Norway

HCMF 2013 revisited: Cecilie Ore – Come to the Edge! (World Première)

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Memories and afterthoughts of the exhilarating and, at times, revelatory experiences from HCMF 2013 haven’t really stopped swirling around my mind, so i’m going to begin 2014 by revisiting some of the most interesting highlights, starting with a world première given by the BBC Singers, directed by Nicolas Kok.

Even though it’s only two months since Cecilie Ore‘s Come to the Edge! was premièred, a great deal has changed. Chiefly, the focus of the work’s subject matter—the ludicrous imprisonment of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—has become a historical event, as the pair of group members who remained incarcerated were released shortly before Christmas. However, the main thrust of Cecilie Ore’s abiding question—”how civilised are we?”—persists with, if anything, greater intensity. Few would attribute the band members’ release to an honest change of heart from a benevolent ruler; on the contrary, Vladimir Putin’s vain attempt to smooth over the world’s dismay at his increasingly dictatorial attitudes only illustrates the difference between being civilised and merely appearing to be civilised. Read more

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Ny lydkunst i Bergen

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My recent travels in Norway – focused in and around the environs of second city Bergen – yielded plenty of jaw-droppingly splendorous landscape, but nothing in the way of contemporary music. Neither of the city’s CD stores betray any knowledge of the existence of Arne Nordheim, Maja Ratke and the like, while the concert repertoire essentially revolves around the (not unsurprising) omnipresence of Edvard Grieg. However, disappointment was turned on its head during my final morning in the city last Friday, when wandering through the network of backstreets i came upon Østre. An otherwise anonymous building, the billboard outside proclaims it to be a ‘Hus for Lydkunst og Elektronisk Musikk’ (House for Sound Art and Electronic Music); inside, the custodian explained that Østre (formerly the Lydgalleriet) is the only space dedicated to sound art in all of Scandinavia. The collection of books and CDs for sale certainly backed up its avant-garde credentials, and anyone in the Bergen area would do well to check it out, especially within the next couple of weeks. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 3: AM and the UV

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Every now and then, a band appears that seems to bring together the most engaging qualities of several other artists. A delightful example of that – and proof that not everything coming out of these remote arctic regions is quite as intense or brooding as Deathprod and Biosphere – is AM and the UV, the relatively unknown collaboration of singer Anne Marie Almedal (AM) and obscure duo Ultraviolet (UV). The result is some of the most delicate and compelling songs i’ve heard, effortlessly blending the vocal lyricism of Alison Goldfrapp, the dark funkiness of Portishead (ok, so it broods a little) and the drifting washes of the Cocteau Twins, easily rivalling those artists, the songs are that good. Sadly, they only stayed together long enough to produce two EPs – Tomorrow Is All Like Flowers and Silently The Birds Fly Through Us – and an album, Candy Thunder. The titles of the EPs, in particular, point towards the ethereal aims to which AM and the UV are working. The songs communicate a kind of transparent (if perhaps world-weary) bliss, which grows with repeated listenings. Among the brightest of the highlights: “Whisper” is simply one of the most gorgeous songs ever recorded, “Speak” features some spectacular melodic writing, “Wonderful, Beautiful” is a bizarre retro/modern combination (Almedal sounding a bit like Karen Carpenter), and the chorus is irresistible to sing along with, and “Everywhere We Go”, the final track from the album, is very mellow, with the most delicious ending.

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Scandanavian sounds, part 2: Deathprod

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Deathprod – it’s a name both striking and strange, which is appropriate, as his music is both of these things too. There are obvious similarities to Biosphere – both are Norwegian; both explore large soundscapes; both create music that is immediately arresting – and yet there’s something very much more going on in Deathprod’s work. It’s even more dark, more remote, to the point of being mysterious, even ominous or desolate. But i think it’s the remoteness that is the most palpable characteristic of Deathprod’s output, neatly encapsulated in a 4-CD box set, released a few years ago. The set brings together three previously released but now hard-to-find albums – Morals and Dogma, Imaginary Songs from Tristan Da Cunha (remoteness even in the title!) and Treetop Drive – with a disc of new material, titled Reference Frequencies. There’s a fascinating low-fi approach taken in many of the tracks (some were transferred to phonograph cylinders), which somehow sit remarkably well beside more obviously electronic pieces – although, almost nothing on these CDs betrays exactly how it was created, which is quite a feat.

i first discovered his work about 4 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most exciting, transforming encounters i’ve ever had. The most breathtaking of all is “Treetop Drive 1”, where a wide, orchestral string chord sounds again and again, pregnant and ominous, while slowly-evolving electronics splash and wail, like plangent seabirds over the foghorn of a melancholy ocean. Atop this imagined water, “Towboat” explores the same misty territory with a wider and yet more claustrophobic vision. “Burntwood” sounds like a decrepit audio tape discovered on a beach, filled with sounds that simultaneously beguile and disturb. and then, perhaps the supreme achievement of Deathprod’s sound-world, “Dead People’s Things”, an unbearingly poignant lament for something unutterably lost. All of these pieces reinvent music, expand what it can be, how it can speak. They are among the most rapturously beautiful and sad pieces one will ever hear.

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Scandanavian sounds, part 1: Biosphere

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Music emanating from the Scandanavian countries is always interesting, and often unusual. Once upon a yesteryear, it was all Abba (70s), A-ha (80s) and Aqua (90s), but they’re probably as glad as we are that that’s ancient history, and the sounds of 21st century Scandinavia are altogether more absorbing. The best of these sounds is as remote as their geography, a remoteness often palpably audible in the music. Perhaps the finest example is Biosphere, a Norwegian who is held by many (including me) to be an important figure in that most mine-ridden of fields, ambient music. While the comparisons to Eno are irritating, they do at least point to the significance that Biosphere’s music possesses. His early work is very interesting, revealing a cold (temperature, not emotion), distant quality, evocative of the north arctic clime where he resides. In fact, his work – which frequently incorporates field recordings (particularly the wind) of the sounds from that area – is often referred to as “polar ambient”. This was the main feature of one of his collaborations with the UK’s Higher Intelligence Agency, entitled Polar Sequences (the other collaboration, Birmingham Frequencies is the opposite, exploring more urban sounds). The turning point, though, is his album from the following year, Substrata – and it was, literally, a turning point, beats rejected completely, allowing the slowly-evolving soundscapes to become the altar rather than the reredos. and this is why the Eno-esque claims are annoying; ambient (from one perspective) may have evolved from Satie’s “Furniture music”, but it is capable of, and indeed has become, very much more than that. Arguably, the mere term “ambient” (as we’ve seen before) is somewhat unhelpful here, “polar” or otherwise. Biosphere’s work needs to be listened to, not merely allowed to float around the room while we “chill out”. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it defies words.

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