Norway’s annual Borealis festival is more than just a conventional sequence of concerts primarily concerned with the way music sounds. Its aim is evidently toward a more holistic experience, one in which words and visuals are just as important – often, more so – than what we’re hearing. As such, during the last few years, when i’ve been getting to grips with what Borealis is and does, i’ve often found myself wondering whether its subtitle, “a festival for experimental music”, would benefit from being updated to reflect something closer to their much broader, multimedia outlook.
That being said, music remained very much at the heart of Borealis 2021, and as typically diverse and discombobulating as ever. Predictably, in the pandemical circumstances, it had parallel strands: live, for those physically able to get to the events in Bergen, and online, for the rest of us unable to travel there. (All of the online performances are available to stream until 18 April at the Borealis website.) Notwithstanding one or two coughs and hiccups in the streaming process, this online strand was impressively involving, often making me forget the roughly 647 miles separating me from the live performances. However, one thing that accentuated the sense of distance was the tragic omission from the online screenings of many of the most potentially fascinating events, including the opening Safe&Weird concert featuring the wonderful Royal Norwegian Naval Forces Band, Sarah Hennies’ new work Contralto, Nikima Jagudajev’s choreographed work Basically; and three of the four works performed in the final concert by featured composer Raven Chacon. It was a real shame that these and others were excluded from the online programme, and in the last case particularly, it’s hard to understand why.
Nonetheless, what we got was for the most part stimulating, entertaining, thought-provoking and, at its best, exhilarating. As always, a small number of works proved frustrating, irritating or just plain baffling, among them Abdu Ali‘s anecdotally mildly interesting but musically empty film Close to Home; Raven Chacon‘s (unwittingly?) comical Chorale, in which a quartet of boats haphazardly farted their foghorns at one another for five minutes; Øyvind Hegg-Lunde, Øyvind Skarbø & Fredrik Rysjedal’s PSST2, the (mercifully short) excerpts of which consisted of them running round a car for a while, setting of its proximity sensors, followed by a burst of generic electronica accompanied by 8-bit graphics; and Marcela Lucatelli‘s Drift, the one occasion that left me wanting to just punch something in response to its tedious, empty, self-indulgent stupidity. You have to expect this kind of thing at most contemporary music festivals these days, but they never stop being intensely irritating.
Thankfully, they were easily consigned to oblivion beside the highlights of Borealis 2021, all of which made a far stronger impression and were infinitely more meaningful. My favourite piece is the Goldberg Variations is a multimedia meditation with music by Phillip Venables, text by Ted Huffmann and video by Pierre Martin. Premièred by accordionist Andreas Borregaard (as part of a doctoral research project titled Just Do It!), the extent to which the work delved into Borregaard’s personal life and history was unexpected and disarming, but proved to be deeply affecting. Presented as a performance-cum-film filled with a plethora of archive photographs and video clips, and a text derived from conversations with Borregaard’s mother, the piece is structured as a series of discrete episodes providing a whistle-stop tour through her formative years and experiences, encompassing the vicissitudes of love, study and music, as well as those of Borregaard too. While a large proportion of Venables’ music was functional, seeking to support this narrative in a fairly simplistic, superficial way, usually via a variety of pastiche allusions, there were times – particularly the more introspective passages – when it became much more authentic and heartfelt. During these moments, the music melded best with the other elements, becoming a kind of instinctual expression of Borregaard’s mother’s psyche, ostensibly unmediated and unfiltered. My favourite piece is the Goldberg Variations was easily one of the more memorable performances of Borealis 2021, managing to be both emotionally powerful and artistically engrossing.
An even more remarkable audiovisual treat came in the form of a 30-minute piece by Lars Holdhus utilising his TCFX software. It perhaps sounds unpromising when described as an extended demonstration of sounds triggered by the virtual impacts of the invariably falling and colliding objects inside the computer-generated TCFX environment – mostly vegetables, but also, later, a human figure (possibly made to resemble Holdhus himself?).
In practice, the various scenes in Holdhus’ fever-dream were fascinating, absorbing and often downright hilarious, the literal gravity of the objects matched by a levity in their bizarre appearance and context, all of which was channelled into surprisingly beautiful, dreamy sight-and-soundscapes that quickly transcended the impish way they had been brought into being. Ultimately held in balance between the constant activity on the screen and the somewhat ambient-like sonic drift (and, at times, even restful stasis) created by their large-scale accumulation, the combined effect was mesmerising, demanding to be experienced again as soon as it had ended.
Altogether more contemplative was De Composition, a work for pipe organ and video by Ruth Bakke & Anne Marthe Dyvi. The 16-minute piece was presented twice, the first time focusing on the apparatus of the organ itself while Bakke played, the second time accompanied by Dyvi’s film. It was a helpful approach to take, enabling us to start getting to know Bakke’s material in isolation before allowing it to become embedded in Dyvi’s slow-moving visuals. Before saying anything specific, it’s worth stating how unusual and lovely it is to hear the organ used in a contemporary music festival. i’ve experienced this a number of times in Norway but rarely elsewhere, which seems baffling considering the instrument’s versatility and potential.
Bakke’s music explored a nice mix of contrasts, from lucid clarity to clouds of vagueness, tiny ideas so delicate they could hardly speak to robust, muscular heft. Uniting these contrasts was a blend of consideration and spontaneity that both distanced it from and made it part of the great legacy that the organ has. Rich clustery loveliness became interspersed with short staccato snippets and miniature overlapping cascades; twiddling filigree became grounded through sedate triads; a dissolve into nebulous cluster shapes and arbitrary morsels was answered by thick, juddering wodges of stodge, both of which found resolution in a tremulous not-quite-cadence. Henceforth, pitch became unstable, notes pushed off their centres, speaking askew, an uncertainty not so much clarified as forgotten by ensuing chorale-like dreaminess (Bakke switching to shimmering celeste stops).
The repeat of the piece placed the music in a filmic landscape of images drawn from nature – principally flowers and water – moving between them via deliberately pixelated transitions and treating them to an assortment of processes that smeared, distorted and enhanced their colours, shapes and actions. To what extent Bakke’s music and Dyvi’s film ‘worked’ together is hard to say, but the lack of an obvious ‘dissonance’ when experienced simultaneously implies an openness between the elements that makes them feel entirely complementary, like poetic siblings.