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

By Published: November 10, 2013
Commitment to the arts doesn't emerge from a vacuum. A decision has to be made that it is important and that, while it may not be something measurable on the bottom line of a spreadsheet, it enriches everyone's lives, and its impact can be seen, heard and, most importantly, felt across the country, whether in a city the size of Oslo (approx 500,000), Molde (24,000) or Kristiansand (75,000).

Another response to the assertion that the Norwegians have money is this: it's not just the bigger cities like Oslo that get cutting edge arts venues like the world-famous Oslo Operahuset; Kristiansand opened the contemporary culture centre Kilden in 2012, to house not just the city's opera and symphony—a city of 75,000 with an opera and a symphony?!?!!—but to provide a number of high-tech performance spaces that range from a couple of hundred to 1,250. In North America, a town the size of Kristiansand is lucky to have a cinema or two; Kristiansand, in addition to Kilden (which replaced the older two-room, 550-seat Agder Theatre), has an art gallery (the Kristiansand Kunsthall) and a music conservatory. Even a town the size of Molde now has Plassen, also opened in 2012, which acts as the town's public library but also, more importantly, a cultural focal point with two state-of-the-art performance spaces. The kinds of tours that take place in Norway, hitting so many of the small towns that are peppered across the country, would almost never hit similarly sized locales in North America—and we're talking music across a wide spectrum being brought to small-town Norway. Clearly, the country has not only used what some might consider an embarrassment of riches to bring infrastructure, education and health care to the many small towns that are scattered around the country and across which its relatively small population c is spread; it ensures that culture remains an important part of the social fabric.

And forty years later, the impact is palpable. While there's no doubt, walking around Kristiansand on a Saturday night, that popular culture from North America has found its way to these Northern European shores—you're just as apt to hear the latest Miley Cyrus tune as you are Susanne Sundfør's most recent release—there is a difference: unlike North America, the pop machine doesn't dominate; it's a more balanced part of the overall music scene. And, perhaps more importantly—though this is not strictly a Norwegian mindset, but a European one—interest in the arts is inclusionary rather than exclusionary. It's absolutely possible—allowable, more importantly, especially for youngsters—to not only like Miley Cyrus, say but also an Estonian choir. Sadly, in North America, the overall culture is one of exclusion: one can like this or that, but not this and that.

A quick anecdote, from my first visit to Molde in 2009, might help to put things in even further perspective. Seated in one of its older, pre-Plassen venues, waiting to see pianist Christian Wallumrød perform with his ensemble as part of trumpeter Arve Henriksen's Artist in Residence series that year, I noticed a young man beside me, who couldn't have been older than 20. We began speaking and, when he told me that he was collecting all of Rune Grammofon's releases, it was a powerful statement. A label that, like so many Norwegian imprints, has been about art without compromise since inception, starting with noise improv groups like Supersilent in its early days and running the gamut now, from progressive/fusion bands like Grand General and singers like Susanna Wallumrød and Jenny Hval, to lyrical piano trios like the Espen Eriksen Trio and electrifying, electrified balls-to-the-wall bands like Elephant9 and Fire!, there's a lot seriously challenging music across the label's 100+ releases, and certainly not music that a typical North American 20 year-old would know about, let alone be collecting as a completist.

It's that very open-mindedness at a young age that is so rare in North America. But why is that? How is that?

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