"The Otheroom": interview with Rolf Wallin

In your official biography you are said to be “the leading Norwegian composer of international renown after Grieg.” Which part of your style/approach/decisions/authorial endeavors do you believe has brought you this recognition? Providing you are willing to share those thoughts with us.

I do not want to speculate about this as it is related to the opinions of others. I simply follow my calling in life: when my music is played, be it for an audience of 10 or 10,000, for 2 minutes or 2 hours, every single member of that audience gives their undivided attention to my music, that is, to the piece of art that it is a part of. Consequently, I have a responsibility to use that attention not for my own benefit, but with hope that I can open new spaces in that person’s mind.

Your multilayered work The Otheroom is one of the most talked-about pieces on the upcoming Biennale program. Where did the title come from? What ‘otherness’ does it refer to?

The title was the invention of the choreographer Heine Avdal. Whether the room is a physical or a mental one, and what kind of ‘otherness’ is at stake, is best left to your own imagination and interpretation.

To what extent were/are the performers involved in the realization of this piece?

First, I would like to emphasize that, although the initial idea for The Otheroom is mine, it is very much a collective creation. When the Ultima Festival commissioned a work for their opening concert in the Oslo City Hall in 2016, I have asked the choreographers Yukiko Shinozaki and Heine Avdal and their company fieldworks to work with me, and I have also invited the brass quartet from the Musikfabrik Ensemble. From then on, the road to what is now The Otheroom has been one of creative collaboration.

To answer your question, very much. In the world of modern dance, this is, of course, very common, whereas in the score-centered world of modern art music there is still a difference between the creative composer who conceives the music and the musicians who merely perform it, with creativity in this case being limited to what we call ‘interpretation.’ The sound world of The Otheroom is mostly improvised, but within the rules and limits that the musicians get from the computer screens. Additionally, the musicians were involved in the creation of the piece itself, pitching ideas in both conceptual, theatrical and musical fields.

What lies behind the idea of ‘the pedestaled musicians’? Did this idea arise primarily from a musical or a conceptual angle?

The pedestals were the central parts of my initial vision. The lives of musicians are quite peculiar: they spend most of their time in solitude, practicing their instruments to perfection, studying intricate sections... Then, they join other musicians and are expected, all of a sudden, to respond hyper-sensitively, almost telepathically to each other, and incorporate their individuality into a larger unity, greater than the simple sum of their solo sections. This was the reason why I literally wanted to put them on high pedestals in the Oslo City Hall. Moreover, the propelled balloons, which I had seen in another production by fieldworks, symbolize the telepathic connection between them. Yukiko and Heine, together with their wonderful tech/set team, further developed this idea. The high pedestals became moving illuminated plinths, and the musicians have tiny computer screens in front of them, through which I could interact with them in real time.

As the piece ends, the audience is sent off with the sound of a bell, in a clear reminiscence of bell ringing in a liturgical ceremony. Furthermore, to what extent are the floating balloons related to Stephen King’s notorious Pennywise? Tell us more about your views on the use of those extra-musical references.

I hope that the audience will feel as if they have entered a rite of initialization, which is of the utmost importance to the performers, even though the content itself is hidden from the visitors. The magnificent Oslo City Hall bells are an important part of the ‘Oslo experience,’ so this was the natural way of opening up towards the end of the ritual. Performing at other venues and towns, we find other solutions for the ending. At the Huddersfield International Music Festival, the musicians and dancers came on stage on cue barefoot – in November – and a set of large black weather balloons ended up in a tree several blocks away. In Viitasaari, Finland, the festival director Johan Tallgren held the opening speech with the balloons in one hand and a microphone in the other. Watch out for what will happen in Zagreb...

“Stephen King’s Pennywise?” Hm... I have to admit that I had to look it up as I have never heard of this horror clown, and horror movies are very far from our thoughts or references we have used in the group. Nevertheless, this only proves that The Otheroom can represent as many different rooms as there are persons experiencing it.

I am sure that you have received some audience feedback. Tell us about the most interesting or shocking one.

The reactions could be summed in a collective one; it seems that each new audience is a "village" unto itself, with its own social rules emanating spontaneously. What is most fascinating is to see how many people become children again. The cubes sometimes move very fast, and the musicians have to curl their toes not to fall off. Some daredevils in the audience love standing in their trajectory and jump away just before the impact, but the dancers moving the cubes are very experienced. Please do not take this as an invitation to try doing this in Zagreb!

To what extent and in what way does the work change depending on the venue?

The core of the piece remains the same, although the visual perception changes with each venue. The ending is also determined on site, according to the available possibilities.

You mention how the venue should preferably have an 'interesting appearance.’ What do you think about the NSK building? How did you perceive this space?

We have performed at very diversified venues: the magnificent murals in Oslo, the enormous, beautifully austere shower room for coal miners in Zollverein, Essen, but also at a totally ordinary sport hall in Viitasaari, because that was the only venue that tiny town between ‘the thousand lakes’ had to offer. The foyer of the NSK does indeed have an interesting appearance, very different from any other space we have worked in, with amazing large glass walls, and we look forward to interacting with it.

What turned out to be the most tiring or even the most irritating component when setting up this work?

The Otheroom is indeed a multimedia work, including many technical details from balancing the amount of helium in the balloons to high-tech programming and network solutions. Maintaining focus and looking above the technical challenges has sometimes been difficult, but nevertheless important.

What, in particular, is making you look forward to presenting your work at the Music Biennale Zagreb and what are your previous experiences with the Croatian/Zagreb music, concert or festival production?

This will be my first time in Croatia, in fact, in the entire former Yugoslavia, and I tremendously look forward to becoming more acquainted with the Croatian musical life. I also look forward to a public chat with Vinko Globokar, who was my former composition teacher at the University of California in San Diego in 1986, where he was the artist-in-residence for three months. I also played trumpet in his massive Laboratorium. Meeting his wonderfully inventive mind was a life-changing experience and has become a key part of my opus that transcends the domain of pure music.


Interviewer: Martina Bratić