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2013 Ultima Contemporary Music Festival

John Kelman By

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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.


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