Born on 13 July 1932 in Gentofte near Copenhagen, he is considered the greatest Danish composer after Nielsen. In his essays, he addresses new music aesthetics and philosophy, politics, and social issues. He studied under Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Music Academy in Copenhagen and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger. In his early works, he focused on the Scandinavian music tradition, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, and Holmboe, as shown in his Symphony no. 1 and Constellations. Later he became attracted by modernist experiments, introducing psychedelic elements in the late 1960s.
Nørgård's most well-known composition method, first employed in the second movement of Voyage into the Golden Screen, is the "infinity row": a hierarchic structure akin to a fractal, in which the work develops from a small motif that later is "reborn" in deeper layers. is concept is most clearly featured in his Symphony no. 3. Since the mid-1960s, Nørgård has focused on harmonics-based sound details, moving in the 1970s to tonal elements, golden ratio, and style codes from past centuries, although he remained a modernist.
In the early 1980s Nørgård became interested in the work of schizophrenic painter and poet Adolf Wölfli, whose abrupt shifts "between idyll and catastrophe" gave birth to Nørgård's Symphony no. 4. Lately Nørgård developed a technique he tagged "tone lakes," a renewal of the earlier infinity row. His music can be totally tonal but never becomes neoromantic or nostalgic.
He was active as a music lecturer between 1958 and 1994, becoming a professor of composition at the Music Academy in Aarhus in 1965. He has strongly influenced subsequent generations of Danish composers. In 2000, he was awarded the Wilhelm Hansen Composition Prize.
Selected works (since 1980): Wie ein Kind for a cappella choir to words by Adolf Wölfli and Rainer M. Rilke (1980), Symphony no. 4 Indian Rose Garden and Chinese Witch's Lake (1981), The Divine Circus, opera after Adolf Wölfli (1982), I Ching for percussion solo (1982), Najder, electronic music (1986), Helle Nacht, violin concerto (1987), Pastoral for strings to a lm by Gabriel Axel (1988), Concerto in due tempi for piano and orchestra (1994-95), Nuit des hommes, opera after Apollinaire (1995-96), Bach to the Future for percussion and orchestra (1997, version for percussion and ensemble, 2010), Aspects of Leaving for chamber orchestra (1997), Håndslag for percussion and chamber orchestra (2000), Intonation/Detonation for orchestra (2000), Terrains vagues for orchestra (2000), Intonation for 16 percussionists (2002), Borderlines for violin, percussion and string orchestra (2002), Delta for saxophone, viola and cello (2005), eight string quartets including String Quartet no. 8 Night Descending (1997), Symphony no. 7 (2006), Lysning for string orchestra (2006), Snip Snap for chamber orchestra (2006), En Lys Time for percussion (2008), Momentum, cello concerto (2009), Four Meditations for ensemble to Ole Sarvig's poem The Year (2010), Arabesque for percussion (2011), Symphony no. 8 (2011), Cantica concertante for cello and chamber orchestra (2012), Queen and Ace for harp and ensemble (2012), Trio breve for piano trio (2012), Remembering Child for viola / cello and chamber orchestra (1986-2013), Orgelbogen: 17 Preludes and Choral Fantasies for organ (1955-2015).