Even at the first concert of the first day of Borealis 2022, i was realising how much the festival felt different from the norm. i go to a lot of festivals (notwithstanding the upheavals of the last two years), and for the most part, aside from cultural distinctions, they’re all pretty standard and formalised: well-organised functional vehicles for imaginative curations of new music. However, though it operates in essentially the same way, Borealis feels a whole lot more warm, inviting and relaxing than most. A few years ago, following Borealis 2019, i commented on a similar sensation, mentioning the intimacy of the performance spaces as well as the (not unimportant) fact that artistic director Peter Meanwell personally welcomes and introduces every concert. In 2019 it was a genuine surprise to see that happening; now, i wish all festival directors did the same thing.
But reflecting on it again this year, the Borealis spirit is due to more than just small spaces and warm welcomes. Everything about the way the concerts were presented suggested not merely a non-threatening but a positively intriguing and exciting invitation to experience something new and unusual, where you might not like everything you heard, but that didn’t remotely matter – it was simply about coming in, investigating freely, sitting where you wanted, leaving if you wanted, all in an atmosphere that was easily the most overwhelmingly friendly and accommodating that i’ve ever known. It wasn’t remotely surprising to see a wide age range attending the concerts, and on many occasions parents brought their children, something of an unusual sight at many new music festivals. Such diverse audiences as this were especially prevalent at two of the most memorable events of Borealis 2022, both of which took place in the same venue – the swanky, all-new Kulturhuset (Culture House) – on the first and last days of the festival. On each occasion the entire space, all three floors, of the building were used.
The opening night began almost like a taster menu, with BIT20 Ensemble String Quartet providing a short selection of amuse-bouches, though it was perhaps unfortunate that some of these were excerpts from larger works. The 4-minute divisio spiralis XII by Catherine Lamb was lovely, caught between low stasis and movement, almost like a single chord turning to reveal jewel-like facets, whereas Roscoe Mitchell‘s 9/9/99 with CARDS, in a sign of things to come later in the festival, proved altogether more superficial and arbitrary, a stream of consciousness in which nothing felt remotely engaging or significant.
Susie Ibarra‘s Pulsation (the quartet augmented with percussion) opted for a middleground of playful minimalistic episodes, somewhat overfamiliar in character though lightly spiced with mischief. Most engrossing of all, though, was a late addition to the programme: the opening two minutes of Valentin Silvestrov‘s 1974 String Quartet No. 1, performed as a tribute in solidarity with the embattled country of Ukraine. Time slowed to a crawl as Silvestrov’s languorous music slowly lost its grip on tonal clarity and stability, sliding into a mess of stuck notes. Though utterly, and fittingly, tragic it left me desperately wanting to hear the rest of the piece.
The most ear-boggling performance from the opening night was given by RAGE Thormbones, the self-proclaimed “low-frequency duo” comprising trombonists Matt Barbier and Weston Olencki. Looking strangely like a 21st century Chas ‘n’ Dave, the duo didn’t so much harness the sounds coming out of their instruments as the instruments themselves, using mics in close contact with vibrating metal and mutes to elicit a network of incredible deep rumbles and judders, making the entire place shake. Though initially gentle, in due course their performance expanded to encompass overdriven distortion, though it was always possible to make out the individual frequencies and the way they collided and complemented each other in ever-changing patterns. Just as striking was when they took their instruments into stratospheric heights, progressing from a complex dronescape into, first, high tones scorching a layer of deep razor buzz, before both ascended to conclude in a chorus of controlled squalling. Magnificent.
The highlight of the final day of the festival was another multi-floor event at the Kulturhuset, this time given by French ensemble soundinitiative, whose performances were as much to do with movement as with sound. Though it began in what seemed a light, humorous fashion, with a rhythm of tongue clicks, hums and broad smiles, tick tock iiiiii by Chinese-Australian composer Winnie Huang soon revealed itself to be increasingly fraught and fundamentally challenged. This manifested in the performers, whose physicality became increasingly difficult to the point where they were practically moving in slow motion, as if subject to extreme forces of weight and discomfort. Those smiles from earlier were now shown to be false and forced, now deliberately and repeatedly wiped off their faces, a process that seemed to draw everyone together like magnets into a group hug. Whereupon the opening rhythm began again, now sans smiles but evidently now articulating something more honest and authentic. It all proved to be unexpectedly moving.
Both Julien Malaussena and Joshua Hyde sought to harness vibrating materials in their music. Malaussena’s Portrait Étendu (extended portrait) brought together a trio of flute, violin and percussion – the latter in the form of a flexible metal plate. The piece was a fascinating dialogue where the behaviour and language of the metal plate was expanded by the other instruments (who also had smaller metal plates of their own, used only occasionally). The way Benjamin Soister, wielding nothing more than a superball mallet, managed to make the metal so lyrical and expressive was remarkable. Hyde’s installation piece Distant Air connected resonators to the Kulturhuset itself; as we descended the stairs between two stages of the event, Hyde ‘played’ the building, causing it to vibrate and sing with such power that it led to everyone placing their hands on the walls in order to more literally connect to and feel the music’s energy.
Over the last few years i feel i’ve become used to the kind of high jinks that Kristine Tjøgersen gets up to in her work, but nothing could have prepared me for her new piece BOWER, the world première of which was the finale of soundinitiative’s performance. As with so much of her music, the inspiration came from nature, in this case the Bowerbird and its elaborate courtship behaviour rituals. Equal parts music and theatre, BOWER unfolded as something of a ritual itself, beginning in darkness as a solo act of assemblage. Others gradually joined, in the process becoming a highly elaborate and beautiful musical and physical counterpoint. The narrative was perhaps more allusive than directly referential: each of the players looked a little different – were they rivals? a mix of suitors and possible mates? different species co-existing?
It didn’t matter; BOWER played out as an extended exercise in fantastical, inscrutable pseudo-anthropology, in which large fronds were ceremoniously placed as decoration into the innards of an upright piano. The music veered between onomatopoeic sounds that typified much of the piece and synth-driven episodes that at first seemed alien and strange but soon became naturalised as the authentic language of Tjøgersen’s reinvention of the bowerbird. Climaxing in a large-scale tutti / dance, where each performer in turn took centre stage to ‘display’, the work concluded back in darkness, with everyone asleep beneath a shining moon. It was one of a number of performances at Borealis 2022 where nobody seemed to want to leave afterwards, preferring to say and soak in what remained of the wonderfully strange, heightened atmosphere.