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Music from Norway: Just How Important Is It, Really?

Music from Norway: Just How Important Is It, Really?
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[Note: This article was first published by Music Norway]

When asked, by the newly minted Music Norway, which brought two separate organizations together at the beginning of 2013—Music Export Norway (responsible for exporting the country's music to the world) and Music Information Center (responsible, for many things, including acting as an archive/information source)—to write a piece about the Norwegian music scene from an outsider's perspective, it seemed, at first, to be a truly daunting challenge...and no small honour. The music scene in Norway is so rich, so diverse, so huge that trying to answer some of the obvious questions and capture what the essence of this music is, seemed an almost impossible task in the space of but a few thousand words. But after spending the last eight years traveling the country, from Kristiansand to Svalbard, from Molde to Oslo, from Bergen to Kongsberg and from Trondheim to Stavanger, I've been fortunate enough (with the kind support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Music Norway and more people than I can list here) to have been afforded a rare opportunity to gain exposure to a scene few (if any) from my neck of the woods have.

Why and how has the Norwegian scene managed to build such a reputation, not just on its own turf but around the world? There are a number of answers to that question, but first and foremost is a commitment to the arts that began more than 40 years ago and which has, unlike so many other countries, remained a priority ever since. When Sverre Lunde, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke at the 2013 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand—announcing that, after nine years, the Ministry would be providing some well-deserved (and much needed) financial support to the festival, and that Punkt was now considered amongst the country's elite events—what was, perhaps, an even more compelling statement was that the country's goal has been to devote a full one percent of its budget to culture. That means that last year, in 2012, ten billion Norwegian Kroners—nearly 1.7 billion US dollars—was devoted to the arts. As a Canadian in a bilingual country, there's a French word to describe this: incroyable!

But while many people at home and abroad say, when it comes to the way Norway supports culture, "Well, they have oil money," the sad but true obvious response is: "Yes, but were Canada to come into the same per capita money, they would absolutely not spend it the way the Norwegians have."

But seriously: ten billion Norwegian Kroners per year? A lofty achievement and one that permits a country of approximately five million to make music an actual profession, placing culture up there with health care and education, right where it belongs. Culture, after all, may not be measured in empirical terms, but its impact on quality of life is undeniable. But it's not just a federal objective in Norway. When, in 2000, the town of Kristiansand decided to begin selling off its excess electricity, invest the money and donate the interest income (approximately eight million Norwegian Kroners or 1.4 million US dollars annually) to the arts, it was that very initiative—Cultiva, whose mission is to secure jobs and good quality of life through grants to projects within art, culture, knowledge institution, and innovation—that provided startup funding for the Punkt Live Remix Festival for its first three years, helping it get off the ground until it was capable of becoming self-sustaining.

Punkt, about to reach its tenth anniversary in 2014, is a particularly good example of what's right about the Norwegian approach to culture; a very Norwegian idea that has, in its near-decade of existence, gone completely global. Not just a festival, but a concept, one that is about taking music of any genre and, immediately after its performance, remixing it live and engaging additional live musicians, Punkt has become a moveable feast, invited to festivals around the world (in locations including the UK, Turkey, Germany, France, Estonia, and with more being added each year), where it not only brings Norwegian artists to help further the cause of Norwegian cultural export; it also collaborates with musicians from whatever country/city it's in, building an ever-expanding international network of musicians, media, presenters and fans who may not have known each other before, but who now continue to collaborate on various levels. To put some context into it, some of the artists who have been involved in Punkt collaborations include ex-Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, American Fourth World Music progenitor, trumpeter Jon Hassell, British avant-songsmith David Sylvian, Germany's Ensemble Modern and J. Peter Schwalm, Finland's Vladislav Delay and Estonia's Weekend Guitar Trio.

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