Ultima Contemporary Music Festival: Two Extremes

Over forty concerts in two-dozen venues scattered throughout Oslo! The second week of Ultima was exhilarating, as it splintered off into several smaller festivals. One of the more successful ventures was the two-part Ultima Noise Fest. The first happening took place at Sukkerbiten, a makeshift venue on the docks of the Oslo Opera House. Taking in the scene before the show, I noticed a few seemingly out of place guys dressed in suits, awkwardly circling the stage. Enter Guds Söner (The Sons of God), a Swedish noise group that thoroughly pummeled us with a highly visceral, ankle-numbing set of low frequency, analog drones. They were accompanied by a full contact, lawn chair-equipped dance duo (this video is a good introduction).

Sons of God
Swedish noise group Guds Söner flips out

The second night of Noise Fest moved across town to the graffiti-covered venue Blå. I am really starting to dig Oslo, feeling hints of the underground, squat culture I have become accustomed to in Amsterdam. It was an amazing evening, highlighted by a set from the Portland, Oregon-based noise artist Daniel Menche. On stage, he was perched atop a large wooden crate, with a nice spread of gear and a long, wooden stick laced with contact mics. He created large waves of distortion and feedback by beating this wooden stick against his chest and pressing it against his throat while screaming.

Daniel Menche
Daniel Menche waves his magic noise wand
More Noise
More noise at Blå

With a duo of noise concerts under my belt, it was time to move back to Ultima’s more traditional concert spaces. Saul Williams presented excerpts from his book Said the Shotgun to the Head in an awesome collaboration with composer Thomas Kessler, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and ten young Norwegian rappers. The success of this performance came from Williams’s eloquent and rapid-fire delivery of poems from his book. As a fellow saxophonist, it was also nice to hear Olav Anton Thommessen’s Tuba mirum for saxophone quartet (all doubling on baritone saxophone) and orchestra on the program, a very welcome addition to this repertoire. Over at the Opera House was a fully produced version of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente.

Halfway through Kurtag's Kafka-Fragmente
Halfway through Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente
Halfway through Kurtag's Kafka-Fragmente
Vocalist Salome Kammer and violinist Carolin Widmann taking their bows after Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente

Another strong focus during the second week of Ultima was the choir festival Tenso Days. Though I heard it was great, I unfortunately missed the opening performance of Zad Moultaka’s L’autre rive by the French ensemble Musicatreize. I did, however, catch a double bill with the Nederlands Kamerkoor and Det Norske Solistkor. There was a really nice piece on that concert by Eivind Buene that teamed these ensembles up with Gjermund Larsen, a traditional Norwegian fiddle player.

Ultima Festival sign

A pair of concerts at the Uranienborg Kirke brought the festival to a close. The absolutely stellar Latvian Radio Choir sang an entire world premiere program of microtonal choral works. Once again, the Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen hit me just right with his folk-inspired Mythes étoilés. Martins Vilums’s thrilling composition Abar panjom ardig abag gaw ek-dad kard had the entire chorus walking a very thin tightrope, with each member singing their own distinct part.

The final concert of Ultima was the world premiere performance of Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje’s Crepuscular Hour for three choirs, six noise musicians, and organ. Bringing everyone together, this massive, evening-length piece felt as though it could have single-handedly carved out the Norwegian fjords. I became a bit disoriented and started to lose track of time at what felt like twenty to thirty minutes into the piece. Surrounded on all sides by a choir of noise, the piece continued to snake its way through the expansive church. After a long, gradual build, it gave one last roar before quietly sending us home.

Crepuscular Hour
Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje’s epic Crepuscular Hour