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Fulbright in Norway: Introduction

I’m living in Oslo with a Fulbright Grant, working with jazz composer Helge Sunde, writing a large composition inspired by my Norwegian heritage that will be performed in May or June 2018. Although I am living and working in Oslo, part of my research project involves visiting Bergen, where my great grandfather Edvard Johansen lived at the beginning of the twentieth century. My hope is that my time in Norway will be an exciting time filled with musical and cultural exchange, as well as artistic inspiration, and so far it has more than exceeded my expectations.

The Fulbright office here in Oslo has been really gracious in welcoming us to the country, as well as providing us guidance (both financially and culturally—thanks Kevin!). During orientation, they introduced a sampling of Norwegian foods to us on a wide table, provided us financial and travel tips, and gave us the inside scoop from alumni, some of whom had moved to Norway for good. The office has continually been a friendly place, inviting us to lunches, open houses, and other social gatherings and presentations. The other Fulbright grantees are all brilliant, working on projects as diverse as cancer and vaccination research, prison architecture, peace and conflict studies, and digital modeling of Viking ships for video games. Although many of us live here in Oslo, the grantees are spread out all across Norway from Bergen to the far north in the arctic circle at Tromsø. The office is funding my trip to Bergen in October, as well as providing travel money to a Fulbright Conference in Berlin this upcoming March. The Oslo Fulbright grantees are a nice gang, and we often hang out if we ever crave American traditions (like watching Thor: Ragnarok or Thanksgiving).

For me, the experience of living abroad is a new one—a typical busy music student, I never had the opportunity to study abroad for undergraduate. I had traveled abroad only twice before my time in Oslo—once to France and Italy last summer for the highScore festival, and another time to Seoul, South Korea to attend the International Gugak Workshop at the National Gugak Center to study traditional Korean music. The worries of living abroad are all there—fear of loneliness, etc. But for me, living in Oslo has been a very enjoyable experience and really fits my lifestyle and goals. The city is small enough, but big enough to be full of rich cultural activities every night.

I live in Kringsjå Student Village, a typical student dorm right on the edge of Sognsvann, a lake and hiking trail which connects to the Nordamarka, a forest where you can hike for miles (or, should I say kilometers). I have international roommates—a few from Italy, one from Austria, one from France, one from Norway, and two from Germany—we share a kitchen and get to interact a lot—everyone is friendly and is open to talking about their own experiences studying abroad. Having such easy access to nature is wonderful, as it means I can go for morning or evening walks and take a break from composing with some inspiration in nature. It’s right on the end of the T-bane metro, which means a beautiful, practically untouched forest is right on the end of the line that is 15 minutes from city center in Oslo. If I ever need a day close to home, hiking in Sognsvann provides a way to get outside for a brief while for a work break. Walking along the Akerselva river is also a relaxing respite, especially in the autumn foliage.

I’ve been attending concerts and events nearly every night here in Oslo, and the music I’ve seen has been incredibly rich and diverse—contemporary, fresh, constantly interesting, bizarre, and original. A major highlight was the Ultima Festival in September, which I blogged about earlier (see the post before this one). Oslo has a few go-to venues where I’ve frequently gone to jam sessions and concerts—Victoria, or the National jazzscene, Herr ​​Nilsen, Chateau Neuf, Blå, and Jazzpurk. Jam sessions here are welcoming and warm, and I’ve found it to be a good place to practice my chops playing with different musicians as well as work on learning tunes. Some stand out concerts from the Norwegian Academy included a concert called “Haldeplass” (translated as bus station) where they took us around on a vintage bus to three separate short concerts in different locations around the city of Oslo, from a medieval cellar with a retelling of Orfeo and Eurydice to a small house in someone’s backyard where they store an innovative electronic organ, where we witnessed a concert of music theater about deer. Victoria and Chateau Neuf are always a source of wonderful “traditional” concerts, including American acts like Joshua Redman and Kneebody to the Norwegian ECM musicians Arve Henriksen (whose trumpet sound has been a standard for Norwegian jazz in the past few decades—a beautiful, ethereal, alien tone) and student groups blending jazz and other influences, including folk music. The spectacular student group Masåva performed at Chateau Neuf, weaving a delicate, accessible tapestry of sound.

Oslo has many museums and parks, giving me time to take a break from the music grind and enjoy art. One September evening, all the museums were open for “Oslo Kulturnacht.” The National Gallery here has Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream as well as several other lesser-known works by the painter that are equally as striking. Through this museum, I also discovered the works of Theodore Kittelson, who portrays Norse folklore —from trolls to selkies and the like—in a strange, compelling way through black and white drawings. Other museums included the Norwegian Folk Museum, which has its own stave church and several historical replicas of Norwegian villages from a variety of regions in the country. The Viking Ship museum feels alive—the ships in it were used as burial grounds for fallen soldiers. Upon seeing the ships one can imagine the boats actually on sea, which is incredible, given the knowledge that these relatively small ships traveled as far as Iceland and even to the New World. Meanwhile, Vigelandsparken and Ekebergsparken provide aesthetic experiences in the outdoors—Vigeland Park is filled with cool modernist sculptures of humans intertwining in towers towards the sky, while Ekebergsparken not only offers sculptures and installations but also a great sweeping view of Oslo. It’s also the site of several stone-age mounds and artifacts. History is omnipresent in the city, which was the site of several battles and fires and other historical upheavals. Once called Christiania, the city has a fortress and an “old town” with monastery ruins. You can find monastery ruins on the island of Hovedøya.

I’ve also had the opportunity to travel outside the city and explore some countryside and some of Norway’s beautiful nature, in addition to traveling abroad to Linz and Vienna in Austria. Highlights from my travels in Norway included visiting Heddal Stave Church in Notoden, Norway—where I had sweeping views of this fairytale-like church from the 12th century, and hiking in Åndalsnes, a small town in central Norway. The train ride to Åndalsnes weaved through intense mountains covered in fog—straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” My Austrian roommate, her friend, and I stayed in a cabin at Svartvassbu—a fully stocked, super cozy cabin, one night, hiking alongside a mountain, and hiked up to Rampestrekken, a metal ramp jutting out on a mountainside with views of surrounding valley and fjord. No matter how much of a cliché it is, in Norway, the journey is just as important experience as the destination, as every train ride and bus ride through the countryside of Norway demonstrates.

All of my activities in Norway provide a compelling, engaging backdrop for my studies and my composition and performance work, which is developing as I absorb more influences. Norwegian Academy of Music is a perfect home base for a lot of my activities—not only is it full of inspiring teachers and classes, but the students and peers also provide opportunities to collaborate. Along with my main piece, inspired by Bergen heritage, I am performing, studying, and working on smaller composition projects. In addition to playing piano at jam sessions, I’ve been able to play with the Norwegian Academy of Music big band under Erlend Skomsvoll, a composer who is equally at home writing dense Coltrane-esque post-bop charts in addition to atonal Messaien-inspired explorations. The band performed music from his album What If… a Counterfactual Fairy Tale featuring reharmonized and rearranged standards, at the Academy and the Lillestrøm Storband festival.

At school, I’ve been studying privately with Helge Sunde and working on a variety of smaller composition projects for the jazz composition program, which is a one-year long continuing studies program. There are about six composers in the program—one from Finland, two from Germany, two from Norway, and myself, the “American in the room.” Each brings a unique voice to our sessions, which consist of composition projects, discussions and listening sessions, lessons, and recording sessions. Lessons with Helge are relaxed and informal and often take the form of conversations about our musical experiences, influences, and heritage.

Our first project is a string quartet project, recorded in October—we were given 30 minutes of rehearsal and recording time, so we had to compose given that restriction. I spent much of the month of September looking for an extramusical inspiration for the composition, as I usually do. Having just visited Heddal Stave Church and the Oslo Museum of Cultural History, I was struck by a portal carving on display, taken from Hylestad Stave Church, which features the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. I was compelled by the idea of allowing such an overtly “pagan” story to be carved in a prominent location on a church. After doing some research—expanding on some research I did during my undergraduate, when I wrote a paper on Stave churches for my class on Viking history senior year—I found that the symbol of a dragon was often associated with fighting away evil spirits, drawing a parallel with St. George and St. Michael and the Dragon(s)—and other instances of dragon slaying in Catholic hagiography. I read Snori Sturlson’s “Prose Edda” and several excerpts from Jacobus de Voragine's "Golden Legend," both of which feature parallel narratives of the two dragon slayers—Sigurd and St. George.

I thought it would be musically compelling to weave narrations of these two narratives together and take musical material—a Norse folk tune and a Christian hymn on St. George —and match that with the narratives, alternating between the two and eventually joining together. For the session, I asked two singers, Sofie Tollefsbøl and Bethany Forseth-Reichberg, to contribute narration and loose improvised singing to the composition, and I asked Richard Köster, one of the other composers in the program, to lay down some trumpet, which tied the two worlds together. The results of this incidental musical experiment were interesting—you can hear a recording below (I was conducting). The project, entitled Hylestad, is very much in line with ideas I have been considering recently —the relationship and interplay between theater, narrative, and music in composition projects. Other influences in Oslo have been fueling the fire, as much of the contemporary music scene in the city is centered on theater and intermedia. The Academy invited German-Greek composer Manos Tsangaris, a “music theater” composer who integrates theatrical elements, narrative, and music in his works, for a lecture and private lessons. Manos Tsangaris’s music theater lecture, where he discussed his piece Schwalbe (where the audience is on a boat and performers contribute to happenings and musical events on the banks of the river), reminded me of the Ultima performances in Oslo (Verdenteatret’s Hannah and Becker/Langaard New Skin) as well as a few recent exhibitions I had recently seen ("Turnton Docklands" at the Lentos Art Museum in Linz, Austria, and Thorsten Brinkmann’s "The Great Cape Rinderhorn" at Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas, for which I wrote a site-specific composition). His intermedia works are close to what I want to do in some of my compositions—integrating visual elements and storytelling in a holistic, immersive artistic experience.

This brings me to my main final project and central purpose for being in Norway—my composition inspired by my great-grandfather Edvard Johansen. The first step in the piece is getting inspired and collecting materials—information, research, videos, pictures, and sound recordings—to contribute to the composition, which will feature intermedia—a video screen will accompany the composition, which will have a fixed media track playing along with jazz and classical performers. I hope to convey an abstract journey of Johansen’s journey from Bergen to Brooklyn. The composition will be divided into three parts—the first episode will be based in Bergen, featuring sounds and visuals from the city, both contemporary and from the time that Edvard lived. The middle episode will be the sea journey, and the third will be based in Brooklyn, featuring interview snippets from relatives. While I’m currently in the planning and ideas stage of the piece, I’m excited to see how the piece will evolve and change over time. Toward the end of October, I’ll be visiting Bergen, where I will be collecting more materials, exploring the city, and connecting with my heritage.

DISCLAIMER: The account and opinions stated below are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State or the Norwegian Academy of Music.


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