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

By Published: November 10, 2013
One of the most significant specific innovations coming out of Norway—and one seen time and again with so many of the artists listed above—is the integration of technology with traditional instrumentation. Norway is by no means the only country where artists extend the sonic potential of their instruments through use of effects processing, looping and other devices, but few manage to do it so seamlessly, so organically, so naturally. From pop singer Bernhoft to more jazz-oriented artists like Håkon Kornstad, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Stian Westerhus, Eldbjørg Raknes, Nils Petter Molvær, Morten Qvenild, Bugge Wesseltoft, Ivar Grydeland. Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, there's a preponderance of Norwegian musicians who don't treat technology as a separate adjunct, they see it as an absolutely organic extension of whatever instrument(s) they play. In some cases it goes even further; live sampler Jan Bang's instrument is actually an old Akai sampler—a box with switches, buttons and knobs which he has transformed into a musical instrument, sampling music going on around him in real time, processing it and morphing it into something else before feeding it back to his fellow other musicians.

Another strength seen with musicians in Norway has nothing to do with the music—or, at least, directly so. When Norwegian musicians come to Canada to tour, they almost always tour with a sound engineer. While it is true that most venues and certainly most festivals have house sound and light engineers, what the Norwegians have figured out that others seem to have not (or, to be fair, cannot afford—though there are absolutely times where Norwegian artists take less money in their own pockets in order to ensure they can include a sound engineer on the contract) is that the value of having a consistent sound engineer who knows the music, knows exactly how each member of the group needs to sound and what the overall group sound is cannot be understated. There are also those who travel with their own visual artists, and over the years, certain names continue to come up, time and again: Asle Karstad and Johnny Skalleberg are two sound engineers in high demand, while Tord Knudsen is more than a lighting engineer, he's a visual artist who improvises with his lighting console, computer and projectors the same way a musician improvises with his/her instrument. It is absolutely no coincidence that Knudsen has been a member of Nils Petter Molvær's various groups longer than anyone else—nearly 20 years, in fact.

I'm often asked how such a scene has emerged in a country so small—how and why is it so distinctive? Beyond the commitment to culture, from education to exposure, and beyond the massive and, frankly, unprecedented amount of money being injected into the arts, there's something to be said for the base Norwegian culture from a historical perspective. Prior to the oil boom that began in the 1970s, Norway was a relatively isolated country—and a near-homogeneous one at that, the impact of multiculturalism still a couple decades in the future. Being as far north as it is, days were long in the summer and short (in some places, non-existent) in the winter, with harsh weather conditions and equally challenging geography. The result of these collective conditions seems to have engendered a fearless mindset that, rather than viewing problems as obstacles, sees them merely as things to be solved.

But how has this funneled back into the music? While American jazz musicians did, indeed, make it to Norway as far back as the 1960s, when festivals like Molde and Kongsberg were in their infancies—and musicians like Jon Christensen, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek had the opportunity to play with them (in particular, American composer George Russell, who lived in Northern Europe for a few years and regularly engaged these musicians for some recordings that have since become classic)—there was always, it seems, a drive to do something different. With traditional Norwegian music so fundamental, it's not difficult to hear how, even when Garbarek was, on one hand, influenced by American saxophonists like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, his phrasing contained, on the other, the unmistakable lilt of the Hardanger fiddle. And if Terje Rypdal was, indeed, informed by the psychedelic, blues-based music of guitar icon Jimi Hendrix, it's not difficult to understand, when seeing where he grew up (and still lives, on the Molde Fjord), that the where is absolutely as important as the who—inseparable, in fact—and can absolutely be heard in his music, his immediately recognizable tone imbued with a curious icy heat that does, indeed, exemplify the concept of "Nordic cool."

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