Mixing Music and Fiords in Norway ; Cool Temperatures, Cool Sounds Give These Music Festivals an Edge

By Ivry, Benjamin | The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mixing Music and Fiords in Norway ; Cool Temperatures, Cool Sounds Give These Music Festivals an Edge


Ivry, Benjamin, The Christian Science Monitor


It may seem an odd idea when brisk October rolls in to head north to Oslo, Norway, land of the frozen fiords - even to hear music. Yet my experience last fall at Norway's pathbreaking Ultima Festival proved to be unexpectedly heartwarming.

During the first two weeks of October, Oslo's contemporary music event Ultima monopolizes 16 different performance spaces throughout the stately Scandinavian capital.

Ultima, founded more than a dozen years ago, has presented more than 1,000 contemporary works by 430 composers from 41 lands, including 150 world premieres.

Last year's Ultima included 30 performances by such noted groups as the Arditti Quartet and the Oslo Sinfonietta; music by Americans John Corigliano and Steve Reich; Englishman Cornelius Cardew; and Italian Salvatore Sciarrino.

Since 1998, Ultima's director has been the composer Geir Johnson, a former boy soprano soloist in an Oslo church choir who grew up to perform as a rock singer in a new-wave band of the 1970s and later to study computer music at Stanford University.

When I first arrived at Oslo's central train station, I encountered a sound installation, "Norway Remixed," which was constructed for the duration of the Ultima festival.

In a metallic room colored gray, natural and man-made noises were playing on a tape. They had been recorded all over Norway: the sounds of flocks of birds taking off, waves crashing in the fiords, children playing, football games, city traffic, and many more, all blending with exquisite clarity.

The brainchild of composers Asbjorn Flo, Trond Lossius, and Risto Holopainen, Norway Remixed offered "a virtual journey across Norway... in a soundproofed listening room where the audience can listen to bits of the composition as they are created, in a surround- sound system of 24 speakers."

The day I visited, three Norwegian children were dancing around a pole in the center of the small room, pressing buttons that varied the pitch, loudness, and the rhythm of the noises.

The installation was the highlight of an Ultima conference on Electronic Art in the Public Domain, within the wider festival theme that year of "Acoustic Spaces."

One of the festival's aims is to spark - or rekindle - a youthful appreciation of music. To that end, several programs are designed for children.

I saw one of these shows at the Black Box Theater, located in a modest shopping mall. The program was a ballet choreographed to music by the "electronic improv-duo" known by the punning name of "fe-mail" (Maja S.K. Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord).

Two black-garbed dancers effortfully moved large primary-colored objects into sculptural shapes. (In Oslo, the kids are clearly meant to take their dose of modernism and like it.) On her website (www.notam02.no/~majar) composer Ratkje notes that her "major source of inspiration" is the late Astrid Lindgren, the beloved Swedish author of "phantastic [sic] books about Pippi Longstocking.... Her impact on millions of children will live on!"

Another form of addressing children could be seen the same day at the Oslo Concert Hall, when the Dutch "composer, voice performer, and sound poet" Jaap Blonk offered his own event for youngsters, accompanied by two highly gifted local performers, guitarist Ivar Grydeland and drummer Ingar Zach.

Blonk, a bespectacled man who looks like Stephen King, made grunting, shushing, and howling noises, as the musicians played, listening to him intently. Kids in the audience empathized instinctively with the odd sounds, although some first turned to their parents in alarm. Most soon were joining in with gusto for the audience-participation part of the event, rivaling Blonk himself in strange noises and grimaces.

Other concerts without direct links to childhood were held at unusual locales like the suburban Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, a museum containing a trophy room for Sonja Henie, three-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating and a star of 1930s Hollywood films. …

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