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Eivind Buene

Born: 1973

Nationality: Norwegian

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Photo © Lars Skaaning

Eivind Buene works in parallel as a composer and as a writer of fiction. In both practices he takes an interest in large formal progressions, whether in a musical cycle like Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes (2005-2009) or in the choice of the novel as a literary format. Constructing such sequen­ces over a long period requires a conscious relationship with the past, and the idea of composition as dialogue and confrontation with history and tradition is central to Buene’s music. At the turn of the millennium, when he and four other composers launched the recording project Faces (2000), in which the Oslo Sinfonietta performed music by Buene, Lars Petter Hagen, Bendik Hagerup, Maya S. K. Ratkje and Trond Reinholdtsen, it was accompanied by a discussion of the deliberately paradoxical concept “retro­modernism”. The word marked a need to revive parts of a musical modernism which only had a limited effect on Norwegian composition music. At the same time it expressed a historical distance from such a modernism and an understanding of it as a tem­po­­rally bound phenomenon.  

Langsam und Schmachtend (2003) for strings. The work is a meditation over the first minute of the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859). The music swerves aside past the fraught “Tristan chord”, but for listeners who know the source, the echoes of Wagner are still impossible to ignore.  

According to the composer, Langsam und Schmachtend is also a result of a need to write slower music. Compared with the concentrated gestural rapidity and the eruptions in an earlier work like Scherzophrenia (2002) for orchestra, the contrast is clear. After Langsam und Schmachtend an extended, quietly flowing musical time often returns to Buene’s music. A similar clarity is a frequent characteristic of Buene’s reworkings of historical music – on the one hand the material is subjected to permutations and variations which in purely technical terms are rooted in the twentieth century; at the same time the material retains enough of its identity to make the dialogue with history directly accessible in the music. The original is undoubtedly distorted and disturbed, but the disturbances never go so deep that its identity and thus the difference between history and the present disappear. 

The work cycle Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes (2005-2009) draws on literature rather than music as inspiration. The opening work Possible Cities takes its title from Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities (1972). Like Calvino’s text, the music relates to the city as metaphor, as landscape in slow, continuous transformation; cities are built up, torn down and are left for posterity as ruins. The work also explores the city and the contemporary music ensemble as collective social spaces. In the third part, the string quartet Grid (2006), the city is emphasized as a multilayered weave of more or less clear grids, networks and patterns.  

The cycle also challenges notions of the musical work as a closed unit. The fourth part, Landscape with Ruins (2006), exists in three different versions – for piano trio, for piano quintet and for nine musicians – and in the 2012 recording of the cycle by the ensemble Cikada the opening work Possible Cities is anticipated by a fragment of itself. Nature Morte (2008) rounds off the cycle in a calm, intensely musical progression where an E-bow illuminates the centuries-old instrumental sounds with an urban glow.

The ruin appears as a motif among several of Buene’s composer contemporaries, often with reference to Walter Benjamin’s formulation about ruins as a path towards truth in his treatise on the origins of the German tragic drama (1925). The ideas of loss and mortality are among the points of contact between romanticism and modernism. At the same time they are also a pragmatic consequence of the quality of acoustic sound as material – it is fragile and temporary, it always baffles the attempts of the senses and writing to hold it fast. In the essay collection Dobbeltliv (Double Life) (2014) Buene makes this temporariness the starting point for a discussion of what the site of composed music is: is it the composer’s thoughts and writing, the possibilities and limita­tions of the instruments, the musicians’ reading and bodily realization of the music, or the concert hall as physical and social space?

In Stilleben (2006) for strings, musical beginnings and the dialogue with historical music both return to Buene’s production. The work was written as an introduction to Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 (1784), and revolves around the piano concerto’s slow middle movement, which has an unmistakable Mozartean ambivalence – on the surface clear and untroubled, but gradually the main subject and harmony turn from major to minor and take on an almost imperceptible touch of melan­choly. Buene’s music has a related clarity. Stilleben also has a literary model in Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist (2001), where a young female performance artist reflects on how a body in intoxication or high fever experiences time slowing down and coming to a halt.

Garland (2007) is a nod to the Baroque composer Matthew Locke (1621-1677) and the English consort tradition. On Buene’s part the approach is related to the context of the work as a commission from a British ensemble, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Here too we find slow temporal progressions and musical beginnings. Garland is based on the introductions to three of the movements of Locke’s Consort of Fower Parts, six four-part suites which were probably performed in pairs in which the first, third and fifth suites open with a slow introduction. As with the adaptation of Mozart, the material is manipulated, while some of Locke’s parameters – rhyth­mic phrasing, melodic contour or parts of the harmonic progression – consistently remain intact. The work also bears within it the idea of abandoning something, inasmuch as Locke’s work was composed in the consort form that was on its way to becoming outdated.

From 2009 until 2012 Buene worked with the scholarship project Again and Again and Again: music as site, situation and repetition, where he explored contextual and conceptual aspects of music. The project resulted in three works ranging from the symphonic to performance art, and the text collection Again and Again and Again. After this exploration Buene began the work on the violin concerto Falling Angels/Sound Asleep Among Voices of the Dead (2013-2016). The concerto, written for Peter Herresthal, is in three parts that can also be played as independent works. The middle movement, Sound Asleep, must be played with free rhythm. The result is in an extended time which sounds as if it has been “opened up”. The dialogue between the composed and the improvised is another difference that is regularly manifested in Buene’s music in various collaborations with improvising musicians.

In Blue Mountain (2014) for chamber orchestra Buene wrote both music and text in one and the same session. The work is a kind of orchestral music theatre in which two actors are on stage together with the musicians and perform from a script. The two, a man and a woman, are the audience for the concert. She is a literary connoisseur, he is an amateur musician, and they converse about the music which both they and the other members of the audience can hear the orchestra playing. In parallel the dialogue also reveals the couple’s shared past. While the text is linear and chronological, this music too is preoccupied with beginnings and with letting something go or abandoning it: the opening motif in one of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (1901).

Buene’s practice alternates between expanding the musical material to include the actual perfor­mance situation and more purely acoustic music as in Sea Change (2016). The latter is dedicated to the composer’s father and takes its title from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The work bears within it musical consort thinking in the soloist group of three, which is set against a large sinfonietta. Formally there are also traces of a Baroque chaconne as a layer of the musical weave.

In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino writes at one point about travelling: “Travelling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.” Buene’s music, by comparison. is typified by a consideration and consciousness of differences.

Even where the musical structures are unstable and unclear, the unclear is precisely drawn. Work commentaries and other texts expound the music with similar clarity. Garland for example has a small essay with the subtitle “a listener’s guide”, which guides the reader through the processes to which Locke’s music is subjected. The moment the music exists – perhaps because its exists – it can also be described.


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