Terry Grimley meets leading Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, whose Birmingham premiere mixes new music with theatre, electronics and TV documentary.


Leaving opera aside, it's not very often you find contemporary classical music taking on politics or difficult contemporary issues.

So Rolf Wallin's Strange News, which features in two concerts by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Birmingham and Shropshire this weekend, is something out of the ordinary. In fact, in mixing an instrumental ensemble with documentary video, a live actor and electronics, it looks a bit like a 21st century version of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk - a piece of total theatre using all available media.

The subject of Strange News is the distressing one of child soldiers in Africa. As well as writing the music Wallin - now widely regarded as Norway's lea[ding composer - visited Uganda and East Congo in the company of the show's director Josse De Paauw and a Norwegian TV reporter and cameraman, recording interviews with former child soldiers.

Seventeen year-old Ugandan actor Arthur Kiselne delivers De Paauw's text, and as well as including disturbing images of war its actual sounds are blended into a live electronic score.

Kiselne, then 16, was selected after 85 auditions of young Africans aged 16-20 following the research trip. Wallin emphasises, however, that Kiselne was not himself a child soldier.

Saturday's performance is the world premiere of the chamber version of the piece, which was originally performed last year by the Oslo Philharmonic. It has been jointly commissioned by BCMG and electronic music network Integra.

"What BCMG wanted was me to do was make a version for them in which the orchestra was replaced by the ensemble and and live electronics," Wallin told me on a recent trip to Birmingham to discuss the electronic dimension of the show.

"Instead of having 100 musicians we'll have 12, but we're reshaping the music so it will have the same impact on the audience."

A versatile musician whose background includes playing trumpet in jazz and rock bands, Wallin sees it as completely normal for composers to want to engage with non-musical issues.

"I've many times mixed music and politics or the real world. Many times I don't, but I like to deal with matters that are of interest for me.

"The matter of child soldiers was something I was interested in. Not only the fact that it's a terrible thing that goes on in many places in the world, but even more the fact that some of the children are taken into rehabilitation programmes that actually make them function again.

"In many cases the ability for empathy is very much removed with these children, and the way many help organisations work shows it is possible to reprogramme them. So it's both things, the memories of a former child soldier and the rehabilitation." The piece had its origins in a commission from French television, but after this "went a bit astray" it was revived in response to another from the Oslo Philharmonic.

"I suggested this as a collaboration with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, and they also made a one-hour documentary for radio about it.

"We went to East Congo, where a Norwegian help organisation has some rehabilitation camps. So we're talking about Heart of Darkness and a couple of hundred years of brutality."

Nevertheless, he found the experience uplifting because of the atmosphere he found in the rehabilitation camps.

"They sang and danced for us and I was amazed, because only two or three weeks before they had been in the jungle. There they were, singing and dancing, and of course so much better than any Norwegian or English group of teenagers!"

However, the fact that Strange News provoked a spontaneous response from Norwegian teenagers when part of it was included in one of the Oslo Philharmonic's school concerts is one example Wallin cites for dismissing the idea that there is necessarily a gulf between contemporary art music and the wider public.

In fact, he says, music is currently booming in Norway across all genres. He draws a parallel with the recent history of architecture, where the conservatism which was in part a reaction against 1960s brutalism has recently been overcome by the popular success of Norwegian architects Snohetta's new opera house in Oslo.

"I never feel that there's a gap between the audience and me. Stockhausen and Boulez wanted this secluded world where popular music was not a part of it, but apart from those Berio, for instance, made use of popular music, particularly in the 1960s. I think popular music is an object I can work with."

* Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Pierre-Andre Valade, performs Rolf Wallin's Strange News as part of a concert also including Grind Show Electric by Tansy Davies and Wheel of Emptinessby Jonathan Harvey at the CBSO Centre on Saturday at 7.30pm (Box ofdce: 0121 767 4050) and Concord College, Acton Burnell near Shrewsbury on Sunday at 7pm (Box ofdce: 01743 281281).