can consider an institution like the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s oldest orchestral institutions, situated on the outskirts of Europe in a country that has followed a trajectory from utmost poverty to filthy rich over the last century. What might the memories of this two-hundred-and-fifty year old being be? Searching in archives, listening to recordings, interviewing musicians, all this could give the composer indications on the ‘subconscious’ life of the orchestra, to shift to a Freudian metaphor. And to follow up on the same terms: it could help understand the traumas of orchestral culture, its development through historical and present-day crises.

In its discursive complexity, I also like to consider the orchestral culture as an archive of emotion: An institution for documenting and preserving ways of portraying and expressing emotion through changing times. In orchestral music, many of the prevailing models of feeling (or ‘feeling’) relate to 19th century society and 19th century man. (Think, for instance of Beethoven’s piano sonata ‘Pathetique’: Once a noble feeling, now a contemptible cliché.) Adjacent to the ‘subconscious’ and emotional levels, there is the history of the changing social status of the orchestra, and how this is playing a role in the orchestral situation. And these are just some of many strata one could excavate in addition to the layers of timbral memory – all sorts of different objects are buried in the orchestral excavation-site: The social energies of one hundred musicians working together on a daily basis. The contradiction between being a workplace with all its mundane implications versus the expectations of yielding artistic results of the highest quality. The practical and commercial apparatus of the production of dozens of concerts each year. The political implications of generous state-sponsorship, or indeed the opposite: the political implications on relying on box-office and private donors. One way of working with this vast material is to work site-specifically in an intimate relation with the orchestra in question. This can be done through techniques of mapping historical relations, social relations, unearthing structures that can show the aesthetical (and ethical) values underlining the actual programming etc. etc. We have at our disposal a wide array of methods, from musico-anthropology to statistical data gathering and algorithmic procedures. The orchestra could also lend itself to practices where the composer engage with the complex social organism of the concert house, with all its different groups of employees and audiences as well as the performing artists.

Another way of working, as I touched upon above, might be more directly linked with the memories and the bodily notions in the composer. I am talking about the archival phantom-sounds that we carry around with us, memories that originate from the orchestra, and that live on inside us in more or less phantasmagorical states. In the canonical music of the orchestra, archives of personal past are vectored by archives of public pasts. And one might propose mechanisms of re-tracing these mnemosonic structures back to the original object, to invest them with markers of time and personal history, and to give them back to the orchestra in the form of art-objects. These objects could be anything, really: Textual instructions to performance. Traditional score. Electro-acoustic interventions in the orchestral sound. And the societal memory of public pasts can also be grafted onto the orchestra in this respect. One example from recent years is Lars Petter Hagens Norwegian Archives, where lost (or rather subdued) proto-fascist Norwegian music of the 30’s is written into an orchestral piece for performance at the German Donaueschingen-festival.[14]

Personally, I have a predilection for certain moments in certain recordings of certain canonical works. I picture the canon as a ruin to pick through, to borrow a phrase from Foster. So we do not have to worry about the obligation to storm the barricades of canon, it is already dismantled and withered, it is present, but without the unifying power that it was so imperative to attack in a not-so-distant past. Sifting through this rubble, all sorts of fragmented items trigger my imaginations. I want to build whole architectural structures out of one chord in Mahler’s 5th symphony. I fantasize about never-ending ruptures of ascending sounds from one brass-phrase in Brahms’ Requiem. I stage private dance-parties in my nocturnal mind with the heavy rhythms of a Bruckner-scherzo. Speaking of scherzos, we could use an example from the modern canon, for is not Berio’s Sinfonia an example of archaeological mass-exhumation?[15] The obvious instance is the well-known Mahler-scherzo overwritten with debris from the orchestral canon as well as Berio’s private fantasies. But the objects of this exhumation are also juxtaposed with contemporary objects of the time of composition (Lévi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked), and recent past (Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable) as well as urgent political questions (the assassination of Martin Luther King). Another example is Mathias Spahlinger’s Passage/Peysage, an immense orchestral fantasy springing from the opening chords of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony.[16]

Working on the idea of tradition within the orchestra, we realize that it is not something given, but something constructed. One aspect of Berio’s Sinfonia is that it shows us this construction of tradition at work. In the process of exhumation we will find tradition in every square inch of gravel, but one thing to look out for is the multitude of constructive forces that shape and constitute this overwhelming sense of tradition. It might be liberating to admit the orchestra to the privilege of an outmoded genre, or a radicalized sense of the completed. This outmodedness resonates even in the artisanal restrictions and limitations connected with the orchestra: It is not accessible to the art-school student wanting to explore different media, because of the sheer skill needed to construct even one measure of orchestral music and to convey it to the orchestral institution. Its accessibility is regulated by strict rules of admission to the machinery of this very expensive art form. But these artisanal limitations might also be productive, if taken on in the sense that Foster proposes with regard to the Living-On after the alleged End of Art. One of the possibilities he sees in this field is what he calls the Non-synchronous forms of outmoded genres.[17] As an example, he points to Stan Douglas’ film installation Overture (1986), where silent movie footage from the Edison Company from around 1900 is juxtaposed with extracts from Proust. He suggests that this synchronization of nonsynchronous forms give the possibility to make “a new medium out of the remnants of old forms, and to hold together the different temporal markers in a single visual space”.[18] If we shift the emphasis to the aural space, it is not difficult to see how the symphony orchestra can constitute an arena for such exchanges. (There are some discrepancies between Fosters theory of outmoded practices and the framing of my own practice regarding the orchestra. I deal with some of them in “Brief note on repetition”. Let me state here that while Foster writes about critical recovery of past practice, I am trying to work out a critical examination of continued (past) practices. The orchestra is in a paradoxical state outmoded and continued; Residing at the Olympic heights of our cultural hierarchy, but at the same time becoming marginalized, seemingly oblivious of its own marginalisation, anyway being unable to do anything with it, going down in a blaze of glory.) The challenge is to open up the (re)constituted medium to social content, following the continuation of Fosters argument. It is obvious that historical memory is more difficult to work with in the orchestra when challenged by the questions of societal memory and social life, but the combination does undoubtedly hide some powerful possibilities. This is maybe where we find the potentials to situate the orchestra in a social context, a potential that I shall leave unexamined in this particular essay.


Let me once again return to my initial metaphor: When the exhumation is done, there is the matter of working with the unearthed objects. The time of laboratory-research, of diagnostics, of measurement. Of qualifying the forensic evidence, of autopsy. The etymological root of this word comes from Greek (self+seen), and denotes something eye-witnessed. Let me use the word ear-witness in this context, because this is the point where the composer needs to listen in on the exhumed body and to witness for himself, by ear, the true conditions of his material. This can be done intuitively, by ear alone, but there is a host of state-of-the-art technologies to be found in the autopsy room: Software for audio analysis, technologies for computer-aided-composition, for synthesis, for filtering and magnifying the most minute details of sound. And there is the wonderful, ancient technology of the score: A whole system of signs, the symbolic representation of sound, open to manipulations and analyses of a different kind, where musical representation is embedded in a cultural praxis as opposed to the cool, digital results on the steel-tray of numerological evidence. This opens up for engagement with taxonomy and systematic classifications, as well as for the erratic flight of the imagination. (All this with regard to timbral bodies; similar processes could be carried out on other unearthed structures, for instance societal, economical and political, to name but a few possibilities.)

However, the autopsy is not the end result. It is only the last stage in the process of unearthing and preparing the aural objects found on the orchestral site. And it is tempting to follow the metaphor to its logical extreme, describing the ritual display of the excavated, classified and prepared object. Isn’t the concert-performance the death of musical imagination? Once the musical work is out there in the air, sounding from instruments and loudspeakers, shared with the listening audience, it is no longer an elusive spirit caught and nourished inside the composer’s and performer’s bodies. It is out there in the open, up for grabs, and in that moment, the phantasmagorical intensities and the grandeur of imagined sound collide with reality in a way that more often than not evoke a bittersweet air of disappointment in its creators.

But this would be to indulge too overtly in a musical death wish. Let me instead revisit the image of the museum, which I touched upon earlier. It is a place of worship, of sensuous ecstasies, but it is also, in Adorno’s words, a place where the art of the past is put to death.[19] Hal Foster elaborates on this dialectic by the help of Valéry and Proust, who represent these two vantage points in his essay “Archives of Modern Art”. The first point of view represents Proust as the viewer of art, the museum as a place for “fantastic reanimation, indeed of spiritual idealization”, whereas the second vantage point is from the artists’ studio, where the museum represents a threat of chaos and reification. [20] If it is true that the orchestra doubles as shrine and burial site, one does only need a slight transposition of imagery to adjust to the museal scheme of Adorno/Foster. And to a composer, this obvious dichotomy can turn out to produce contradictory energies; you find yourself torn between the urge to violently oppose the idea of the museum-as-mausoleum, but at the same time you cannot deny the symbolic power and pure mnemonic beauty contained in the orchestral shrine. In other words: The composer on the site of the orchestra has the freedom to superpose these vantage points in one singular vista. And in the dialectics between these positions there are energies to develop in musical terms, for the composer who looks for possibilities of touching upon a situatedness and contextual placement without losing the sensuous qualities of investigations in sound.


But Foster does not stop here. He ups the ante by tracing the dialectics of reification and reanimation back to Lukács. In his essay “Reification and Class Consciousness”, Lukács develops the idea that spiritual animation is an idealistic compensation for the capitalist reification, and that that this dichotomy constitutes one of the “antinomies of bourgeois thought”.[21] This notion might lead us on to a question of the modern orchestra as part of the Society of the Spectacle, to follow Guy Debord’s term,[22] or as an integral part of the Culture Industry that Horkheimer and Adorno described in their classic text on the subject.[23] The question is if the criticism of Kulturindustrie, mainly aimed at the industry of popular culture, at this stage is equally befitting for the symphony orchestra. One might argue that the concert hall has become a marketplace for the spectacle economy. This is a discussion that will take us too far off the track of the line of thought I wanted to develop here, and I will leave it lingering for now. Because we have arrived at the point where the situated, excavated and autopsied body can manifest itself as a piece of art for the symphonic orchestra. To stick with Fosters terminology: The excavation site becomes a construction site – or rather, construction sites, taking into account the vast possibilities for artistic undertakings. It could be music, it could be something else. It could be embedded in a score, or a text, in different electronic media, or in different performative exchanges between composer, musicians and audience. This turn from excavation to construction also suggests a shift away from a melancholic view of history towards notions that are useful in the artistic acts of actually making something – maybe even something new.   


[1] Hal Foster, Design and Crime and other Diatribes (London, NY: Verso, 2002) pp.123-143

[2] Foster, op. cit. p.129

[3] See for instance Gerard Grisey, Dérives (Milano: Casa Ricordi, 1974)

[4] Ina Blom, On the Style Site (Berlin, NY: Sternberg Press, 2007)

[5] Erkki Huhtamo, “Dismantling the Fairy Engine. Media Archaeology as Topos Study” in Huhtamo/Parikka (ed.): Media Archaeology (Berkley, LA, London: UC Press, 2011)

[6] Philip Glass, Low Symphony. From the music of david Bowie and Brian Eno (NY: Dunvagen Music Publishers, 1992)

[7] See David Bowie, Low (RCA, 1977)

[8] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken books, 1969)

[9] Eric Kluitenberg, “On the Archaeology of Imaginary Media” in Media Archaeology p.51

[10] “An Archival Impulse” in October 110, 2004. p.20

[11] Thomas Flynn, “Focaults mapping of history” in Gutting (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Focault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003) p.31

[12] Eivind Buene, Standing Stones (Oslo: mic, 2010)

[13] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999 [1986])

[14] Lars-Petter Hagen, Norwegian Archives (Oslo: Mic, 2005)

[15] Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (Wien: Universal edition, 1968)

[16] Mathias Spahlinger, Passage/Peysage (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1994)

[17] Hal Foster, Design and Crime pp.127-138

[18] Foster, op cit., p.137

[19] Th. W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. S. and S. Weber (Cambridge, Massachusets/London: MIT Press 1981) p.177

[20] Hal Foster, “Archives of Modern Art” in Design and Crime and other Diatribes p.71

[21] Foster, op. cit. p.72

[22] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (Wellington: Rebel Press 2004 [1967])

[23] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (NY: Continuum, 1969 [1949])




Brief Note on Transcription

transcription |tranˈskrip sh ən|


a written or printed representation of something.

the action or process of transcribing something : the funding covers transcription of nearly illegible photocopies.

an arrangement of a piece of music for a different instrument, voice, or number of these : a transcription for voice and lute.

a form in which a speech sound or a foreign character is represented.

Biochemistry the process by which genetic information represented by a sequence of DNA nucleotides is copied into newly synthesized molecules of RNA, with the DNA serving as a template.


transcribe |tranˈskrīb|

verb [ trans. ]

put (thoughts, speech, or data) into written or printed form : each interview was taped and transcribed.

transliterate (foreign characters) or write or type out (shorthand, notes, or other abbreviated forms) into ordinary characters or full sentences.

arrange (a piece of music) for a different instrument, voice, or group of these : his largest early work was transcribed for organ.

Biochemistry synthesize (a nucleic acid, typically RNA) using an existing nucleic acid, typically DNA, as a template, thus copying the genetic information in the latter.


I have developed different methods that I want to sum up briefly under the header of Transcription. The definitions above are from the American Oxford Dictionary; however, as a compositional method, I use the word in a wider meaning, not exclusively linked to the written domain. I refer to the act of transferring something from one area to another; inscribing some quality from one object to another; from recording to score, from score to performance etc. But it also denotes a way of mapping thoughts from other areas onto music, theoretical transcriptions, like my use of Miwon Kwon’s One Place after Another. In the following I outline how different modalities of transcription have influenced the project:


1) Transcription from score, verbatim or with modifications. An example of this can be found in the last movement of Standing Stones, pp.38-43, where the gestural and rhythmical skeleton of the Scherzo from Bruckner’s 9th symphony is rendered as a vague imprint. Some of the basic harmonic features are also intact, but it is mainly the transcription of the rhythmical figures that lets us recognize the quote. This classical technique is also used in Standing Stones in the section where Lachenmann’s piano concerto Ausklang is quoted in the piano, superposed on the Brahms-loop that is the main material of the movement, before the pitch-content of the piano chords are gradually transformed to the harmonic spectrum of the Brahms-quote (bar 23 and 24 from the Andante of Brahms Piano Concerto no.2).


2) Transcription from recording by ear. In the second movement of Standing Stones, I have transcribed by ear the rhythmic structure of four different recordings of the two Brahms-bars. These rhythms are then mapped onto frequency modulations from the pitch-array of the same bars. Modulation of this basic material is also the foundation of sections like the one from pp.6-8. An altogether different version of ear-transcription is found in Schubert Lounge, where the last of the four songs (“The Inn”) is recreated from memory, after listening to the recording and without use of the score, with drastic cuts and changes in the second part of the song.[i]


3) Transcription from recording by computer-analysis. I initially experimented with this method in the Ircam-software Audiosculpt, but ended up using the shareware Spear in combination with Ircam’s Open Music (with spdif-files as interface). This gave me the best rendering of the object of transcription: Bar 67 of the first movement of Mahler’s 5th symphony. Given the timbral complexity of orchestral sound, the result of the analysis is a sound spectrum that only remotely resembles the original chords. The problems with accurate pitch tracking contribute to what I call ‘creative misreadings’. It gave me the opportunity to make a gradual transition from the warped version of the Mahler-chord that the computer provided (bar 128 in Standing Stones) to the original Mahler chord (bar 137), and further into a quotation of one of my own ‘favourite’ chords orchestrated from another piece of mine.[ii] Needless to say, repetition, both historically and musically, lies at the core of this whole game of reading, misreading and transition.


4) Transcription from recording by performers in real time. This method is comparable to the rather artless categories of karaoke and play-along, and the ethno-musical ‘call-and-response’. In the first movement of Standing Stones, the musicians are given the following instruction:


Everybody wears a headset connected to an iPod. The iPod should contain your favourite recording of the first movement of Mahler’s symphony no.5. Press play on iPods on cue from concertmaster. Play along, try to emulate the recording, both in timing and phrasing. Do not adjust to the players around you, playing in different tempi. Stop in bar 34 and go to the next movement.


This highlights the idea of mimesis, which, like it or not, is central to the education and formation of classical musicians and to the orchestral culture as such.[iii]

A different real-time transcription is the call-and-response situation of the third movement of this piece, where select recordings of two short Mahler fragments are played from loudspeakers and pitted against the orchestra on stage, in a game where I try to show how the modern orchestra mimics the romantic orchestra in structure, and how modern interpretation is mimetic of the tradition of the great conductors of the 20th century. (The piece ends with four different versions of a long excerpt of the Scherzo from Bruckner’s 9th played simultaneously and extremely loud from loudspeakers, while the orchestra on stage tries to take up the struggle that it ultimately is bound to loose.)


5) Sampling. This may also be regarded as a kind of transcription, and represents the final stage of Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio. Here fragments of the piano trios of Johannes Brahms and Helmut Lachenmann are juxtaposed and wrought into the same musical fabric. (Which is a way of highlighting Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto from 1987 as historical object in no lesser degree than Brahms Trio form 1896. This parallactic positioning is described in “Delirious Brahms”.)


My different methods of transcription highlight the take on music history as a sounding history, embedded in recordings, not only a written history. I work with the material not as abstract structures of signs on paper, but as complex structures of sounds. Why I have chosen the fragments I have for transcription is another matter, mostly based on intuition, memory and maybe even nostalgia (see “Posthumous Passions”). For instance, when I ‘discovered’ Mahler, I listened a lot to Bernstein’s recording of Mahler’s 5th. I always liked the sound of the drum roll in the chord in bar 67. When I embarked on this project, this was the first ‘object’ I wanted to scrutinize.[iv] I have a similar story with Brahms Piano Concerto no.2, a piece I heard first time at nineteen, at one of my first composition lessons with my first teacher Asbjørn Schaathun. My choice of Lachenmann-material has a somewhat different background: When preparing for my work with Johannes Brahms clarinet-trio, I listened to Allegro Sostenuto. And one section was in some way intensely similar in shape and texture to the semiquaver-place in the end of Brahms’ first movement. So I decided to insert this quote at the ‘right’ place in my Brahms-rendering, as a kind of sounding acknowledgment that many of the techniques of instrumental estrangement I use in this piece has their historical origin in Lachenmann’s work in the sixties and seventies. And I had an even more powerful experience when I went to Bergen to hear Ellen Ugelvik and the Bergen Philharmonic play Ausklang. It was at a point where I was totally submerged in the two bars from Brahms 2nd piano concerto, I had just finished the electronic part, and the Bb-Gb-pendulum that permeates it was tattooed into my inner ears. So when I sat there, listening, in the Grieg hall, I suddenly heard a succession of chords, it appears at approximately ten minutes into the piece, that I instantly connected with the same harmonic structure in Brahms. This may very well be a fantasy on my part, but a creatively lucky ‘misreading’. In any case, I heard the Bb-Gb-content very clearly (I do not have perfect pitch), and when I came home to Oslo I borrowed the score from conductor Christian Eggen to see for myself, and lo and behold, it does indeed undulate between Bb and Gb (as top tones in rather complex (and, as it turns out, unplayable (to other pianists than Lachenmann, who has enormous hands), according to Ugelvik when I asked her if she really did play all those notes) chords).

Anyway, both these experiences strengthened my suspicion of the subterranean links between Lachenmann’s structures and Brahms, and gave me the confidence to include Lachenmann in my historical investigation. I don’t know if it’s a paradox that as I move away from Lachenmann’s influence I get interested in his music as historical monument. But it is not a paradox that the increasing aesthetical distance opens up for an investigation without inhibition.[v]


[i] Eivind Buene, Schubert Lounge (Mere Records, 2012).

[ii] Eivind Buene, Into the Void (Oslo: Mic, 2008) bar 146.

[iii] The first performance of Standing Stones was given by the orchestra of the Norwegian Academy of Music, a situation that highlighted this ‘educational’ aspect.

[iv] And it turned out that the drum roll wasn't a drum roll at all, but some very impressive horn-trills!

[v] We had in fact met at several occasions earlier, but when I met Lachenmann backstage after the Ausklang-performance, as part of the chaotic fan club of composers, conductors and other groupies, he didn’t seem to connect me to the mail-exchange where I asked him, at the onset of my fellowship, if he could be my secondary supervisor. I didn’t much believe he would have the time, and his reply was very warm and polite, a courteous turn-down as it gets. At this point, I see that it gives me a freer position, less obliged to the aesthetics of critical composition. And I can regard Lachenmann as a part of history, up there with Beethoven, Mahler and, indeed, Brahms.


Excerpts from the novel Enmannsorkester 

(Eivind Buene, Cappelen Damm 2010, trans. by Ian Giles.)


It has begun to rain. Something has let go in the heavy air that has lain across the city all day, perhaps it is the air itself that has disintegrated and is falling back to earth in myriads of tiny pieces. Tristan Szabo is still holding the telephone receiver in his hand; the water hasn’t yet begun to gather in streaks on the windowpane in front of him. He has just asked his agent to quit his job as chief conductor of the provincial orchestra in Hungary. He doesn’t want to go home. The reaction was predictable; she tried alternately to unearth the reason for his decision and to persuade him to reconsider. He had quite simply declared that he was going to see out the freelance contracts he had for the remainder of the year, that she didn’t need to worry about the good name and reputation of the agency, but that he would be staying here in Oslo. Or Gothenburg. Or Helsinki. Anywhere, really. Then he had hung up.

The hotel room overlooks a busy shopping street that winds its way narrowly to the city centre. The trams waver as they pass poorly parked cars, blonde women run across pavement seeking shelter from the rain. Some drag enormous paper bags with flashy brand names on the side. Tristan Szabo looks at the time – it is a little too early to head to the wine bar on the first floor. On the bed are the scores that he is going to work with in the months to come, collections of note symbols, codes that he will decipher. Immense orchestral works, thick volumes full of small characters. The names are on the covers and intricate garlands twist between the letters. Dead men. Old, white men. Like himself. Old, dead, white men. He picks up one score after another, weighing them in his hands. This is his job. To given a voice to the dead. He lives in the ruins of other times, after lives have been lived, exhausted and left in these paper time capsules. He lives amongst monuments and stone people, and it is his task to give them life. To rub note against note, phrase against phrase, wave the wand at the orchestra in order to conjure up a golem, to create life from dead matter. Week after week, new places, new people, but always the same quivering desire for the same towering shadow to rise up out of the orchestra. All the hard work, all the trial and error, all the memorised passages. And then, suddenly, under the crystal chandeliers, a spark of life, unmistakeable, which rises up above the orchestra, floating out into the hall to all who want to listen. Every single concert is a ceremony, a ritual, an exorcism with just one purpose: to raise the dead.

Tristan Szabo drops the score onto the bed. Perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps it is he who is slowly turning to stone, as in the story of Lot’s wife who looked back when she left the city God was going to destroy, even though God had forbidden her to do so, and was turned into a pillar of salt. He lives with his gaze directed at the past, and inexorably he is turning, cell-by-cell, to bitter, coarse salt. Maybe that was why he got so irritated at the young composer in Bergen. He had made him feel the taste of salt in his mouth. This youngster doesn’t know it yet, but he too will one day turn to salt, if he allows himself to be caught by the sorcery of the orchestra. It isn’t possible to create the future with an orchestra; one can only recreate the past. Even if the music has never sounded so new and unheard, provocative and wild, full of youthful brutality, it is just a beautiful dream, an illusion. The reality is that the symphony orchestra relentlessly devours its worshippers – not even the witch doctors, the high priests and ceremonial masters – the conductors and composers – can avoid becoming part of the same petrified matter.


Tristan Szabo shakes off his thoughts, grabs his coat and slips on his shoes. He takes the lift to street level, nods to the doorman and steps out into the heavy rain. He can feel the raindrops bouncing on the crown of his head and the circle of hair between his ears is wet almost immediately. He smiles to himself – in this weather he will be soaked in a few minutes. He moves slowly up the street, all the tumult around him distant and floating, as if he is surrounded by a membrane that doesn’t let in sound or movement, only tiny droplets of water. After a few blocks the road divides and a small sign tells him that he is at Valkyrie Plass. A triangular patch of stone with a fast food kiosk, a little fountain and a tree. Valkyrie Plass. The place of the wild Valkyries, Wagner’s demonic Valkyries! He begins to laugh, something is bubbling and twitching, he can’t hold back the laughter pouring out of him. He doubles up with laughter, slaps his thigh, no longer trying to contain himself – he is standing at this stupid spot named “Valkyrie Plass” and roaring with laughter.   

Rushing bodies brush each other on the narrow pavement in front of the hotel. The entrance is anonymous, squeezed in between a café and a clothes shop. The reception is bright and characterless, the small rooms on the floors above quite ordinary. Along the carpeted corridors are rows of brown baize doors and behind one of them Tristan Szabo lies stretched out on the bed. He is motionless, fully dressed, in deep, vegetative sleep. His slow breathing is the only sound in the room. Heavy, even, rhythmic. Without warning, Tristan Szabo’s body jerks violently. He calls out a few incoherent syllables and sits upright in bed gasping for breath. Then he slowly returns to the darkened hotel room. The clock radio on the bedside table shows it is afternoon, he can see through the chink in the curtains that the air outside is darkening. He sits with his head in his hands until his hammering pulse has calmed down. It is the same dream he has had every night for the last week, every day. He reaches out for his stationery in the bedside table drawer. The sound of the pen against the paper is arrhythmic, like Morse code. There is no door there, he writes. I go through a heavy red velvet curtain; on the other side there is a darkened hall and a dimly lit stage. I stride out onto the stage, there is an orchestra sitting there and waiting in the crepuscular darkness. Then I hear the sound of a person clapping, I try to focus my gaze on the dark hall and glimpse a man in the middle of the empty rows of seats. He is wearing a black hat or hood, I’m not really sure, impossible to tell. I bow and turn to the orchestra. The conductor’s desk is empty. No scores, no music. I stand and look at them, recognising my own orchestra, but the concert hall is unknown – I can’t remember having been here before. The leader of the orchestra quietly clears his throat and looks at me quizzically. I grasp the conducting baton, take a moment to collect myself and give the upbeat. The orchestra begins to play. It is a deep and dark sound. Trombones, bassoons, bass clarinets, cellos, double basses, floating like heavy matter at the bottom of the orchestra. I conduct with slow, large movements. After only a few bars I hear male voices, basso profundo. Then I see the choir, the mass of faces lined up behind the orchestra at the edge of the sparse lighting. They are dressed in black, have no choral folders in their hands; their faces are serious, white. I continue conducting, providing direction to the tenors, the horns, the mass is contracting, I try to hear the words they are singing but it’s impossible, no one is singing the same, they are all singing the same thing, but no one is singing the same as anyone else, they are all singing the same thing but in different ways. Everything flows, the slow surge begins to move upward, the first female voices, the altos, trumpets, still the dark matter underneath and I haven’t heard this music before, but I know it, my body knows it, it is unfolding before me and in the same moment that I hear it, I know it. I give direction to the different musicians in the orchestra, make eye contact with the lead oboist, then the violas, the tuba player, the cello group, I look at the solo cellist, she is sitting stiffly, much more than usual, not swaying back and forth with her long torso in time with what she is playing, even the clarinettist is holding her instrument quite still in front of herself, thin fingers moving mechanically over the keys, the music continues rising, it becomes more powerful, brighter, the sounds twists, opens up, now the sopranos come in, I move my gaze back to the cellist, her hair has lost its lustre – or is it the light, no, it’s the hair. She looks up at me, catches my eye, and her facial features have become so defined, the eye sockets sunken in, the eyes swimming in deep pits, skin taut over the cheekbones, her lips have turned black, now I see clearly the bones underneath the thin skin on her arms, as if it is about to crack, the skin, on the arms sticking out of the shiny, black, sleeveless dress. I conduct, I know the music, I haven’t heard it before, but I know it by heart, my arms move in large, round movements, louder now, a little quicker, and I look at the strings sitting in a semicircle around my little podium, the same thing with all of them, their hair is coming out right before my eyes, drying out, losing shine, turning grey, white, some of them are already losing it in large tufts that sail silently to the floor. They play on while their skin cracks, melting their faces, skulls becoming visible, skulls everywhere now, it’s happening to the choir as well, the gaping mouths full of rotting teeth, falling out on each consonant. Slowly, I build up to the climax in the music, drawing phrases out, gathering force, all the strings move their bows in synchrony, bony arms in evening dresses, all the beautiful women, breasts reduced to fibres of skin at the neckline, open rib cages, lungs crumbling like paper, silent, cold meat hearts behind the ribs. I know that the climax is approaching, the bass drum whirls, timpani, what are they singing, they are singing as one voice now, a gigantic voice singing gigantic words, but I can’t manage to understand them. The tam-tam and cymbals strike the final word, enveloping it, hiding it in a crackling spectrum of colour, a massive chord that lasts and lasts before slowly collapsing, dying out, returning to the depths. But I know that it is only for a short while, and there, on the wall behind the topmost choristers, almost up by the roof, I catch sight of the organist, and above the rolling, fading chord, simple harmonies rise, a soaring melody, a chorale. The choir is silent now, the toothless jaws closed, eyes staring straight ahead, barely kept in place in the oversized eye sockets, brain matter melting and streaming out through all orifices, the clothes on some of them beginning to fall away as the organ plays on. I recognise the melody but can’t place it, a psalm, Bach, perhaps, and just when the orchestra has returned to the dark I begin to build again, faster this time, the mass accumulating energy, gathering into spontaneous flocks of movement, encircling the organ, then voices again, first the basses, tenors, then the women, the beautiful, dead women, they devour the organ and this time it doesn’t take long before everyone is gathered in the same, enormous movement, but even more powerful now, even wilder. And then the brass section rises, they stand upright – the horns, trumpets and trombones – their trousers sliding off them as their iliac crests cannot hold the pieces of fabric up any longer, femurs with a few tendrils of flesh remaining, genitals that loosen and fall toward the ground like overripe pears. They rise and the air is drawn through the crumbling lungs and out through the instruments, the glowing brass, in long, insane blasts, the plump woman in the horn section is reduced to bones and wrinkled skin, her dress slips off her as she stands, falling like a sheer silk curtain, slowly into the dust around the bony feet. But she plays, plays on, and I conduct, onward, building, the choir becomes one voice again, the orchestra becomes one instrument, the music rolls on with the unyielding will of the dead, a violent force drives us forward, we are one, now, one body, one flesh, one mind, and we battle onwards, are carried onwards, we push against one another in the vibrant orchestral air, we breathe together, and it isn’t long until once again we are at the climax, but we aren’t, because there is even more, still more, more pleasure, I can build a little bit more, strain the arch a little more, I groan loudly with every beat as the drummers sticks whirl in front of my eyes, the timpani thunders, giant clubs on the large drum and tam-tam, one last impulse, I spread out, become huge, enormous, my arms embrace a sea of air, lifting us all up in a second of silence before the final release, the chord, the colours sparkle before my eyes, glow in my ears, I hold my arms out in front of me, quivering, holding the sound, carrying the sound, not wanting to let it go, my face is turned towards the roof, towards the chandeliers, but there are no chandeliers, there is no roof, only black, endless night sky, and when I turn my gaze to the orchestra again I see that my arms are also nothing but bone, stretching out before me, just a few sinewy shreds hold the hand grasping the conductor’s baton together, I fold my arms slowly against my chest, gather the sound – even now it moves, swaying more than rolling now – in a few eternal seconds it will be completely shrivelled up, I hold it in my hands like a little bird, a sparrow, lifeless but still warm, in just a few moments it will be cold, dead matter in my hands, I place them against my breast, feel how the bony fingers hammer against my ribs, I bow my head, only now can I feel the smell of my own body, the bodies of the others, merging and rising up above us like a mild, rotting steam, I bow my head and feel one of my eyes falling out; it bounces a couple of times before coming to a rest in the moist puddle that has gathered around my feet, I hold my hands together, against my breast, the sound has died out now, only reverberations left, and when that too is gone there is silence. And the silence lasts, for a short or long time, impossible to say, now that time has stopped, but it lasts, lasts until it is interrupted by the applause of the only person in the hall, and I listen to the sound of two hands hitting each other before turning around and receiving the applause, bowing low twice before gesturing to the orchestra and they rise with a creaking, crackling sound, the living dead straighten up and receive the applause as their clothes fall off them; some limbs have also started to fall off, and I stare one-eyed out into the auditorium as the black-clad man stands up, he is wearing a hood, I can see that now, he is giving us a standing ovation, rhythmically, his face is serious and nodding slowly. Don’t I know him? Yes, I do – but from where? I bow low again, the orchestra bows with me, a new, never before heard sound, and where have I seen him before, I know him, and when I look up again he is gone and only the sound of the clapping hands can be heard in the dark, empty hall.



A pile of papers is neatly stacked at Arvid Pettersen’s feet. He is holding a sheet in his hands, his eyes moving slowly and with concentration across the unfamiliar words. It’s as if they belonged to someone else. The exercise is going well, the plan is working, he is making progress. He can sit completely still for hours and feel how everything dissolves into him, that it doesn’t hurt anymore. Arvid Pettersen takes a new piece of paper from the heap of manuscript and holds it up in front of himself. It’s practically transparent against the light from the windows. He stands swaying in the middle of the floor, reads it once more, slowly, forming the words on his lips. He stays where he is, staring at the sheet for a few seconds before crumpling it up and throwing it onto the floor behind him. The paper ball rolls a short distance before stopping among all the other crumpled sheets of paper. They all have slightly different shapes, an unopened letter with a bright red logo lies scrunched up amongst the other white sheets of paper. Apart from the paper balls, the kitchen chair and some cardboard boxes, the floor is empty. The sofa and coffee table have been moved into the other room – there was just enough space between the bed and wardrobe. And he had to put the bookcases all over the place – one in the hall, one in the kitchen, two in the bedroom. It took him half a day to move all the books, but now that the job is done he notices how it affects the atmosphere in the room. The walls no longer murmur, there are no stacks of swarming thoughts trapped between stiff covers. He has put the hi-fi in the attic, along with the records. Brahms’ Requiem, Mahler’s Symphony number two, Berg’s Violin Concerto. Lully, Couperin, the French baroque music as well as the English renaissance. The modern stuff, Stockhausen, Ligeti. Berio. And all the piano concertos. Miss Grøndahl really did believe in him – she took it badly when he chose science instead. He had tried to explain to her how mathematics and music fundamentally share the same beauty, how music basically is mathematics. He had explained to her how sound is a function of amplitudes and frequencies, how the music we hear in the room is sound waves, governed by the same laws of nature as everything else, an acoustic phenomena that can be analysed and measured. He had been convinced that when he dedicated himself to the laws of nature – to physics – that he had chosen the path of knowledge that had something to say about everything in the whole wide world and music too. He had tried to explain this to her, but Miss Grøndahl merely sighed and shook her head. He can still remember the scent of her heavy perfume in her living room with the Bechstein grand piano. And the nervous atmosphere at the student recitals, the parents seated on two rows of chairs, mother always in her pretty dress with her handbag on her lap. And he was the star of the small show – Miss Grøndahl’s pride and joy. He really could play. Preludes by Chopin, fugues by Bach and sonatas by Beethoven. And the big dream, the holy grail: Brahms’ second piano concerto. He had been given the score for Christmas and had worn it out completely before Easter. He had studied every single bar, learned every single phrase, and digested every single magical moment.

Because there are moments in the history of music that move you more strongly than others. There are some works that you love and some interpretations of these works that you hold in higher regard than others. There are parts, chords, phrasings that press into you, that become part of the body, that are illuminated by a special light. The attraction of these moments is what the element ‘love’ in ‘music lover’ is about, thinks Arvid Pettersen. Only now does he understand that many of his moments are to do with slowness. It is a moment where not just the work of music enters slow motion almost akin to a standstill, but where the music history itself pauses to take a breath, enjoy the view and perhaps look for new possibilities in the landscape it sees ahead. The Big Moment comes in the third movement, the andante, when the piano makes its entrance after the singing cello line has set the scene for a meditation in slowness and passion after the intensity of the first two movements. Arvid Pettersen has lost count of the number of evenings he has fallen asleep into a dream of himself at Oslo concert hall, with an enormous Steinway in front of him and the Oslo Philharmonic behind him, the conductor holding his arms raised while the strings die out, and everyone is waiting for him to play the redeeming notes.

In the real world, in front of the record player at his mother’s, he was entranced by Emil Gilels’ recording with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Eugen Jochum. The recording was made in 1972 and released under the magic yellow logo that was Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft. This was Arvid’s first recording of this concert, although later on he acquired many others. It is this version that he has grown with over the years. Of course, he thinks many of the other recordings are praiseworthy, perhaps – objectively – better. But it is this one that has become his Brahms’ second piano concerto.

Perhaps he didn’t understand it then, but by choosing physics instead of music, Arvid Pettersen had stepped out of time. He had turned away from the intensity of the moment, the rush of emotion he felt when he sat in front of that small audience at Miss Grøndahl’s with his hands on the keyboard, every millisecond becoming reality at his fingertips, in his entire body. He had chosen a room where he could examine the structure of the world at a safe distance from the real, whirling flow of time. He had chosen calculations and computations, methodical experiments, had chosen to devote himself to timeless laws. But he can still feel the time of the music in his body, like phantom limb pain, in the silence that falls on the auditorium after the undergraduate students have calmed down and all attention is directed at him, in the short pause before he clears his throat and lifts his face to meet the gaze of the audience. A vague reminder of the time of music, the real time that charges every single moment with a uniquely special intensity. But he senses the presence of this time most of all in the giddines he feels just before the decisive moment in Brahms’ second piano concerto. The critical event, the moment of the moment, when the music suddenly becomes aware of itself. When it twists out of its intended form, with the soloist as the active subject. The orchestra is well on the way to completing a traditional and tasteful andante movement when something happens: the soloist enters the scene and alters the entire musical drama with two slow, rising figures in two endless bars. It all lasts 25 seconds. The pianist plays alone for the next minute, as if contemplating what just happened. The style is scattered, wandering, seemingly directionless ornaments amongst the remains of the beautiful melody introduced by the cellos. After a while the orchestra pull themselves together, intervene and straighten up the soloist into a heroic posture. It isn’t long before the soloist’s thoughts wander off again, in the same disorganised movements. Arvid Pettersen also likes to interpret it as something quite different from distraction: the soloists’ wanderings might just as well be secret attempts to free himself from the gravity that has kept the music connected to reality since the moment it was written in the spring of 1881. Brahms’ soloist is attempting to slip out through an incision in time and thereby achieve The Great Freedom. But it turns out that the tough umbilical cord of the harmony makes such an escape impossible. The power struggle between the orchestra and soloist continues over the following minutes. Towards the end of the sixth minute, it seems as if the orchestra realise that the battle cannot be won by constant insistent eruptions, adding instead an unassuming minor variant of the main theme. The soloist eagerly grabs the opportunity and casts us into yet another moment of standstill. And this time the music purrs on almost imperceptibly in thin strands, extremely slowly, it is only the inevitable harmonic progress that tips the music onward in short bursts and prevents the music from falling apart. A breakdown of this nature was still 30 years in the future when Brahms wrote this concerto, but this part is an accurate prophecy of what is to come. For two minutes and fifteen seconds, we float through a timeless cloud of notes, catching only a glimpse of ground below. We are flying in a balloon that we know will land on the earth. We just don’t know where – and hope that it won’t be for a long time.


But all this belongs in the past. Not even music can give Arvid Pettersen the peace that he seeks. It is within him, like the memory of a long and warm summer in a distant childhood, surviving somewhere or other in amongst a myriad of microscopic brain cells and nerve endings. That’s how he lives with the music now. No sounds, only silence. Just the music from within. He can sit through an entire Mozart symphony, silently, in the chair, listening to the orchestra of his memory, all alone in the cranium’s concert hall. And here he can experience Brahms’ second piano concerto as often as he wishes. He guides an invisible stylus across the sound tracks eternally engraved into his brain matter and experiences time not just stopping but going around in circles and wandering aimlessly back and forth. Time is turned on its side and becomes vertical, perforated and frayed; it is only the framework of the classic harmony that tells him that the world has not stopped.        

Eivind Buene: Standing Stones

for symphonic hall with orchestra and electronics (pdf of score)

Lindemannsalen, Oslo (18.11.2010)

The Orchestra of The Norwegian Academy of Music, cond. Rolf Gupta