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Fulbright in Norway: A Visit to Bergen

A lot has happened since my last blog post—new developments and future plans, new creative projects, more travels, and new friends. It’s almost winter break, and I’m about to leave for a new chapter of my European adventures —exploring some of central Europe—Austria, The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Southern Germany.

Probably the biggest event was my trip to Bergen in October. Bergen is the former home of my great grandfather Edvard Johansen, who lived there at the end of the 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries and moved to the US when he was 12 years old, traveling alone on a boat. I journeyed to the city to soak in the feeling of the place and see if I could find any evidence of living relatives or a trace of personal history. The famous train ride to the city is perhaps one of the more beautiful train rides I’ve been on—it traverses a mountain plateau, where you feel like you’re traveling onto another planet—wooden tunnels are interspersed with sprawling bridges and rocky landscapes dotted with cabins and scraggly underbrush. Before and after this mountain plateau are beautiful mountainous areas with lakes, rivers with rapids, and waterfalls, cutting out slices in the mountain. On the way to the city, the hills were rich with autumn foliage; on the way back, the mountain plateau was covered in snow—coming out of a tunnel cut through the rocks felt like jumping ahead a season.

I split my visit in Bergen between staying with a fellow Fulbrighter, Pahul, who is working on the medical campus, and an Air Bnb host. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find living relatives or concrete genealogical information, but my visit to Bergen was filled with history and nature—I felt connected to the place. Aesthetically, the city is quite different from Oslo—there’s more attention to the preservation of the old shape of the city, complete with its ancient buildings and layout. The city feels quite small in comparison to Oslo—it’s easy to walk from one end to the other. Part of my goal in visiting the city was to collect sound samples and video clips that I would use in a composition about my great grandfather’s journey. The whole time I was in the city, I carried around a field recorder (with a bulky wind filter) and got some funny looks but also got some great sounds, from natural sounds like waterfalls from close-up, rain (persistent in Bergen, of course), crunching leaves, and seagulls to signature sounds of the Bergen streets and waters like boat horns, street crossing signals, and Bybanen jingles. I also collected videos and pictures of the harbor, a variety of landscape views from lookout points on one of the “seven peaks,” and street activity. Although I could record these sounds anywhere, there is a specific significance to these sounds in Bergen, as they will intertwine with my compositional narrative of the immigration experience.

Some standout places in Bergen were Ulriken, whose peak Pahul, a few of her friends, and I climbed, the Bryggens site—old dock buildings run by the Hanseatic League—the KODE Art Museum, which had a nice collection of Munch paintings rivaling the Munch Museum in Oslo and a few great works by Nicolai Astrup, a new favorite painter of mine, the Fløybanen, a very steep train up the side of the mountain, and Fantoft Stave Church. On the hike up to Ulriken, we ran into an American who lives in Bergen with his Norwegian wife; they later invited us a delicious salmon dinner with milk and cookies. Of course, I did quite a bit of solo exploring around the windy backstreets of the city recording sound and capturing video. Visiting Grieg’s composer home made me envious of the composer’s constant connection with nature—he had a composing hut right by the water, and his gravesite is just below the house. In Bergen I was also able to reconnect with some of the Fulbrighters I had met in Oslo in August, including Mia Zamora, whose family lives in the town right next to mine in New Jersey and teaches at Kean University, and Jerry Holt, who is working with the University of Bergen, teaching about Norwegian noir novels.

Right after my trip to Bergen, I traveled to Gothenburg, Sweden for a weekend. Gothenburg is a friendly city and has a noticeable character to it. I visited Haga for a classic cinnamon bun, and took a very to Styrsö, one of the islands in the Gothenburg archipelago. That visit inspired a composition of mine for quartet, Stora Rös, which was performed at the KoKo Student Composers’ Concert at the Norwegian Academy, for voice and rhythm section. This concert was a refreshing mix of “concert” works and jazz works—a nice testament to the acceptance of multiple genres at the school. Also a testament to this openness was my back-to-back lessons with the Norwegian composers Erlend Skomsvoll and Henrik Hellstenius, in the jazz and art music worlds, respectively. Each had constructive, specific things to say about my music, but each has a totally different approach and philosophy about composition.

Along with the proliferation of options in my future, studying in Oslo has redirected some of my musical ambitions. In the world of professional composition, particularly in the US, the industry is driven by competition—a constant race for commissions, residencies, grad programs, jobs, prizes, academic composition lessons, summer festivals, etc. Sometimes, this means composing music for others—composition teachers, commissioners, orchestras, etc. —a world of restrictions leading to music of complexity and music geared for performers. While I recognize the practical necessity of this, often much of this world is separated from the reality of creating music for others to listen to, which I have felt in full force in live performances in the jazz community here in Oslo.

I hesitate to say “write music for yourself,” because that can be a solipsistic endeavor that leads to both academic indulgence and derivative, boring music. I am also the last person to say, “write simpler music” because oftentimes immensely complex music is the most moving. Recently, I have had a stronger drive to perform my own music and think less about the abstract craft of composition. While, like many composers, I enjoy the theoretical and the discussion-worthy, I also enjoy myself more at social concerts, noticing the physical and emotional power of certain kinds of music. Much of the music in Victoria Jazzscene, for example, is richly intellectual but also richly visceral, initiating direct reactions from the audience. I think this is something to aspire to in concert music, whatever the means. “Tunes” and “groove” are not just vestiges of a neo-romantic, reactionary aesthetic, or a mere form of minimal cyclicism, but a very human experience.

At times, jazz musicians and songwriters seem to understand the room more than contemporary “concert” composers, who often categorize music according to 20th-century trends. I tend to believe that it is more than social conditioning that leads us to be directly moved by such music, especially in group contexts, because I often find myself personally engaged with the sounds. Composing and performing music with audience in mind does not mean pandering or dumbing down the music, or even seeking approval or the gratification of packed houses and shiny marketing, it means performing with a social intelligence and awareness—playing the room and connecting with people on a personal level. Regardless, spending time away from the score-crazed den of composition academia has been healthy, as it has reassured me that there are multiple ways of viewing music on a whole and many musical value systems. Performing free in Oslo—music not restricted by a preconceived plan or structure—rather than slavishly learning standards, has also been a liberating experience, and a socially engaged one, in that performers are literally speaking to each other directly through musical sound, leaving each other to react as they would, listening and responding.

The last few weeks of November and the first week of December was a very busy concert season for me, as I ended up composing a big band arrangement of the medieval Christmas Carol There is No Rose of Such Virtue for the December 1st Julekonsert at the Academy, supervised by Helge (recording can be found here). In addition to writing the arrangement, I played piano in the big band, learning a few arrangements composed by the other master’s students in jazz composition at the Academy. The following week, we celebrated with a julbørd Christmas feast. Other highlights from that week include a performance at the US Ambassador’s residence on Nobelsgate for the annual spouses of ambassador’s holiday lunch. At the lunch, I was able to talk with some of the spouses, including sculptress Kirsten Kokkin, who taught at the Norwegian Academy of Art. We compared our work processes and experiences with developing and critiquing work.

After the concert season settled down a bit, I had time to really absorb the Christmas spirit in Oslo, attending a few choir concerts and the Christmas markets. The julemarked in Spikkersuppa near the National Theater and the julemarked at the Norwegian Folk Museum are my favorite, as they have a selection of great food (and gløgg, mulled wine, of course) and homemade crafts. I finally got to witness the warm Scandinavian holiday spirit that I had always heard about from my mom and her family. The most known of the Norwegian holiday symbols is the nisse, a Christmas “gnome” of sorts. You can spot these all around the markets in different forms—they really make a Norwegian Christmas Norwegian. I’m most excited for the Austrian Christmas markets, some of oldest and largest market traditions in Europe. My winter travels will provide a much-needed break from a constant flow of projects and musical ideas.

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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