Exploring Norway’s fringe music scene at Only Connect

Hello, Tim here, Riot’s resident writer. Last month I travelled to Oslo for the annual Only Connect Festival of Sound and I’d like to tell you about it!

Only Connect is organised by Norway’s principal organisation for new music, nyMusikk and curated by the indefatigable Anne Hilde Neset. In fact, nyMusikk supports two such festivals – the other is Ultima, held in September. I’ve been fortunate to have been a guest of both in the last year, and so had plenty of opportunity to sample Norway’s generous hospitality, and marvel at the level of funding and support even the fringiest of new music activities can receive there.

One doesn’t want to get too misty-eyed – after all, a large percentage of Norway’s prosperity and social democratic largesse is based on the exploitation of offshore gas and oil fields. Yet it’s telling that at least two banks in Oslo have been converted into arts venues. (Try to imagine the same happening in London. No, me neither.) The National Museum of Contemporary Art is in one, although that’s moving to new premises soon and the exhibitions currently on show are among the last in its present location. Sentralen, which is a couple of blocks away from the Contemporary Art Museum and which opened last year, is another. It is now a multi-purpose performance arts space, meeting place, restaurant and bar, and chief venue for both Only Connect and Ultima.

In fact an enjambment of two buildings, joined by a narrow, four-storey atrium and a network of Hogwarts-esque staircases, Sentralen’s best feature is its grand marble hall (Marmorsalen), in which larger concerts are presented. Hearing in this most refined and establishment of spaces Julius Eastman’s ferociously counter-cultural Evil Nigger – in a barnstorming three-piano rendition by Heloisa Amaral, Elisa Medinilla and Frederik Croene – was a heart-stopping experience I won’t forget in a long time.

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Harry Potter stairs. Photo by the author.

Indeed, the relationship between money and music was an unintended thread through my experience of Only Connect. One can argue, for example, whether a well-funded contemporary arts community promotes risk or complacency. And cases can be made on either side of that argument, even by Norwegians themselves. Yet I detect within Norwegian new music, and particularly among its younger proponents, a real sense of mischief. Not born of the profound political dissatisfaction that Eastman was forced to bear, but nevertheless coming from a discomfort with the way things are. Ultima’s artistic director, the composer Lars Petter Hagen, is a chief agitator – among his most notorious works is To Zeitblom, a folkloristic concerto for Norway’s national instrument, the Hardanger fiddle, that undermines itself through the insertion of a comically mistranslated recitation of passages from Theodor Adorno’s 1954 article ‘The Aging of the New Music’. Trond Reinholdtsen also enjoys a good prank, and is probably Norway’s chief exponent of musical conceptualism. At Ultima last year I saw his sort-of piano concerto more-like reality TV gone wrong Theory of the Subject, which featured the soloist still rehearsing backstage while the orchestra ploughed on, being usurped by a Nancarrow-esque player piano and finally retreating to a sanctuary beneath the piano itself, with subplots of messianic cults and demonic renditions of the 20th century’s piano repertory along the way.

The cheekiest offering at Only Connect was undoubtedly Øyvind Torvund’s The Exotica Album, performed by Bergen’s BIT20 Ensemble, saxophonist Kjetil Møster and analogue synth player Jørgen Trœen. (BIT20, by the way, are now directed by an expat Brit, the composer and artist Alwynne Pritchard, who was herself director of Bergen’s Borealis Festival for several years.) Two stages were set out – one for BIT20’s fifteen or so players, the other for Møster and Trœen. For the most part, the latter duo improvised (in a more or less organised fashion) noisy bleeps and skronks. BIT20, meanwhile, recreated the cheesy listening lounge atmosphere of a Les Baxter or Martin Denny record – bongos, maracas, vibes, sleazy flute lines and all. Billed as ‘two concerts at the same time’ it didn’t quite fulfill that promise – the phrases between the two groups were too interwoven for that – but the collision of two dramatically distinct soundworlds, neither of them familiar territory for a contemporary classical setting, revealed Torvund’s exciting disregard for genre conventions and wry skill at bringing alien elements into a traditional context.

BIT20, Kjetil Møster and Jørgen Trœen. Photo by Anne Valeur.

The other Norwegian works on show – the festival’s middle day celebrated the 100th Norwegian Society of Composers – were more conventional, perhaps with the exception of Mistérios de Corpo by composer and asamisimasa clarinettist Kristine Tjøgersen, a live soundtrack for string quartet synchronised with and overwriting the video of the same name by 70-something Brazilian jazz musician Hermeto Pascoal in which he plays his naked torso as a percussion set. Nevertheless, Håkon Thelin managed to incorporate a traditional willow flute player and a cabaret atmosphere into his double bass concerto The Ark, and even Jon Øivind Ness’s Meditasjonar over Georges de la Tour nr. XVII, a relatively modest piece for mezzo-soprano and piano, folded an enigmatically dogged piano part (the two hands played in rhythmic unison almost throughout) beneath an exuberant vocal line, sung on this occasion by Elisabeth Holmertz.

This was Neset’s sixth and final Only Connect festival as nyMusikk’s Artistic Director. Her personal warmth and artistic curiosity have undoubtedly done much to bring out Norway’s weirder side. Who can say what may come next – the Nordic Music Days in London this September, which will feature the Riot Ensemble, may offer some more clues – but Norwegian audiences certainly seem to have acquired a taste for the strange. I would bet on something unexpected.

Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.

At the start of her score, , Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.

Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, , which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.

But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?

We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.

Ishigami

Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.

Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.

All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

Just remember when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.

Programme

Reflections on the Text Scores of Pauline Oliveros

Music entails listening. This may be a truism, but it is one that Pauline Oliveros’s music considers from every angle. What is listening? How is it different from hearing? Can we activate it, and then shape it at will? Can we compose music with it?

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Listening needs stillness. As does reading. ‘First imagine silence’ begins the score of One Sound Once. Oliveros’s scores are written as texts, rather than musical notation. Some are just a few lines long, some several pages. Klickitat Ride is a list of 108 instructions that are to be read out loud. David Tudor is a two-line epigram. Although often poetic, they are not poems. Oliveros has called them ‘attentional strategies’ – ways of listening and ways of responding. They don’t attempt to express anything as such, but invite the reader/listener to find out for herself what might happen if they pay attention in a particular way. They rarely require specialist musical knowledge: they can be read, and performed, by anyone. But to perform them properly requires discipline, attention and concentration.

Stillness entails breathing. Even at our stillest and most attentive, we are breathing. There is a meditative aspect to Oliveros’s work that applies to both performers and listeners. She calls this aspect ‘Deep Listening’, a form of listening practice cultivated through the sort of concentration and discipline her scores require, and intended to expand consciousness into ‘the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences’.

Breathing means movement. As we inhale and exhale our chest rises and falls. If we are practising Deep Listening, our mind similarly expands and contracts. Inner becomes outer; outer becomes inner. The sounds we are listening to exist in spatial relation to us and to each other. Quintessential and Pebble Music present catalogues of sounds, arranged by the performers like objects in a museum. In Rock Piece movement is even more explicit, with performers moving into, out of and around the space.

Movement means making. As the performers in Rock Piece move, they click pairs of stones together in their hands, ‘sounding out the environment in all directions’, attending to its different resonances and the relationship between their clicks and those of their colleagues. In Word Sound the movements are more abstract – ‘Say a word as a sound. / Say a sound as a word.’ read two lines of the score. Moving from words to sounds, turning one into the other makes a particular type of sound production, and a particular type of listening. When does a sound become a word?

Making entails music. As words and sounds transform into one another, or as clicking rocks echo around the performing space, we start to make music. Like John Cage, Oliveros blurs the boundaries between life and music: Deep Listening is inclusive listening, in which everything one might possibly hear is attended to. The pieces themselves are ways to reach that state. Deep Listening can only be intellectualized so far; in the end you have to do it. You have to listen.