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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

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Bookending these songs were Grenager's "VEV" (Weave), a tone poem inspired by the Norse idea of how a skilled weaver can influence the course of history, and Zappa's "Sad Jane," a piece that, for those only familiar with Zappa's rock-oriented (albeit oftentimes complex) music, was still recognizable—in particular for his extensive use of tuned percussion, a trademark that linked much of his music together while also demonstrating his penchant for Ives and, perhaps even more noticeably, musique concrete innovator Edgard Varèse. It was an evening of music that, while filled with challenge and difference, still came together as a cohesive program beautifully executed by Brönnimann and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

September 14: Jesus' Blood Has Never Failed Me Yet

Closing out a festival is always a challenge: go out with a bang or on a more subtle note? Thankfully, Ultima chose the latter, with a performance of Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet that brought the 2013 edition to close, both respecting Bryars' core composition and, at the same time, bringing something entirely new to it in terms of spatial use.



Based on the repetitive loop of an old man singing "Jesus' blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet. Jesus' blood never failed me yet. There's one thing I know, for he loves me so," the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Oslo Cathedral Choir (under the baton of Jonathan Stockhammer) did not just perform the longer, 75-minute version of the piece, taking advantage of the wonderful natural acoustics of the beautiful Oslo Domkirke (Church), they utilized the design of the cathedral to its fullest advantage.

A protestant church, the Oslo Domkirke's footprint is actually shaped like a cross, with a pulpit at the end of one arm, but pews spread across both of the cross' arms. With the bulk of the orchestra's instruments located near the pulpit, there were other instruments spread throughout the church's two levels—four French hornists located at the nexus of the two arms, a vibraphonist near the end of one arm, a violist sitting in a nearby pew and others on the second level, where Stockhammer occupied the box normally reserved for Norwegian royalty—but the only location that provided an unobstructed view of the entire room, allowing him to conduct the entire orchestra and choir.

All the more incredible was that, while some additional sound system gear was installed in the church for the performance, the only thing that went through it was the old man's looped voice; the rest of the performance was completely acoustic, though sound engineer Asle Karstad indicated, after the show, that just balancing the voice with the swells and dips in the music's volume was challenge enough. First, the voice had to fade in from the ether, at a pace so slow as to demand concentration—or complete surrender to the unconscious—and build to a number of climaxes before finally fading, once again, to silence so profound that it took the audience a significant amount of time to either return to full consciousness or, at least, realize the performance was actually over.



Few contemporary pieces of music are so evocative, so capable of bringing such a wide range of emotion to the surface as Jesus' Blood, and with Stockhammer carefully controlling the dynamics of ever member of the orchestra and choir, he delivered a closing performance that will surely go down as one of Ultima's most profound. Seated near the meeting point of the two cross arms, it was possible to watch the four French hornists located there, facing inwards towards each other, each responding differently to the music—both when they were performing and in the long periods where they weren't. Everything from smiles to close-eyed concentration—even the occasional tear—were there to be seen, and these responses weren't limited to the performers alone. There were surely more than a few wet eyes in the house, and others that may have been dry but were closed in either deep concentration or complete surrender, as the music transported their owners to another place. Still others may have appeared conscious and engaged, but were clearly captivated by music that, in its relentlessly consonant beauty, built like waves only to dissipate like ripples in a pond.

It was a tremendous way to end eleven days in Norway that began with the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand and ended at the Oslo Domkirke, before heading to the city's Gardermoen Airport for an even more grueling flight home than usual—but one well worth it. Between Punkt's relentless forward-thinking aesthetic to improvisation and Ultima's similarly boundary-breaking approach to contemporary music, there were more high points to be had in those eleven days than many get to experience in an entire year.

Photo Credit

Musicity: Courtesy of Musicity

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

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