Scene Norway 2 at King's Place

John Kelman BY

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Scene Norway 2
Artist-in-Residence: Nils Petter Molvær
King's Place,
London, UK
November 15-17, 2013

Walking into King's Place, in London, England, is an experience in itself. A building opened in 2008 near King's Cross station in downtown London, it was built with the kind of foresight that is rare these days. Above ground is office space, largely occupied by The Guardian newspaper, along with two restaurants and a large, welcoming open space with plenty of comfortable seating for people to meet, work and socialize together.

But it's the below-ground space that has garnered the building its greater reputation. Home to an art gallery, a beautiful box-in-a-box theater that seats approximately 450 people, a second space that seats about 250 and other rooms usable as rehearsal spaces or for conferences, King's Place CEO Peter Millican—also the man responsible for its original concept and actual construction—has been responsible for placing the venue on the international map in the relatively short space of five years. Regular series are hosted, including Not So Silent Movies, where a group of musicians create in-the-moment soundtracks to films that they've not only not seen, but which they are unaware of until concert time, Folk Union, dedicated to folk and world music; and Out Hear, which provides a space for more left-of-center interests.

Millican is understandably proud of what he's built. He describes the genesis of King's Place:

Millican goes on to explain the cost of building King's Place, its overall organizational structure with respect to its artistic programming, and some of the programs that have been offered there, including this year's Bach Unwrapped:

King's Place ha s hosted a number of one-time special events. Scene Norway—the 10-day event curated by host of BBC Radio 3's Late Junction, Fiona Talkington, was its very first—brought some of that country's best music to London under a single umbrella, including a three-day Punkt Festival that mirrored the annual live remix event in Kristiansand, Norway that will be hitting its 10th anniversary in 2014. Scene Norway was, in fact, King's Place's opening event, and was so successful that it was only a matter of time before a follow-up was planned. Scene Norway 2 took place between November 15 and 17, 2013 and, while the impact of the economy in Britain meant it was a smaller affair of just three days, it provided Talkington with the opportunity to apply a much more specific focus.

Millian discusses his love of Norwegian music, and how the two Scene Norway events came about:

Fiona Talkington picks up the story:

But with only three days and a relative handful of shows to program, how to find a connective thread that would tie everything together? One obvious idea was to select a specific musician as Artist-in-Residence—and Talkington would have been hard-pressed to find anyone more suitable than Nils Petter Molvaer. Emerging in the 1980s in Masqualero (along with Tore Brunborg, Jon Balke, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen), the trumpeter/composer truly shook the world with his debut as a leader, Khmer (ECM, 1997). But with an exhibition already planned at King's place to celebrate, beginning at the same time, the artwork of Norwegian painter Ørnulf Opdahl, another thread appeared. Both Opdahl and Molvær come from Ålesund, along the country's west coast, which includes the trumpeter's birthplace, Sula, an island at the nexus of a number of fjords.

Talkington explains her reasons for choosing Molvær:

With Molvær, Opdahl and Ålesund as starting points, Talkington went on to program the rest of her series, which included intrepid experimental vocalist Sidsel Endresen, collaborating with British turntable sound sculptor Philip Jeck; Spin Marvel, the Anglo-Norwegian group started by drummer Martin France that occasionally features Molvær as a guest; Norwegian singer/songwriter (and, also hailing from Ålesund) Hilde Marie Kjersem; Ålesund-born Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien, in collaboration with Swedish guitarist Roger Tallroth; King's Place's Not So Silent Movies series, with guests Molvær and Jan Bang (one-half of the team that, along with Erik Honore, created and continues to curate the Punkt Festival); and, finally, a Saturday afternoon family event featuring another Ålesunder, Maria Parr, author of the award-winning Norwegian children's book Waffle Hearts (Walker, 2013), recently translated into English by Guy Puzey, with Parr reading an excerpt in Norwegian and Talkington a section in English, all with the occasional improvised musical backing of Molvær, in collaboration with fellow trumpeter Alex Bonney and bassist/electronics artist Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, two members of Britain's esteemed Loop Collective:

Talkington continues to explain the reasoning behind the rest of her programming for Scene Norway 2:

Putting on an event like this was no easy task, and required no shortage of funding, but thankfully Talkington's connections, both in London and Norway, served her well and, after the first evening's events was already considered a success by all concerned:

While Opdahl's exhibition was not technically a part of Scene Norway 2, its evocation of the ruggedly beautiful Ålesund landscapes—as well as others found during a trip to Greenland—provided a visual dovetail to the music taking place in King's Place's two concert halls. Opdahl's own story is an intriguing and compelling one—and one that intersects, in some ways, with Molvær's own:

After three years, Opdahl moved back to Ålesund, to focus his work on his home:

Of course, painting landscapes was much different than the academic instruction Opdahl received in Oslo:

Opdahl's approach may be traditional in its techniques, but the results are anything but; impressionistic pieces where far more is implied than is actually there:

His series of Greenland pieces, also on display at the exhibition, had a different beginning:

Opdahl's travels have taken him as far south as the Antarctic. But while some artists make sketches that are transferred directly to what become finished pieces, in Opdahl's case, both his medium and purpose are quite different:

Opdahl's exhibition may reflect some of his most recent work, but he tends to work on multiple pieces at the same time, and so already has plenty more on the go:

Friday, November 15: Nils Petter Molvær Solo / Annbjørg Lien with Roger Tallroth

With Nils Petter Molvær the Scene Norway 2 Artist-in-Residence, it was an opportunity, as Talkington said, to really explore the breadth and depth of this Norwegian star. His first show, the opener to the event, was an early highlight: a solo performance—or, almost solo, since it was, in fact, a collaboration with the artist who has been the trumpeter's constant companion longer than anyone else. Visual artist Tord Knudsen is not just "a lighting engineer," he's a fully improvising artist who walks into most venues with just a couple of projectors, some small video cameras and a laptop computer; after that he works with whatever the venue has, and Hall One at King's Place clearly gave him plenty with which to work—more, perhaps, than most venues, from lighting spread around the balcony to a seemingly countless number of available lights on the high ceiling of the room.

Performing solo is an exhausting undertaking for any artist, especially if it's entirely improvised. Performing for a full hour, Molvær utilized some programming on a laptop to provide harmonic and rhythmic contexts to his set, but how and when he used them was not planned, and what he played over top of them was absolutely in-the-moment. As has been noted in other recent reviews of Molvær performances, he seems to be going back to his distinctive and utterly beautiful acoustic tone more often, and it's been a most welcome decision; not that he didn't employ effects like pitch shifters, delays, reverbs and more, but there were far more instances where he relied solely on the acoustic tone he's honed over the past three decades, one predicated on a unique approach to embouchure that's resulted in a sound which may have its precedents, most notably in Fourth World progenitor Jon Hassell, but which has always been less about imitation and more about inspiration.

The beautiful acoustics of King's Place's Hall One were rendered even better thanks to the participation of Norway's Johnny Skalleberg—a sound engineer who also has a long history with Molvær and who ensured what reached the sold-out audience was as pristine, expansive and, at times, visceral as the trumpeter's music demanded. Whether he was playing acoustic or processed horn, singing into the bell of his heavily effected horn, or adding thundering percussive beats from his laptop, Molvær wasn't just seen and heard throughout the room, he was felt. Atmospherics juxtaposed with near tribal pulses, all mirrored by Knudsen's compelling imagery, which included massively altered images of Molvær on the projection screen, strobe-like lights flashing, seemingly randomly, across the ceiling of the hall, and occasional upward bursts of light emanating from the floor around the balcony.

All-in-all, a strong opener, about which Molvær had to say:

Referencing his forthcoming album, Switch (Sula, 2014)—his first true release as a leader since 2011's tremendous trio recording, Baboon Moon ( Sula), with this year's Moritz von Oswald collaboration, 1/1 (EmArcy, 2013) more of a side project—the trumpeter said:

Molvær's upcoming record may surprise those familiar with the recordings he's made since Khmer, but it simply reflects his desire to move forward and to relentlessly change and evolve:

Molværremains an important part of the Punkt axis, working regularly with co-Artistic Director Jan Bang, including a stellar trio show with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu at the 2013 ELBJazz Festival in Hamburg, Germany earlier this year. But Punkt has always been about an expanding network of musicians, and so it's no surprise that the trumpeter has plans to work with Bang and another electronics/remix artist who first appeared at Punkt in 2012 but so impressed the festival that he was invited back for this year's edition:

But beyond Switch and work with Bang and Vladislav Delay, Molvær continues to think ahead to new projects. It would be imprecise to suggest he has a five-year plan, but his mind is clearly thinking beyond the next album and tour:

Back to Scene Norway 2, as part of King's Place's ongoing Folk Union series, Talkington brought Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien as the second show of Scene Norway 2's first evening. The Ålesunder delivered a largely joyful set of traditional folk music, collaborating with Swedish guitarist Roger Tallroth, whose recent recording with fellow guitarist Scott Nygaard, Rosco (Self Produced, 2009), and also featuring fiddler Emma Reid, provided plenty of evidence of Tallroth's simpatico with the instrument. Tallroth was also a constant companion with Lien, appearing on all of the fiddler's recordings from Felefeber (Grappa, 1994) through to Aliens Alive (Grappa, 2001).

The two may not have recorded together in over a decade, but the chemistry they share has clearly remained intact. Tallroth used only an acoustic 12-string guitar, but with an altered tuning that meshed beautifully with Lien's Hardanger fiddle—an instrument came from the Hardanger region of Norway and, along with four strings played with a bow, also includes either four or five additional strings that resonate sympathetically with those played, not unlike a sitar, though the effect is far more subtle.

While the duo's set was steeped in the Scandinavian folk tradition, it also drew a clear line to traditional British folk music, although the emphasis and lilt of the instrumentalists' phrasing was somewhat different. Lien and Tallroth also performed a couple of tunes written by the guitarist, and demonstrated that their music may possess an immediately accessible veneer but, with irregular meters fundamental to some of the tunes, was often more complex than expected under the hood.

The ease with which the duo played together was also reflected in their between-song banter; it may have been on a stage in the 250-seat Hall Two at King's Place, but Lien and Tallroth's performance bore the intimacy of two friends simply getting together for an informal evening of music-making and, for a little more than an hour, with eyes closed and ears open, it was easy to imagine these two sitting on their living room sofas, playing for nobody but themselves.

Saturday, November 16: Waffle Hearts with Maria Parr / Hilde Marie Kjersem Band / Spin Marvel with Nils Petter Molvær / Loop Collective with Stian Westerhus

The second day of Scene Norway 2 was chockablock with events appealing to everyone from children to seniors. It opened, in the afternoon, with a reading to celebrate the English translation of Maria Parr's best-selling and award-winning children's book, Waffle Hearts, recently published by Britain's Walker Press, as translated by Guy Puzey. Puzey was also on hand, as was Talkington, Gill Evans (representing the publisher), and three musicians—trumpeter Alex Bonney and bassist/electronics manipulator Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, both of the UK's Loop Collective, along with Molvær—the trio on hand to provide some improvised (and, at one point, requested) incidental music to readings in Norwegian by Parr, and English by Talkington.

The St Pancras Room was set up in family-friendly mode, with chairs as well as large beanbag cushions for the kids. And while Norwegian waffles—a different experience, being thinner and softer than, for example, Belgian waffles—were, indeed, served, they weren't made available until the end of the event. Talkington interviewed Parr, on the writing of the book—which was based on stories that she used to tell her younger brothers when she was growing up in Ålesund—as well as Evans and, in particular, Puzey, about the challenges of translating to English certain things that would be so common to Norwegian children but completely foreign to more urban Londoners.

But the real fun came with the readings. You didn't have to understand Norwegian to feel what Parr was reading, but even more entertaining was when Talkington began her English reading, to which, at a certain point, Bonney, Tremblay and Molvær delivered a painful version of "Silent Night," proving that it's not at all easy for good musicians to play badly. The entire afternoon event was fun from start to finish, and whether they were crawling around the room, paying serious attention to the readings or gorging on Norwegian waffles, the children were clearly enjoying themselves, as were their parents.

The evening's event in Hall One was a double bill. Singer/songwriter Hilde Marie Kjersem opened with her band, performing a 45-minute set largely culled from her recent If We Make It to the Future (Warner Music Norway, 2013)—a very different set from her 2012 duo performance as part of Culture Night, an evening in September each year, where free shows are provided throughout the city of Oslo, ranging from classical performances under the umbrella of the Ultima Festival to more intimate sets like Kjersem's, where the singer was accompanied only by an electric guitarist and, occasionally, her own autoharp.

For her London debut—hard to believe, but this was the first time she's played there—Kjersem may have professed to being nervous in conversation after the show, but you'd never have known it. Supported by two keyboardists and a drummer, it was unmistakably pop music with a heavy synth contingent, but Kjersem's powerful voice and charismatic stage presence—augmented by Tord Knudsen's visuals and, for one song, a guest appearance by Molvær—made it a powerful evening-opener, even if its non-jazz content resulted in some leaving and, unfortunately for them, missing one of the absolute highlights of the three-day event.

Spin Marvel was initially the brainchild of drummer Martin France, perhaps better known for his more acoustic collaborations with everyone from John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler to the Loose Tubes axis, including Django Bates and Iain Ballamy. Spin Marvel's self-titled 2007 Babel Label debut also featured what would become regular band mates— fellow Brits, guitarist John Parricelli and bassist Tim Harries, and Norwegian percussionist/sound designer Terje Evensen. But it was with the quartet's second record, The Reluctantly Politicised Mr James (Edition Records, 2010), that France recruited Molvær and pushed the group into completely different territory.

Parricelli was not in attendance for Spin Marvel's Scene Norway 2 performance, which again featured Molvær as a guest, but while it would be wrong to say he was not missed, it would be appropriate to suggest the group did just fine without him. The show began with the house lights up full—a curious thing, in and of itself—but with the lighting quickly dropping to near-darkness, the first half of the set was, from a visual perspective, more about Knudsen's stunning visuals, as the group was almost entirely invisible.

That didn't mean, of course, that Spin Marv el was away from the audience's consciousness, as the improvised set moved from strength to strength, with France, in particular, coming off as a star of the show alongside Molvær. The duo, in fact, engaged in some in-tandem free play alone early in the set, and set a high bar for the rest of the hour-long performance.

A bar that was met and raised continuously, with Harries and Evensen expanding the landscape while avoiding any conventional constructs. The first 20 minutes was particularly intense, making its sudden stop, leaving Molvær alone with his harmonized horn, a terrific release from the unrelenting tension built up to that point as the trumpeter seemed to truly be squeezing notes from his horn rather than simply blowing them.

Knudesen's impressionistic, near-apocalyptic use of fiery reds and icy grays complemented the music perfectly, as the group began to once again build over France's tumultuous playing and Molvær's unexpected leaps into the stratosphere, all bolstered by Harries' low-end rumblings (felt as much as heard) and Evensen's layered soundscapes. As the maelstrom gradually faded to near-silence, it was just a brief respite, as France and Evensen began to slowly build once again with simpatico inevitability, Evensen's chiming electronics contrasting France's reverb-laden rim shots and tom toms, with Molvær and Harries joining in again for a climax that became an even clearer display of unfettered power and freedom as Knudsen once again brought the stage lighting fully up. It was all the more remarkable for the rare opportunities that this group—with or without Molvær—can be brought together; but for those in attendance, a show they'll not soon forget.

While not technically part of Talkington's Scene Norway 2 series, a late evening performance in Hall Two by Loop Collective became an adjunct to the series for its inclusion of guest Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus. Westerhus has, for the past couple years, been a member of Molvær's trio—he also produced the sole Molvær album on which he appears, Baboon Moon—but left the trio earlier this year to focus on his burgeoning solo career, defined by superb recordings like Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010) and The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012); his collaboration with Jaga Jazzist keyboardist Øystein Moen in Puma (last heard in 2010 on the Rune Grammofon release, Half Nelson Courtship); and his ongoing duo with singer Sidsel Endresen, heard on their sole release to date, the marvelous Didymoi Dreams (Rune Grammofon, 2012).

Westerhus' primary focus, at the moment, is his new group Pale Horses (with Moen and fellow ex-Molvær trio mate, drummer Erland Dahlen), and based on the trio's premiere performance at the 2013 Molde Jazz Festival, the word is still out on how well this move into more defined rock territory will succeed, but meanwhile, in his guest appearance with Loop Collective, Westerhus demonstrated everything that has resulted in his rapid emergence as a guitarist of significance, specifically his total rejection of orthodoxy, after five years of study in London, creating a wall of sound built upon extended techniques, high volume amplification and an almost unbelievable command of a massive array of guitars effects that are, rather than simply add-ons, true extensions of Westerhus' uncompromising explorations of his instrument's potential—amd while it might seem paradoxical, he's proven himself as capable of great beauty as he has greater extremes.

All of this taking place within the context of Loop Collective's big band, Cat's Cradle—a sometimes seventeen-piece group whittled down from its core nonet to a septet for this show, performing music that seamlessly blended clearly composed music with unfettered free play. Back were Bonney and Tremblay from the afternoon's Waffle Hearts event, alongside keyboardist Dan Nicholls, double bassist Dave Mannington, drummer Dave Smith, vibraphonist Jim Hart and saxophonist/clarinetist Robin Fincker, with Fringe Magnetic trumpeter Rory Simmons and Outhouse saxophonist Tomas Challenger missing in action. It was an exhilarating set that was just one part of the Loop Collective Night that took place both before, concurrent with and after Scene Norway 2's evening double bill.

Sunday, November 17: Not So Silent Movies w/ Guests Nils Petter Molvær & Jan Bang / Sidsel Endresen with Philip Jeck

For Scene Norway 2's final day, Talkington chose to tie her series into two regular events at King's Place. First up was Not So Silent Movies, an afternoon series where cellist Philip Sheppard brings together various groups of musicians to perform soundtracks to silent films...but with a significant difference: the performances are freely improvised, and the only musician onstage who knows what the films will be before they begin to roll is Sheppard; the rest know absolutely nothing.

For this incarnation of Not So Silent Movies, Sheppard brought together a group of British musicians including violinist Elspeth Hanson, clarinetist Pete Furniss, electric bassist Mark Neary and drummer Hami. For the Scene Norway 2 connection, two Norwegian artists were invited: artist-in-residence Molvær and live sampler Jan Bang. It was an inspired choice, as both Molvær and Bang have previous experience scoring films—Bang, most recently on the soundtrack to Knut Hamsun's Victoria (Jazzland, 2013), a collaboration with fellow Punkt Artistic Director Erik Honoré, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and orchestrator Gaute Storaas; and Molvær on numerous soundtracks, some of them collected on Re-Vision (Sula, 2008).

Before the lights went down and the films began, Sheppard addressed the audience, explaining the premise of Not So Silent Movies and, to get the group started, asking the audience to provide three notes to be used to kick-start the first in-the-moment soundtrack. With those notes in hand, the lights dimmed and the first of two shorts that occupied the first half of the afternoon's performance came on: Charlie Chapin's The Immigrant, from 1917, a 20-minute short followed almost immediately by Cops (1922), from comedian Buster Keaton, whose longer film, College (1927), occupied the second half of the program.

What was most remarkable about the entire performance was how structured the music felt, and how various members of the group managed to synchronize their playing with some of the slapstick antics of both Chaplin and Keaton. This was not hard-to-digest free improvisation; this was music with a specific purpose, and even more surprising was how, for example, those three notes yelled out by the audience became the foundation for a theme that reappeared, more than once, during The Immigrant. A similar focus took place during College as, once again, after the short intermission, Sheppard called upon the audience to provide a time signature for the soundtrack to College.

There were some, in the audience, who were slightly disappointed that Molvær was not more heavily featured, but the reality was that he was, along with Bang, merely part of an ensemble whose purpose was not to think about musical features and solos; rather, it was all about creating music that meshed with the films, and on that level Sheppard's group was completely successful. Bang's live sampling was, perhaps, more subtle than usual—to some extent a function of working in a larger ensemble than usual (not that he hasn't before, but he is more often than not seen in the context of duos, trios and quartets, where his contributions are much clearer)—but as he periodically looped small motifs, massaged them electronically and fed them back to the group, he clearly managed to shift the music's direction on more than one occasion.

Molvær focused on melody, working with his band mates to create thematic motifs that seemed to represent certain characters or, in some cases, events taking place in the films and from that perspective his contributions were invaluable. But, at the end of the day, it was all about a collective score and Sheppard's quintet, augmented by the two Norwegian guests, made this afternoon's Not So Silent Movies a thoroughly entertaining success.

After a short break it was off to Hall Two for Scene Norway 2's closing show, tying into another regular series at the venue—Out Hear, described by the King's Place website as, " A blank canvas for open-minded programming in experimental and multimedia performance, Out Hear explores electronics, classical compositions and acoustical elements from leading and upcoming artists within the world of contemporary music."

From a Norwegian perspective, there are few choices that would have been more appropriate than singer Sidsel Endresen, whose work, over the past decade, has truly taken the human voice to places it has never been before. Continuing Talkington's goal of bringing Norwegian and British musicians together, she asked Endresen to collaborate with turntable soundscapist Philip Jeck. This was not Endresen's first encounter with Jeck; the two first collaborated at the 2011 Punkt Festival where, as part of British avant-songsmith David Sylvian's Uncommon Deities installation, the two came together for the first time. Since then they've performed together one additional time, making this third collaboration one in which the two artists were clearly still finding their way together—sometimes successfully, but other times not quite making a clear connection.

Both artists are experts in their very specific areas. Endresen's cell-based, extended vocal techniques transcended mere melody and language to create a vernacular all her own, one comprised of many different aspects including guttural utterings (sometimes, seemingly in reverse), odd, completely acoustically-driven effects that made her sound as though she were singing under water, strange sibilances, wind sounds and much, much more; what's been remarkable about having the good fortune to see her a few times each year since 2006 has been the opportunity to watch her slowly, but persistentyly expand her language.

Jeck's use of turntables as a means of creating distinctive sound worlds is unparalleled, as he processes them to create crackly ambient textures—sometimes approaching silence, other times turning harsher and more aggressive.

Not unlike Endresen's duo with Stian Westerhus, it seemed like an odd pairing: one, a completely acoustic instrument taken to hitherto unheard places; the other, a thoroughly electronic exploration, in this case of sound predicated on existing recordings that are rarely, if ever, recognizable. But while Endresen and Westerhus have managed to create something that builds, strength upon strength, with each of the many performances they've shared, it still seemed that Endresen and Jeck were searching for a strong meeting place, common ground that they did, occasionally find, but just as often did not. In particular, early on in the set, it felt as though the duo were passing a baton back and forth, allowing each one time in the spotlight while the other did little or, indeed, nothing at all. Later, however, they did manage to come together, in particular during one segment where Endresen began a motivic exploration of the words "the ones and the twos and the threes and the fours." Jeck's entrance finally seemed to gel with the vocalist

That Endresen and Jeck still seem to be searching for commonality, however, is part of the beauty of totally improvised contexts. Risky as they are, they're journeys that may not always successfully find their destination, but they're invariably trips well worth taking.

And so, with Scene Norway 2 drawn to a close, with a total of seven performances in three days—four with Artist-in-Residence Molvær—it can clearly be considered a success. While its brevity did not allow for the breadth of the first series' ten-day run, but by using a single artist as the focal point for many of the performances, and that artist's birthplace as a common thread that ran through the majority of the shows, Talkington once again curated a series that will be remembered for a long time to come, and which has once again demonstrated exactly why attention paid to the music of this small country remains not just important but necessary. There is, of course, plenty of terrific music being made around the world, but it would be difficult to find another country with such a disproportionate amount of exceptional music being made by so many extraordinary musicians within such a relatively small population.

The only question is: it took five years for Scene Norway's second installment to take place; how long will it be before Scene Norway 3 exposes even more of Norway's music to Londoners making the trek to King's Place, a remarkable venue, custom-built for such events?

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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