On Success Through Failure at the Ultima Oslo Festival
Attendees of the Ultima Oslo festival took cover from the rainy September weather at venues that ranged from a railway underpass to a waste water purification plant to a mausoleum in the woods. These soundscapes often provided a physical refuge from the gloomy dampness, but simultaneously unsettled and destabilized aesthetic norms. Wading around town in my Norwegian wellies, I heard a thought-provoking spectrum of unusual sounds which, rather than simply marveling in their own unusualness, sought to convey political and social messages. The installations and performances were focused on the usefulness (whether environmental or political) of sound, and ranged from Éliane Radigue’s eerily quiet acoustic music to the ultrasound frequencies of rats to the trio Supersilent’s improvised, brash noise.
The festival has strived to present music “lovingly, in a direct, pure form” since its inception in 1991. Artistic director Lars Petter Hagen describes the strategy of programming the festival as “boiled down to one main point: daring to be weak and unsure,” adding that “my work has not been about acting as a tastemaker, but about searching for necessary projects where something seems to be at stake.” This attitude sets Ultima apart from other contemporary music festivals to which I’ve been invited, where organizers and participants pat themselves on the back, refusing to admit that things could have gone differently. This was not the case in Oslo: organizers commented that certain acts were better than others, or that they had not lived up to their expectations. (Full disclosure: the festival paid for my flights and hotel to attend.) One event got rained out completely, with concertgoers arriving at the outdoor venue only to find a collection of sodden drum sets being packed into a van. The Ultima organizers’ openness to failure allows for the inclusion of musicians who might be less polished or reputable than others, yet who still very much have something to say.
Arriving in Oslo after a 10-day stint at Ostrava Days, I was convinced I had overdosed on avant-garde music and never needed to hear another excruciatingly quiet-long-repetitive composition ever again. But I was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming atmosphere of the festival participants, the decolonialist aspirations of the administrators as they stretched the limits of the “contemporary classical” experience far beyond the white male concert program, and the heterogeneity and flexibility of the events. In Ostrava, everyone had attended the exact same line-up of concerts, which flowed together as a homogeneous flood of aesthetic sameness and physical exhaustion. Yet at Ultima, many events were scheduled concurrently, allowing festival-goers to curate their own aesthetic experiences.
In the same vein, the population of composers, performers, curators, and attendees was much more diverse at Ultima Oslo than at Ostrava Days, which was largely populated by white American men. In Oslo I met journalists, curators, composers, and musicians from all backgrounds and with all sorts of experiences to share. Of the 18 events that took place on the first weekend of the festival (which I attended), only five foregrounded the work of white men. The festival boasted performances from Dwarfs of East Agouza to Ryuichi Sakamoto to Ensemble Modern—but it was to the music of Éliane Radigue that I attended to most closely.
When I entered the Emanuel Vigelands Museum I was handed a fluffy white blanket and instructed that there would be no applause during or after the performance. The space is not so much a museum as it is a mausoleum. Nestled in the woods in the northwest area of the city, the museum was constructed by Emanuel Vigeland, whose better-known brother Gustav’s sculptures are on view in the Frogner Park. The younger brother’s life was overshadowed by Gustav’s notoriety, but he should certainly be remembered for his ability to multitask. The younger Vigeland’s museum is filled with grotesque and erotic wall paintings depicting life from birth to death; he also took the opportunity to craft his own final resting place, with his ashes hanging in an urn over the front door. The space was so dimly lit that I could barely discern the paintings on the walls, instead focusing my attention on the bare concert setup in front of the few rows of chairs on which sat the blanket-bundled audience. As sounds began echoing within the 14-second delay of the mauseoleum’s soundscape, I closed my eyes and eliminated the sense of sight altogether.
The first concert began with the sounds of Dafne Vincente-Sandoval’s bassoon: sounds that were as difficult to hear as the wall paintings were to see. Singular notes contrasting with silences eventually grew into an entire choir of overtones and reverberation, with fewer and shorter silences in between the echoing octaves and overtones. My feet became numb from the cold damp air over the course of the 30-minute performance, but I still wanted this otherworldly music to go on forever. Vincente-Sandoval’s solo performance of “Occam XIII” was followed by two other solos from the “Occam” series, by Pia Palme on contrabass recorder and harpist Rhodri Davies; the following evening featured two duos from the “Occam” series, one for bassoon and harp and one for contrabass recorder and harp. The performances inhabited the space in totally different ways, from the contrabass-recorder’s warbling to the warm, almost cello-like bowing of the harp, yet all explored a sort of vertical teleology as overtones stacked and danced atop each other, and were extended horizontally by the 14-second reverberation.
Radigue won’t teach her music to just anybody. A devoted Radigue listener explained that she would only accept disciples who first spent time with her in her Paris home: talking, meditating, and doing yoga. This element of mysticism engenders the same sort of acousmatic anxiety produced by the electronic music Radigue composed for the ARP 2500 synthesizer for decades, before abruptly switching to acoustic composition in 2001. When I heard Davies perform at a subsequent Radigue concert, at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn, I approached him afterwards to ask him what the process of learning this music is like. He explained to me that the 85-year-old composer does not use any notation in the traditional sense. Instead, she presents the musician with a material image—say, a drawing of a river. The musician is then instructed to build musical sounds within the scope of this image, meaning that every performance will be sonically different, but based on the same visual theme. Davies, Vincente-Sandoval, and Palme carry these works in their bodies rather than reading them from a score; Radigue’s fluid approach focuses on the bodies of the performers rather than on a “body of work.” The transience of these compositions and performances lends them a sacred aspect. A crypt was a fitting place to be immersed in them.
Sound installations and other concerts in venues around the city complemented these stunning performances of Radigue’s works. At Supersilent’s concert, just an hour or so after I had been able to hear my own bones grinding together in Vigeland’s crypt, the staff passed out earplugs rather than blankets. Supersilent’s soundscape of extreme noise was as loud as Radigue’s had been quiet, as wide-ranging as Radigue’s had been focused. Earlier that day, the Cikada Ensemble had performed an afternoon concert of works by three composers who interrogated impossible sounds in a series of pointillistic phrases and textures. Francesco Filidei’s “Cuorde Vuote” and “Two Songs Without” began with the sonic equivalent of a slight breeze and then grew into a smattering of raindrops and finally broad, colorful strokes of sound. The subsequent works by Gérard Pesson and Klaus Lang were similarly sparse. Pesson’s musical language is airy to the point of breathiness, while Lang’s “schumanns geister” sounded like Schumann on shrooms (Schroomann?); in both works, Cikada showed off their subtle yet honed technique.
Some of the most rewarding sonic experiences at Ultima were to be found outside the concert hall. In the underground caverns of the Bekkelaget Sewage Treatment Plant, we listened to the sounds of Arne Nordheim’s installation echoing across water, stone, and sedimentation tanks. “It’s not poop, it’s biomass,” our tour guide explained about the particles floating to the top of the water. The sounds of Nordheim’s “Dråpen” collided with the sounds of “real life,” instigating a meditation on technology’s relation to humanity. Similarly, Jana Winderen’s “Rats: Secret Soundscapes of the City” slowed down the ultrasonic sounds of “the parallel bustling society of rats” so that the sounds were perceptible to human ears. The glowing high-pitched rat recordings mingled with the sounds of trains accelerating and decelerating on the tracks above us.
Christian Blom’s “Sing” was an interactive indoor sound installation that could be activated by humans. Listeners were handed colorful plastic straws as they entered the space of the construction, essentially a wall of plastic flowers and other oddments. After a moment of confusion, we began holding our straws up to the construction and blowing into them: some people yelled, others laughed. As we figured it out together, blundering around inside the dark space, we became the architects of our own sonic experience. The openness toward failure that pervaded the entire Ultima experience was present here as well. We were reminded that sometimes within artistic “failure,” there are moments of success to be heard. ¶