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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival
Oslo, Norway
September 5-14, 2013

Last year's first visit to the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival in Oslo, Norway revealed a rich program that blurred the lines between composition and improvisation in ways few (if any) festivals of its kind do. While the primary reason to attend the festival—Norway's Jaga Jazzist collaboration with Britain's Britten Sinfonia, the finale to the first Conexions season curated by host of BBC Radio 3's Late Junction, Fiona Talkington—was reason enough, the breadth of the festival absolutely made it a desired return destination. Still, who knew that Ultima 2013 would launch two productions so rarely performed that it never seemed possible that one—let alone both—would ever be seen on a public stage?

British composer Gavin Bryars has achieved much acclaim for his work, ranging from contemporary sacred music to string quartets, cello concertos and pieces written for percussion groups, but one of his earliest works, Jesus' Blood Has Never Failed Me Yet remains a high watermark. A painfully beautiful piece first recorded in shorter form on his classical debut for Brian Eno's Obscure imprint in 1976, it was later revisited in longer form on the much-lauded 1993 Point Records version, which also features guest Tom Waits, alongside the foundational loop of an old man singing a simple, heart-wrenching song, "Jesus blood never failed me yet, this one thing I know, for he loves me so," around which Bryars composed some of his most starkly beautiful music—cutting room floor footage from an unreleased documentary. A haunting piece that may revolve around simple constructs, but requires such precise dynamic control and astute conducting that it's rarely performed live, it was both a bold and fitting choice for Ultima to make it the closing performance of the 2013 festival season, at the stunning and most appropriate Oslo Domkirke (church), featuring the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Oslo Cathedral Choir.

Another totally unexpected production was the revival of Harry Partch's magnum opus, The Delusion of the Fury. Partch was a maverick American composer who felt constrained by the conventional 12-tone western scale, and so devised his own 43-tone scale using principals of just intonation—but, of course, to perform his music, he then required an entire orchestra of instruments to be built to suit. While the original instruments—much of them tuned glass, metal and wood, but also including modified organs and stringed instruments designed to play microtonal scales—remain in a museum in New York, Germany's Ensemble Musikfabrik , under the direction of composer/conductor (and, in his own way, also a musical maverick) Heiner Goebbels, literally rebuilt the instruments from scratch and, while this production will be going on the road to select cities, Ultima represented only its second performance.

Those two productions would have been enough. Add to that György Ligeti's "anti-anti-opera," Le Grand Macabre, a curious concert of two pieces—one by Norwegian pianist/composer Christian Wallumrød, the other by Alvin Lucier—not performed separately, but together; an evening that brought together music from Spunk cellist Lene Grenager, Charles Ives and Frank Zappa; a late night set from the improvising Streifenjunko duo (trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen), augmented by Christian Wallumrød and singer Sofia Jernberg; and the launch of a Conexions/Musicity collaboration, and it was a truly memorable week spent in Oslo, hearing music performed live that had previously never seemed to be in the cards. But it was.

September 10: Le Grand Macabre

György Ligeti may be best known for music selected by Stanley Kubrick for the by film director's groundbreaking 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Over the course of a life that spanned the early 20th century through to the beginning of the new millennium, however, Ligeti's music reached far and wide, creating music like "Atmospheres," whose combination of orchestral and electronic timbres in an approach called micropolyphony—where sustained dissonant chords shift gradually over time—seemed tailor-made for the psychedelic "time gate" sequence of 2001, while choral pieces like "Lux Aeterna" perfectly suited its lunar sequence.

But Ligeti's compositions went far beyond these more well-known pieces, ranging from early works informed by Béla Bartók to string quartets and various chamber concerti , like "Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe" that explored a very close connecting point between the two instruments. His music could be beautiful but it could be disturbing as well, and ultimately influenced generations of composers that followed, including Norwegian guitarist/composer Terje Rypdal; but if there is one piece that sticks out in his discography, it's Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti's "anti-anti-opera" that was commissioned in 1964 but not completed until 1977. A clear piece of absurdist theatre, its presentation at Oslo's opulent Opera House was on not just a grand scale, but a massive one.

As the lights dimmed, a screen came down and a film presented a woman entering her apartment, undressing and eating, only to begin choking on her food and, as her panicked face moved forward and took up the entire screen, the screen rose to reveal a massive set piece of the woman—naked, on her knees, held up by her arms with her breasts resting on the ground. Thus began a story that, filled with sexual acts and innuendo and explicit language (what other opera uses lines like, "Oh God, we're all fucked!"?), was apocalyptic in nature—Nekrotzar (the Grand Macabre) proclaiming, in the first of four acts, that he will destroy the world with the help of a comet. As the androgynous Amanda and Amando looked for a spot to make love in private, ultimately doing so in an empty grave, the protagonist Piet the Pot headed for the capital of the mythical Brueghelland, Le Grand Macabre's locale.

Combining fascism and baser human behaviors, the story progressed to an anti-climax where, having fallen into a drunken stupor and awaking, only to find that he has not, in fact, destroyed the world, Nektrotzar ultimately disappears, leaving the rest of the cast to sing the story's moral, which is that death is inevitable but, until then, life should be lived for the moment.

Beyond the massive scale of the central piece, and its various devices, it was also the focal point for projections that turned it into a skeletal figure, and also a reflection of Nekotzar's intended conflagration. Le Grand Macabre represented the first premiere from relative newcomer, Opera director Per Boye Hansen, having been in the position for over a year but, given how far in advance such programs are planned, having to first complete the preexisting schedule before beginning to place his own stamp on the Opera. Hansen couldn't have chosen a more demanding production. The massive set piece ultimately revealed, as it turned around at various points, numerous entry/exit points for the actors—some coming out of body parts like nipples and anuses, others coming down from the sky on invisible harnesses. The music was, in many ways, a confluence of Ligeti's entire career, demanding much from the singers who had to deliver oftentimes oblique melodies while engaging in some challenging physical moves.

It's hard to know whether or not Le Grand Macabre was something to actually like; but in its scope and scale, it was certainly something well worth experiencing.

September 11: KORK: Wallumrød/Lucier

When Norway's Christian Wallumrød premiered his first work for orchestra, When celebrities dream, in Bologna in 2012—a collaboration with the Italian city's Angelica Festival—there were some challenges. Good news, then, that Ultima provided Wallumrød—best known as leader of the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble that, over the past decade, has released a series of austere ECM recordings increasingly rooted in through-composition, combinging Baroque concerns with more contemporary classical constructs, most recently on the superb Outstairs (2013)— the chance to represent his piece, updated and re-titled When celebrities dream of casual sleep (second try), in a program along with Alvin Lucier's Exploration of the House. Who knew that the conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Jonathan Stockhammer, would take such an unorthodox approach to performing the two pieces. Explaining, in his introduction to the audience, that some of the questions he hoped to address were "how music comes into us" and "how we perceive it," Stockhammer then announced that the pieces would not be clearly delineated from one-another, and with a quick "Good luck!" the performance began.

Lucier's piece takes fragments from the Overture to Beethoven's little-known Consecration of the House Overture, with the orchestra's performance recorded in real time and then, with the orchestra putting its instruments down, replayed a number of times, with each iteration decreasing in volume and feeling as though it was slowly being submerged underwater. After the iterations were completed, Stockhammer—along with, at times, two additional conductors, each taking charge of their own subset of the Radio Orchestra—would introduce a segment of Wallumrød music, easily identifiable stylistically while, at the same time, something completely new for the composer/pianist, who was aslso in the audience for the performance.

Of Wallumrød's work, contrasting sections were sometimes juxtaposed, other times played in concert, combining hard-plucked strings with minimalist-informed passages that were, at times, strongly based in rhythm, other times more ethereal and (at least seemingly) rubato in nature. Delicate arpeggios contrasted with swooping glissandi, creating a constant tension and release that was most effective.

Where the Stockhammer's concept failed was that this mashup of two pieces—especially the recording and playback of orchestral segments from Lucier's piece—began to wear thin after a couple of iterations. By the third and fourth times that Lucier's repeated/submerged fragments were repeated, the concept began to tire; a valiant attempt, perhaps, but it would seem that, on the strength of each piece, they might well have been served better had they been performed separately, to be heard and assessed on their own merits. Soundcloud recordings of Exploration of the House, where there's only one repeat before the orchestra performs the next fragment, seem to work far better, and it would have been more satisfying to hear When celebrities dream of casual sleep (second try) performed as a discrete composition.

September 12: Conexions/Musicity / The Delusion of the Fury / Streifenjunko

Thursday was a busy day. First up was the launch of Musicity in Oslo—not connected with Ultima—a collaboration with Conexions, the series of Norwegian/British pairings now in its second series, curated by Fiona Talkington, a longtime advocate of the Norwegian scene and host of BBC Radio 3's popular Late Junction series. Created by Simon Jordan and Nick Luscombe, Musicity is, as its website explains, "a location-based, curated music platform that explores the intersection of music, place, memory and experience." Prior to Talkington approaching Luscombe and Jordan, Musicity had been launched in London, Tokyo, Singapore, Shimokitazawa and ISETAN. Artists were invited to create music that, through a web-based app that is GPS (Global Positioning System)-sensitive, can be heard only at the specific location, which could be a building, a street corner....anywhere the artist chooses.

The Oslo launch, which took place at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria—newly placed under the direction of Jan Ole Otnæs, who left the Molde Jazz Festival after 13 years with a terrific program this past summer—included a live performance of guitarist Knut Reiersrud's gently positive piece, which was located at the Oslo Domkirke, and a playback of singer/songwriter Susanna Wallumrod's contribution, which could be heard at the corner of Grubbegata and Hammersborg gata, where Anders Behring Breivik launched the initial 2011 bombing that was ultimately a deflection to his real goal—the tragic shooting of 69 youths on the nearby island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden, Buskerud. "This Place" was a powerful, moving and ultimately beautiful piece that, as Susanna described at the press conference, used her voice and body in different ways than her norm; a song about being at a specific location but also finding a mental place in which to go.

British composer Iain Chambers was also on-hand to talk about his piece, written for the Oslo Opera House and in collaboration with Tape-to-Zero Festivals' Kjetil Husebø and Terje Evensen—largely field recordings with the goal of "finding the secret resonance of the building." With Husebø and Evensen giving Chambers secret recordings from areas not normally accessible to the public at the Opera House, the objective of Chambers' piece was to honor his imagining of these secret places.

Other artists invited to contribute to Musicity Oslo were drummer/percussionist Audun Kleive and saxophonist Froy Aagre (also on-hand at the press conference). The beauty of Musicity is that it becomes a permanent installation in the city, and all the city has to do to keep it going is make sure it is mentioned in tour guides, along with a link to where the web app can be downloaded. It is also possible to register at the Musicity site and download MP3 versions of the music, in order to listen to the music without being at the location. But there's something specifically compelling about hearing music at the location for which it was written, and with Musicity looking to expand further in Europe and into North America, it could be coming to your town sometime soon.

That evening, walking into the National Theatre, just one look at the stage was enough to suggest something special was about to happen. With instruments ranging from massive marimbas to large glass gourds, Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury was about to receive a 21st century makeover. While termed a theatre work—but not in any conventional sense—the piece was received with curiosity when it was first presented in 1969, having been composed three years prior. Its Oslo performance made clear that Partch and his composition were ahead of their time—and not just from musical or theatrical perspectives.

With some instruments so loud as to require almost no amplification, and others so quiet that they could not be heard a mere meter or two away, staging Delusion of the Fury was as much an exercise in logistics as it was a musical and theatrical effort. With over one hundred microphones (largely invisible), small stage monitors (also not seen) and two sound engineers to balance the entire soundstage for both the performers and audience, the size of the production was actually slightly more than double the 21 musicians/actors onstage, who were clothed in workers clothes and an assortment of unusual headpieces. That it took over a year to build the instruments, and just as long for the musicians to learn how to play them—all with generous funding support without which it would simply have not been possible—only made the final result something that was talked about for days after the event and will, no doubt, go down as one of Ultima's most memorable performances in its 22-year history.

The instruments were as intriguing to see as they were exotic to hear. While the concept of microtonality sounds daunting—suggesting dissonance and inaccessibility—there was no shortage of beauty in Partch's music. Despite being something of a separate entity unto himself, there were elements of Delusion that seemed connected to the emerging minimalist movement in the United States at the time of its writing, with its tuned glass and metal, in particular, redolent of the Gamelan that would so compel Steve Reich a decade later with 1976's Music for 18 Musicians.

Two tales—one, from a Japanese Noh drama about death and release from suffering, the second a more comedic Ethopian tale of ordinary life and relationships—were staged with stunning costumes and, unlike Le Grand Macabre from a few nights before, less melodramatic action. Still, no matter what they story, it was the music and impressive visual of the stage itself that made this 70-minute piece such a success. There were elements of humor (as when each member of the production brought a stuffed animal out to the front of the stage, lining them all up) and greater drama as well.

But ultimately It was the otherworldly yet thoroughly compelling nature of Partch's music that, with a great many musicians in the audience—ranging from Susanna and Helge Sten (Supersilent, Minibus Pimps) to Morten Qvenild (In The Country, pianist Kjetil Husebø and guitarist Bjørn Charles Dreyer—suggests not just a memorable performance, but one that may well have a palpable impact on these musicians' music. This may have been, for some, their first exposure to Partch, but it may turn out to be a new starting point for further exploration into the life and music of a man who may have been largely ignored in his lifetime (though he did have advocates like Frank Zappa), but who is gradually evolving into something more like a legend. As this new production hits the road, there's little doubt that it will help to elevate Partch into the upper echelon of groundbreaking 20th Century composers, where he's always belonged.

From the National Theatre it was a brisk walk to the Akershus Slottskirke (Akershus Castle Church), part of a fortress that dates back to the early 1300s. For North Americans, being in structures dating back nearly a thousand years can sometimes be as profound as the activities taking place within, but in this instance a late evening performance by the improvising duo Streifenjunko, with guests Christian Wallumrød and Sofia Jernberg was both ideally suited to the sonics of the small church and a performance so captivating in its use of overtones and gradual, quiet evolution that it may actually have trumped the beauty of the room itself.

Trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen, two intrepid musicians on the cusp of thirty, have been working together as Streifenjunko since 2009, with three releases since their SOFA Records debut, No Longer Burning. Though completely improvised, and predicated on extended techniques and sounds not normally associated with their instruments—the sound of breath, pops, clicks, burrs and more—Streifenjunko's music does possess its own intrinsic sense of purpose; improvisation that is more than mere experiment, it assumes form and function, albeit in ways totally alien to conventional musical form and, therefore, an ideal dovetail with the admittedly more dramatic Partch program earlier in the evening.

Adding Wallumrød (on piano and harmonium, and with whom Lønning and Reinertsen currently work in his Ensemble) and Jernberg—whose vocal performance with the similarly experimental The New Songs, heard in 2012 at the Trondheim Jazz Festival, was a revelation of its own—was an inspired decision, and based on this performance, one that Streifenjunko should definitely consider continuing. The addition of two more voices—many more, truly, when considering the chordal capabilities of Wallumrød's instruments, though he never overwhelmed the duo's founding premise of quietude—broadened the group's palette considerably. Communication amongst the four was palpable, and the manner in which they managed to ebb and flow, allow for long periods of silence and, more strikingly, start and stop with seemingly nothing more than subtle eye contact suggested an intense degree of listening both rare and perhaps impossible outside the purview of the softer dynamics that so defined the music and allowed for such clear communication.

That's not to suggest there weren't moments of sharper angularity or even louder passages; only that the attention to dynamics was so intense, so complete, that the slightest shift became dramatic, the most nominal of gestures from any single musician so significant as to cause a directional shift amongst the four. It was an otherworldly performance that demanded as much of its audience as it did the performers, but by the end of the hour-long set, everyone was the richer for it.

September 13: Oslo Philharmonic: Grenager, Ives, Zappa

Eight evenings earlier, Ultima 2013 kicked off with an all-Zappa program performed by Germany's Ensemble Modern—a group that had recorded a number of pieces by the late American satirist/guitarist/composer, but only managed to release one before his untimely passing in 1993. On the festival's penultimate evening—taking place on the annual Oslo kulturnatt (Oslo Culture Night), when free concerts are sponsored across the entire city at a multitude of venues and the festival contributes an open performance by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the Oslo Konserthus (Concert House)—Ultima once again paid tribute with a performance of Zappa's two-part "Sad Jane," originally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra on London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I (Barking Pumpkin, 1983). By placing it in a program that also included music by Charles Ives (a seminal influence on Zappa), as well as a newly commissioned work by cellist Lene Grenagar—a member of the improvising unit Spunk and guest on a number of projects including Albatrosh's Mystery Orchestra (Inner Ear, 2010)—Ultima successfully contextualized Zappa's music within the context of what came before and what has followed after.

The Ultima program described the three pieces as "Three Artists: One Spirit," and despite the three composers being separated by time and geography—Zappa born in Baltimore 14 years and 400 kilometers before Connecticut-born Ives' passing in 1954, and Grenager born 15 years later and 6200 kilometers away, in 1969—there were clear connecting points in the independent spirit of each composer's work. Conducted by Baldur Brönnimann, the evening presented ten songs from Ives' repertoire—five arranged by John Adams and an additional five arranged by Georg Haas, sung by baritone Leigh Melrose.

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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