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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival
John Kelman By

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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.


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