Asbjørn Schaathun

b. 1961

Norwegian

Summary

Asbjørn Schaathun is a pioneer in Nordic music. He was one of the first Norwegian composers to embrace computer-aided processes in his works and broke new ground in forging links between creators and practitioners. His meticulous, tactile music is kindled by computer software and the composer’s own practical musicianship as a pianist and conductor.

Many of Schaathun’s works use elements of intelligent design to solve structural conundrums while some employ electronics to trace overtones, bringing the music out of itself as if it were a hologram. He has used canonic processes generated by software to breathe new into imitation and polyphony, while similar processes have allowed him to flip the usual process of ‘building’ music by creating huge blocks of sound from which the finished work could then be carved.

Schaathun works closely with Norway’s performing community and has looked back at the classical canon, both of which have seen him run his technique through new and transformative procedures. He has explored elements of identity and geopolitics in his works and has written on music for a variety of publications inside Norway and beyond. His music has appeared on the Aurora, 2L, ECM and Albedo labels.

After studies in Oslo Schaathun studied at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. He has been professor of composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, where he began his own music instruction, and president of the Norwegian Society of Composers. He has been awarded the prize of the Norwegian Association of Critics, the Lindeman Prize and the Bang and Olufsen Music Prize.

Andrew Mellor, 2019
Critical Acclaim
...An intellectual, selfish thing - Hilde Holbæk-Hanssen, Klassisk


...
Young Schaathun did not have football idols hanging on the wall. He had pictures of Pierre Boulez. He decided to become a composer at the age of ten - Hilde Holbæk-Hanssen, Klassisk

Biography

Asbjørn Schaathun is one of Nordic music’s most respected pioneers. Following studies in Oslo, London and at IRCAM in Paris, he was the first Norwegian composer to embrace computer-aided processes in his works. And he also broke new ground with acoustic instruments, forging significant links between creators and practitioners and establishing both the Oslo Sinfonietta and the Norwegian Academy of Music’s Twentieth Century Ensemble. Both groups put musicians at the heart of Norway’s new music discourse.

Schaathun’s meticulous, tactile music lives by structural integrity, kindled by computer software and the composer’s own practical musicianship at the piano and as a conductor. ‘A piece starts with a feeling of a particular interval in my hands, but also with the idea of some form of characteristic movement as a motor,’ he once said.

At Darmstadt in 1984, while trying to harness that natural movement, he was drawn to a group of composers who were using computers to facilitate the notating of more natural, impulsive gestures. Schaathun’s response to the problem came to fruition in the bass clarinet concerto Actions, Interpolations and Analysis (1990), which won the Louis Vuitton Prize of the Gaudeamus Foundation in 1991.

Almost all Schaathun’s works from 1983 onwards include computer-aided processes or live electronics, with the piano concerto Musical Graffiti (II) (1984) proving just how vibrant the results could be. Throughout the decade, Schaathun was considering how complex, sonically microscopic structures could be mapped on a large scale with the help of computer software. The piano piece Physis (1986), in which the performer chooses the order of the pieces, used elements of intelligent design to solve structural conundrums while the composer’s own poetry and pianism breathed life into the results. In a notable Schaathun hallmark, electronics were used to trace overtones, bringing the music out of itself as if it were a hologram.

Soon the composer started to ask how his self developed software might challenge his own musical intuition, rather than simply help to wrestle it onto the page. In Double Portrait (1992) for violin and orchestra, commissioned by IRCAM and Radio France, material itself is created by canonic processes, bringing new life and urgency to the classical touchstones of imitation and polyphony. This gave Schaathun the chance to flip the usual process of ‘building’ music on its head by creating huge blocks of sound from which the finished work could then be carved.

That process infuses many of his pieces the feeling of a sculptorer at work – the sense of something not so much built up from small means as reduced or lathed out from larger ones. Sometimes, melodies might be reductions of something else – a tone row, for example, as in the ensemble piece Four Miniatures (2003) derived from themes the composer wrote as a 14-year-old. In some instances, the process of reduction, but also of proliferation through ‘knitting’ and ‘weaving’, induces a unique harmonic character, as in the luminous strands of the choir piece Verklärung (2002), setting a poem by Georg Trakl.

Schaathun has always been ready to consult and experiment with musicians and his works invite caressing performances from them. They have been heard around the world and recorded for the Aurora, 2L, ECM and Albedo labels. The dialogue he has initiated with Norway’s performing community has also led him to look back at the classical canon, referring to composers of the past in works such as Stravinsky Goes Bach and Schaathun Goes Frescobaldi (2002) for piano and Schoenberg…est mort! (2015) for string trio, both of which have seen him run his technique through new and transformative procedures.

Like many of his Nordic counterparts, Schaathun has explored identity and geopolitics in his works. Nations (2016) for piano and orchestra was ‘an attempt to compose a Norwegian piece of music’ in which the cultured and studied vibrates against the vernacular and natural. The work thrives on the interdependences of both elements, just as others from Schaathun’s pen live by their pitting of the human and imperfect against the automated and precise.

Schaathun studied at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. He was president of the Norwegian Society of Composers from 2006-13, after which he was appointed professor of composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, where he began his own education. He has been awarded the prize of the Norwegian Association of Critics, the Lindeman Prize and the Bang and Olufsen Music Prize. He has written on music for a variety of publications inside Norway and beyond. ‘Cultures emerge, express themselves, and leave traces, in a horde of details,’ he has said; ‘one might even claim that something as great and diffuse as the sense of nationhood spring from these same details.’

Andrew Mellor, 2019


Photos

Discography