Only Connect 2023 (Part 1)

by 5:4

There can’t be many festivals that have as their name a direct command to the audience: Only Connect. This was my third time at Norway’s Only Connect festival, held this year in Trondheim, and each time i’ve attended there’s been a keen emphasis on the importance and necessity, from compositional, performing and listening perspectives (as well as curatorial), of connection. It manifests in the very nature of the festival itself, which has sought to strengthen artistic connections throughout Norway by alternating between taking place in Oslo and farther-flung parts of the country. Attempting to connect with the music that we hear ought to be the prime directive of an audience at all times and in all places anyway, but there’s something deeply satisfying about having it writ large in the festival’s name. Though Only Connect lasts for just a few days, it crams an awful lot into its minimal time span. In terms of its overall character, Only Connect seems to fall broadly in between the broad, kaleidoscopic sweep of Ultima and the unabashed, full-on kink of Borealis.

A number of the events established a strong sense of intimacy. In a Salty Stream was an installation piece by Czech sound artist Magdaléna Manderlová. In some respects its modus operandi wasn’t anything radical: field recordings from a natural salt marsh in Portugal, overlaid with words drawn from conversations with local people. What made the experience so powerful wasn’t simply its vivid evocation of place, but the fact that it was so celebratory. Living as we do at a time of environmental crisis, one encounters art and discussion all the time that seek to address and / or respond to this. That’s unavoidable, and necessary – but it’s also tiring. Manderlová’s engagement with this place, reinforced by the poetically-charged spoken narrative, was an essay in low-key uplift, marvelling in its beauty, revelling in the simple ‘naturality’ of this resilient ecosystem. Though it lasted only around 20 minutes, and despite being projected in a drab, square space within Trondheim’s Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst gallery, the piece was like an oasis i never wanted to leave.

Magdaléna Manderlová – In a Salty Stream: Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst, Trondheim, 13 April 2023 (photo: Thor Egil Leirtrø)

Another piece of sound art that provoked a similarly personal engagement took place in the unusual surroundings of HAVET, a harbourside sauna (with the heat, thankfully, switched off). Created by Tine Surel Lange, the piece – also titled HAVET – was a direct engagement with the aquatic environment facing us through the sauna’s large glass facade. Initially the soundscape was just the sea, though soft ambient tones slowly pushed their way through, hinting at depths below the splashing sonic spray. This is ultimately where we were headed. Deeper, possibly threatening notes emerged, briefly caught in an equilibrium, though it gradually became apparent that the sea detail was no longer audible. Down we went, plunging ever deeper and ever faster into an abstract abyss, flecked with strange rhythmic resonances. Lange’s real-time manipulation of the piece was delicate and subtle, and our return to the surface was as imperceptible as our journey away from it. Symmetry in music can feel predictable and simple, but here, though it had been good to dive, it was good to be back where we had started.

Tine Surel Lange: HAVET, Trondheim, 15 April 2023 (photo: 5:4)

Also taking place on the harbour was a performance by Anders Elsås, Arnfinn Killingtveit and Martin Palmer in Galleri KNUST. It perhaps seems ridiculous to describe this as another instance of intimacy, considering the way Elsås’ actions within ‘Skipet’, his elaborate sculpture instrument, were being processed and broadcast by Killingtveit and Palmer outside the gallery. But to sit within the Skipet space – essentially a large room filled with a huge amount of paraphernalia, all of which could be struck, rubbed or otherwise teased into sonic life – was hugely immersive, making the rest of the world feel far away. Elsås performed like a man possessed, following a complex, capricious inner narrative, eliciting stunning sounds from Skipet that in turn caused the entire room to judder and reverberate. It was one of those performances where watching gradually felt more and more of a distraction; closing my eyes only made its astonishing soundworld yet more all-enclosing. As with Manderlová’s work (though at the opposite end of the intensity spectrum), i could have happily stayed in there for hours.

Anders Elsås: KNUST, Trondheim, 15 April 2023 (photo: Thor Egil Leirtrø)

There was also something deeply intimate about a performance given by the wonderfully-named Trondheim Improviser’s Guild. On the one hand, both pieces – by German composer Heather Frasch – were somewhat elusive, and in the case of the first of them, I touch what I cannot quite reach…, suffering from a severe case of the law of diminishing returns. The second piece, though, Remembering with Objects, had the effect of dividing the group of nine performers into a collection of parallel soloists, each engaged in a child-like exploration of the tactility of objects and a celebration of the mundane and bizarre sounds produced by (mis-)handling them. Though the group’s general behaviour could be described as communal, it was nonetheless akin to watching nine individual concerts taking place simultaneously, the ear and eye moving across this fascinating chorus of electroacoustic disjecta membra in a seamless but disorienting trajectory.

Trondhaim Improviser’s Guild: Dokkhuset Scene, Trondheim, 13 April 2023 (photo: Thor Egil Leirtrø)

Alwynne Pritchard‘s music-theatre piece Institutions of the Flesh suggested intimacy in its purported examination of the voice and body, though i have to concede total defeat and admit i had – and, a week later, still have – no idea whatsoever about what any of it meant. Conversations with other audience members indicated i wasn’t alone. Far more immediate and telling was a solo performance by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock on the final day of the festival. There was the impression of a performer attempting to articulate, fighting with or against her instrument. Eventually a line emerged, initially hard-won but increasingly elaborate, until freedom was absolute, Laubrock letting loose with pure caprice, her improvisatory wildness having real fun with sound itself, teasing out a myriad noises as an integral part of its avant-song. It was an absolutely mesmerising performance, concluding somewhere far from where she had begun, receding into barely perceptible breath with rapid fingerwork, becoming vaporous.

Ingrid Laubrock: Lademoen Kirke, Trondheim, 15 April 2023 (photo: Thor Egil Leirtrø)

The most intimate performance of all, though, occurred late on Friday night alongside the festival bar, where punters formed a queue for a 1-minute, one-to-one personal concert. We were escorted into an elevator, emerging to a long corridor lit at ground level by an endless string of lights, leading into a small room. i later learned there were four possible performers; my concert was given by Stina Stjern, who carefully selected from a table festooned with cassette tapes, like a tarot card reader. Having placed them into a quintet of walkmans, her performance began, the five disparate elements strangely cohering to form a faintly hauntological evocation of something distorted yet, somehow, vaguely tangible.

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