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Fulbright in Norway: Final Reflections

At this point, I only have a few months left in living in Europe, and it's hit me. I've been busy rehearsing all the music for my final Fulbright project like clockwork—all six pieces were surprisingly easy to put together, and I was impressed by the responsiveness and enthusiasm of all the musicians about my music. The six pieces —Ymir's Bones (which I expanded into a sextet), Hylestad, Ice on Sand, Beta Drift, The Dolphin Moments, and Edvard came together with three to four rehearsals for each piece, and by the time of the recital that week, I was feeling prepared and relaxed. While in the beginning I was a little nervous about the new elements of Edvard—the new difficult meter (uneven 3-beat 10/8 bar) and the new instruments (accordion, violin, Hardanger fiddle, and bassoon), the musicians were patient and eventually the new groove clicked.

The turnout was excellent for the show. It was especially nice to see people’s reactions to The Dolphin Moments, an experiment, like Hylestad, in narrative and music crossing in complex and ambiguous ways. After the show was finished, I had a few relaxing days in Oslo, including a hike in the woods (which still, in May, has some deep snow towards the higher elevations making the hike somewhat difficult), going to National Gallery, and seeing the island of Gressholmen.

In early May, I played a few concerts, including a performance of a composition featuring a mixture of players from different levels, including amateur and young musicians, by the masters’ jazz composer Jos Heutmakers, a collection of original jazz arrangements of Icelandic tunes by Jón Einarssen, and an exam concert with Adrian Andersen at Victoria with some groovy Rhodes features. Meanwhile, I was working intensely on my piece for Aspen Music Festival.

As the weather started getting warmer, I explored the remaining islets of Oslo fjord, taking much longer hikes through Sognsvann now that all of the snow has melted, going to museums I haven’t seen (Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch exhibition at the Astrup Fearnly Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the botanical gardens), hiking to Ullevålseter, seeing the James Turrell Skyspace at Ekebergsparken (a throwback to the Skyspace at Rice in Houston) and of course, attending concerts, including a Morton Subotnick concert at Henie Onstad Kunstcenter, Sonik Hage (the art music student composers’ concert), Dr. Lonnie Smith, the master’s jazz composers final concert, an all-female improvisers orchestra called “FeMay,” a concert from Olso Philharmonia of Kaija Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre featuring an actor and projected video (and I got to see Saariaho give a masterclass) and exam concerts from a few of my friends at the Norwegian Academy.

My dad and brother visited Norway mid-May—it was nice to share Oslo with them, particularly since the weather has taken a turn for the best with lush, green, and beautiful weather in May (the seasons changed within a week—May 1st, there was snow on the mountain near Frognersetern, but by May 11th, the sun was out and leaves were green). It was nice to get an American tourist perspective from my family, as it was their first visit to Norway. I took them to my digs in Oslo, then we drove for two days up to Sognefjord to take a fjord cruise from the village of Gudvangen (where we ate dinner on a dock over the fjord and woke up to waterfalls in the morning), through Nærøyfjorden to Kaupanger, where we saw the stave church there and moved on to stay in Sogndal for a night. The fjords are some of the most beautiful sights I have seen in my life—waterfalls pour from impending rock faces and verdant patches of grass contrast with impressive white glaciers. On the way back, after a bit of road over some rocky rapids, we came across the mysterious, isolated Borgund Stave Church, which has been relatively untouched or modified since the 1100’s. After we returned to Oslo, we got to see the 17th of May celebratory parade down Karl Johans Gate, featuring 119 top-notch children’s marching bands and lots of red and blue flags waving down the street.

The next week, I finally saw an opera at the famous Opera House—Don Giovanni. This version of Do Giovanni ended with Don Giovanni switching Leoporello out with himself as the Commandatore appears, instead sending Leoporello down to hell with the Commandatore, leaving Don Giovanni to continue to womanize unnoticed as the chorus sings “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de' perfidi la morte, alla vita è sempre ugual!” (This is the end which befalls evildoers. And in this life scoundrels, always receive their just desserts!), making it a very cynical interpretation. Instead, the relatively innocent accomplice Leoporello is left to burn in hell while Giovanni continues his evil deeds. I saw their staging, directed by Richard Jones, to mean that bad deeds CAN continue to be unnoticed and be unpunished if you turn a blind eye, which is certainly true in today’s world and changes the more basic original message. Although I think Mozart was aware of the possible ambiguities available in the narrative there, this production was certainly an example of “director’s theater.” The staging, which featured a row of doors and a sickly green backdrop, with Leoporello/a servant opening the doors while Giovanni individually brings a line of ladies in and the door closes behind them, complemented this idea well.

I used the following week to explore a bit more of Norway, visiting Rakni’s mound, a huge burial site for 5th century kings ironically close to the Oslo airport, then flying up to Trondheim, a city known for its wooden houses and the biggest cathedral in Norway, the Nidaros Cathedral. I sat in on a jazz jam session there with some talented students from NTNU and took the train to Røros, a UNESCO site and former mining town with an authentic medieval feel. The remains of the copper works and original church there is still relatively intact, giving the feeling that you’re stepping back in time when you enter the city.

After traveling to Trondheim and Røros, I started rehearsing with the NMH big band for a project with Det Andre Teatret, a theater company in Oslo focused on improv comedy. Although I had originally planned to write a full-length composition for two actors and engage them more within a preexisting composed structure, I realized very quickly given the rehearsal time that that approach wasn’t going to work for this project, so instead wrote a short tune that was “moldable.” The jazz composers wrote short fragments of materials to be cued (anything from single-line melodies to two-note motifs to grooves and vamps to cloudy pitch clusters and atmospheric textures), and we created a complex system of hand gestures for Magnus, the conductor, who could cue in any particular tune at any particular moment, and change the tempo, dynamics, articulation, key, and feel of the music. We had a variety of gestures for musical styles and moods, with anything from “Morricone Western” (a smoking hand gesture) to “space disco” to “haunted house” to “epic Lord of the Rings” to “as fast as possible.” My contribution was a series of cards with written instructions, general words (YELL and go wild, and SHHHH) and silly drawings (cheese and poop emojis, etc.) that both the actors and the musicians could pick up on the director’s choice to show those cards. In some ways, Magnus had created his own spontaneous conducting form through mixing a kind of Butch Morris “conduction” approach and John Zorn’s “Cobra” pieces.

It was super fun to see this variety of aleatoric systems and games coming together—it was a flexible musical system that could spontaneously change based on what the actors were doing but also snap into consistent, tutti, “through-composed-sounding” music, something that doesn’t typically happen in free improvisation. The actors could also influence the music with the cards and a “middle finger” gesture that signified a chord stab that ended up becoming a kind of musical censorship (*BLEEP*). Although I could barely understand what the actors were saying during the rehearsal and performance, I could get a sense of shape from their gestures and moods—their stories ranged from royal processions to reading letters from ex-girlfriends to wandering through a haunted house, etc. It helped to have a director in both groups—i.e. Magnus as musical director and Tony as theatrical director—to focus the energy of each form and preventing “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Both directors made general suggestions and concrete decisions (for example, to scale back on the actor’s reactivity to the musical sounds, and to prevent too much going on at once—the brass and acting voices all together sometimes got a little too busy). The whole rehearsal process and performance were a testament to music as a language with syntax and function, and by the end of the rehearsals, I was picking up on more Norwegian words than when I started through pure repetition. It was also refreshing to see the actors leave space for the music; both the music and the improv comedy storytelling of the actors had a prominent role. The exciting thing about the project was that every rehearsal and the show itself were drastically different from each other, and created a kind of “revue” that could change based on the improviser’s and directors decisions. The imperfections and humanity of the performance gave it a sense of fun and unpredictability. This show could go on the road and receive a lot of performances and still be fresh. It was certainly an inspiration for my future projects that could involve theatrical storytelling and music as equal partners.

After the Det Andre Teatret project, my roommate and I took a flight to Stavanger to take the famous Pulpit Rock hike and see a bit of the city as a “last hurrah” trip in Norway. The city has a small seaside charm to it, but all the perks of being a bigger city. Notably, it has a seaside playground that is made exclusively from leftover seaport parts, rows of white wooden houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, and a monument featuring three swords dedicated after the medieval Battle of Hafrsfjord. We got beautiful weather for the Pulpit Rock trip—it wasn’t too hot, the sky was clear, and we had some amazing views of the fjord below. The hike was a two-hour trek up rocky stairs with small ponds along the way that opened up to grand vistas. We also got to check out a placid white-sand beach (which is surprising, given the typical idea of Norwegian shores as rocky and dangerous) that was a fifteen-minute walk from the airport. After the trip, I headed back to Oslo for two days of packing, partying, and goodbyes, and flew home, somewhat in a trance.

As the year winds down, I’ve been reflecting back on my whole year in Europe. During my travels in Europe, several “peak moments” stood out that I will remember my entire life - looking down at Heddal Stave church during a sun shower, staying in a warm mountain cabin after hiking in Åndalsnes, cooking a Christmas chicken in the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov after seeing as many Christmas markets as we could, wandering around Bergen recording waterfalls near Grieg’s house (and the jaw-dropping train ride there), multimedia music theater at the Ultima Music Festival, witnessing a double rainbow on the mountain behind El Escorial in Spain with a full view of the palace after a hail storm, seeing the Northern Lights in a remote fjord in Tromsø, eating goulash in Budapest, New Year’s fireworks from the castle in Linz, Austria, sledding down the hill at Frognersetern, playing with the Fulbright jazz band at the Fulbright Berlin conference at Salom om Moritzplatz, quiet walks in Sognsvann in all seasons, the vistas on the Gothenburg archipelago, a saxophone duet concert in Emmanuel Vigeland’s Mausoleum, conducting “Edvard” with video and a 19-piece ensemble including a hardingfele, seeing the Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado Museum, the interactive exhibition “Turnton Docklands” at Lentos Kunstmuseum, hearing the NDR Big Band play through my own music, seeing Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, waking up two three massive fjord waterfalls out the window before taking a ferry out from Gudvangen to Kaupanger in Nærøyfjorden and Sognefjorden, passing through a valley and coming across the ancient and mystical Borgund Stave Church, climbing Pulpit Rock, standing on the slag hill in Røros... the list goes on, and probably could go on for some time.

An important realization I’ve had in Europe is the importance of travel. Not just traveling with a purpose or a vacation, but traveling purely to wander—aimless travel. Living in Europe has been a time for me to absorb and collect information and experiences, and I want to continue that process by living in other places in the world before I commit to a location to work as a teacher and freelance composer. Funding opportunities for studying and working abroad are super important in that regard. This year in some ways felt like a compressed version of the all the international traveling I could have been doing during that first twenty years of my life. Traveling is so important for an artist, and gives one an international awareness and places their work in context with a greater world and systems of music making other than their own. I hope, before I continue pursuing my career as a teacher in the United States, to return to Norway for some time. Even now when I’m living in the U.S., I see travel as less of a logistical barrier and more of a necessity—I plan to take more trips around the U.S. when I can to see places I haven’t seen before, on my own.

My time in Europe has provided me with some new ideas for big projects, both reinforcing my previous artistic direction and encouraging new directions. One aspect that I’ve thought a lot about in Europe is the importance of place, identity, and story in my work—in one way or another, I need to connect my work to some kind of space—a location with memories and history associated with it, and with a detailed, evolving landscape. In Europe, history and landscape is important, as well as national identity, and it is so compelling to see the way the past has etched events into the current cityscape, from old street layouts to remnants of buildings to roadmaps through valleys.

It’s been written about many times, but as an American, it is sometimes difficult to feel identified with a place not only because our history is so short—we’re basically babies compared to our European brothers – but also because the lack of defining “American characteristics” besides broad patriotic sentiments that are often misplaced (not that this doesn’t exist in other countries, but it is certainly pronounced in the States). My last month in Norway, I read Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” and he explores this idea by creating fictional versions of these mythical figures and gods that have been brought over from Europe. One of the characters (a version of Odin, more casually known as Mr. Wednesday) claims that “Nobody’s American… not originally.” Also, our language, English, is already the international standard in the music and art world, and it isn’t even “our own” aside from regional dialects. In my opinion, it is important for an artist to address their influences, both musically and otherwise, and the place they are from, in some way in their work (or it will show up without being intentional). It might seem on surface glance that it is harder to be artistically inspired by your own home country, hometown, and language, and addressing the idea of being a straight white male from a general American suburb can be an artistic challenge. Being from New Jersey, after all, is arguably less interesting than being from a small town nestled in a fjord in the Arctic Circle.

However, history, identity, and idiosyncratic cultural elements are still there, and there are some strange and interesting things about my home, New Jersey, worthy of exploring artistically. An important part of American identity is the culture mixture that is omnipresent, and its feeling of “newness” as a perpetual frontier and the associated loneliness and racial tensions. A few American artists stand out when we think about this notion of identity – Edward Hopper, Aaron Copland, Cormac McCarthy, Emily Dickinson, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Steve Reich, John Cage, George Crumb, George Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Bill Monroe, etc.—uniquely American phenomena that have come purely from the locations from which they blossomed. These artists all traveled abroad and probably had the same thought when living or traveling abroad—how could American artists accurately reflect their own country and its traditions, seeing the wealth of traditions in Europe? Is America just a watered-down version of European, African, or Asian culture, divorced by several generations? Every artist had a different approach, but came to a separate conclusion on their own. One recalls Copland’s lessons with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where she encouraged him to search for an “American sound.” Likewise, many composers today are exploring the music they grew up listening to in the suburbs – pop and metal, etc. The question is how to do it without being negative about the place you are from; how can you make art from a place that many consider boring?

In my time in Europe, seeing the immediately “Norwegian” qualities in some of the music (their folk music is quite unique since a lot of it is untouched by classical music or folk traditions due to long periods of isolation and relative poverty, even well into the early 20th century), and traveling to other countries and seeing their music and its historical legacy, I have thought a lot about what makes my own home place, New Jersey, unique. One such project inspired by this is a project surrounding the lighthouses of New Jersey. The Jersey shore has always been an important place to me, as I have spent my summers there ever since I was very young, and lighthouses have been an important aspect of my childhood, as I climbed Barnegat light and explored many of the lighthouses up and down the shore. In addition to being a valuable historical asset, lighthouses also are an important symbol of a uniquely American maritime culture. This would be a very personal project that would relate to where I’m from. The project itself would act as research into the cultural significance of these places.

Another potential future project an album-length piece for large mixed classical/jazz ensemble/big band hybrid that acts as a sort of short story collection. The project will address storytelling and improvisation within a large ensemble context, and feature actors and narrators that interact and weave narratives, both improvised and pre-written, through detailed musical structures. This idea deals with my interest in the relationship between music and story, which I’ve explored through film scores, incidental music for plays, opera, musicals, and my musical narration pieces, building off my current experiments in the fusion of narration, intermedia, and storytelling (with compositions like Hylestad, Edvard, The Dolphin Moments, and of course, the big band project with Det Andre Teatret).

The album will have an overall theme or “place,” (i.e. science fiction world-building, or a series of myths) but each track will have a self-contained musical world and narrative (again, like a short story collection). Actors will improvise on roles and improvise monologues or deviations from a set archetypal storytelling structure, as is typically done in oral storytelling traditions, and the music will reflect both the story’s central structure and the narrative deviations, as led by the actor or collectively decided upon by the ensemble, addressing the semantic precedence and overriding focus of narrative over music and questioning music’s role in narrative storytelling. This project is also building on ideas similar to those we explored with Det Andre Teatret and the NMH Big Band at Victoria, where music and comedic storytelling balance equally. The musical will feature a smooth blend of large-ensemble improvised jazz and “new music” for orchestra, in line with music I’ve heard in Europe, including Christian Wallumrød Ensemble and Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra.

A third potential project is composing fictional folk music, building off my studies in Korea and my knowledge of Norwegian folk music (I touched upon this at the end of my blog on my studies in Korea, found on my blog page). The idea stemmed from a lesson I had with the composer Eivind Buene, who, upon me showing him a piece of mine for Aspen Music Festival that combines Norwegian and Korean folk music, said that what I was doing was essentially inventing a fantasy folk music coming from an imaginary island. It is another avenue for storytelling, where the composer invents traditional folk music (with internal rules and stylistic elements, and new approaches and languages for instruments) for imaginary worlds and societies. What if you had a fictional society, some kind of fantasy or science fiction world or combination of preexisting cultures—what would its music sound like? The music is the vision into the society, an outline of sorts, fitting into a fictional mythology and cosmology; the music can be used for different functions—i.e. “ritual” music, “party” music, “wedding” music, etc. My current composition for Aspen Music Festival, Jejuholmen, imagines an island where Korean and Norwegian musicians jam. I would like to compose more music with this in mind, creating musical storytelling worlds, creating a fiction through exclusively through music, leaving a lot to the listener’s imagination in filling in the blanks on these cultures. This idea might tie in well to my previous idea—the short story album for large ensemble and actors—maybe creating a fictional folk music can weave well into that storytelling tapestry.

Turnton Docklands

A fourth compositional idea that has been brewing at the end of my stay in Norway is an installation idea—a site-specific composition that functions both as a theater piece and an art installation. Over the course of my time in Europe, I have seen a lot of “expanded” musical performances—performances that incorporate theater, visuals, installation, sculpture, projections, etc. woven into a tapestry of sonic storytelling where music is the most important element but is part of a complex system. Attending performances at the Ultima Festival in September and October (Verdensteatret HANNAH, Heiner Goebbel’s Eislermaterial, Becker/Langaard’s New Skin), as well as a week where the music theater composer Manos Tsangaris was in residence at the Academy and the Sonik Hage Festival, began this interest, and I started collecting performances and inspirations that could provide fuel for my own project, grounded by my interests and aesthetics. It was refreshing to see music considered in an expanded sense—music is not just notes, but also a whole experience, performance and all. Along with that, a recent trend in modern art I’ve seen is immersive experiences—experiences where you enter into a self-contained world and experience an unfolding narrative or world-building scenario (including Thorsten Brinkmann’s “Great Cape Rinderhorn” the imaginary world in “Turnton Docklands” at Lentos Kunstmuseum, and Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s “Sculptural Theater”).

That notion resonated with me deeply, as it goes deep back into my childhood into my love of immersive amusement park rides, designing imaginary worlds and maps, and building imaginary miniature worlds with Legos. A consistent interest of mine since childhood has been the development of imaginary “story-worlds,” often realized in physical, smaller forms. My dad had a model train set in the basement, and made animations with me when I was a kid. I always valued stories in realized places, drawing imaginary maps of my own devising. I’ve also been active in miniatures—one time when I tried to build a real-size miniature golf course in my room, I instead (with encouragement from my dad) built a small mini-mini golf course, complete with balls and clubs and working obstacles. During my Masters’ at Rice, I took a course called “Experimental Sound and Video” which expanded my knowledge of what was possible in terms of installation and composition, giving me tons of ideas that weren’t immediately executable but certainly inspired me.

I was also inspired by my visit to Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. The thing that struck me about the exhibition was its mixture of fantasy and reality—there is an invented German town and airport that function much like a real town and airport, but it of course doesn’t exist. The idea is similar to the “Turnton Docklands” exhibition, an interactive miniature world as art exhibition, and “I Spy Treasure Hunt,” a totally fictional diorama set built and photographed from several different angles. In Miniatur Wunderland, unified by its sense of extreme detail and accuracy (at night the entire place is illuminated by LED lights that look like a real night city from above), there are small anecdotal scenes amongst realistic moments frozen in time, and constant interaction with the audience and featuring observable detail that you can constantly engage with and find more in. Some of these include actual water, buttons which trigger certain events that happen in the scene (even generating real chocolate), walk-through areas, behind-the-scenes looks, “I-Spy”-like situations where you have to find certain figures and details, unrealistic, fantastical passages hidden in realistic scenes, and a pervasive feeling of engagement, thought, and fun. Behind the scenes is an immense system of mechanics and computers that keep the scenes running.

Turnton Docklands map

The idea for this fourth project is to create a diorama-like installation space, where a narrative musical-theatrical composition plays. The space will be open for a 2-3 hour period nightly for a week, during which the audience can come and go freely. The space will not be divided in audience/stage—a limited number of people (the audience) enter the space and will freely walk around the “stage,” which would basically be a black box space. The black box space will be filled with a detailed, interactive miniature model diorama with painted backgrounds. A narrative will occur in the space during the course of the 2-3 hours, but it will be in fragments, and the audience will have a choice in what aspects of the narrative they experience, and even may be able to shape it by interacting with the diorama, the actors, and the musicians. Actors and musicians will be moving freely throughout the space, performing excerpts of music and fragments of text. Music in the composition will be performed both by wandering musicians, but also via hidden, diffused speakers, like amusement park speakers hidden inside rocks. The music will be pre-written and improvised, and the audience has influence over what happens when, in some way, as if in a lucid dream, through a combination of personal interaction, mechanical interaction (buttons, etc.) and semantic interaction (a survey at the beginning of the piece). The materials of the diorama will consist of Legos, model train sets, designed backdrops supplemented by projections and video, found objects, toy knights, model buildings, paintings, etc.—differing scales and a mixture of objects and influences, but all creating a coherent whole.

That idea is more of a “form” than a specific piece—many different compositions could be performed in that space with that set up. I have several ideas for the loose narratives and associations that could unfold in that space. One narrative could be an imagination of the evolution and sociological/geographical development of an imaginary world, whilst following a prototypical hero character throughout this evolution. This prototypical hero would be realized both through a physical actor and a miniature figure. In many ways, the hero could demonstrate Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces,” in that he changes based on the preferences, time of performance, and audience present, evolving through the different “geological periods” of the composition. This hero will exist in the early primitive stages of this imaginary world and the futuristic, surreal society that develops during the course of the piece. Over the course of the two hours, the diorama will gain complexity, but the audience has control over which things develop and how using a series of buttons and a written survey as mentioned earlier. Each will be given a detailed printed map of the space and the “imaginary world” outside it, so they can know where to go and when, kind of like a mixture between an imaginary city and imaginary museum map. The piece will be contained within a “script/score” that takes into account the influence of the audience—in many ways, it is open-ended, and influenced by the audiences’ decisions, like a video game script.

This project would be incredibly ambitious in scope, and is similar in many ways to the New York “Happenings” of the 1960’s. There is a risk of bombarding the audience with too much information, and there are obvious logistical and technical issues such as getting a space for an extended period of time and hiring actors, musicians, etc. to consistently perform in the piece. In many ways the challenges of the piece eclipse the challenges of an art installation, musical performance, and theatrical performance all at once. However, a project of this scale is totally possible, especially for me for my dissertation project during my doctoral degree. This project could also potentially involve artists in a myriad of other fields, including the sciences, various other arts, and design fields.

For the next few years, these projects and ideas will certainly keep me busy, and I’ll remember my roots and where I got these ideas. Overall, since being in Norway, I’ve been able to focus on my passion and consider ways to combine my interests in concert music, jazz, and storytelling, in addition to considering my own identity as an American composer. My time in Norway has been a time of enormous personal and artistic growth.

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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