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Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010
John Kelman By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].
The 90-minute bus ride from Kongsberg to Oslo is a relatively uninteresting journey; largely inland, passing through a number of small towns, it's pleasant enough, but compared to the rapidly running river in Kongsberg—or, even more, the stunning fjords of Bergen, Stavanger or Molde—it's far less dramatic countryside than that of past trips. That said, as the bus approached Oslo, things began to get more interesting.
Oslo Operahuset (Opera House)

Designed by Snøhetta, the same people who designed Tubaloon in Kongsberg, the Oslo Operahuset (Opera House) opened in 2008 and features three performance spaces and 1100 rooms—not to mention a tremendous sloping area towards the water that was built with skateboarders in mind.

After visiting Bergen, Stavanger, Molde, Kristiansand and Kongsberg over the past five years, the first impression of Oslo is that this is the closest thing to a "big" city as can be found on Norway. There are skyscrapers, and a mix of old and new architecture. It may be Norway's quiet month, where most folks are on vacation, but there are plenty of tourists wandering around Oslo, so it's hard to imagine what the streets are like when more of its residents are out as well.

Oslo City Center

The plans for Oslo are simple: do a little sightseeing, meet up with a few people—ranging from record label heads like Rune Grammofon's Rune Kristoffersen and NORCD's Karl Seglem to artists including saxophonist Petter Wettre, drummer/sound sculptor Terje Evernsen, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, guitarist Stian Westerhus and pianist Helge Lien, as well as representatives from organizations like Music Information Center—and take a trip to Rainbow Studio, home of so many ECM recordings, for an informal chat with its owner/engineer, Jan Erik Kongshaug. The live scene is quiet at this time of year, for jazz in particular (most artists are on the road already or preparing for festival appearances), but if time permits and the opportunity arises, perhaps there will be a show or two in the cards as well.

Chapter Index
  1. July 13: A Visit to Rune Grammofon HQ
  2. July 13: Music Information Centre
  3. July 13: Coffee with Petter Wettre
  4. July 13: Dinner with Terje Evensen
  5. July 14: Tourist for a Day
  6. July 14: Dinner with Karl Seglem


July 13: A Visit to Rune Grammofon HQ

Rune Grammofon started in 1997 with the release of 1-3—noise improv group Supersilent's much-lauded three disc debut, now releasing a dozen titles a year, ranging from the lyrical piano trio of Espen Eriksen to the more sonically expansive trio In The Country, pop group Susanna and The Magical Orchestra, keyboard power trio group Elephant9, indie/prog rockers Motorpsycho and ambient folk experimentalists Huntsville. The label has also launched a vinyl-only imprint this past year, The Last Record Company, though they've been dabbling in vinyl since Supersilent 6 (2003), putting Rune Grammofon on the bleeding edge of the recent resurgence of interest in 12" platters.

Rune Grammofon Head Rune Kristoffersen

The Rune office is in an inauspicious location, sharing space with the larger Grappa label (which distributes ECM in Norway), up three flights of stairs in an old office building near City Hall. For a label that's now 13 years-old, and has, in many ways, redefined the scope and potential of Norwegian independents, it's no particular surprise that Molde Jazz 2010 will, in addition to its Artist in Residence program, feature Rune Grammofon as its first Label in Residence. "I just had the idea that since they have the 50 year celebration—actually one of the oldest jazz festivals in Europe, maybe the oldest jazz festival—I thought maybe they could do a label residence, and they took the bait," says Kristoffersen. "We had some good discussions and I more or less left it up to the festival to decide the artists.

"They also had the idea about a cover exhibition, at the local arts center in Molde," Kristoffersen continues, "which I thought was good, and I'm very curious about how they've handled it, because I've not yet seen it. We're doing an exhibition of the complete works, which is the sleeves themselves, and then we have some posters and things. When we were celebrating our fifth year we had an event in London, at an art gallery, with an exhibition where we had blow-ups of details from sleeves, which is quite nice, and we did a couple of concerts at the same time. They've been stored away in flight cases ever since, for seven years now, and now they're out, and are going to be a part of it at Molde. It's really nice stuff; they really liked it there as well."

The festival will also host a number of performances by Rune Grammofon artists, including one very special event that promises to be especially noteworthy. "In the Country will be there," says Kristoffersen, "Espen Eriksen Trio will be there, we have Bushman's Revenge, Puma, Stian Westerus is doing a show with [singer] Sidsel Endresen. Motorpsycho is doing a big thing with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Trondheim Solistene, which is a really high level orchestra, and it's all been put together by [keyboardist] Ståle Storløkken, from Supersilent; he's sort of the main musical director of the whole thing."

Speaking of Supersilent, after taking something of a hiatus between 2004 and 2007, and losing drummer Jarle Vestpestad last year, the group is now busier than ever. "Supersilent will have possibly three albums out this autumn," Kristoffersen explains. "The first one is due late August, and that's an interesting one, it's the first recording they did as a trio. They did it at Rainbow Studio, and Ståle is playing quite a lot of acoustic piano [Editor's Note: 2009's 9 was Supersilent's first release without Vespestad, but the session was recorded after the one described here by Kristoffersen]. It's excellent. One of them is from the 8 (2007) sessions, where they really had a lot of material, and one they did at the studio where they have done quite a lot of things. I haven't heard that one, but the Supersilent 8 tracks are really good; I think that one might be vinyl only."

Releasing three projects from one group in a year is rare in the current climate—rare, in fact, since the 1960s and '70s, when artists like Miles Davis released as many as four albums in a single year. In some ways its validation of the label's growth from underdog/underground label to one that, while not by any means mainstream, has gained the kind of acceptance and brand loyalty from its fans that's not unlike larger labels like ECM, which Rune Grammofon distributed in Norway until a few years ago. "I am saying that twelve is the absolute limit of what we can do each year," Kristoffersen says, "but I'm going to over it this year [laughs]. It's been a frustrating thing, and a problem, if you like, for the past few years, that there's just so much that I'd like to release. Lately, I've been starting to turn down really good Norwegian stuff, because it's a capacity problem, and I don't have a really big ambition about growing and hiring a lot of people."

"Obviously it's problematic to grow, because of how the business is at the moment. There's a limit to how many CDs you can sell; maybe CDs are on the way out. Obviously if I had a major big seller somehow, I might have to get somebody in; but when you don't have that and you're back to the marginal stuff, then what do you do? I don't know. Most people abroad think this is an operation that's three or four people; everybody takes that as a certainty. But I'm only one, basically, with Melanie Arents, who moved to Oslo a couple years back and now does promotion for Rune Grammofon in Germany and a guy in London who does some promotion. I do everything, including sending out the mail order. So, you can call it a problem, but it's not a bad problem."

Kristoffersen continues to marvel at the seemingly endless growth of the music scene in Norway. "It's crazy. Several years ago I was thinking, 'When is this going to stop? It's just a boom or a wave, it has to stop.' But it's just been increasing over quite a lot of years, since 1997 when it all started with Bugge [Wesseltoft] and Nils Petter [Molvær] and Supersilent. So that's when it started, but it's been 12-13 years now, and it's just not normal [laughs]."

Crazy it may be, but with a constant proliferation of new labels, and imprints like Rune Grammofon, Jazzland, and others now representing, to some extent, "legacy" labels, there seems to be no end to the groundswell of music coming out of Norway.

July 13: Music Information Centre

One of the aspects to Norway that differentiates it from so many other countries, is the support afforded not just to music, but to all forms of culture. Even jazz—certainly a marginalized art form in most countries—receives tremendous assistance from governments on a federal and municipal level. At the heart of the federal funding program for music in Norway is the Music Information Centre (MIC). Situated in the Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library), the building itself may be old, but inside, entering MIC, there are computers with large, widescreen monitors and a distinctively modernist bent. Martin Revheim is the Director of MIC, and it would be hard to find a more qualified person. He started the legendary Oslo club Blå, ran a record label, was the director of the Kongsberg Jazz Festival for four years, and all this while not yet forty years old.

Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library), home of Music Information Center

"The Music Information Centre has been running for more than thirty years," Revheim explains, "and it's based on the mandate of promoting the Norwegian music scene in general, in all genres; making Norwegian music more visible, more heard, with more income to the performers and the composers. We do this by adding three pillars in our activity: we act as a publisher—we have over 14,000 scores of Norwegian music, 8,000 of them already digitized; we act as a promoter with an English site called Listen To—we make the publications of Listen to Norway, we make a radio show called 99 Minutes of Bliss, and we are running a Norwegian website; and we work with a total index of performers, records—everything in our database—and we also run an independent web publication for debate and features on the Norwegian music scene. Sometimes it's a challenge to pinpoint the core activity, but this is what we do and we are now 13 people running the Centre."

MIC also acts as a funnel for a variety of other organizations. "We are run by five of the biggest and most important organizations within the Norwegian music scene, like the unions, and the organizations for all the independent record labels, the composers union...so it's quite a broad variety of organizations that own us. In terms of funding we are funded by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we act as the advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it comes to questions about music. We also run the whole travel support thing on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so when Norwegian bands and ensembles apply for support for different projects outside of Norway, it's run by the Music Information Centre. It's funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but MIC acts as the conduit."

MIC also puts programs together for people abroad, to expose them to Norwegian music through attending any of the 500+ festivals that take place in Norway each and every year. "I think one of the advantages is that we get our support from the two Ministries." Revheim explains. "We don't get any support from private sponsors, or anything with a specific interest in any field. There are several semi-neutral organizations, but our mandate is to be totally neutral to any festival, organizer, whatever...so we work for and with everyone, depending on different projects. And being a festival in Germany, for instance, or anywhere in the world, and wanting to get to know more about the Norwegian music scene, we act as a starting point for many of these projects. We put together programs; when a booker comes to Norway, he/she will meet with several different people. When you travel as a booker you always meet other bookers, or you meet another record label, and they will, of course, narrow the view and the total scope of what you experience in Norway, so we try to make it as open as possible, and we mostly facilitate different meetings. When this is all going well we just go onto another project, start trying to get more people together and make new projects happen."

With ten foreign promoters and correspondents converging on Molde next week, what is MIC's role? "We always work on what is interesting for the festival or the label or whatever; we don't force any projects on anyone. The attendees are invited by the festival, funded mostly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What we do is to operate and help it work; so I will be there together with the visitors and make some sort of arrangements around the event, so we are more involved as a partner. The festival knows who is best matched to its program and profile, and I think it's getting better and better in Norway, using the specific competence in every different organization or festival, rather than being an office that tells people 'this journalist is coming to your festival,' because it could be a mismatch. So the people that are coming to Molde are people that the festival knows have an interest in the festival and the festival program, and they actually have something there to do. So we just help out."

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