Polar Jazz / Arctic Mood
February 3-7, 2011
Flying into Longyearbyen is a surreal experience. It's a two-day trip from North Americaone day to get to Oslo, Norway, and the second to make the final trek above the Arctic Circle to the islands of Svalbard, about halfway between the northernmost tip of mainland Norway and the North Pole, on which the town is situated. Despite flying generally west from Norway (but farther north as well), which would normally be towards the light, even at two in the afternoon it actually gets darker, as the plane approaches the islands, bordered on the east by the Barents Sea, the west by Greenland Sea, and the north by the Arctic Ocean.
And it's an odd place to go for a music festival, especially in early February, when the town is still largely in the dark, three months into a four-month Arctic winter where the sun, at best, approachesbut never actually breaksover the horizon. At this time of year there's some light, for a few hours a day between about 10am and 2pm; but even then it's an otherworldly experience, with stunning colors ranging from a salmon pink to indigo blue creating vivid contrast against days that are largely pitch black. What better place to debut Arctic Mood
, a new multimedia collaboration between musician Brynjar Rasmussen and photographer Werner Anderson, commissioned by Nordnorsk Jazzsenter (NNJS), one of four organizations (north, south, east and west) that exist in Norway to promote jazz music throughout the country...and the world. Flying into Svalbard
That Norway, with a population of only about five million people, has the active music scene it doeswith groundbreaking artists ranging from trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer
and Arve Henriksen
to guitarists Stian Westerus and Eivind Aarset
has been the subject of much coverage at All About Jazz
over the past several years. But Arctic Mood
presents an even more extreme view of Norwegian intrepidity: a culture that, rather than viewing obstacles as insurmountable, sees them as unique opportunities for exploration; mere problems to be solved. That Longyearbyena town with 2,200 inhabitants and the northernmost developed settlement in the wordwould host this celebration of its own harsh and extreme, but undeniably beautiful, environment makes complete sense; that it's part of an annual winter jazz festival, Polar Jazz, is all the more special. Still: who would want to come to Svalbard in the middle of Polar Winter?
The answer: a great many. There's only one flight per day to and from Longyearbyen from Tromsømainland Norway's largest northern city, with 50,000 peopleand it's not some small commuter jet; the SAS plane making the roughly 100-minute flight can handle about 150 people, and it's so packed that some of the journalists and associates invited to Polar Jazz 2011 for the world premiere of Arctic Mood
had to stay an extra day, as the flight leaving Lobngyearbyen, the day after the festival's conclusion on February 5, 2011, was absolutely full. And the flights weren't just filled with musicians, journalists and guests of the festival, either: a mathematics professor, American by birth but living in London, England for two decades, made a weekend trip to Svalbard, to experience life in the Arctic; another couple flew up from Oslo to visit their children and grandchildren; and a twenty-something manager of Tromsø's most popular coffee shop made the trip for a week's vacation to visit a friend who's been living on Svalbard for a year-and-a-half. And that's only a few of the stories.
There's a lot to love about Longyearbyen. The town is a remarkable melting pot of people from 21 different nationalities; artificial, in that it's a constructed community, where everyone has a jobfrom the 2,000+ students attending the university, and the coal miners who make sure the town's power plant and its backup station are properly stoked, to maintenance workers for the town's hotels, retail folk in Longyearbyen's surprisingly varied shopping facilities and restaurants/bars, and tourism employees ready to dress guests up and take them into the surrounding mountains and ice caves by snowmobile and dog sled. Still, for all its diversity, it's a surprisingly tightly knit bunch that cites, second to the clean, beautiful locale, the strong sense of community as another big reason why they may come to Svalbard for postings of a year or two, but invariably stay much longer. Living costs are high (though salaries are commensurate), but taxes are lowhalf of Norway's usual income taxes, in fact, encouraging some to live in Svalbard a few years, to save some money, return to the mainland and buy a home.
For all of Longyearbyen's high tech naturea satellite installation exists, just out of town, as well as a world-renowned observatory, where the location provides unique opportunities for study of atmospheric conditions and outer spacethere's always the feeling that you're nothing more than a guest, even if you're a permanent resident. Sure, there are paved roads and power lines, but there's no denying the extreme conditions: it's illegal to go outside at night alone without a rifle, as polar bears are part of the indigenous life of Svalbard, along with birds, Arctic foxes, reindeer and more; and students of the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) are required to take a week's survival training, to ensure, amongst many things (including learning how to handle a rifle), that they can survive in the wilds, should they somehow become trapped there.
More than most places in the world, people don't own Svalbard; they just live there, with an attitude towards the environment that has nothing to do with pontification and everything to do with reality. Everyone is a practical, pragmatic environmentalist; there's not a speck of dirt or litter on the streets, and there's a fundamental awareness that's all-pervasive, but everyone is also realistic. Coalso-criticized by couch environmentalistsis the town's primary power source, but it's mined locally, with half of the 75,000 tons produced annually kept for local power, and the rest exported. For those who want to talk about solar or wind power, the harsh reality of life in the Arctic is this: there's no sun for four months of the year; and the wind is simply not consistent enough to power a town where, if both the main and secondary power plant go down, evacuation begins immediately
Even tourism is geared towards the harsh realities of living in the Arctic, and not some soft, cushy ride. Skidoo trips to the mountains happen regardless of weather conditions, as do dog sled expeditions. "People come to Svalbard for the Arctic experience," said the tour guide to both the mountains trip and the ice caves. "Inclement weather is
the Arctic experience." And participants are largely expected to be fully engagedmost learn to drive the snowmobiles and sleds, and take part in harnessing and hooking the dogs up to their sleds.Longyearbyen
It's a stark, barren landscape, where temperatures are, thanks to the Gulf Stream, relatively temperate for the latitude. Still, it's dry, but the wind can be brutal, keeping normal winter temperatures around a balmy -15° to -20° Celsius, making proper clothing a prerequisite for all outdoor activities, with the cost of tourist trips also including any and all clothing necessary to keep everyone safe and relatively warm.
A festival largely designed for locals, Polar Jazz is far from the cutting edge; after all, with such a small population, it's not likely that there will be large scale support for things far left of center. With a program geared towards accessibility and entertainment, there was plenty to recommend, from a schedule of largely Norwegian artists ranging from the northern Manouche of guitarist Jon Larsen
's Hot Club de Norvege, and the stunning traditionalism of Farmers Market multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstsensen, to the chill music of singer Beady Belle and the conceptual specificity of singer Solveig Slettahjell
and her Slow Motion Orchestra. Chapter Index
February 3: Solveig Slettahjell
- February 3: Solveig Slettahjell
- February 4: Snowmobiling in the Mountains
- February 4: Bus Tour
- February 4: Beady Belle and PUST
- February 5: Svalbard Museum, University of Svalbard
- February 5: Arctic Mood
- February 5: Halvdan Sivertsen
- February 5: Stian Carstensen
- February 6: Winding Down in the Ice Caves
- February 7: Dog Sleds and Leaving Svalbard
Arriving at the Radisson Blu Hotel, and meeting up with a group of journalist and industry invitees that has, over the past several years, forged a strong bond, based on a shared fondness for the Norwegian scenedespite coming from locations as far afield as Canada, Japan, England, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Russiathere was little time to unpack before it was time to head over to Huset, a fine dining venue where a tremendous meal was served, with scallops starters and rare-cooked reindeer as the main course. As outstanding as the food and company were, however, even that opportunity to catch up with old and new friends was cut short, in order to get back to the hotel which, as the primary venue for Polar Jazz, was opening its doors for the first act of Polar Jazz 2011: Solveig Slettahjell. From left: Solveig Slettahjell, Sjur Miljeteig
Slettahjell has been on the Norwegian scene for a decade now, since she released her first, self-titled album with her Slow Motion Orchestra in 2001, introducing a concept that has been at the heart of the singer/songwriter's music ever since. Whether it's her original material with a greater pop predilection, from recent albums like Tarpan Seasons
(Universal Norway, 2010), or interpreting jazz standards on the earlier album Slow Motion Orchestra
(Curling Legs, 2001), the tempos are invariably kept down. Way down.
Slettahjells' Kristiansand, Norway performance at Punkt Festival 2007
provided ample proof that power and dramaturgy needn't require the high energy and obvious nature of faster tempos. As capable of a whisper as it is a scream, Slettahjell's assured vocal instincts and dynamic control meant that songs like the cabaret-style "Precise Content," one of the highlights of her Polar Jazz performance, could evolve inexorably and inevitably, as drummer Per Oddvar Johansenno stranger to ECM fans of The Source
, pianist Christian Wallumrod
and saxophonist Trygve Seim
drove the pulse to a simmering climax, with longtime trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig providing enough vocal support to allow her voice to soar.
The set was not without its problems. As fine a group as her current Slow Motion Orchestra wasin particular, keyboardist Morten Qvenild, of In The Country
and Susanna and The Magical Orchestra
, who layered almost subliminal synth washes and delicate, economical pianism throughout the setcompared to its 2007 Punkt performance, there were times when the group felt a little disconnected. Johansen's normally unshakable anchor sometimes got lost in the shuffle, as was also true of bassist Jo Berger Myhre. Guitarist Even Hermansen, of Bushman's Revenge
, who plays with unexpected restraint on Tarpan Seasons
, seemed to be searching more than finding; overplaying on a gentle tune like "Right as Rain," which works on the album because of the very sparsity of the accompaniment and a slow, inexorable build. And in a country of forward-thinking trumpeters like Mathias Eick
, Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvær and Per Jorgensen
, Miljeteig came off as merely competent. Morten Qvenild
Still, as flawed as Slow Motion Orchestra's set became at timesclearly an anomaly in the singer's unfolding careerSlettahjell's Polar Jazz 2011 performance succeeded on enough frontscarried, as it was, by her evocative voice and Qvenild's ever-tasteful work.February 4: Snowmobiling in the Mountains
The following morning, it was up at the crack of dawnexcept, at 6am in Longyearbyen during Polar Winter, dawn is a long way awayfor a trip to the mountains in the surrounding countryside. At this time of year, as the end of Polar Winter approacheswith the sun making its welcome return to Longyearbyen on March 8 (and festivities already in the works)there are an additional 28 minutes of light every day. Still, it's the middle of the night at 6am, and while it began to get light around 9am, as the group was taken to a cabin and outfitted with boots, one-piece snowsuits, balaclavas, helmets, goggles and glovesthere was a surreal kind of light, with no direct source. Even at its brightest, the luminescent glow of the sky caused no shadow, and as quick as it was to appear, by 2pm it was gone again.
A team of about 15 snowmobileswith a few teaming up as passengers but most ready and willing to drive at speeds up to 40mphtook off on well-worn tracks which, while making navigation easy, did require adherence to some basic rules. Still, a few found themselves bouncing off ice patches or rocks, and either diverging off the path and having to find their way back, or actually tipping their skidoo, requiring the help of others to right the snowmobile back on its skis. Getting a feel for the power of the snowmobile took a few minutes, but it ultimately became as second nature as driving a car, with the convoy traveling into a valley about 15-20 miles outside Longyearbyen. Stepping off the snowmobiles for a break and a snackthe guides brought along hot drinks, including a delicious mix of a thick berry juice and hot water, as well as cookies and chocolatemany were surprised to find themselves sinking into the snow, which ranged from a light dusting over rocks to several meters deep. It might not seem so, sitting on a skidoo, but it was actually a surprising amount of physical work; combined with the fresh, crisp Arctic air, there was little doubt that everyone was going to sleep well that night.
It was a noisy trip but, even so, it quickly became easy to appreciate why some people arrive in Svalbard, ostensibly for a short term, and stay a lot longer. Once the team reached its destinationa warmer valley, protected from the wind by the surrounding mountainsand the snowmobiles were shut off, there was an incredible stillness and ensuing sense of calm. The pace may be slow on Svalbard, but equally, there's no messing around; this was rough terrain, far removed from any vestiges of civilization. Cell phones work in Longyearbyen, but once out of the town there's no guarantee, meaning that if somethinganythinghappens, people are entirely reliant on their own devices and those of their companions. While the clothing provided is enough protection for the trip, the cold remains an ever-present threat.
Still, these were only background concerns, because the tour guides ensure that everyone is up to speed on safety before heading out. For a first-timer, it was a profound experience to actually be out in the Arctic wild, to encounter it on a personal level; this stark beauty is, simply, unlike anywhere else in the world.February 4: Bus Tour
After nearly five hours snowmobiling, and with barely time to grab a bite to eat, Polar Jazz's international guests were quickly whisked into a bus, for an afternoon tour that took them to a coal mine, a satellite installation, a way station where coal used to be transferred from the mines to the sea for transport, and a quick look at a dog yard, home for a pack of sled dogs.Coal Mine
Coal mining is an essential activity on Svalbard, because it's the only means of reliable energy to keep the town of Longyearbyen alive. Each year, half of the mine's 75,000 tons of coal is exported, with the rest used to fuel the large power station and subsidiary secondary post. Unlike most mines, however, which run three eight-hour shifts around the clock, the mine on Svalbard runs a relatively light seven-hour day, making it a highly desirable job for miners. There have been a series of areas located and mined on the islands, with the current mine in operation for approximately thirty years. It's impossible to emphasize enough just how important this mine is to the existence of a developed area on Svalbard; even in radiator-heated hotel rooms, turning the thermostat off for just a couple hours resulted in a significant drop in temperature. While supplies are, of course, brought to the islands on a regular basis, the fact that Svalbard is self-sufficient when it comes to energy, means that the already high cost of living can, at least, be kept down on that front.
The next stop was the EISCAT Satellite Station, where two parabolic dishes are used, amongst other things, to monitor solar flare activity and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) that are so vivid and common. It's one thing to see these images on film or in a photo, another to stand beside them as their positions are moved; it was strangely majestic, in fact, and somehow belittling, to realize that these dishes are monitoring activity across the vastness of space. But it all becomes somehow real in the wake of these large dishes. Just up the road from EISCAT is an observatory, and between these two installations, significant research is being done on a daily basis, to understand the world around us and the universe beyond.
A quick trip to a dog yard provided some idea of how sled dogs live. Rather than being large animals, these Siberia Huskies were surprisingly small and lean in stature, but powerful in their ability to pull heavy sleds for hours on end. Living outsideeach with its own area where, inside a larger fenced area, the dogs are chained with access to a raised wooden dog house to protect the dogs from the wind and coldit became clear just how much these dogs live to run when the bus approached the yard. People-friendly, it was obvious that the dogs were excited at the prospect of getting out to run. Unfortunately, this particular afternoon, it was not to be, but the guests had a chance to interact with the dogs for a few minutesand see a hanging set of four dead seals, left there to attract polar bears away from the dogs, should they wander into the area.EISCAT Svalbard Radar Station
Perhaps most remarkable about life on Svalbard is that, with all the precautions taken to ensure safety from the environmentand from the polar bears who live at the top of the food chain herethere have not been any significant incidents. Still, on a walk in town on Sunday, February 6, some of the guests encountered proof that these grand white bears are never far away, discovering a large footprint in the snow, in the middle of town.
The trip ended at a way station, an indoor venue through which the cable cars that come from the mines, carrying the coal, used to pass through. Decades old, with the station not normally open to the public, it provided further opportunity to appreciatecourtesy of a well-informed and entertaining tour guidelife as a coal miner. With revenue based on productionon how many tons of coal are sent from the mines to the town and beyondany slowdown, anywhere along the way, means less money in everyone's pockets. The way station had an area for repair of the large metal cars used to transport the coal, and a rather ingenious method of taking them offline and back online again, without slowing down the rest of the process. While this raised area was indoors and, consequently, shielded from the bitter cold of the wind, it was still an example of the extreme conditions under which coal miners work; even today, with better technology and conditions, it's still clearly a tough life. February 4: Beady Belle and PUST
The second night of Polar Jazz featured three distinctive acts, ranging from Denmark's whacky Klezmofobia to a local vocal group, PUST. But first, Beady Belle, the group led by singer Beate S. Lech, delivered a polished set that, while largely occupying the chill territory that the singer has inhabited since she emerged a decade ago with Home
(Jazzzland, 2001), suggested she was capable of more vocal pyrotechnics than heard on her four Jazzland recordings.From left: Beate S. Lech, Tommy Kristiansen
Beady Belle's music is unequivocally pop, but in its harmonic language and arrangements, there's no denying its jazz cred, especially keyboardist Jørn Øien, who delivered a number of tasty solos throughout the group's 70-minute set. Guitarist Tommy Kristiansen, too, was a subtle but important presence, as much a textural component as a rhythmic one, while bassist Marius Reksjø (who formed the group with Leche while they were studying at the University of Oslo), and drummer Erik Holm kept the groove gentle but visceral throughout.
Clearly a group with a lot of road miles under its belt, Beady Belle's performance was well-rehearsed, and went off without a hitch. Dressed in a dangerously low-cut dress, there may not have been a lot of stage space, but Leche owned it, a charismatic performer who, at least during this performance, kicked in a lot more energy than on record, and displayed more melismatic capability, though she never went too far. The music came largely from her recent release, At Welding Bridge
(Jazzland, 2010) and the previous Belvedere
(Jazzland, 2008), from which one of the set's highlights, the snakily grooving "Self-Fulfilling," was culled.
After a well deserved encore, the stage was cleared for PUST a local vocal group featuring soprano Anne Hilde Grøv and Jorun Lovise Husan, alto Elsaibeth Anvik, tenor Jostein Hasselgård, baritone Håvard Gravdal and bass Mads Iversen. Three males, and three females, also delivering a very polished set, carefully choreographed as the singers moved around the stage to spotlight individual soloists and various pairings within the sextet, as they married traditional folk music with more contemporary concerns.PUST, from left: Elisabeth Anvik, Jostein Hasselgård, Mads Iversen
Anne Hilde Grøv, Jorun Lovise Husan, Håvard GravdalA capella
vocal groups aren't particularly unusual in Norway, ranging from the more classical focus of Trio Mediaeval and Nordic Voices to more forward-looking ensembles like ESE and Smyr; PUST fit somewhere in the middle, neither too heavy on traditionalism or particularly groundbreaking in its modern arrangements. Still, it was an entertaining set, delivered with energy and élana set that would have likely been even more so, had it been possible to understand the group's introductions. While English is the language of currency on Svalbard when none else will do, and despite a broad cross-section of locals from other countries, Norwegian remains the primary language and, consequently, Polar Jazz was largely conducted in Norwegian. It may not have been possible to understand everything that was being said, but it was clear, from the audience response, that PUST connected well with its fansand there were
fans, as the crowd swelled for the group's performance.February 5: Svalbard Museum, University of Svalbard
The final full day for most, February 5 started with a morning off for the international guests; a chance to rest up and prepare for the busy day and evening ahead. After lunch, everyone met up and took a quick, brisk walk to the Svalbard Museum, where a brief tour provided some perspective on the history of Svalbard, a series of islands that form an archipelago which, with nearly 60% of its landmass covered in ice, sports a relatively temperate climate for this latitude. The result is that Svalbard is the breeding ground for millions of birds during the four summer months of midnight sun and, while not always easy to find (and a good thing, at that), home for more polar bears than people.Svalbard Museum
Discovered in the late 1500s, it became a focal point for whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries, with Pomors (Russian settlers) also establishing hunting stations on the islands. While closer to Norway than to Russia, Svalbard would become a Russian outpost for many years, even though Norwegians were also settling there, and the Islands ultimately became part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1925, when the Svalbard Act was signed.
The land is covered in tens of meters of permafrost, and there are no trees to be found, contributing to Svalbard's rugged, stark landscape, but life on and around the islands, thanks to the Gulf Stream and meeting of warm and cold waters, is rich and varied, creating a food chain whose influence ripples far from its northern latitude. Dovetailing with the exhibits at the Museum, a presentation by the Eva Therese Jenssenthe Information Officer of the University Centre in Svalbard (part of the same building complex as the Museum)provided even greater insight into the challenges and opportunities of life on these northern islands.
With over 2,000 students, UNIS offers exceptional courses in four Arctic studies: biology, geology, geophysics and technology. Field activities dominate, and the international demographic of the university mirrors that of Longyearbyen. There are stringent requirements to obtain admission, but funding isn't one of them, with several programs making it possible for qualified students to obtain the necessary financial support to enroll, after completing a few years of study at other institutions.
One of the most enlightening aspects of Jenssen's presentation was her discussion of surging glaciers, which are different than the glaciers with which most are familiar, and are found specifically on Svalbard, and in the Canadian Arctic, Iceland and Alaska. Throughout the entire trip it became increasingly clear that the kind of environmentalism being practiced on Svalbard was of a most practical and pragmatic kindone that deals in reality, not armchair conjecture. That images of a surging glacier on Svalbard have been used by Greenpeace, for example, to bring attention to global warming/climate change, is clear evidence that the activist organization is either misinformed or is misinforming
its readership. Unlike other glaciers, which rest on water, glaciers in Svalbard attach directly to the permafrost, and their surging forward and shrinking back has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with weight distribution. Surging glaciers do, indeed, surge forwardin the case of Svalbard, relatively slowly, compared to elsewhere, but their recession is equally gradualand inevitable.February 5: Arctic Mood
And so, after two days and a bevy of activities musical and otherwise, the reason why a group of international guests was invited to Longyearbyen. A collaborative project between clarinetist/composer Brynjar Rasmussen and photographer Werner Anderson, commissioned by the Nordnorsk Jazzsenter, Arctic Mood
is a celebration of Svalbard in general and Longyearbyen in particular; a multimedia presentation that brings nature and technology together, supporting the premise that man is, indeed, only a guest on this unique archipelago. With its debut performance in Longyearbyen, and the coincident release of the CD in a full-size, 45-page hardcover book with gorgeous reproductions of Anderson's images, the ultimate goal is to make Arctic Mood
a movable feast; a project that can be taken on the road to destinations abroad, to help spread the word about this remarkable place, the important work going on there and the stark but stunning nature all around it.
Rasmussen's nine-piece ensemble (the same as on the recording) featured a group of musicians who collaborate regularly in various permutations and combinationsmany, including trumpeter Ole Jørn Myklebust, guitarist Bjørn Charles Dreyer and drummer Gunnar Augland, past and present collaborators with internationally renowned Norwegian traditionalist, singer Mari Boine. The music was what might be expected from a group of players with one foot in Norwegian folk music and the other in more modernistic concerns; a 70-minute performance that, at double the length of the recording, expanded significantly on the music and allowed more room for focused improvisation. Noted Norwegian actor, Bjørn Sundquist's participation was also expanded, his spoken word entirely in Norwegian, though the book does contain English and German translations of the text.
Performing at Longyearbyen's Konserthus a tremendous, thoroughly contemporary venue with an open coffee house/restaurant on the ground floorbefore a capacity crowd, Rasmussen's group was seated along the front of the stage, with a large theater screen behind them. Like the book's images (but using far more of them), the performance encapsulated the history of man's involvement with Svalbard, including pieces of the Russian history that were particularly moving for one of the festival's guests from St. Petersburg, who later commented on the power of the performance.
Beginning in near ambienceRasmussen's deep and processed bass clarinet interacting with pianist Jørn Øien (heard the previous evening with Beady Belle)the music took longer to resolve into more defined form, but, timed with the images, a stronger lyricism ultimately emerged over a relaxed pulse from Augland and bassist Svein Schultz (the album's producer), as fiddler Ragnhild Furebotten sang wordlessly in unison with Myklebust, Rasmussen and accordionist Herman Rundberg's winding melodies. The music ebbed and flowed, with solo features for most, but notably Myklebustwho, it seems, lives unfairly in the shadow of more internationally known Norwegians like Henriksen, Eick, Jørgensen and Molvær, but, based on this performance, clearly deserves greater attention and consideration. Dreyer was clearly cut from the same cloth as guitarists like Eivind Aarset, paying as much attention to texture as he did melody and harmony, and while the music had a clear roadmap, there was plenty of opportunity for him to color the canvas with broad sonic swatches, elsewhere being more pointillistic in his approach, combining with his band mates to create larger landscapes driven by no single instrument; more like a house of cards where the final result, delicate as it was, ran the risk of falling apart if but a single part were to shift. Ole Jørn Myklebust
Ending almost anticlimacticallywith Sundquist's final words echoing into silence as a coda, featuring Dreyer and Rasmussen, dissolved into the ether on a pad of synth colorsthe rehearsals for Arctic Mood
during the course of the past week clearly paid off. The performance, despite its riskier extemporaneous passages, went off without a hitch, as Anderson's vivid imagery and Rasmussen's compelling music combined for a performance that will surely make 2011 a particularly memorable year in the history of Polar Jazz. February 5: Halvdan Sivertsen
Tromsø's Halvdan Sivertsen may not be known on an international level, but he clearly doesn't need to be. After grabbing a relatively quick bite to eat following the premiere of Arctic Mood
, returning to the concert room at the Radisson Blu, it became immediately clear that this singer/songwriter was a local hero to Longyearbyen residents. Hitting the stage to huge applause, it wasn't long before Sivertsen had the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing at his copious jokes (again, in Norwegian, but the only assumption that could be made, based on the response, was that he was having a truly "on" night) and singing along to the many anthemic songs in his repertoire.
Backed by a crack triobassist Trond Viggo Solaas, drummer Rune Mathisen and guitarist Håvar Bendiksen, especially impressive as he moved from acoustic guitar to electric, pumping out power chords as easily as he did rock-edged solos with tasteful aplombSivertsen also delivered the longest set of any artist at Polar Jazz thus far, a bit of a surprise given he was opening up the evening, with two more bands to follow, and then the all-night jam session. But Sivertsen's position as the evening's openeras was the case with Solveig Slettahjell and Beady Belle, the two previous nightsclearly had nothing to do with ranking; but he did
warm the crowd up for the long night to follow.
Sivertsen spent as much talking between songs as he did performing them; in some cases, his brief, radio-friendly tunes, ranging from folk rock to power pop, were shorter than his introductions, but nobody seemed to mind, as the beer and wine flowed freely and Silvertsen put everyone in a jovial mood.
Silvertsen may have been the star of the show, but the members of his group were no slouches, either. In the lengthy set-closer, Bendiksen took an extended solo, scatting along to his rapid-fire guitar lines à la George Benson
, only to be matched by Solaas during his own feature that followed. But it was when Mathisen took his solo that things really went off the hook. Starting with a conventional solo, Mathisen went to hell in a, well, fruit basket, when he suddenly began pounding his kit with bananas...then cucumbers...then celery. Silly? Yes. But like his leader, Mathisen clearly understood the value of music as entertainment, a truth not lost on any of Silvertsen's group when, after exiting the stage to thunderous applause and demands for an encore, the quartet suddenly reappeared onstage to a hip hop beat, all in white hoodies, doing its best rapper imitation. Their best wasn't all that good, truthfully, but it didn't matter; the crowd loved it. February 5: Stian Carstensen
Stian Carstsen is one of those rare musicians who can be as deep and profound as any, and as virtuosic as the best but, with a healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation, the multi-instrumentalist makes light of it all, as he proves himself truly capable of anything. With his longstanding Farmers Market group, he traverses more music per second than John Zorn
in his cartoon heyday. Polka, Michael Jackson
, Stevie Wonder
, film themes, folk, rock and more are twisted, turned, subverted and perverted to Carstensen's agenda: humor, engagement and complete and utter fun. Solo, it's no different, though the repertoire is. In a whirlwind set of outrageous playing, delivered with the timing of the best comedian (once again, in Norwegian, but with occasional outbursts in English), Carstensen turned his performanceswitching between accordion, banjo and pedal steel guitarinto an unexpected feel-good set.
That Carstensen was capable of delivering classical repertoire on accordion, with blinding speed and accuracywhile stopping at various moments to interject some tale or comment, without ever losing a beatwas outrageous enough; it was easy to get wrapped up in the levity of the performance and forget just how talented a player he is. Throughout the set, he seamlessly and effortlessly extended the possibilities of his instruments, whether it was bending notes impossibly on his accordion, detuning and retuning strings on his banjo midflight, or playing a chord on pedal steel and sending the slide bar rolling up the strings in a horizontal kind of free-fall, while still managing to make it arrive at the right place at the right time.
It was clear that this final night of Polar Jazz was meant to be something of a party night, and it was hard to believe that a solo performer on accordion was part of the plan. Still, Carstsensen managed to keep the energy levels high, engaging the audience with his jokes and getting everyone to sing along with what sounded like a drunken bar tune, building the energy to a resounding conclusion that set the stage for an entertaining set of Manouche music from guitarist Jon Larsen and his Hot Club de Norvege. It also became apparent that Carstensen is a guy who just loves to play, as he sat in with Hot Club, later in its set, and then showed up at the late-night jam session that began around 1am and continued well into the wee hours of the morning, as Svalbard residents, tourists and Polar Jazz guests partied until what would have been dawn anywhere else, but in Longyearbyen was still the deepest, darkest night. February 6: Winding Down in the Ice Caves
The majority Polar Jazz guests were set to leave early the following afternoon, but a packed flight meant a lucky few were left to wait until the day after, providing more time to explore of the area surrounding Longyearbyen. One of the trips people seemed to talk most about was the ice cavesa winding series of caverns inside one of the glaciers, a few miles outside of Longyearbyen. And so, after saying goodbyes to old friends and new acquaintances, it was time to suit up and snowmobile out of town. But because this was taking place at 4:30pm rather than the 8:30am mountain trip of a couple days ago, it meant the trip began in the dark of night, an entirely different experience, and one that brought into sharp focus, just how much even a little light means when you're in the middle of Polar Winter.
With wind blowing up and around the small group of half a dozen snowmobilers, it was another surreal experience as, leaving town, the convoy wound its way along a river, with walls of snow on either side, to a small area where, buried in what appeared to be a small mound of snow, was a small wooden door. It was only then that those who were thinking of ice caves as something big
realized that they were in for another experience entirely. The ice caves, buried in the glaciers of Svalbard, were not large caverns; instead, they were narrow alleyways through the ice, where it was often necessary to duck to get from one space to the next, and at other times necessary to truly squeeze through small openings to get to the next (slightly) larger one. This was not a trip for the claustrophobic.
But it was another amazing view of an otherworldly place, where the only light provided was from the headlamps worn by the caversturn those lights out, and it was absolutely pitch black. The stunning ice formations ahead, behind, around and above the cavers, soon rendered any initial trepidation unimportant, as the group wound its way about 150 meters into the glacier. It may not sound like a lot, but it took a good 20-30 minutes to go into the caves, though it took a little less time to get back out. And while most of the cave was narrow, there were occasional larger openings, where the group could collect, as its guide talked about the formations, how the age of the caves is measured, and more.
It was also not a trip for those out of shape; getting in and around the caves required ascents and descents with ropes, and inside the caveswhere, in contrast to the windy -20°C outside, it was a balmy -2° or -3°everyone worked up a good sweat. While there truly was safety in numbers, it didn't take much imagination to appreciate the risks of coming into the caves. After all, no cell phone signals reached them, and other than it being known that a group had made the trip, there was no way to get help, if anything were to happen. Still, that was also part of the Arctic experience; while these trips are orchestrated to be as safe as possible, there are absolutely no guarantees. February 7: Dog Sleds and Leaving Svalbard
That there are no guarantees on these trips into the Arctic wilderness was made patently clear the final morning when, embarking on a dog sledding trip into the mountains, before flying out of Svalbard, the tour guides had their eight guests sign a waiver that also committed, were anything to happen, that they would listen to and follow the instructions of the guides under any and all circumstances. It hammered home that, while Svalbard has a tremendous record of safety in its outdoor pursuits, this is still the Arctic, and one never knows when a sudden storm might blow up, or any other untoward event might happen.
Still, few were thinking of these eventualities as they suited up and were taken to a dog yard outside Longyearbyen, where the few dozen dogs began to go absolutely crazy, the minute the van pulled up. Sled dogs, it seems, absolutely live
to be on their sleds, and the trick is not training them to go, it's training them to stop, as these Siberian Huskies can literally go for upwards of ten hours with only the occasional short break, pulling heavy sleds with one or two people and, sometimes, cargo as well.
As with all of the Arctic trips, guests are not mere spectators, they are active participants, in this case not just driving the sleds, but going into the yard and picking up the dogs, in order, and hooking them up to the sleds. It was more than just a beautiful trip on a morning where the light was spectacular; it was an opportunity to really understand what sled dogs are about; what motivates them, and how they live their lives. The dogs love peopleafter all, any time they appear there's a good chance they'll get to do what they live forbut their relationship with each other is more complicated. Dogs have to be brought out to the sleds in pairs, as they are friendly with their partners, but it's necessary to keep distance from other dogs on the sled, because there are pack issues involved, and while it doesn't often happen, fights can occasionally break out.
The front dogs are the only ones who understand directions of right and left; the rest of the dogs simply follow their leaders, and driving a sled is actually relatively simple. There are only a couple of rules: one, make sure you have one foot on the sled and the other on the brake (a metal bar, with teeth that dig into the snow) at all times; two, always have at least one arm wrapped on the sled at all times; and three, don't leave the sled for anything unless it's firmly anchored to the ground. The dogs want to run, and so if the brake is released, or if you leave the sled or let go for any reason, the dogs may well head off and you'll find yourself left behind, sledless.
In contrast to the snowmobile trip a couple days back, driving a dog sled was a calming, almost meditative, experience. At rest, the dogs barked, howled, played and were clearly itching to get going; once running, they became strangely quiet, and the only sound was that of sled on snow. It was not possible to go as far as fast as with the skidoos, but it was a more organic experience, and an even better chance to appreciate the harsh grandeur of Svalbard, as the sleds headed through the mountains into a valley, only stopping briefly to make sure everyone was ok. It was a transcendent experience, and while there was no denying the cold brutality of the environment, it became easy to understand why the community on Svalbard is so close. Out there, the people you are with are all you have. When you go on a tour, it's not solitary or passive, where everything is done for you; it's an active experience, with everyone, to some extent, responsible for everyone. There was plenty of time to quietly appreciate the beauty of the Arctic, but equally, it was impossible not to engage with everyone on a more personal level; while it's certainly not true for all, there were new relationships forged on these trips, making them even more enriching and rewarding.
It was the perfect finish. Only four days had passed since arriving on Svalbard, but somehowbetween the surreal landscapes, the unusual lighting and an internal clock completely confused by the long, long stretches of nightit felt like a much longer stay, in the best possible way. As everyone wrapped things up, and headed to the airport for what was going to be, for many, a two-day trip to get home, there was a strange, new understanding. Many, upon arriving on Svalbard, felt that they were going to have the experience of a lifetime, but few expected to actually understand why
people would choose to live in such a remote place. But with only a few days' of experiencesfrom the compelling debut of Arctic Mood
and the rest of Polar Jazz's fine performances, to trips to the mountains and ice caves, time spent with friends old and new, and an opportunity to experience, first-hand, the close-knit community of Longyearbyenthis had become a life-changing experience, and as the plane ascended from Longyearbyen airport into the Polar night, there was a new sense of longing for a place that would soon be distanced by a great many miles, but would remain permanently etched in the mind, the heart and the soul.
Visit Solveig Slettahjell
, Beady Belle
, Brynjar Rasmussen
, Werner Anderson
, Halvdan Sivertsen
, Stian Carstensen
and Polar Jazz
on the web.Photo Credits
Page 1, Flying Into Svalbard: Ann Kristin Arntzen
Page 4, EISCAT: Tony van Eyken
All Other Photos: John Kelman