Oslo’s annual contemporary music festival Ultima is currently in something of a transition, between outgoing artistic director Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen and incoming Heloisa Amaral, who took the helm in February this year. On the one hand, what i experienced during my three days there was broadly comparable to previous years, though the decision to devote no fewer than three of the evening concerts to the music of Hans Zimmer (performed by the Oslo Philharmonic) was as surprising and disappointing as it was downright weird. Time will tell if this is the start of a worrying trend or merely a one-off blip that can be swiftly and happily forgotten.
Multimedia performances are a staple of Ultima, though as usual at new music festivals, the ratio of maximal effort versus minimal result manifested at times. Floating Pointers, a collaboration between Ukrainian composer Alisa Kobzar and dancer Lisa McGuire was especially problematic. Everything about the premise seemed fascinating, exploring the idea of roaming extant cultural sonic artefacts to form new forms and shapes. Yet the relationship between McGuire’s movements and the corresponding sound and graphics was, at best, inscrutable. The visuals were often very striking, conveying a video game-esque environment, though notions of cause and effect were essentially null, the music for the most part restricted to a repetitive scratching with only the most vague occasional suggestions of Ukrainian folksongs that were supposed a central part of the work.
By complete contrast, in REtransLATE, a collaboration between choreographer Mirte Bogaert and composer Stephan Meidell, the relationship could hardly have been stronger. Featuring three dancers (Bogaert, Yoh Morishita and Judith Arupa), the work made an initially silent progression from tentative suggestions of ideas, in the process expanding from solo to duo to trio. Everything about their movements suggested dialogue, one that contained plenty of agreement but also lengthy periods of introspection and occasional misalignment, dislocating the implied internal dynamic. Meidell took a sympathetic approach in the music, creating an aural equivalence of the dancers’ subtext via various textural accompaniments. It’s only fair to say that at no point did it feel that the music was vital to the work – i could have very happily watched the whole thing in total silence – but it did least make its connection to the dance clear and straightforward.
This was also the case in FRAM, a new opera by composer Synne Skouen to a libretto by Oda Radoor, though the relationship between sight and sound was far more limited. Skouen’s music wasn’t so much sympathetic to the narrative as simply slavish. There was no sense at all of a large-scale, organised musical argument within which the drama took place, but rather a reactive soundworld that sought to do little more than respond, moment by moment, to whatever was going on onstage. The story was quite interesting, focusing on the failing faculties of Ameli, a dying old woman whose imagination took her away, Don Quixote-like, from her present predicament to a romanticised version of Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole at the end of the 19th century. At its best this story was touching and ultimately quite moving, all the more so as it was punctuated by moments of absurdity as Ameli (performed by Hege Høisæter) became increasingly frisky with Nansen (Frode Olsen). Yet it was consistently frustrating to hear FRAM being surrounded with such relatively workaday, generic and superficial musical ideas.
The most impressive theatrical work i experienced at Ultima 2023 was Night Lives, from the irrespressible Kristine Tjøgersen. Equal parts mischievous and childlike, Tjøgersen’s responses to and inspirations from the natural world are always as mind boggling as they are imaginative, and in recent years have been treated to stunning realisations. (i still find myself regularly thinking back to her astonishing, bird-infused BOWER, premièred at this year’s Borealis festival.) From the moment we entered Oslo’s Kulturkirken Jakob church – through a tunnel festooned with tassles – we were in an interior transformed into a strange, nocturnal habitat. This was populated by almost nothing familiar: an array of alien, arcane and absurd machines and objects being wielded by an equally eccentric array of inhabitants enacted by members of Cikada. Some released sound, others emitted light or puffs of smoke; these were extended by the rest of the ensemble on stage, as well as an electronic score filling the space with pops, croaks, taps, clicks and grunts from the side aisles.
It unfolded as a bizarre, fantastical mix of ritual and play, Tjøgersen’s imaginary fauna playing alone, calling to each other, evolving into more actively planned group combinations (flamboyantly conducted from the organ loft by Christian Eggen). Conceived together with scenographer Ellen Jerstad and biologist Hanna Bjørgaas, and enhanced further by large textures designed by Evelina Dembacke projected onto the walls and ceiling (as well as individual drinks given to each member of the audience, an elusive blend of spice and fragrance), the experience of Night Lives was akin to becoming an anthropologist, watching a newly discovered group of species doing their thing, revealing sedate and energetic sides to their personalities, the acoustic warmth of the ensemble being blanched by cool sharpness from synthesizers. To write about Tjøgersen’s work is always to do it a disservice; it really needs to be experienced, and considering the amount of effort (and time, and money) it must take to put on performances of her work, one can only hope that her bold, ambitious pieces aren’t one-off triumphs like this but will have the opportunity to travel and be experienced by as many people as possible.