Hild Borchgrevink: Rolf Wallin’s Playful Languages

Article written for Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2010

Rolf Wallin’s music has a striking combination of clarity and richness in detail. His sound worlds unfold with elasticity. At the same time, a versatile and rich material counterbalances the flow, keeping the listener curious and retaining an edge of poetry and mystery. 
On a formal level, the music encompasses a wide range of structures: from open forms to more controlled processes, from stage music to large symphonic architectures. One source for this flexibility might be the improvisational spine Wallin developed in his early years as a performer in the fields of jazz and rock. He subsequently moved on to study composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music with Finn Mortensen and Olav Anton Thommessen. 
‘There was a vital musical environment in Oslo in this period that was a great source of inspiration to me,’ the composer recalls. ‘Collaborations and ensembles were established which were to form the basis of today’s vibrant contemporary music scene.’ 
A year at the University of California, San Diego opened Wallin’s eyes to the computer as a musical tool, both for composing scores, for live electronics and for use in mixed media works such as Yo (1994) where the composer plays his own body through a specially tailored control suit. 
Open form has also found its way into Wallin’s instrumental music. Several of his chamber pieces require performers to actively choose between alternative routes or make individual selections within interchangeable material, as for example the series of works called Phonotope, the first of them written for the Arditti Quartet. 
Strings have been central to Wallin’s chamber music since the early 90s. Another force of gravity that has run parallel to this is the manifold sound world offered by percussion instruments. Several of Wallin’s works for percussion have entered an international repertoire.
Music for stage has been another main field of inspiration for Rolf Wallin. He has collaborated closely with leading Norwegian performance artists and choreographers, in particular choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard. 
‘Writing music for the stage undoubtedly influences my concert music,’ says the composer. ‘Very often I have worked on a stage project and a concert music project simultaneously, and the cross-fertilisation between the two ways of thinking has been very important for me. I find the exchange with other art forms that takes place on stage, and the experience as a composer of having to adapt my musical ideas to another artist’s work, extremely interesting.’ 
The piano cycle Seven Imperatives was written for the Bergen based dance company Carte Blanche. The titles of the seven movements are verbal imperatives, the music indicating and sometimes mimicking different types of motion. Their expression spans from meditative, impressionistic miniatures to intense dynamic outbursts. The version for accordion is made in close collaboration with accordion player Frode Haltli. 

Some of Rolf Wallin’s works touch upon political themes. In the string quartetConcerning King, musicians play the frequencies of a Martin Luther King speech from 1967 about the Vietnam war, accompanied by the recording of King’s voice. The orchestra piece Strange News attempts to tear down the walls of the concert hall and expose the symphony orchestra to other realities in the society surrounding it, by involving a young African actor and footage of child soldiers in DR Congo. Birmingham critic Christopher Morley concluded that this work ‘could so easily have wallowed in voyeuristic sensationalism, but avoided that trap.’ 
Parallel to this narrative strain, Rolf Wallin’s instrumental music has developed from a more controlled to a more playful language. The recent chamber workCuriosity Cabinet is made by combining small units that gradually grows into a larger musical architecture. Compared to earlier pieces where an overall form is defined and then filled in with material, Curiosity Cabinet develops in smaller steps, from the inside and outwards. 
A series of orchestra concertos could be an interesting prisma towards Wallin’s development as a composer. Together, these works form a path from development from a relatively explicit expressionism in the Timpani Concerto(1986-88) bursting with energy, via the virtuoso, more objective modernist elegance of the clarinet concerto which brought him several prizes, to a lighter, more elastic and strikingly playful language in his very last piece for orchestra, Manyworlds. Here, breathing spheres of music with different sets of rules move around in a large orchestra. 
A number of works scored for large sinfonietta bridges Wallin’s orchestral and chamber music worlds. The one to be performed at hcmf// is calledAppearances. Its material was, according to the composer, initially conceived rather intuitively. ‘I let the different musical entities in the piece evolve relatively freely, instead of by a preconceived principle’ says Rolf Wallin. ‘The piece has grown from the tension between the wills and needs of the different musical entities, and my own urge as a composer to read a meaningful pattern in it.’ 
This ability to both detect and construct musical patterns and processes in a way that almost makes them stand out to us as instantly visible, is among the attractive qualities that could explain why Rolf Wallin’s music is a recurrent and most welcome encounter on the international music scene. 
© Hild Borchgrevink