The future of music at Ultima 2015 (Part 1)

On my way to Ultima’s evening event on Tuesday I’m cursing the weather. I had taken a risky chance when the wet weather looked like it had dissipated, and was rewarded with a shower of that dwarfed Niagra falls. Raindrops, the size of golf balls splashed down, and up at me, hitting my insufficiently appropriate rain jacket like it wasn’t there. I was getting soaked. I was getting drenched and I was cursing the weather as the torrential downpour washed down the streets in deep rivers splashing up at me from the occasional car. Norway is experiencing some of the worst wet weather in years during the time of the festival. Somewhere in the north of the country a man is interviewed for TV rowing a boat to work, but hey, he needed to get to work and he had the boat. I am in Oslo, down where the torrents of street rivers run into the Fjord, on my way to the fourth night of the Ultima festival and as I sit down in my own puddle of water at the national Jazz theatre for David Toop’s Of Leanordo Davinci, I catch a glimpse of the programme and this year’s festival theme – Nature. The irony is not lost on me.

A contemporary music festival based on the inspiration of nature might appear to be a paradox at first, considering that an artist like Olivier Messiaen – whose Trangîla Symphonie opened this year’s festival – has been replicating the sounds of twittering birds in the piano since the early 20th century, and even that’s quite recent in the world of art imitating nature. Nature has been an ongoing artistic pursuit for many artists working in the avant garde, but for this writer what is more significant is the return to the theme after the industrialised modernist ideal had run its course and it seems that for many, the brutal machine aesthetic has been finally put to bed. In that regard Ultima might actually be spot on in picking this years theme, but don’t mistake this either for some idealistic pursuit of traditional music through the plastic veneer of a post modern pun, but rather a very concerted effort in sampling the finest of forward thinking musicians, not only showcasing the present of music, but rather its future.

“These are songs about the corn belt and some of the people in it… or on it.” M.C. Schmidt repeats Robert Ashley’s words, mimicking the accent (or perhaps that is real accent), but doing away with some of the lazy Jazz intonation of the voice as he recites the first part of Perfect Lives, the TV Opera. This marks the third time I’ve see Matmos in the live context and also the third original performance. Drew Daniels and M.C Schmidt embody the term contemporary music without ever adopting the overtly experimental connotations it often brings with it. For Ultima they brought a special performance of Robert Ashley’s work, accompanied by a chamber ensemble in the first part, and later as a duo. Abstract, another theme connecting many of the works at the festival is prevalent in the lyricism and narrative of the opera, with Matmos softening the edges of their sample based electronica, transposing the smoky Jazz of the original to a contemporary voice. When I enter the imposing doorway of the Vullkan arena, which shrinks down to a small room upstairs, an element of theatre establishes itself through this work by Matmos. The video footage paying in the back has some relevance to the lyrics, although I’d be hard-pressed to say how, and M.C. has certainly appropriated an actor’s approach for his performance through some humorous gesticulations and the intonations in his voice. I forget to even look Drew Daniel’s way throughout the whole performance, completely entranced by the element of theatre in the piece. It will not be my first experience of the visual element incorporated in musical performance at Ultima 2015 and it begged a broader question: Has our salacious appetite to be constantly entertained absconded with our ability to concentrate on just one particular art form at a time? The man constantly fidgeting with his phone during the closing concert would certainly suggest so, but more on that later. Ultima seemed to highlight this question particularly in curating events that specifically drew on the effect of mixed media, with music at its core.

Atom ™ and Robin Fox looked dour in their sober black costumes as they performed their compositions on the first Friday night, bringing something of a club element to the Parkteatret, while geometric shapes and images flashed across the video screens. A question might have been raised over how much it was a live performance, but as the images drifted into the music to form an ongoing narrative with the music, the importance of this question eventually fell away. The spectator is stimulated from each and every sensual direction, making it impossible for his/her attention to waver. There was a strong visual component to many of the works featured at Ultima, and although an artist like Uwe Schmidt and his Atom™ moniker very rarely need the element to make their accessible music approachable, it certainly makes a difference to the more abstract compositions at the festival, where the music can’t always function alone, and the spectator’s focus needs to strain to maintain its composure.

Imagery particularly played a significant role in breaking up the monotony of the sound design in David Toop and Elaine Mitchner’s Of Leonardo Davinci. The sound artist and author, joined forces with vocalist Elaine Mitchner and filmmaker Barry Lewis to bring an incredible multimedia theatre piece to the intimate stage of Oslo’s national Jazz theatre. Of Leonardo is a diorama of the Italian artist’s dream journal brought to life through Toop’s abstract musical ideas and Mitchner’s evocatively disconcerting movements and vocalisations. Barry Lewis’ visuals emphasised the eerie nature of Da VInci’s dreams, with things like an ultra sound turning demon spawn and a mysterious bird-like figure haunting the opaque images, while Mitchner’s vocals aggressively tried to express these ideas through guttural noises that would often break out in operatic explosions. It was particularly effective during Da Vinci’s earliest memories of a bird beating its tail in the Italian artist’s mouth, and pulls me back to nature and the storm currently raging just outside the doors. Toop’s sound design is made up of electric crickets crawling out from samples, while water runs and wind blows through synthesisers, and like most artists that work within the field of electronic music today it’s very much based within the world of Musique Concrete. This foundation is a paradox in itself and turns everyday sounds into digital soundscapes that through their mutated form eventually return to nature in their synthesised form. These expressions tend to sound awkward and not in sync with nature at all, a false imitation that is uncomfortable, much like the prospect of a flood in the face of soothing rain, a point that hits home as I sit in my own private puddle of rain water during the performance.

*To be continued.