Carvings – To rediscover the song once sung the soul (Allan Pettersson)
for solo violin by Dagfinn Koch

Dagfinns piece «Carvings» (dedicated to me) has just been released on CD in its third version [1] and is being played around the world by an increasing number of violinists. He has obviously struck a nerve with both musicians and audience with this piece.

The first time I heard «Carvings», played by then 18 year old Madelene Berg, my in excess spontaneous comment was that «it sounded like a soundtrack to a slow suicide»; a comment that Dagfinn likes to repeat when the opportunity arises. The words may sound blasé, but they contain some depths that I not quite saw when the spontaneous comment fell. Dagfinn has some unusual pleasantries. When someone asks «how is it going?», he often answers: «towards the end». To his German friends I’ve heard him say: «Das Leben ist ein langer Abschied». So if not exactly a suicide, then at least life may be seen as a long farewell. Our bodies commit mutiny in different speeds and strength right from the minute we are born, we all have that in common. Death is an unavoidable part of life.

Dagfinn can be experienced as quite multipolar; a trait I find particularly attractive. He carries within himself the intelligent humor, a great melancholy, broad enthusiasm, high professional integrity, interest in and caring for others, sometimes a bit too much insight, a few blind spots, as we all have, – and the certainty of death and grief as a more or less constant threatening presence. Some think this is weird, annoying or scary. He sometimes talks about melancholy and is concerned about it as a concept and in art. I’ll be careful not to describe what melancholy is, but it is at least substantially different from a clinical depression. Dagfinn lives in the midst of all of lifes aspects simultaneously. ALL at once, at the same time. To me, Dagfinns music and interests reflects this consistent split-ness.

When Dagfinn talks about his music and his work process one can get the impression that he is a hyper modernist. Dry mathematics and distanced calculations can direct ones expectations in the direction Lachenmanns or Fernyhoughs epigones. He programs complex algorithms by help of a computer, while he clings to The Correct Sketch Paper and his orange Pilot refillable 0,9 2B pencil. He uses his methods (and describes them enthusiastically to anyone who will listen) to limit the available options in the vast flow of ideas and to make the problem more satisfying to solve. Many listeners are therefore surprised when they hear Dagfinns art. For us who do not possess professional musical terminology it is, despite the mechanics he describes, easy to apply concepts like «heartbreakingly beautiful, brutal, tender, heartfelt, melancholic and present» onto what we hear.

That Dagfinn feels a kinship with Allan Pettersson, who «Carvings» has borrowed its subtitle from [2], is not at all strange. Both Dagfinn and Pettersson has been riddled with life long pain and immobility. As a newborn Dagfinn contracted Coxitis; a very dangerous (2 of 3 died) and painful condition, in a time where one in Norway still believed that children could not feel pain. He was baptised in the hospital chapel because it was feared that he wouldn’t survive, and later he virtually grew up alone in hospitals far away from home. There he was  exposed to repeated experimental surgery and months consecutive strapped down in bed. «Well-intentioned torture» is a brutal but true description of his adolescence. This has rendered him with lasting effects of his health, some of it visible for all of us, but he carries his crutch and his unique mind with humor and self irony.

Most others would have gone crazy by a fraction of what he has experienced. Still he has remained so kindhearted, caring, interested, fun and constantly hungry for more life. With «more life» I mean it poetic but also literally. What do you do when you have such an interesting head and manic nature such as Dagfinn but are in a chronically painful, isolated and forced passive state? Well, first you make a choice not to go crazy. Then you look curiously into your own and others’ minds and find exciting things there, tank up with knowledge, mix it with talent and imagination and become an artist. In addition, he became an accomplished violist!

Dagfinn has composed music for almost 40 years. He is working hard against his melodic and tonal orientation and spends a lot of time trying to justify for himself the musical choices he makes. But I think he is gradually moving towards accepting himself as a mature, harmonious developed composer with a strong melodic backbone. I find this piece one of his most personal, and hear both him and myself and the relationship to existence and universe into it. That he dedicated exactly this piece to me, I appreciate with great gratitude and love.


(Written on the occasion of Dagfinns 51st birthday 24. July 2015.)

[1] Madelene Berg: Aurora/Grappa Oslo 2010, Carmine Marcello Rizzi:  RNM-Music Ldt London 2015, Roberto Arnoldi: M.A.P Editions Milano 2015

[2] The subtitle refers to a letter the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911-80) wrote to the music critic and pianist Leif Aare (1933-) in 1968, when working on his second string orchestra concerto. The whole quote is: «The composition I´m working on is my own life, the blessed and cursed: To rediscover the song the soul once sung.»