Trombone Quartet (score and parts, first print)
(b. Bergen, 19 July 1939)
Trombone Quartet (1997)
Ketil Hvoslef is the youngest son of Norway’s preeminent symphonist Harald Sæverud (1897-1992) and Marie Hvoslef (1900-82). His birth coincided with the completion of Siljustøl, the great mansion in the outskirts of Bergen where the Sæverud family settled and where Harald Sæverud lived until his passing on 27 March 1992.
Being the son of a great composer, music was naturally very present during Hvoslef’s upbringing. He learned to play the piano and the viola and, in his teens, he became heavily involved in Bergen’s jazz and pop music environment, becoming a member of what was, reportedly, Bergen’s first rock band. Hvoslef (who retained the Sæverud surname until his 40th birthday, when he decided to adopt that of his mother) had, however, plans to become a painter and took serious steps in that direction. It was in the Bergen Art Academy that he met the painter Inger Bergitte Flatebø (1938 – 2008), who would become his wife and adopt the Sæverud surname.
With the birth of their first child, Trond Sæverud, in 1962, Hvoslef abandoned his dreams of becoming either a pop star or a painter and he took an organist’s diploma at the Bergen Music Conservatoire. Upon finishing his studies, he was offered a position as theory teacher at the Conservatoire by its director, the legendary Gunnar Sævig (1924-69).
Hvoslef became a composer almost by accident. In his 25th year he composed a piano concertino for his own satisfaction. Shortly after, his father passed on to him a commission for a woodwind quintet he had no time or inclination to write. And after that he simply kept going. He had study periods in Stockholm (with Karl-Birger Blomdahl [1916-68] and Ingvar Lindholm [b. 1921]) and in London (with Henri Lazarof [1932-2013] and Thomas Rajna [b. 1928]).
Since the 1970s Hvoslef has received a fairly steady stream of commissions and his work list counts with some 140 compositions to date. Hvoslef always enjoys a challenge and he has often written for unusual or seemingly “hopeless” instrumental combinations, always using the limitations of the ensemble as a stimulant for his imagination. He has written for large orchestra, for a great variety of chamber ensembles and for solo instruments. He has so far composed nineteen concertos and three operas.
Hvoslef was the Festival Composer of the Bergen International Festival in 1990 and has received several prizes, such as the Norwegian Composers’ Society’s “work of the year” on four occasions (1978, 1980, 1985 and 1992) and TONO’s Edvard Prisen in 2011.
Hvoslef’s music is characterized by great transparency and by a conscious building of tension achieved by accumulating latent energy. He wants his listeners to lean forward and listen rather than sit back and be lulled into a rêverie. Listening to a Hvoslef composition is always an adventure: one never knows what to expect. He stretches sections of the music almost to breaking point and only then introduces a new idea. His music has a classical clarity and transparency and is therefore always easy to follow. Although his very personal and concentrated language is very much of its time, Hvoslef is not averse to using material that is recognizably tonal (such as major and minor triads) albeit always in a context that sets these familiar sounds in conflict with their surroundings. Rhythm is a very prominent aspect of Hvoslef’s music. Although the vast majority of his production is notated in 4/4 metre, his rhythmical patterns almost never conform to it, always favouring patterns of odd-numbered notes.
Ketil Hvoslef is, without a doubt, one of the greatest composers to emerge from Scandinavia in the past fifty years, as well as one of the truly original masters of our time.
TROMBONEKVARTETT (trombone quartet) was written in 1997 and revised in 2012.
The work received its premiere at the Risør Chamber Music Festival on June 25th 1997.
Hvoslef is known for writing compositions for unlikely instrumental combinations and for giving some of his works rather odd names. On the other hand, he also has a number of pieces written for ensembles of identical instruments (eight cellos, seven or eight flutes, accordion orchestra…) and several works with laconic titles (such as “trio” or “quintet”). The trombone quartet belongs to the two latter categories. Whereas when writing for unusual instrumental combinations the stimulus is to create balance, when writing for identical instruments Hvoslef stretches his imagination in order to create contrast and diversity out of sameness. Where it concerns form, when working with relatively large structures Hvoslef usually either develops his material continuously (as if letting it be transformed by natural processes) or he opts for a collage technique, where the sections of the work follow one another without any obvious thematic or motivic connection. The latter belongs in the realm of pure invention, devoid of any academic tendencies.
Trombonekvartett is a hybrid of these two approaches.
Contrast is at play from the very outset. After an E major chord repeated nine times the music rapidly sinks into a quagmire of small glissandi at different speeds. A mysterious fanfare (alternating ff short and pp long major triads a tritone apart) follows immediately (m. 15 and ff.), resting on one of Hvoslef’s often used chords: a major triad with an added minor third on the bass. This is followed by a chromatic cluster built around the third trombone’s E flat (m. 36 and ff.). The fanfare returns, but now all chords are in pp (m. 45). The resting chord unfolds into another figure found in several of Hvoslef’s works (Antigone, Clarinet Quintet, Revised Revelation…): the dotted rhythm that first appears on m. 52. The fist proper staccato figure appears in measure 56, followed by an ascending line in crescendo (mm. 56-58). All the aforementioned ideas give the music enough momentum to keep going until measure 113. The staccato element first comes into its own in measure 77. It is worth mentioning that, up until m. 113 all four trombones move in the same rhythm. This is characteristic of Hvoslef, who tends to see ensembles of identical instruments as one body with several limbs.
Measure 113 introduces a new idea: a unison melody made of long notes where the trombones join one by one, creating the impression of a very large balloon being blown up. This goes on until m. 145, where the staccato articulation returns. Between mm. 160 and 180 we get remnants of the old fanfare and cluster structures, but now in pp, as if from a distance. An alternation between a fragmented chorale and staccato figures follows and then, out of nowhere, an episode of great tension appears, lasting 36 measures beginning in m. 214. For the first time, the music displays a contrapuntal writing of sorts between the first and second trombones. The harmony is, however, frozen, as usual with Hvoslef. The effect is one of great activity within a confined space. In m. 235 a completely new atmosphere is unveiled: the second trombone holds an “anti-solo” consisting of continuous chromatic glissandi accompanied by a hocket figure based on the harmony of the previous section. With a few moments to catch its breath (mm. 284-299) the music goes into the “finale” without ceremony: a moto perpetuo in which each trombone plays four notes at a time. This develops into a dense three-part canon that eventually gives way to a thunderous conclusion, in which all four trombones pound on the bottom B flat at full volume, but never at the same time, except for the very last note. It is as if everyone has wound up at the bottom of a pit after a spectacular fall.
It is quite possible that Hvoslef finds this work to be immensely funny. He has often stated that he writes music “because it is fun” (verbatim quotation – one can hardly get further away from an intellectual justification for making great art) and has been know to excise an entire section of a new composition because “maybe the audience will not find it as fun as I do”.
To an innocent listener, however, the Trombone Quartet may easily and understandably appear to be rather austere and serious, at times downright cryptic. All the same, one can just as easily perceive a contented, if slightly mischievous smile behind the impenetrable mask.
Ricardo Odriozola, 31 May 2018