Borealis 2022 (Part 2)

by 5:4

i wrote in Part 1 about the warm, inviting and relaxing atmosphere that pervaded each of the concerts at Borealis 2022. Establishing this kind of environment for audiences is vital, for two important reasons. First, because any festival that claims itself to be, as Borealis explicitly does, “for experimental music” – pushing hard at the boundaries and definitions of what music is, and the contexts within which it can operate, at the same time trying out literal experiments in sound without necessarily knowing exactly how the results will pan out – needs to take place in precisely this kind of safe, welcoming and supportive context. There were many times this year when a concert felt like being in the midst of a wild laboratory test, filled with unpredictable explosions of sound and colour. They didn’t always work – some fizzled, a couple completely failed – but that’s the way with experiments.

Second, perhaps even more important, because new music festivals shouldn’t just be for those already well-acquainted with or actively involved in it. Surely the acid test for any festival should be the extent to which it proves itself open and inviting to those who have no prior experience or understanding of contemporary music, people who are intrigued and curious, who are able to feel willing, even keen, to accept the invitation to take a chance on encountering something genuinely new. i can honestly say that every single concert at Borealis 2022 felt like this; it’s something that all festivals should aspire to.

One of the more intriguing experiments this year was inter-spatia, a new work for brass by Catherine Lamb. Earlier in the week, the festival had featured a talk focusing on alternative forms of tuning and intonation explored by Lamb and others, and in light of that inter-spatia sounded like a cross between a manifesto and a working prototype. There was the impression of Lamb redefining the concept of the harmonic series, as the combination of trombonists Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø and M. O. Abbott together with RAGE Thormbones and microtunal tuba trio Microtub laid out a new system of fundamentals and overtones, intoned as deep drones resonating the large but surprisingly dry space of Bergen’s Nykirken church. As the overtones rose, so did the harmonic complexity, in the process passing through conventional chordal constructions (or perhaps only appearing to pass through them; the ear and brain do all kinds of gymnastics in music like this) as they climbed and glided according to Lamb’s ‘rational intonational’ rules. On the one hand, the work’s overwhelming emphasis on harmony meant that its scope felt limited, yet its culmination was modestly satisfying, arriving at a sequence of descending scales – emphatically reinforcing the new harmony – moving at different speeds, like a strange peal of exotic bells.

Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø, M. O. Abbott, RAGE Thormbones, Microtub: Nykirken, Bergen, 18 March 2022 (photo: Johanne Karlsrud / Borealis)

One of the things i’ve come to admire most about Borealis’ programming are the performances that go most off-piste from the familiar regions of contemporary music. The most remarkable example of that this year came in the form of Resonant Silence, a large-scale work by Guro Skumsnes Moe that combined music theatre with elements of of tableau vivant to create a kind of self-contained world that came to life as we moved through it. Situated in the bowels of Bergen’s Architecture School (the basement of which was formally a grain silo), the work was realised by a motley collection of performers attired in neo-mediæval garb wielding, among other things, a hydrophonium, bag pipes, a kantele, ship’s bells and an octobass (performed by Moe herself) in addition to various cludged-together mechanical contraptions and electronics.

Guro Skumsnes Moe: Bergen Arkitekthøgskole, 19 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

It was like the score, and the setting, for a Ben Wheatley movie, with a few hints of Aleksey German’s Hard to be a God. Dark and brooding, semi-unfathomable yet utterly gripping, the focus was generally on one performer at a time (some of whom didn’t play instruments but moved around holding lights), occasionally forming illusory duets resulting from simultaneous actions happening at different parts of the space. At first, it was tempting to move towards whichever player was currently dominant, but it soon became more interesting simply to inhabit the space and allow one’s engagement with the work to be spontaneous, experiencing it both up-close and from a distance. One player was catalytic; wearing an elaborate headdress and playing something akin to a shawm, their performance, in terms of both sight and sound, was stunning to behold. Yet everything about Resonant Silence was mesmerising; deeply compelling and effective throughout, with a distinct emotional drive underpinning everything – elusive yet passionate, fiery and intense. i felt moved without fully understanding why, and didn’t want the experience to end.

Danishta Rivero: Bergen Arkitekthøgskole, 19 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

Sunday morning and afternoon were given over to ‘Resonating Nordnes’, a wide variety of performances and multimedia presentations across the Nordnes peninsula, at the north end of Bergen city centre. One of the more intriguing was Federico Urdaneta‘s documentary film Green Bank Pastoral, exploring the environment and inhabitants of the small town of Green Bank in the USA. For over half a century the town has been a ‘quiet zone’, with all wireless signals banned in order not to disrupt the work of the enormous Green Bank Telescope. The focus of the film is on the small number of people who have gravitated to the town under the belief that they suffer from ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity‘. The complete neutrality of Urdaneta’s film was impressive, simply allowing the people to speak about their perceived condition and the ways they had sought to understand and manage it. Regardless of the extent to which their sensitivity can (or can’t) be proven, their suffering was evidently very real indeed, posing questions about the relationship between mind and body and the ongoing debate about the psychological and physical effects of not only being constantly ‘plugged in’ but being surrounded by endless quantities of invisible digital noise.

A world away from such concerns was Procession (poem of ecstasy), an installation by Australian artist Emilie Wright. Focused on a large bank of monolithic speakers, bathed in deep crimson light and surrounded by clouds of dry ice, the work’s fundamental drones acted as both as an imposing (negative) presence while retaining something of a restful (positive) quality. That being said, Wright’s soundworld was a volatile one, where higher frequency tones (usually octaves and fifths above the drone) varied in intensity while the bass tended to swamp everything. Additional high pitches could be made out too, low in the mix, not explicitly melodic but part of what could definitely be regarded as a slow, loose, ongoing ‘voice’.

Emilie Wright – Procession (poem of ecstasy): Lydgalleriet, Bergen, 20 March 2022 (photo: 5:4)

One of the main highlights – if not the highlight – of the festival was the return of percussionist Marshall Trammell, Borealis’ outgoing Artist in Residence. Having being wowed by his work 11 Postures at last year’s festival, my expectations for his new project were pretty high, and he did not disappoint. His latest piece, The Moon Is Down: The Status Quo Is My Enemy, turns away from legend as inspiration in favour of all too real aspects of discrimination and marginalisation, given a literal voice by four collaborators, Anine Fatou Bråten, Dora Poni J. Loro, Carol Stampone and Wengeal Abebe. The quartet were positioned at the corners of the space, facing inwards towards Trammell at the centre, and what unfolded was a combination of intense autobiographical accounts that served as both a libretto of anguish and fuel for Trammell’s lengthy intricate improvisations. A careful balance was preserved, Trammell biding his time while each person spoke, limiting his palette and restricting his role to a kind of ticking along underscore of restless energy. It quickly became clear the extent to which Trammell was pivotal in maintaining the work’s momentum in these passages; each spoken account was borne aloft on his drum strokes, driven along such that they gained additional power.

Marshall Trammell, Dora Poni J. Loro: Bergen Kjøtt, 18 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

On the one hand, The Moon Is Down: The Status Quo Is My Enemy didn’t make for easy listening; Bråten, Loro, Stampone and Abebe’s accounts were a litany of raw emotion, encompassing desperation, outrage and incredulity. Yet when thrown into the fire of Trammell’s percussion setup, they became channelled into a madly whirling dervish of solidarity that had the dark ferocity of a fin-de-siecle danse macabre. While Trammell’s performance didn’t quite equal the astonishing level of percussive invention from last year, it was nonetheless a tour de force of tenacity that at no point lost sight of its role supporting, echoing, amplifying and transforming the women’s voices into streams of accumulating convolution. The voices themselves were also subject to electronic treatment using the same approach as in Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, directed back into the space in order to make it vibrate and buzz with their words. It was a privilege to be at a performance as significant and emotionally raw as this; this was another event where at the end no-one was inclined to leave, preferring to stay and discuss what we had all experienced.

Marshall Trammell: Bergen Kjøtt, 18 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

i’m going to close my coverage of Borealis 2022 with a personal highlight. The second day of the festival featured the excellent Norwegian Naval Forces Band, who ended their concert with one of the most remarkable things i’ve heard in a long time. Without thinking, i broke my usual rule and read the programme note for Rolf Gupta‘s In Memoriam before the performance. i confess my heart sank a bit in response to its references to cosmology, the vedas, the gods, and Brahman priests, even more so when Gupta went so far as to suggest that the work’s second part, drawing on Brahman chant, “may as such perhaps not even be regarded as music”. These words suggested the possibility of a predictably noodling new age, pseudo-spiritual blatherfest. It was absolutely nothing of the kind.

Norwegian Naval Forces Band: Bergen University Hall, 17 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

The shorter first part of In Memoriam, composed in memory of Gupta’s father, who died last year, was a mass of clangourous, clamorous ‘chanting’ articulated with such overblown enthusiasm and zeal, that it was a literal marvel to behold. But then came the second part, which is difficult adequately to convey. Growling deep drones with soft muted traces of sustained tones above, out of which gloriously loud clusters burst out, subsiding to reveal that the drones had somehow grown in scale while our attention was diverted, now constructed from short low notes overlapping rather than sustained notes. Then came one of the most almighty eruptions i’ve ever witnessed, as if every conceivable emotion was contained within it, the panoply of humanity focused into a raw beam of coruscating light. It wasn’t sustainable, and for a while the music appeared like a fire that kept blowing itself out and reigniting, until Gupta slowly made everything polarised, the instruments gravitating to the extremes of high and low registers. Honestly, it could almost have carried on like this forever, but the work’s conclusion, dying away into wisps of breath and almost inaudible piccolo whistles, could hardly have been more perfect. Conducted by Gupta himself, In Memoriam was an absolute masterclass in how to create music steeped in humanity, tradition and spirituality yet articulated with fearless originality, personality and courage. For me, it typified Borealis at its absolute best: breathtaking and brilliant.

Rolf Gupta, Norwegian Naval Forces Band: Bergen University Hall, 17 March 2022 (photo: Thor Brødreskift / Borealis)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Click here to respond and leave a commentx