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.

September 11: Trondheim Jazz Orchestra with Kim Myhr

The following evening, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra appeared at the Jacob Culture Church, performing a new work by Kim Myhr that, in addition to the guitarist, also featured singer Jenny Hval, whose most recent recording, Viscera (Rune Grammofon, 2011), is an overlooked gem of avant-pop. It's not the first time TJO has collaborated with Myhr; the two released Stems and Cages (MNJ Records) in 2010, with renowned singer Sidsel Endresen, even making the trek across the ocean to perform at the Canadian Festival International Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, that same year.

TJO is a fluid collective where its configuration is built to suit, whether it's the 14-piece, brass-heavy grouping for pianist Chick Corea's Live in Molde (MNJ, 2006), more string-driven 13-piece incarnation for Triads and More (MNJ, 2010) or the smaller, largely horn-driven dectet recruited for Motorpsycho and keyboardist Ståle Storløkken's progressive rock masterpiece, The Death Defying Unicorn (Rune Grammofon, 2012).

Here, the TJO featured a number of known names, most notably pianist Christian Wallumrød (also playing harmonium), as well as trumpeter Eivind Lonning, back from the previous evening's show at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Here, while there was scripted music, there was also no shortage of improvisation, collective and otherwise, though with Hval's singing—powerful, and cutting through some of the orchestra's denser moments with ease—there was a clear focus to the overall direction of the hour-long set. Myhr, as usual, played an acoustic guitar, his angular chords, chiming harmonics and occasional burst of linear movement creating a contrast to TJO's chamber-like blend of two strings, two brass, two woodwind, piano, bass drums and harp. Form and freedom orbited around each other, came together and spread apart in a performance of dark dissonances and brooding lyricism, Hval's pure voice an effortless lightning rod.

September 14: Oslo Philharmonic, Music of Berio and Wallin

A couple of days later, the entire city was a performance space for Culture Night, with a bevy of free shows across Oslo. It's said that Oslo has more cultural events than anywhere else in Europe, and as the Oslo Book Festival also descended on the city, it was like a massive injection of art, literature...and music, everywhere, music, and all offered free of charge.

With the 1,400-seat Oslo Concert House packed to the rafters for a free show by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Christian Eggen, folks might expect more conventional fare. But with a first set that delivered a strong interpretation of composer Luciano Berio's modern classic, "Sinfonia" (also featuring the six-member Nordic Voices, whose 2008 performance in Ottawa, Canada, was a compelling blend of music spanning four centuries), it was clear that the audience, mixed in age, from toddlers to seniors, wasn't going to be mollycoddled. Instead, with the members of Nordic voices commenting—singing, speaking and whispering—on a variety of subjects musical and otherwise—Berio's piece was a somewhat schizophrenic, 30-minute journey through post-serialism that proved music doesn't have to be "dumbed down" for the masses.

After a brief intermission, with youngsters handing out eyeglasses to everyone in the hall, the second half of the show featured a performance of Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin's "Manyworlds," another contemporary piece where a large screen above the orchestra was used for a synchronized 3D piece of visual art by Boya Bøckman. A member of De Utvalgte, an independent performing arts company, Bøckman's visuals were more evocative and suggestive than anything specific, but it was certainly odd to experience long, snaking lines seeming to literally grow out of the screen and approach the back of the hall. Premiered in 2010, the composition is inspired by string and membrane theories in physics, which the composer has described as making "the most spectacular conceptions of religious mysticism appear oddly sober and down-to-earth." The music certainly felt otherworldly, with many ideas running parallel, while at the same time interrelated, as instantaneous shifts juxtaposed with lengthy stases, all mirrored effectively by Bøckman's visuals. Redolent, perhaps, of a modern-day version of Walt Disney's classic music-meets-animation film Fantasia (1940), it was certainly a combination that was flashback-like, for at least some Baby Boomers in the audience.

September 15: Jaga Jazzist / Britten Sinfonia

In many ways, it was inevitable. Since forming nearly 20 years ago—hard enough to believe, in and of itself, since its three founding members, siblings Lars, Martin and Line Horntveth, are still in their thirties—Norway's Jaga Jazzist has defied all descriptions and label pigeonholing. The nonet seems to be, more often than not, lumped into the broad category of jazz, though there's very little overt connection to anything resembling the American tradition, though artists like trumpeter Miles Davis and Oslo 13 figure into the group's DNA, and there's a more direct contemporary link, with trumpeter/bassist/vibraphonist/keyboardist Mathias Eick's two successful ECM releases, including last year's Skala (2011). Progressive rock fans seem to like the group; after all, with keyboardist Øystein Moen's vintage synths and drummer Martin a powerful, rock-inflected blend of John Bonham and Billy Cobham—even, until recently, looking like a chunkier version of Gentle Giant's John Weathers (before trimming his beard) and effortlessly capable of navigating brother Lars' episodic, mixed-meter writing—how could they not? Heck, even classical music fans could find an entry point into Jaga's unmistakable music, with pieces like "Toccata," from its most recent studio release, One Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010), sounding how Philip Glass or Steve Reich might, were they younger, hungrier and rockier.

But it took BBC Radio's Fiona Talkington to actually make what has turned out to be, in retrospect, a most obvious connection, through her Conexions series which has, since the start of the year, brought Norwegian and British musicians together in inspired combinations—like In The Country with pedal steel player B.J. Cole, Sidsel Endresen with Philip Jeck, and Christian Wallumrød, (saxophonist but in this context), poet Karl Seglem and violinist Garth Knox. The series has garnered no shortage of praise for breaking down geographic and musical barriers, but for her final show of the series, Talkington needed something big, something epic, and bringing Jaga together with Britten Sinfonia for a closing show at the 1,350-capacity (standing) Rockefeller Music Hall was absolutely music on a grand scale.

Celebrating 20 years in 2012, England's Britten Sinfonia has, along with Holland's Metropole Orkest, broken down many of the barriers that have long divided classical music from other genres. While undeniably fine at classical repertoire, including that of its namesake, Benjamin Britten, this collective of classical virtuosos with far broader purviews has collaborated with everyone from Polar Bear drummer Sebastian Rochford and saxophonist Andy Sheppard to Brad Mehldau, touring everywhere in the world but the U.S. with the American pianist in support of his ambitious Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010). When the idea of an expanded Jaga project came to mind (the result of discussions between Talkington and Lars Horntveth), Britten was the logical choice...and, based on the closing performance of Ultima 2012, absolutely the right one.

Performing Jaga's music—orchestrated by Lars and Jaga trombonist Erik Johannessen—whose solo record, Inkblots (Gigafon, 2012) is one to watch)—takes more than a chamber orchestra capable of playing what's on the written page; to properly handle Jaga's incredibly detailed music, it requires a group capable of split-second decisions, and the ability to merge seamlessly with a group whose instrumentation, amongst its nine members, ranges from the conventional (guitars, bass, drums, keys) and the in-the-ballpark (saxophones, flute, trumpet, trombone, pedal steel) to the rarely heard in rock context (vibraphone, tuba, bass clarinet). With Christian Eggen conducting Britten—in considerably more relaxed attire than his show than his Oslo Philharmonic performance at Oslo Concert Hall the night before—the show covered all music from One-Armed Bandit, a set-closing "Oslo Skyline," from What We Must (Ninja Tune, 2005), a new piece, "Prungen,"and a couple of Jaga-only encores, including "All I Know is Tonight," also from What We Must).

This was not the first time Jaga and Britten had performed the music; the premiere of their collaboration came this past June at The Barbican in London, where over a thousand people gave the group three standing ovations, and critical acclaim was unanimous. The only downside of the Oslo show was that, due to time constraints of the venue, the concert's length (still generous at about 105 minutes, including encores) precluded the chance to perform Lars Horntveth's ambitious extracurricular album, Kaleidoscopic (Small Town Supersound, 2009), a single, 37-minute piece that, on record, was performed entirely by Horntveth, drummer Gard Nilssen and members of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. Never performed live before, it looks like those at The Barbican will be, at least for now, the only people lucky enough to hear this expansive work in a live context.

But as much as it would have been great to hear Kaleidoscopic live, it's ultimately a minor quibble. Being fortunate enough to attend one of just two shows with Jaga and Britten, there were numerous high points. This was not "Jaga with strings"; this was a fully integrated suite of music where an opening fanfare of nearly five minutes, featuring Britten alone, led to a powerful (and, based on the audience's reaction when Jaga joined in, familiar) version of One-Armed Bandit's propulsive, contrapuntal title track; but in those few minutes, Britten's credentials as one of the only chamber orchestras on the planet capable of doing this music were made crystal clear, from soaring strings to woodwinds and percussion that were impressive on their own but, when joined with Jaga, becoming a veritable force of nature.

With a stable lineup since 2010 and plenty of touring that has included stops at the 2010 Kongsbgerg Jazz Festival and, the following year, at the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival (just about blowing the roof off of Club Soda), Jaga proved about as well-oiled as it'll ever be, effortlessly executing music that somehow managed to sound accessible—singable, even—even as it rarely adhered to any of pop music's normal conventions. The inclusion of Britten did mean that some of the normal instrument-hopping that's a part of any Jaga show was reduced, but only a bit. Andreas Mjøs still moved regularly between guitar, vibraphone and synth; Even Ormestad could be seen playing synth bass as often as he was the four-string electric variety; Johannessen tripled his usual trombone with wordless vocals and percussion; Eick moved from lyrical trumpet solos to double bass, keyboards and vibes with similar aplomb; Moen may have stuck with keyboards, but texturally he's become as much a cornerstone as the Horntveth siblings; and guitarist Marcus Forsgren (the most recent recruit in 2010) is playing with far more confidence and flat-out showmanship than just a year earlier, in Montreal.

As for the Horntveths? Line divided her time between tuba (and surely must be the inspiration for younger tuba-based pop bands like PELbO), flute, percussion and wordless vocals. Martin may stick with his now-signature red-striped acrylic kit, when he's not introducing the songs or throwing t-shirts out into the crowd, but he possesses the kind of instant charisma that's rare for a drummer, in particular one this finessed and powerful. Lars, moving from electric guitar, saxophone, bass clarinet and occasional vibes to the pedal steel that has become another of Jaga's many signature sounds, experienced a brief problem when, early in "One-Armed Bandit," a short a cappella feature on pedal steel was scuttled by a technical glitch, but he quickly recovered, like the pro that he is—and considering a stage so crammed with 25 musicians and, as ever, enough instruments to open a music store, it's amazing that he could and did.

The arrangements for Britten allowed some of the pieces to live and breathe even more than they did on record. The rock-edged minimalism of "Toccata" was even more cinematic, while an opening segment early in the show, featuring Eick's heart-wrenching trumpet solo, clarified Lars Horntveth's debt to Gil Evans, in particular the composer/arranger's classic collaboration with trumpeter Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960). Were he still alive today, it's not hard to imagine that Evans would find plenty to like in the progressive/jazz/classical/insert-label-here music that has come to be known as Jaga Jazzist.

There's been interest in the expanded Jaga Jazzist at The Metropolitan in New York City, as well as in Japan. The logistics of bringing a group as large as Jaga alone make its ability to travel as much as it has nothing short of remarkable; it seems more likely that the group will have to find local chamber orchestras rather than bringing another sixteen-plus members along for the ride, and that will be a challenge in and of itself, as it's not every chamber orchestra that can do this. Still, it's early days, and if nothing else it's encouraging to hear that at the very least, this tremendous collaboration—the result of two forward-thinking groups and Fiona Talkington's out-of-the-box thinking—is not necessarily over. And, if none of that comes to pass, Jaga's Ultima performance with Britten Sinfonia—a tremendous closer for the festival's 2012 edition—will certainly go down as one of the festival's best shows, in this year, or any year, for that matter.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

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