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Northern Expo 2018

Ian Patterson By

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We have to say thank you to all these amazing artists - you have given us an experience…it’s hard to tell what we have actually seen and experienced today —Arne O. Holm, Norwegian journalist
Northern Expo
Various Venues
Svalbard, Norway
October 4-6, 2018

There are music showcases and there is Northern Expo. The idea, if not the logistical operation behind it, was simple enough. Invite a few dozen international music industry movers and shakers to Svalbard, an archipelago half way between Norway and the North Pole. There, present them with some of Northern Norway's finest contemporary musicians and dancers in settings both conventional and, as was the case with the abandoned Russian coalmining town, settings altogether more surreal.

For three days in Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, festival directors/programmers from the likes of Primavera Sound, Silence Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, Improvised Music Company, WOMAD, Arctic Arts Festival, Katowice JazzArt Festival, Northwind Festival, SXSW, Bukta Tromsø Open Air Festival and Jazzfest Berlin, alongside record label managers, booking agents, studio producers, journalists and a number of Norwegian arts development agencies were presented with some of the best contemporary folk, pop, rock, electronic and Sami music, and dance, from Northern Norway.

With artists and delegates lodged in the same hotel—the excellent Funken Lodge—there was plenty of opportunity to network and forge business relationships in a very sociable atmosphere. One unusual feature of Longyearbyen—and there are many—is that it is a tax haven, so you don't need to re-mortgage your house to buy a round of drinks, as you do on the Norwegian mainland. It was noticeable each evening, however, that a lot more chatting was going on than dedicated drinking, a fairly reliable indication of the seriousness of the collective intent.

Music and dance were the twin engines driving Northern Expo but the three-day gathering was fundamentally about human connections. The intimacy of the showcase events and the close proximity of artists and delegates promoted exchanges that were notable for their warmth and directness.

Northern Expo could have been staged in Oslo or Bergen, for example, at much reduced cost to the organizers, but the plan from the outset was clearly to present showcases in a special environment -one that would frame the music and dance showcases—and the conversations around them—in a unique, unforgettable way.

The setting for Norther Expo was special, to say the least. Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated of the Svalbard islands, with just over two and a half thousand multi-national residents living there in the town of Longyearbyen.

At 78° North, it is the most northerly, permanently populated settlement—research stations apart—in the world. As a result, absolutely everything here is 'the most northerly this' or 'the most northerly that' in the world, though refreshingly, the town's commercial enterprises refrain from constantly advertising the fact. The most northerly hamburger, the most northerly beer, the most northerly souvenir shop -you could see the potential for it to begin to grate.

Surrounded by snow-covered mountains, glaciers and fjords, Longyearbyen rests in truly spectacular landscape. To see the rising sun illuminate such dramatic vistas was an edifying experience. Romanced by nature, music and dance alike, it was impossible not to be completely charmed. Even before the showcases proper had begun, the delegates and musicians were uniformly effusive in their praise of this ambitious and one-of-a-kind event.

The organization behind Northern Expo was the Network for Music Business Development in Northern Norway (RYK), a collaboration between Northern Norway Centre for Music Business, Northern Norwegian Jazz Centre and Northern Norway Centre for Traditional Music and Dance. The geographical sphere of interest attests to the RYK's business strategy—the focus on a reduced area and on a particular identity, one which can be a useful marketing tool, as well as providing leverage for regional funding.

Regional identity, arguably, often comes before national identity for many people, while national borders often fail to recognize the wider dispersion of linguistic and ethnic groups -of shared heritage. The Sami people of Arctic Europe are one example, their terrain extending over northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Norwegian Sami, the largest population of Sami in Arctic Europe, were represented by two of the showcase groups, one from the north and one from the south , although their music, and respective languages couldn't have been more different.

If one characteristic defined Northern Expo it was the contrasts between the showcase groups performing.

From the seductive folk-rock of Julietnorth to the sophisticated pop of Petter Carlsen, from the jazz-Sami hybrid of Ánnásuolo to the introspective piano/electronic minimalism of Mørk, and from the infectious pop/rock of Violet Road to the avant-garde dance group Kartellet, the showcases were nothing if not eclectic -an indication of the breadth of contemporary Norwegian artists beyond the better-known metal and jazz/improvised music exports that have been a staple of international festivals for several decades.

The late addition of Sami singer Marja Mortenssen with tuba sensation Daniel Herskedal, who welcomed the arriving delegates with a haunting tune at the dinner/opening ceremony on the first evening, was a welcome bonus.

Day One

Opening Concert

The locals turned out in force for the opening concert of Northern Expo, filling the Longyearbyen Concert Hall to capacity. Few, if any in the audience, could have predicted the evening's format, with all the artists performing back-to-back and uninterrupted in a seventy-five-minute suite-like performance of striking audio-visual contrasts. For the delegates, likely more used to watching one forty-minute showcase after another, Northern Expo's taster concept was refreshing to say the very least, and great credit must go to Artistic Director Brynjar Rasmussen for taking such a conceptual risk. It was a bold concept to bleed one act into the next—and highly diverse acts at that—but one that was brilliantly executed.

The opening to proceedings could not have been more dramatic, as the deep, bass voice of Daniel Herskedal's tuba sounded an ethereal opening fanfare -the tubist positioned in the central aisle. On stage, singer-songwriter Petter Carlsen sculpted dreamy vocal soundscapes over Jakop Janssønn's gently metronomic beat and Kristian Olstad's subtly atmospheric electric guitar. Melancholy yet epic, Carlsen's voice soared as Herskedal, standing centrally below the stage, unleashed a booming pulse. It was a powerful opening, cleverly choreographed, with Carlsen evoking the spirit of Thom Yorke.

Olstad slid in behind a harmonium tucked away at the back of the stage to the left as fiddler Julie Alapnes entered stage-left, her folkloric air buoyed by pillowy drums and hymnal-like harmonium. Her pizzicato fiddle motif was picked up by all as a rock-fuelled, rhythmically driving passage ensued. In time, gentle acoustic guitar held sway, as Alapnes and Carlsen in turn sang a beguiling, folk-tinged song with epic undercurrents.

A burst of electronic noise followed by a New Age pop beat announced a change of direction as the five-piece dance group Kartellet wove their way through and around the audience, bouncing tennis balls with childish glee. In its scripted though loosely choreographed routine, the five men skipped and spun through the audience, tossing the balls back and forth with the crowd. As a piece of theatre it was simple in design though effective in engaging the audience, including those who wondered what the hell was going on.

The transition from the New Age pop beat to minimalist ambient grooves was seamless. Benjamin Mørk, armed with a prepared piano, a set of keyboards/electronics and a microphone, embarked on an ambient journey that drew on minimalist and Ibiza-sundown schools of cool. After the initial, dream-like sequence, drummer Aleksander Kostopoulos injected hefty groove, which he gradually ratcheted up against a psychedelic visual backdrop.

Mørk then swapped electronics for acoustic piano, unfurling a spare melody that was lulling yet cinematic. This was the first time that Mørk had played piano in concert for five years, having been submerged in the interim in making disco music, but if there were any nerves they didn't show in what was a quietly commanding performance.

The lights dropped, and from the darkened stage the sound of softly plucked kalimba arose. From the drum stool, Jakop Janssønn stirred the kalimba as Herskedal joined him with his deep tuba purr. Sami joik singer Marja Mortenssen provided the third piece in the puzzle, her haunting voice, residing in a terrain somewhere between lament and ode to love on this highly affecting number. Mortenssen exited, though Herskedal's low tuba drone provided the bridge between two Sami traditions as northern Sami group Ánnásuolo took over from southern Sami singer Mortenssen.

Eirik Fjelde's shimmering keyboard drone underpinned guitarist John-Kåre Hansen's breathy vocal incantation -the prelude to Marianne Pentha's soothing, though uplifting vocal. Hansen, a jazz guitarist in the Jim Hall tradition, soloed with beautiful precision and clarity before Pentha steered the song to its resting berth. A second number embarked from a circling piano motif and Hansen's deft embellishments, a gentle bed from which Pentha's balladry softly rose. Vocal harmony punctuated Pentha's sustained phrases, in a song defined by simple, though elegant melodic gestures.

Electronic pop once more filled the air as Kartellet spun around the room, mostly in pairs. Their animated waltz, fusing traditional and contemporary influences was short- lived, though acted like a palette cleanser of sorts before the five-piece Violet Road closed the seventy-five minute showcase with its infectious brand of pop-rock. Singer-guitarist Kjetil Holmstad-Solberg's English-sung lyrics dealt with affairs of the heart, the striking melodic contours of the first number and "Keep on Running" boosted by vocal harmonies from brothers guitarist Halvard Rundberg (guitars), Hogne Runberg (bass) and Håkon Rundberg (keyboards) and Espen Høgmo's unrelenting beat.

A grungy, electric mandolin riff announced set closer "Jericho," a thumping rock anthem of searing power chords, reggae-ish rhythms and sing-along refrain. The crowd loved it, though you suspect a standing-only or festival-type venue would have been more suited to Violet Road's booty-shaking aesthetic.

With three drum sets, three banks of keyboards and a piano, pedal boards, electronic gizmos and multiple electric and acoustic instruments on stage from the outset, the sound team of Thor-Ivar Lund and Aleksander Rydland Hansen had no fewer than ninety four inputs to contend with.

That there were no major issues and perhaps only one acoustic instrument a little low in the mix was a considerable achievement. Torbjörn Sandnes and Sigurd Johan Heide also deserve plaudits for the atmospheric lighting and ever-evolving visual choreography that framed the music, contributing greatly to the overall impact of the seventy-five-minute performance. Venue technician Kyrre Fledsburg and production assistant Anders Søvik rounded out the excellent technical team, whose role in the evening's success cannot be overstated.

Day Two

A Boat Trip Through Storied Waters

It was a short bus-ride to the jetty on Friday morning, where the delegates boarded the Langoysund, a boat that has been plying the fjords of Svalbard for sixty years. With the temperature at five below zero everyone was well wrapped up. The all-Philippine crew was testament the multi-national diversity of Longyearbyen, where over a third of the population are non-Norwegian. In the local kindergarten, according to the Svalbard Posten, over sixty per cent of the children have non-Norwegian parents -all seeking a better life in the High North.

As the Langoysund set out up Adventfjorden, Arne O. Holm, a renowned Norwegian journalist and editor with thirty five years' experience in Svalbard—and the delegates' dedicated guide throughout Northern Expo—painted a colorful picture of adventures old and more recent on the island.

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