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Ultima Festival: Oslo, Norway, September 10-15, 2012

Ultima Festival: Oslo, Norway, September 10-15, 2012
John Kelman By

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Ultima Festival
Oslo, Norway
September 15, 2012
In a country that has called its "pathology" of over 600 music festivals per year "festival inflation," it's hard for any festival to stand out amongst the others, and yet so many of the events in Norway do. From Kristiansand's Live Remix festival, Punkt, to the superbly programmed Molde Jazz Festival, Norway is a country that, year after year, seems to create more and more great contexts for getting people out of their homes and into live venues.

Oslo, in particular, sees the kind of support for live music to which most cities in the world can only aspire. Whether it's in a relatively small club like Victoria or a more massive hall like the beautiful Oslo Opera House, this city of roughly half a million people seems to seriously support live music—and not just the readily/easily accessible kind, either. On any given day of the week, it's possible to find just about anything to appeal to anyone's tastes. It's an exciting thing, and an exciting place to be.

Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, has changed considerably since it first opened its doors in 1991. Beginning, as its name suggests, as a contemporary music event, its purview was largely classical repertoire, albeit of the most modern kind. Over the past two decades, however, it has expanded and, as has been happening elsewhere, blurred the lines between composed music and improvised music. In the same way that jazz and improvised music have moved towards a place where its traditional roots are sometimes less than obvious—and the influence of classical music has become, oftentimes, equally prevalent—so, too, has contemporary classical music moved towards a territory of confluence, where form and freedom meet.

A first time visit to Ultima revealed a remarkably broad program, and over the course of a few days, it was possible to hear everything from new compositions written by a group of up-and-coming writers and performed by some outstanding young talent, to what may pass as more conventional in Norway but in North America would be considered distinctly left-of-center. Whether it was the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra's improv-heavy performance of new music by guitarist Kim Myhr or a free concert by the Oslo Philharmonic, conducted by the world-renowned Christian Eggen, there was something for everyone—and everyone has, at least it seems, a far broader stylistic purview than back at home, where performances of that size and scope would be reserved for a more reserved repertoire. But it was the festival's closing show that, in conjunction with Conexions—the six-concert UK/Norway series curated by Fiona Talkington, BBC Radio 3 host of the popular Late Junction—brought the already impossible to categorize Jaga Jazzist together with England's equally intrepid Britten Sinfonia, and made Ultima 2012 a truly memorable edition.

Chapter Index

September 10: Official Opening: Arne Nordheim Centre

To celebrate the official opening of the Arne Nordheim Centre at the Norwegian Academy of Music, an evening of contemporary music, performed by Ensemble Ernst with the addition of a number of guest soloists and conducted by Thomas Rimul, provided welcome exposure to a series of young composers. It was, as much of the week was, music not for the conservative-minded, but what was clear, from the opening bells of Therese Birkelund Ulvo's "Bell Machinery," that all that was required to enjoy this most modernistic composition was the willingness to dispense with preconceptions. Rimul, usually seen conducting the 17-piece ensemble—which combined string quartet with clarinet, oboe, bassoon, percussion, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, flute and piano—was also a performer in the piece, utilizing a series of differently pitched bells to direct a piece that was heavy on baton-like theme-passing, with notes coming from across the ensemble to create a sense of movement across the audioscape.

Ørjan Matre's ..."but I must have said this before," another premiere, featured trombonist Sverre Riise in a considerably more aggressive space, and a perfect example of what drummer Jack DeJohnette referred to in his 2012 All About Jazz interview:

"The thing about free jazz, and I explain this to people: people will go sit and listen to classical music—something written that sounds like free jazz, and they'll listen to it. There's a context—written versus something played spontaneously which, if it was written, people would listen to in a different way. It amazes me. 'Oh that's not jazz, it's free jazz; they don't know what they're doing.' And yet, if someone transcribed it and put it in a classical context and said, 'This is so-and-so, and it was written by so-and-so,' people would sit down and listen to it seriously."

It was clearly scripted music, but between Riise's performance and the overall ambience of Matre's composition, the music lived in a space that, if not free improvisation, supported the idea that all music is, intrinsically, improvisation-based, the only difference being the length of time it takes to execute an idea or, in the case of composition, to score it. Consisting of a group of short miniatures, Riise delivered an impressive performance that combined purity of tone with extended techniques, as the music moved from greater extremes and angular ideations to brief, calming respites of unexpected lyricism.

A series of speeches followed, most notably with improvising singer and classical composer Maja S.K. Ratkje handing out the Edward Prize of 50,000 NOK (8,700 USD) to Matre for his composition.

Before moving to the evening's final composition, a brief (three-minute) improvisation came from trumpeter Eivind Lønning (Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Christian Wallumrod Ensemble) and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen, who record together as Streifenjunko, most recently documented on Sval Torv (Sofa, 2012), the label's first venture into vinyl. Here, the duo created a lovely, quiet and harmonically shifting improv that, despite its space and quietude, somehow felt like it was coming from more than just two instruments. Circular breathing, the creating of beats through converging harmonics, and the use of multiphonics and extended embouchure created a short but absolutely memorable performance.

The room in which the performance took place was a relatively run-of-the-mill school auditorium, but careful use of lighting (a warm, dark purple gently lighting a pipe organ, for example) turned it into a more appealing space as the final composition of the evening, "Tenebræ," turned the focus to its composer, Arne Nordheim, and the new center being opened in his honor and memory. Passing away in 2010, Nordheim was one of the country's most well-known contemporary composers, despite being one of its most subversive for most of his life. "Tenebræ" featured an absolutely stunning violist, recent winner of the "Soloist of the Year" Swedish Soloist Prize (2012), Ellen Nisbeth. Impassioned, dynamic and clearly completely inside the music, the almost unbelievable 24 year-old violist is, in fact, still studying, gearing up for a 2013 performance with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra as part of her soloist exam. If she's already this impressive, it's almost impossible to imagine where she'll be when she hits 30.


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