Ultima(te) Contemporary Music Festival: Sensory Overload

This is my first time in Norway and, thanks to a grant from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, I get to make Oslo my home for the next few months. In addition to my residency at NOTAM, I really wanted to attend as much of the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival as humanly possible. I picked up an all-access pass (which can be purchased at any local 7-Eleven!) which gets me into eleven non-stop days of music. For a country with less than five million people, the government funding for the arts is astonishing; the budget for Ultima last year was 7.1 million Norwegian krone (1.16 million dollars).

The first day of the festival kicked off with the opening of several sound installations, including Jana Winderen’s Energy Field in the main atrium of the Oslo Opera House. The sounds, recorded on a recent expedition to Greenland, included buzzing water insects, harsh wind and cracking glaciers. The speakers for this installation were configured in a three-by-three grid with the entire array facing the entrance of the opera house. The vastness of this recorded landscape was successfully captured and reproduced in this highly resonant space.

Energy Field
Jana Winderen’s Energy Field in the main atrium of Oslo’s Opera House

Later that evening, Benedict Mason’s Music for Oslo City Hall found the musicians of the Oslo Sinfonietta and other local ensembles scurrying around, on top of and inside City Hall. The entire night felt like one big game of Pac Man, as we (the ghosts) were pushed from one room to the next. The piece was conducted by the unseen Brad Lubman, feeding the musicians cues through their wireless headsets.

Music for Oslo City Hall
Halfway through Benedict Mason’s site specific work Music for Oslo City Hall

The next day included Marina Rosenfeld’s Teenage Lontano, her cover version of this Ligeti classic. For the piece, thirty or so teenagers stood in a long line, affixed in pairs, with each group sharing a set of ear bud headphones attached to an iPod. Taking cues from their headphones, the teenagers were successfully able to block each other out, creating the very dense textures needed throughout this work. The material way up in the ether was achieved by a series of whistles hung around the teenagers’ necks. A giant, rotating speaker affixed above the choir, fed the audience Rosenfeld’s vaporous remix of the piece.

Teenage Lontano
Marina Rosenfeld’s teenage choir cover Teenage Lontano

Just down the street at the Black Box Theater was the Verdensteatret theater group’s evening-length piece And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing (Electric Shadows). The stage resembled the lab of a mad musical scientist. Scattered around the set were imaginatively reassembled bicycles, loads of magnifying glasses, and bits and pieces of circuit boards, all spinning and operating in a glorious chaos. The projected visuals had a Stan Brakhage vibe to them, juxtaposed with lots of birds. Audio was fed partially through an array of homemade speakers and included everything from skull splittingly loud noise to the hushed, slightly out of tune churning of music boxes.

And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing
Getting a closer look at the stage from the Verdensteatret theater group’s work And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing (Electric Shadows)
And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing
Getting a closer look at the stage from the Verdensteatrettheater group’s work And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing (Electric Shadows)

The German new music/gypsy band Zeitkratzer turned it up to eleven with their late-night, high-octane take on folk music from Bulgaria, Austria, Norway, and countless other cultures. It was a killer show. At one point, reed player Frank Gratkowski and French hornist Hild Sofie Tafjord abandoned their instruments for a mind blowing Inuit throat-singing duet.

Zeitkratzer
Germany’s new music/gypsy band Zeitkratzer (with fog machine!)

A pair of weekend concerts took place at the beautiful waterfront Henie-Onstad Art Centre just outside of Oslo in Bærum. I definitely have a soft spot for vintage analogue electronic music and got my fix that afternoon. Pierre Henry was on hand to present his epic forty-five minute work Le Voyage from 1962 alongside the world premiere of Envol, all on a beautifully arranged 36 channel sound system. Another concert that afternoon provided a very nice tribute to the Norwegian experimentalist and microtonal guitarist Bjørn Fongaard.

Henie-Onstad Art Centre
Speakers of all sizes at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre

The highlight of the first week of Ultima was a concert by the vocal sextet Nordic Voices. I really hope this concert is some indication of the events to come next week. Their performance of Peter Ablinger’s Studien Nach der Natur was one of the most intense and riveting vocal performances I have seen since moving to Europe two years ago. Also featured on the program was a solid performance of Ordinary Measures by American composer John McGuire alongside four pieces by the exciting Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen.

I am already feeling the wear and tear from this first week of Ultima. Having performed at festivals of this length before, it is an entirely different experience being on the audience side of the action. Any strategies or words of encouragement to get me through the twenty or so concerts left would be much appreciated!

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