i’m concluding my coverage of this year’s Ultima festival with something that – over a week since it took place – i’m still grappling with in terms of what i experienced as well as, quite simply, what to call it. On 17 September a marathon was being run through the streets of Oslo, while in the city’s Paulus Kirke a rather different marathon was taking place. Depending on your perspective and / or tenacity, Nils Henrik Asheim‘s Organotopia was either a single concert featuring one 12-hour work, or a series of connected concerts comprising a collection of interrelated pieces. Maybe it’s useful to quote from Asheim’s score, where in the introduction he describes it as “a library of ideas and influences. At the same time, a laboratory of creation”, going on to elaborate that it’s “written as a fixed structure with a lot of open fields for improvisation”. The piece was centred upon not just one but a whole host of mechanical and electronic keyboard instruments, including the Paulus Kirke’s pipe organ, various electric organs and synthesizers, a harmonium, a chamber organ, an accordion, a piano, and Jean-Baptiste Monnot’s remarkable custom-built modular ‘Orgue du voyage‘. Considering the illustrious tradition of large-scale organ works from the 20th century onwards, it’s perhaps most appropriate to think of Organotopia as a cycle.
However it’s defined, what Organotopia consisted of was essentially a sequence of one-hour sections, each having a different theme exploring and reimagining music from the past. During this time, the group of organists – Asheim, Susanne Kujala, Hampus Lindwall, Jean-Baptiste Monnot, Guoste Tamulynaite, Jonas Cambien, Vojtěch Procházka, and Daniel Buner Formo, all moving between the different instruments – responded to Asheim’s highly descriptive, occasionally prescriptive, instructions. As the music played out inside the church, it was also extended into the adjacent Birkelunden Park via speaker installations, projections and additional performances. For the last 20 minutes of each hour, a vocalist, as stated in the score, “infiltrates the music with his / her voice, bringing in material related to her own tradition and personal story”. i’d like to be able to say that i experienced all 12 hours of this behemoth but, alas, for not particularly good (though practical) reasons i only managed to catch 8½ hours. The regret i still feel about that is not merely due to the lack of a sense of completeness, but simply due to the fact that the majority of what i heard completely blew me away. To do real justice to a work such as this would take a lot more than just one article, but i’ll do my best to scratch the surface of Organotopia.
An especially nice touch was the way the work grew out of informality and familiarity. For the first 20 minutes or so, the audience was free to mingle around the church, getting acquainted with both the organs (the ones on the ground floor at least; there were more up in the balconies and organ loft), and the organists, who explained and gave quick demonstrations of their instruments. This segued into the start of Organotopia proper, with what sounded like a growing harmonic series; it quickly expanded beyond those confines but just about managed to maintain a grip on harmonic solidity. Networks of high tones appeared like a chorus of synthetic birds; somehow, from out of their shrill notes jostling against each other, counterpoint emerged alongside a palpable sense of order, or a system, or a cosmos, beneath and beyond everything. In many respects this was a paradigm of Organotopia as a whole, combining deep layers of organisation with free-wheeling capricious elements that at times almost, but never quite, lost sight of home. Whistles from somewhere turned out to be a group of figures (dancers from KHiO, Oslo’s National Academy of the Arts) who slowly descended from the organ loft and processed up the nave, whereupon they formed complex interlocking shapes and emotionally-charged gestures while the organs swirled around them, now highly florid. A singer, Sofia Jernberg, appeared and unleashed a high melisma that became echoed by the organs. Her smooth line fragmented, becoming avant-vocalise – a mesmerising collection of tics, chirrups and deep ‘pedal’ notes – before evolving into a climactic ululation causing the organs to become energised. Seemingly impossibly slowly, everything subsided until all that remained was a single deep tone, ending as it had begun.
i feel i should conclude that paragraph with something like, “and there was evening, and there was morning: the first day”, simply because each of these one-hour sections felt like such a remarkably immense and substantial act of creation. During this and each of the successive sections, Asheim’s conception created not merely a soundscape but a fully immersive sound world that, for its duration, defined both the nature and the limits of music within that world. As such, the vocalists became literal mouthpieces, ambassadors perhaps, communicating with us in a variety of alien tongues (reinforced by never using obviously tangible words) though all too human emotional impulses.
The second hour (‘Eye of the Chorale’) focused on hymn tunes, weaving a texture from minimalised arpeggios following various chord progressions. Especially striking from this was a lovely ‘droplet’ effect, as if each individual note of a melody were being exquisitely embellished. Later it became blurry, evoking a wistful, nostalgic effect as the music took on the form of a half-remembered memory. Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer’s subsequent vocalise eventually took on the qualities of a vaporous, breathy hymn – sounding like a partially-evaporated Ute Lemper – before slowly walking out encouraging the audience to sing with her one note at a time. 3pm’s ‘Electric Organ Picnic’ conjured up a squelchy, proggy analogue synth yesterworld of retrofuturism, responding to injected samples from the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Led Zeppelin, Manfred Mann and The Doors. By contrast, the following hour (‘Grieg in a Landscape’) created a mellifluous environment, like a painting where all the colours were engaged in semi-imperceptible movement. The contrasts here, where little fluffy flute phrases became caught up in juddering waves of dense, wind-like chord formations, were overwhelmingly powerful.
For me, Organotopia‘s most incredible sequence occurred at 5pm. Titled ‘Passacaglia Wanderings’, the music explored the bassline from J. S. Bach’s C minor Passacaglia. Occupying an altogether more contemplative world, the music sounded simultaneously through-composed and improvised, becoming all the more hypnotic and enveloping as it never paused to draw breath. The organ timbres were occasionally coloured by electronic shimmers, and over time it became impossible to remember where we had come from, how we had got here, lost in a massive musical canvas. Whereupon vocalist Simin Tander unexpectedly joined in, crying and wailing from a balcony, her sounds suggestive of both ecstasy and lamentation, before slowly transforming into another wordless song (again, the sentiments being expressed seemed to go beyond what words were capable of) before breaking down into vocal acrobatics in a duet with the Orgue du voyage. As the hour came to a close, it became apparent that, somehow, Bach’s passacaglia bassline was still there at the core of the music, now underpinning Tander’s final, folk-like song.
The work’s last few hours, if anything, ramped up the creative ambition. The tenth hour was devoted to ‘Escape of the Fugue’, 40 minutes of wrangling with a graphic score derived from assorted fugue subjects, leading to a musical language combining strange, tilting smears of sound and intricate filigree. This featured an amazing sequence where, as if by magic, from music with seemingly no connective tissue a tangible fugue theme spontaneously appeared, shared around the organists who indulged in a lengthy burst of fugato. In one of the most stunning denouements of the evening, vocalist Øystein Elle, after initially seemed to be jumping between the different organs, trying to find a melodic path through their angular shapes, turned inward in a stream of intimate glossolalia, whereupon he rediscovered clarity and coherence, re-emerging in a passionate Renaissance-esque song, before losing the plot and wandering off, muttering to himself.
An hour of Wagner-inspired shenanigans – appropriately including some of the most enormous full force swells of the whole day – led to the final hour’s ‘Summing Up’. The dancers returned for a reprise of their actions, obsessively singing a four-note phrase, before the music transcended everything that had gone before and focused on just a single note. Drone was everywhere, festooned with adjacent pedal notes, shifting harmonics, electronic stings and all possible kinds of embellishment. Four of the singers returned to join in, forming the most marvellously bizarre quartet of vocal curiosities, before fusing into a gorgeous, united melisma. Organotopia finished with a coda where individual organ pipes were removed from the Orgue du voyage and blown through by the performers, bringing the day to an end with a beautiful blur of random whistles, in which traces of melody uncannily seemed to emerge.
Over the last few years, i’ve come more and more to the conclusion that Nils Henrik Asheim is one of the most brilliantly creative musical minds i’ve ever encountered. The experience of Organotopia, to put it mildly, decisively confirms that conclusion. Such an enormous undertaking as this would no doubt be difficult to repeat, so hopefully the work has been recorded in some way in order to allow others to experience its colossal wealth of wonders (and me to catch those few hours i missed). This wasn’t just my highlight of Ultima 2022, it was my highlight of pretty much every musical festival i’ve ever attended.
There’s a lot more information about the work on the Organotopia website and Instagram, and below there’s a couple of all-too-brief clips i recorded that give just the slightest of hints of what went on.