Mixing music and fiords in Norway

Cool temperatures, cool sounds give these music festivals an edge.

It may seem an odd idea when brisk October rolls in to head north to Oslo, Norway, land of the frozen fiords - even to hear music. Yet my experience last fall at Norway's pathbreaking Ultima Festival proved to be unexpectedly heartwarming.

During the first two weeks of October, Oslo's contemporary music event Ultima monopolizes 16 different performance spaces throughout the stately Scandinavian capital.

Ultima, founded more than a dozen years ago, has presented more than 1,000 contemporary works by 430 composers from 41 lands, including 150 world premières.

Last year's Ultima included 30 performances by such noted groups as the Arditti Quartet and the Oslo Sinfonietta; music by Americans John Corigliano and Steve Reich; Englishman Cornelius Cardew; and Italian Salvatore Sciarrino.

Since 1998, Ultima's director has been the composer Geir Johnson, a former boy soprano soloist in an Oslo church choir who grew up to perform as a rock singer in a new-wave band of the 1970s and later to study computer music at Stanford University.

When I first arrived at Oslo's central train station, I encountered a sound installation, "Norway Remixed," which was constructed for the duration of the Ultima festival.

In a metallic room colored gray, natural and man-made noises were playing on a tape. They had been recorded all over Norway: the sounds of flocks of birds taking off, waves crashing in the fiords, children playing, football games, city traffic, and many more, all blending with exquisite clarity.

The brainchild of composers Asbjørn Flø, Trond Lossius, and Risto Holopainen, Norway Remixed offered "a virtual journey across Norway... in a soundproofed listening room where the audience can listen to bits of the composition as they are created, in a surround-sound system of 24 speakers."

The day I visited, three Norwegian children were dancing around a pole in the center of the small room, pressing buttons that varied the pitch, loudness, and the rhythm of the noises.

The installation was the highlight of an Ultima conference on Electronic Art in the Public Domain, within the wider festival theme that year of "Acoustic Spaces."

One of the festival's aims is to spark - or rekindle - a youthful appreciation of music. To that end, several programs are designed for children.

I saw one of these shows at the Black Box Theater, located in a modest shopping mall. The program was a ballet choreographed to music by the "electronic improv-duo" known by the punning name of "fe-mail" (Maja S.K. Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord).

Two black-garbed dancers effortfully moved large primary-colored objects into sculptural shapes. (In Oslo, the kids are clearly meant to take their dose of modernism and like it.) On her website (www.notam02.no/~majar) composer Ratkje notes that her "major source of inspiration" is the late Astrid Lindgren, the beloved Swedish author of "phantastic [sic] books about Pippi Longstocking.... Her impact on millions of children will live on!"

Another form of addressing children could be seen the same day at the Oslo Concert Hall, when the Dutch "composer, voice performer, and sound poet" Jaap Blonk offered his own event for youngsters, accompanied by two highly gifted local performers, guitarist Ivar Grydeland and drummer Ingar Zach.

Blonk, a bespectacled man who looks like Stephen King, made grunting, shushing, and howling noises, as the musicians played, listening to him intently. Kids in the audience empathized instinctively with the odd sounds, although some first turned to their parents in alarm. Most soon were joining in with gusto for the audience-participation part of the event, rivaling Blonk himself in strange noises and grimaces.

Other concerts without direct links to childhood were held at unusual locales like the suburban Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, a museum containing a trophy room for Sonja Henie, three-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating and a star of 1930s Hollywood films.

Her museum also features an outstanding art collection, including one painting by Pierre Bonnard, "Le Dessert," that is probably the finest canvas on view in Oslo that is not by Edvard Munch.

One of the country's most distinguished composers is Arne Nordheim. The sharp-witted Nordheim is an outsized talent, which is evident even in his appearance - he resembles a more disciplined and self-contained version of Benjamin Franklin. I met him at the Oslo Music Conservatory auditorium on the evening of a concert in which his "Suite for Solo Cello," composed in 1996, had its Oslo première.

More than 40 years ago, Nordheim was an early pioneer in avant-garde musical techniques. Indeed, he wrote a piece about the city of Warsaw in which recorded sounds were combined much in the spirit of "Norway Remixed."

Also a fiery-penned critic for many years, Nordheim was honored 20 years ago by being lodged in a small house on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo, where his neighbors are the country's royal family. There he was recently photographed in his kitchen, playfully tossing a pineapple into the air.

In a way, he has been tossing pineapples into the musical establishment for many years, and the courage of his convictions is part of the strong appeal - both emotional and moral - of his music.

That evening Nordheim's solo suite was played with fire and verve by the virtuoso cellist Øystein Birkeland. It is splashy, large-spirited, and colorful, full of strong, elemental gestures. Its composer, too, is playful, but also no- nonsense and morally decisive.

Nordheim epitomizes a major message of the Ultima Festival: Retain the questing spirit and energy of youth.

It is a fine lesson to take away from any series of musical events, whatever the season.

For music lovers in search of exciting new experiences, there may be a fiord in your future.

The Ultima Festival is held in October each year. For more details, see www.ultima.no.

A few notes on Norway's musical calendar

Norway has a rich musical landscape. These are some of the major attractions that draw music lovers to the land of long summer days.

Bergen International Festival

May-June, in Bergen

Focusing on composers from Arnold Schonberg to Norway's own Edvard Grieg, and on gifted musicians such as the brilliant young pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, this is one of Norway's leading events. Since 1953, many now- legendary pianists have played a ritual performance here of Grieg's beloved "Piano Concerto." These include Grant Johannesen, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Radu Lupu, and Norway's own Hakon Austbø. www.fib.no

Dølajazz Lillehammer Jazz Festival

October, in Lillehammer

An event that offers a blend of local jazz artists with such well-known foreign talent as Pharoah Sanders, Joshua Redman, and Paul Motian. Norwegian bass player Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen is a familiar presence. www.dolajazz.no

International Chamber Music Festival

August, in Stavanger

editor's note

This festival is run by star cellist Truls Mørk. It has featured performances by musicians such as American forte- pianist Malcolm Bilson, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and German baritone Dietrich Henschel. www.icmf.no

Norwegian Wood

June, in Baerums Verk (west of Oslo)

This wildly popular rock festival, named after the well-known Beatles song, attracts fans who stream in by the thousands to hear such rockers as Iggy Pop, Sting, Van Morrison, James Taylor, and Lou Reed.


Risør Festival of Chamber Music

June, in Risør This event in a small coastal village between two fiords is under the direction of charismatic pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and viola player Lars Anders Tomter. Low-key but excellent performances are guaranteed.



August, in Haugesund

This four-day festival has offered visitors performances by the likes of Doc Cheatham, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, and Herbie Mann. www.sildajazz.no

Trondheim Chamber Music Festival

September, in Trondheim

Performers such as Trio Mediaeval, the British group the Nash Ensemble, and trumpet virtuoso Ole Edvard Antonsen, as well as Italian composer Luciano Berio, have recently brightened this ambitious festival in the fascinating and ancient university town of Trondheim. www.kamfest.no

Editor's note: In the original version of this story, Stavanger was misspelled "Stravanger."

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