Very few performances at Only Connect 2023 failed to impress. Among the exceptions was Caminante by Michael Pisaro, premièred on the opening night by Trondheim Sinfonietta with bassist Michael Francis Duch. Though the work began well, establishing a nicely darkened texture that became almost gritty and dirty, as soon as this became lighter and cleaner the whole thing degenerated into bland lyricism, like a kind of ersatz folk music. With a nebulous sense of direction, the piece proved that simplicity is most definitely not always a virtue, its language even becoming cheesy on several occasions.
Much tougher to sit through was Mauro Lanza and Andrea Valle‘s Systema Naturae, performed by the Trondheim Sinfonietta, which brought the festival to a close. It’s a work i’ve experienced before, at Huddersfield 2021, when it left me feeling the artists’ ambition outstripped their abilities. That opinion was massively confirmed here, in part due to the decision to omit the projected names of the imaginary flora and fauna of the work’s fictional ecosystem. In Huddersfield, this had provided an invaluable sense of structure as well as enabling an accompanying consideration of genetic connection between the disparate forms. Without this, the piece essentially became a largely undifferentiated 85-minute slog that highlighted how appallingly narrow is its musical language. For an entirely new, imagined collection of lifeforms, they were revealed to be astonishingly deficient and limited in their pseudo-genetic scope. Almost everything behaved in the same way, rooted in spasmodic rhythmic movement: no textural focus, barely a line or even a tendril, all pitchless staccato impacts. Dull, blunt, stunted and disabled: perhaps Systema Naturae is a demonstration of an ecosystem gone wrong? Or maybe we were glimpsing it at the opposite end of evolution, primitive and nascent? Either way, such desperate disfunctionallity could only spell doom. Too many composers at too many concerts fail to demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a technical accomplishment, which Systema Naturae arguably is, and a musical one, which it definitely isn’t. It’s hard to imagine a more disappointing way to end a festival.
One of the most delightful performances at Only Connect 2023 came from Heiða Karine Jóhannesdóttir Mobeck, whose new work Vesen (Being) was premièred over two concerts in different venues. Mobeck’s conception is rather complex and difficult to summarise succinctly, but it encompasses text and visual elements in addition to music, though to describe it as ‘music-theatre’ would be going too far. Part 1, ‘Skyen’ (Cloud), took place in the Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst gallery and featured Mobeck in the centre, reciting her text while the four members of Tøyen Fil og Klafferi, and some discreet electronics, brought its strange narrative to life. There was something rather curious about Mobeck’s flat, matter of fact delivery – deliberately or otherwise keeping any trace of emotion entirely absent – alongside the lively material from the quartet. The text describes a fantastical dream or vision about a creature from the clouds attacking Trondheim, but Mobeck’s music elaborated this in a way that was more allusive than direct. There was a gorgeous sense of atmosphere, the instruments often reduced to soft tracery, at other times exploding into individuated responses while the electronics quietly ticked over. It was hard to determine to what extent the ensemble was establishing the soundworld from outside or responding to it from within.
Part 2, ‘Skyene’ (Clouds), performed later that evening in the waterside Dokkhuset Scene, was more starkly contrasting, in terms of both narrative and presentation. The text was somewhat meta, directly referencing the ensemble and what they’re doing, while also depicting a cloudburst of colours. This manifested in a dazzling performance initially filled with hyper-intense near-unison growling, whereupon it went to the opposite extreme, return to the kind of soft, delicate soundworld heard in Part 1, while the players were enclosed in beautiful shifting laser light configurations. Taken together, it was a stunning work that deserves wider exposure and lots of attention.
Very little vocal music was featured at Only Connect 2023, but a wonderful exception – easily one of the highlights of the festival – was Arne Nordheim‘s Aurora. Performed by the small but astonishingly agile Trondheim Vokalensemble, conducted by Frank Havrøy, Nordheim’s 1983 work for voices and tape didn’t remotely sound 40 years old. The work’s close integration of acoustic and electronic is still impressive, the tape part both expanding the small number of voices into a large virtual chorus as well as providing a wider context within which all of the voices, real and virtual, coexist. Especially effective was the way the singers veered from elegant lyricism (each with their own crotale, for occasional embellishment), including an absolutely beautiful sequence of overlapping phrases, to strict rhythmic unity, to an extreme of wild ululations, Nordheim surrounding them with borderline chaotic ultra-intensity. Until its lengthy conclusion, that is, which the Trondheim Vokalensemble rendered as an exquisite descent into becalmed, ambient drone. It was so spectacular i wouldn’t have minded them doing it all over again as an encore.
For me, the most outstanding music came in the Friday late evening concert given by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bas Wiegers, in the city’s enormous cathedral. Not so much in the opening work, Lisa Streich‘s Flügel, which suffered equally from an unimaginative, rather basic approach to orchestration articulating what seemed to be a plethora of borrowed, butchered, bowdlerised and bastardised gestures, cut up and stuck together into a crude patchwork. Light years away from this was Ingrid Laubrock‘s Drilling, in which the whole concept of being “in tune” was completely refined. Featuring Laubrock herself together with Cory Smythe and Anders Tveit as soloists, the piece initially suggested it was the plunky chords from piano and harp that were out of tune with the ethereal strings – until the strings seemed out of tune with each other, and its fundamentally destablised musical language became clear. Or rather, that is, revelled in how unclear it was, indulging in a deliciously messy notion of tuning that enabled its unique lyricality to sound somewhat bittersweet, hinting at and but never exactly embracing notions of happy or sad. Its expansion to encompass jazz-like ideas was an extension of this roaming outlook, as if its language was in fact being figured out in real time, subject to a creative impulse and spirit on the move, pouring out eclecticism in its wake.
Apparently, Supersilent‘s approach to their new work 101.1 was to improvise together a few months back, in their usual way, reconfigure that music for orchestral forces, and then perform live over the top of the result. There are times when i think that, by now, i’ve figured out pretty much everything Supersilent are likely to do. Which isn’t to say they’re predictable, exactly, though there’s definitely a familiarity to their output. Yet i wasn’t quite prepared for just how immersive this combined performance was going to be. On the one hand its sense of improvisational whim was strong, demonstrating both great patience in allowing sounds and ideas time to speak (or, at times, not to speak – they are Supersilent after all), and enormous muscular power in creating massive agglomerations of erupting, angular triumph, Arve Henriksen’s trumpet ringing out as if heralding the entrance of some unfathomable glory.
More often, though, Henriksen’s instrument was glimpsed rather than directly heard, becoming in the work’s semi-static (Superstatic?) centre a smear of melody constantly reforming its make-up and nature, to the extent that his role increasingly felt like a counterpoint to an implied “main” idea everywhere else (which seemed appropriate considering Supersilent’s live contribution was essentially an embellishment of the orchestra). Ultimately, it was a performance laden with paradoxes, measured, potent, accessible, ferocious, becoming a blaze of graceful cacophony – yet somehow never, ever sounding dissonant. The aftermath of this epic climax clarified all that had gone before, collapsing down to drones and breath, faint tones and strange kinds of illusory triad and cadence, all shining like an entirely new form of star burst into existence, radiating an icy, crystalline warmth. Incredible.