(b. Bergen, 19 July 1939)
Trio for Tretten (Acotral) (1987)
First performance: 3. June 1988, Verftet (Bergen).
Music Factory ensemble conducted by Geir Johnson
Ketil Hvoslef is the youngest son of Norway’s pre-eminent 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 (1921-2017) 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. In 2018 he received the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, the highest honour in Norway, equivalent to a knighthood.
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.
Hvoslef wrote Trio for Tretten (trio for thirteen) in Rome in the fall of 1987.
The composer explains that the “trio” in the title refers to the fact that the ensemble consists of three groups: four singers, four strings and four winds. The thirteenth member is a percussionist, who helps to hold the groups together.
The characteristically “nonsense” texts are used order to clarify the musical direction. The "words" are used in order to underline the expressive qualities of the music.
The word “Acotral” is the name of a bus company in Rome that Hvoslef and his wife often took to Ladispoli beach. The certainty that the company name should be part of the title came to Hvoslef in a dream during one of his winter stays in Rome.
Humour has always been an element of Hvoslef’s music, although it tends to be rather understated. Trio for Tretten is, arguably, the composition where Hvoslef's highly refined and laconic sense of humour comes furthest to the fore.
The entire work seems to tread a precariously thin line between ecstatic beauty and utter nonsense, and one is never quite sure which one is which.
After the serious, heavy opening we are unceremoniously cast adrift in a rather long episode of very slim music: is it exquisitely delicate and transcendentally beautiful or is it just plain boring? (measure 6 and ff.) The singers soon make it obvious that they have their own take on it. Indeed, it is the vocal quartet that takes the lead throughout most of the piece. They are an unruly lot who don’t seem to care much about the effect their antics have on the rest of the ensemble. They laugh, they indulge in hedonistic pursuits, they sob, blow their nose, croon, chatter, enunciate, whisper, swing, shout…
The two instrumental quartets trade riffs and melodies, sometimes coalescing in unison while at others they pass the ball around, as if to evade responsibility in supporting the temperamental singers. All the while the percussionist (the only fully sane member of the ensemble?) stands on the sidelines, only occasionally asserting his (or her) presence.
On measure 303 the ensemble, beaming with self-confidence, makes a triumphant reprise of an earlier tune and transposes it up half a step! (whether this is an intended pun on this regrettable practice in commercial pop music may remain an open question)
Immediately afterwards the vocal quartet outdoes itself and impersonates the Swingle Singers (measure 318 and ff.). The end of the piece returns to the ambiguity of the opening section, leaving the listener uncertain of whether it has all been meant to be taken seriously or whether it was all just one big hoax.
A recording of the work can be heard on the CD “Ketil Hvoslef – Chamber works vol. VI” (LWCD 1180).
- Ricardo Odriozola, 28. July 2020