CD Review: O’Horten

O’HORTEN (2007), Norway’s entry as Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards, was recently released in limited markets here in the U.S. At the age of 67, loner Odd Horten (Bard Owe) is forced into retirement from his job as a locomotive engineer. The film follows Horten as he wanders through his new life and his encounters with the offbeat characters he meets along the way. Not much happens in the film, action-wise, and yet I found myself following Horten’s simple life in which he learns to accept his fate, break up his routine and learn to make a new life for himself.

Accompanying Horten through his travels is John Erik Kaada’s (also known simply as KAADA) eccentric score. Kaada’s music for O’HORTEN is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in films. Though the press release for the CD compares it to Jon Brion, I found Kaada’s music to be fresh and wholly original.

The first impression upon hearing the score is its usual soundscape. Scored for a mere 15 musicians, Kaada generates endless interesting sounds and harmonies, using such rare instruments as lapsteel, harmonica, mandolin, bowed vibraphone, and various percussion, in addition to a small number of strings and winds.

In our phone interview, Kaada, a collector of rare and unusual instruments, told me he pulls out “whatever I have in my closet…and I just play around. It’s more like a playful process where I just make a lot of stuff with my instruments. It’s not every movie that I can use all these instruments, so it was really nice for once to get to use them.”

O'Horten soundtrack
“Across the Hardanger Mountain Plateau”

“Across the Hardanger Mountain Plateau,” a 3/4 waltz melody in the piano that sits over a gentle acoustic guitar rhythm, accompanies the opening helicopter shot as a train passes through the snowy Norwegian mountainside. “Valkyrien” sounds like a child plunking out his melody on a toy piano.

“Molly,” featuring a loping melody for the dog, showcases the full breadth of Kaada’s orchestration talent all within one track.  “Tulipans” contains a lovely processed piano theme. And “Svea” is a charming waltz to accompany the relationship between Horten and his longtime lady friend (Henny Moan), as the two dance around their feelings and unexpressed emotions.

Kaada’s charming, yet unsentimental, music features open sonorities that accentuate the bleak Norwegian winter and capture Horten’s waywardness in his new life. Often the music stops and starts as Horten stumbles quizzically through life, and Kaada is not afraid to explore stillness, never feeling the need to fill every bar of music with movement.

Because of its quiet tone and unique musical universe, O’HORTEN—the film and the score—may not be to everyone’s taste. But Kaada’s delicately beautiful melodies and his distinctive grasp of orchestration make this one of the freshest scores I’ve heard in years. And like all good music, I keep unearthing new riches with each repeated listen.

For more on Kaada’s future projects and a discussion about this score, check out my interview with the composer.

    1. I thought so too at first. But once I saw the movie and spent some more time with the score, I heard more of the themes and I found the score’s eccentricities (for lack of a better word) to be part of its charm. I liked hearing what Kaada did with certain instruments. And it made me want to explore more of his music, probably the highest compliment I could give it. But I will definitely check out Max Manus. Thanks for the recommendation.

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