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

John Kelman By

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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."

July 13: Coffee with Petter Wettre

Saxophonist Petter Wettre is, perhaps, something of an anomaly on the Norwegian scene. Schooled at Boston's Berklee College of Music rather than Norwegian schools like the Trondheim Conservatory (from which artists like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad and trumpeter Arve Henriksen emerged), his growing discography speaks with a distinct voice that, more than many of his peers, comes more directly from the American tradition. As the question of what is jazz and what constitutes a jazz player continues to be debated heatedly around the globe, Wettre's views are, to say the least, controversial. His view is that there are, indeed, fundamental prerequisites that need to be met before an artist calls him or herself a "jazz musician." With fourteen albums as a leader—each one different conceptually than the others, ranging from solo composed saxophone performances to duos, trios, quartets and more—Wettre has collaborated with American saxophonist Dave Liebman and has been seen most recently as a member of drummer Manu Katche's touring group, splitting the duty with another Norwegian saxophonist, Tore Brunborg. In many ways, with feet in both the American jazz tradition and a Norwegian scene that often chooses to discard that tradition in pursuit of something else, he's in a unique position to bring perspective to the subject.

Wettre asserts that, for every Jon Christensen or Arild Andersen, who may play distinctly Norwegian music but can swing like hell when the situation demands, there's a whole other tier of musicians who have no real grounding in the tradition that initially defined what jazz is. "Since my background is from Berklee," says Wettre, "my whole concept of playing is based on the American tradition. Even if you are playing Norwegian jazz, I think you need to have a certain knowledge of what you are doing. And since there are Norwegian jazz musicians—or, at least Norwegian musicians—that call themselves jazz musicians, there should be some prerequisites for them to call themselves jazz musicians. And I've been analyzing—not arresting them, but I've been quite vocal on the scene—and expressing my thoughts about what you need to know before you can call yourself a jazz musician. Not that I know everything, but there are certain things—if you are going to play a swing tune in this tempo [snaps his fingers], then you should be able to swing, and there are certain ways to get to that.

"How I conceive, since I took my education in the States and am now teaching students in Norway—I teach at the Kristiansand Conservatory—I've kind of visited both worlds and I'm doing workshops and classes and have students from Trondheim, and have also done things in Oslo. So I know kind of the vibe that goes on. I must say it's a lot better; when I came back from Berklee in 1992, I was treated like I was a leper, they did not want to have anything to do with me, playing American jazz and being a white guy in Norway. But then there were people interested in Coltrane, and swing was popular again, but that was after years and years and years of long notes, a lot of reverb...whatever that was.

"I've also been vocal on the scene, expressing my thoughts of the Norwegian money system and how we support the arts," Wettre continues. "We have so much money here that everyone gets a chance, which I think makes it very hard for people to choose, because everyone is on the scene; everyone has the same promotional budget; everybody has a CD. So if you are not really interested, it's hard for you to figure out what you should get. So you end up with a lot of people, I won't say smart, but smart enough to push their album to the front of the line despite the fact that they can't play particularly well, but are very good at promoting themselves. So you end up having a lot of CDs that are half-assed."

With perhaps more professional musicians per capita than any other country, a lower signal to noise ratio would be expected. Aside from being a good promoter, what's a musician to do? "It's kind of hard for me to criticize the system because it's been very generous to me," Wetter says. "I have tons of support, I've done fourteen albums and I've done tours with famous musicians in Norway and abroad. So I also use the system, so in a way it makes it impossible for me to actually criticize it. At least once a year I go to New York and I stay there for a week or two and hang out with friends, go to clubs, and just get inspired. And I meet all these great players with no means, no money, they just play because they love to play and they organize sessions where they play for the door or for free.

"Over here," Wettre continues, "the mentality is, 'We want to have $500 before we even talk about anything. People aren't hungry here; they come right out of school and expect to be treated like Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, they're going to have single rooms at the hotel, they're going to have meals, they're going to have wine in the back room, they're going to get 5,000 Kroners each. What the hell are you talking about? You can't even play 'Bye Bye Blackbird," you haven't proven anything."

In many ways it's a positive that Norwegian musicians are treated like professionals; they actually make a living; they have support from the government; they have homes, they have families, they have normal lives. But there's something to be said for being hungry. "Well, the thing is, and I don't want to generalize too much," says Wettre, "but what I experience is that a lot of people complain that there are no places to play, and the salaries are too low...it's hard to get support, and then you go to New York and you see these guys can play 200 times better than anyone I know, but these guys don't have anything. And, of course, it's bad that these guys don't have a house, that they can't have a family, so in a way there's nothing wrong with the support itself. That's very generous and very helpful and very good. It's just that the mentality that the money produces—you get the notion that you must be excellent, and there's no reason for you to do anything more now. I feel that, but then again, it's been almost twenty years since I came back from Berklee, I'm 42 now, so my conception about things is way different than a guy who's 25—maybe I was like that when I was 25, I don't remember. "

Perhaps the problem is not that there's money; the problem is in how it's used. "That's one of the things," says Wettre." You shouldn't criticize anything until you have a solution. So I try not to be too critical; I just want to have a decent life, I don't want to have too much to worry about. I just want to think about myself and what I can do better. Not worry that that guy can't play as good as I can but he gets more money. If I start to do that, I'll just be a grumpy old man, and that's not going to benefit anyone. But then again, I see it, and every now and then I can't help but reflect on it a bit, and I pretty much keep quiet about it, but if people ask me, I owe them the correct answer, or at least an honest one."

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