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Ultima Festivalen: A Recap

Oslo’s 2017 international contemporary music festival, Ultima, has recently come to a close. Ultima is a nine-day festival filled with traditional concerts, improvisations, installations, jazz, indie rock, and theater performances. The festival is spread throughout several venues in Oslo, from the bank vaults of Sentralen to the grand Nationalteatret, and attracts international artists and audience members.

A notable aspect of Ultima is its inclusion of a multitude of genres and media—music that defines genre and crosses borders between artistic forms. Some of the programming stretched limits; many concerts were experiments, and the stages were laboratories. In addition to the performances, Ultima hosted several talks, workshops, interviews, and presentations with notable composers, which opened the floor for discussion, the development of ideas, and even debate. Ultima, it seems, embraces an open aesthetic, one where ideas can flourish and develop with the audience. Familiar ensembles and groups were presented side-by-side with new artists and a confluence of seemingly unrelated work. While eclectic and often bordering on post-modern, that mixture led to some very rich moments and unexpected resonances.

As a concert goer, I like to take time to absorb what I like to hear, usually limiting myself to one or two major concerts a weekend, which allows me to process and think about what I heard. Ultima week, that “principle” somewhat went out the window, and I found myself attending, at most, three or four concerts in one day, two days back-to-back. The week was a total immersion in contemporary music trends in Europe and abroad; I was extremely lucky to be in Oslo for most of the festival, only missing a few of the concerts.

To me, the standout moments of the festival were the theatrical pieces—the pieces that embraced a wider conception of the idea of “composition.” Most of the concerts, even the traditional concerts, to some degree, had an additional element to the mix other than performer-audience, including the 3D, 12-channel diffused sound of Elaine Radigue, Natasha Barrett, and Hilde Marie Holsen’s meditative electroacoustic music, the audience lying down and staring at the ceiling during Michael Pisaro and Klaus Lang’s music during the asamisimasa concert at Kulturkirken Jacob, props and a model campfire for Maja K. Ratkje’s Revelations (An Early Song) (which took fragments of words that are known to have existed in human language for the longest period of time), and improvisation and movement with the Alpaca Ensemble. The different spaces where these works were presented also provided an extra element adding to the concert experience—although some venues, like the Kulturekirken Jacob, it made it difficult to hear the music's details due to extensive echo, lack of visibility, and lighting.

The theatrical pieces featured Verdensteatret’s HANNAH, Becker/Langaard’s New Skin, and Heiner Goebbel’s Eislermaterial. Eislermaterial consisted of new “music theater” works, where music drove the theatrical elements within the pieces. Many of these pieces were more like “live installations” where there was a visual art mentality to their construction and composition, particularly New Skin and Hannah, which unfolded as abstract, open pieces with loose narratives and a musical sense of development. Hannah featured video projections, automatic robotic machines, actors, live electronics, and musicians entering and leaving stage, all supporting a loose narrative about geological time. The opening video projection of the show, featuring a video animation of an abstract sphere “burning” through a dirt-like background, reminded me of an abstract representation of generations layering on top of each other, leaving a unique impact on the world each time. Events in the theater often happened aleatorically—an actor would trigger a machine and objects would fall over, sounds would be produced by chance while videos would screen factories and apartment buildings and large cataclysmic abstract realizations. Verdensteatret’s self-pronounced goal is to create "complex orchestral works and space-related intermedia compositions." Meanwhile, New Skin provided an immersive experience featuring bulbous, flesh-toned paintings hanging from the ceiling, reminding one of Francis Bacon. Sceneographer Laangard acted in costume while Becker provided spacy pop music with vocals, electronic keyboards, cimbalom, and a variety of mechanically triggered wind and percussion instruments. Lighting also played a strong role in the piece; a standout moment was when spotlights facing the audience created two planes of space, slowly tilting down and covering parts of the audience with light and darkness for the others.

The traditional concerts seemed tame in comparison, but provided some sublimely beautiful and interesting music—music that often wasn’t necessarily “innovative,” but left an impression regardless. Cikada, Alpaca, Reolô, Yarn/Wire, and Musikfabrik ensembles presented beautiful pieces with delicate textures, from Rebecca Saunder’s “violent stillness” with Fury, to Francesco Fideli’s wacky Two Songs Without to Karin Reinquist’s spinning, improvisatory In Orbit. One of my favorite concerts was “Death to the Machine,” which divided the night up into three mini-concerts – a Persian electronics/traditional instruments concert, a mock performance-art rock concert by Torgny Amdam, and Stian Westerhus accompanied by an amplified wind ensemble performing an intense composition “Tod des maschinen” (Death to the Machine) — a mash-up of sounds with influences as diverse as cinematic film music, David Bowie, Ligeti, and metalcore.

This festival certainly emphasized extra-musical ideas and philosophical notions, and thematic connective tissue between pieces of a concert and a wider festival. This conscious programming—putting pieces in order based on a theme—should be an inspiration and goal for any new music presenter. Too often we see contemporary pieces misunderstood, since they are not placed in context or in dialogue with other music on a program, or thematically they simply don’t relate. Ultima Festivalen often placed music next to each other that related, but sometimes intentionally didn’t relate, to create a feeling of intense contrast, diversity, and exploration. One general criticism is there was a feeling of general slowness, save the loud, smoky Supersilent concert, which was more set up like a rock concert with an open center area designed for a mosh pit, where most people sat on the floor anyway.

Other standout moments including the installations, which were spread around the city of Oslo at a variety of venues and interacted with the local geography, including an installation under a bridge near the Akerselva recording the high-pitched frequencies of rats. Another installation featured hanging acoustic guitars that started resonating the longer one motionlessly stood next to them. Ultima also presented a lecture series, which included a documentary from Eliane Radigue, a lecture and discussion about improvisation, a workshop with Jennifer Walshe, and a lecture on musical aesthetics and philosophy by American experimental composer Michael Pisaro. In both the lecture series and the concerts, the music provided a rich palate of inspiration for young artists.

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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