Geir Johnson: Rolf Wallin

Article by Geir Johnson

Rolf Wallin, born 1957 in Oslo, studied composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, with Finn Mortensen and Olav Anton Thommessen. In the mid-80’s he spent one year at University of California, San Diego, where he studied with Joji Yuasa, Roger Reynolds and Vinko Globokar. He has produced works for a wide range of instrumental combinations, from commissions for the Oslo Philharmonic and Trondheim Symphony orchestras, to large scale music theatre events for the Molde International Jazz Festival and the World Music Days in Oslo (1990). Besides this, he has taken part in Norwegian musical life as a music critic and essayist in Dagbladet and Ballade, and as a teacher at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. 

Rolf Wallin started his career as a composer while still performing in experimental jazz and rock groups, and making his first trying steps in performance art. In his development as a composer, these diverse experiences have complemented his classical training in a fruitful way. One may find many traces of these years in later works, above all in works for some of the most important performance art and contemporary dance theatre groups in Norway, such as Passage Nord, Dans Design and Scirocco. “To play with music” – with a series of diverse connotations – might seem an appropriate description of these parts of Wallin’s work, where musical intuition and artistic interchange with other media are dominant. 

On the other hand, one will also find a strong tendency towards abstraction and construction. Listening to his three orchestral pieces, which represent an axis in his first ten years as a composer, one will find a development from a strongly expressed subjectivity towards a more objectively founded modernist position. His first major piece, Id from 1982, shows a strong expressive urge, not unlike that of his teacher Olav Anton Thommessen. The expressionism is by no means diminished in in his orchestral piece Chi from 1991, but it has reached another level of control through a successful adaption and development of ideas and techniques from composers like Xenakis, Berio and Stockhausen. In between, he wrote the Timpani Concerto (1986-88), which marks Wallin’s first step into computer aided composition. 

The year in San Diego seems to have had a strong influence on Wallin’s development. Among other things, it strengthened his interest in new scientific trends and perspectives, and gave him for the first time the opportunity to work with computers. After some years of experimenting he found a way to write programs which fit his intentions and needs. From the start, his aim was to seek out the formal structure of a given idea, to raise a firm framework within which the composer’s musical intuition may evolve rather freely. The interesting thing is, however, that one will also find the same formal ideas in his pre-computer works, above all in his piano/percussion quartet Mandala. Viewed in retrospect, the introduction of the computer in his compositions seems but a natural step in his technical and musical development, which helped him strengthen the overall rules concerning the creative process. 

But formal construction is only one of Wallin’s reasons for utilizing the computer. To an equal degree, he regards it as a companion for his intuition, giving his musical ideas new and unexpected directions. He often refers to a story about a japanese Zen master, who several centuries ago used his hair to spray ink onto rice paper. Afterwords he transformed the blots to a wonderful landscape with a few brush strokes. This meeting between the chance of nature and the artist’s will seems to be an artistic ideal for Wallin. And in the pursuit of this ideal, he has found an interesting tool in the so-called chaos theory. In the program note for Stonewave for six percussionists, he explains: 

“The last few years I have become increasingly involved in some peculiar mathematical formulas called fractals. These formulas, used in the fast growing field of Chaos theory, are relatively simple, but they generate fascinating and surprisingly “organic” patterns when shown graphically on a computer screen, or played as music. In fact, the last third of Stonewave is one long linear sweep through a microscopic jungle of numbers arranging themselves in less and less predictable patterns, with a “pocket” of extreme repetitiveness before exploding into the last chaotic bars.” 

At the root of CHI, one will find the same mathematical formulas, framed in a remarkably well formed formal structure. The work may also well be an indicator of Wallin’s further development, pursuing the transformation of science in an artistic direction, without oversimplification, in order to comment on and continue the modernist tradition. 

One will see, however, that in Wallin’s production there is a wide variety of stylistic interchange, of modernist and not-so-modernist means of expression. It might be said that a number of his works are not modernistic in the classical sense of the word. For instance, the lighthearted consonance of his oboe quartet ning (also a “fractal” piece, and paradoxically enough his most “scientific” and predeterminative work so far) is a far cry from the dissonant angularity of the modernism of the 50’ies and 60’ies. But here Wallin challenges the view of modernism as a cementation of a style, or as a straight line towards perpetually increasing complexity. His definition of the term is rather an artistic stance of exploration and motion into unknown land, which in the universe of music might lead to areas that at first glance seem disturbingly well-known, but which, after further investigation, can fertilize and bring new possibilities to a tradition whose strength and weakness is its own consistency.