There was sense of anguish in the music that featured through out the Ultima festival, some unspoken bond between the different pieces I witnessed that tended to highlight unease over their subject matter, Nature. Thus far I’d witnessed the creepy extent of the “people in the corn belt” and the vociferous dreams of Da Vinci, every piece using dissonances to instil something of the nature of the pending weather outside. The weather might have subsided for the moment, but there was dark cloud hanging on the horizon as I entered the Vulkan Arena for the second half of the INA GRM showcase.
Some of the audience hadn’t returned for the second and the remaining bodies scattered around the floor were strewn about in various awkward poses, trying to get comfortable on the concrete floor. INA GRM’s has been one of the forerunners of the avant garde in electronic music since the days of Pierre Henry Schaeffer, but they appear to have missed something with their appearance at Ultima. The institution with its roots deep in the experimental field of musique concrete has lost some of that mystique they cultivated of the men and woman behind their eccentric machines in the digital age. The performance, which saw them showcasing the back catalogue of the institute, was immersive in the way the speakers were placed around the room and the audience were encouraged to sit down for the experience, but it lost some of the image of the mad scientist behind the screen as most of it was a sound engineer playing back audio files. It might yet be another comment on our constant need for stimulation, and yet it was more than that too. Espen Somer Eide did well to break the dullness with a unique performance at the same desk, but there was this constant feeling of a half-hearted attempt to entertain an audience. The music, classics in the field of musique concrete, rarely offered us a new interpretation of the recorded pieces and the crazy experimental image of the INA GRM was wiped clean and replaced with a half eaten apple.
I am realistic if nothing else, and completely understand that it is exactly in the computer where these processes take place today, but I was still left disheartened by the aging catalogue GRM brought with them and their obvious lack of experimentation that should be at the heart of the institution. It did a slight injustice to Luc Ferrari’s 1977 piece Presque Rien No.2, which marked a truly magnificent time for the institution and those ominous final thunderclaps in the piece, lost some of their majesty in the context.
It put me in a hopeful mood at least when I made my way to Blå the next day in what was Ultima’s second “club-night”. It was an evening that featured the dub-heavy drones of Afrikan Sciences contrasting the abrasive digital anamorphous dance music of James Hoff. Here Ultima also showcased a local rising talent in the way of Hilde Marie Holsen, whose skewed trumpet never sounded more empowered through the impressive live sound system. Holsen’s drones and harsh digital tones played the perfect go-between for Hoff’s digital noise and Afrikan Sciences’ electronic jazz combining both elements with a discernable dance format at its core. It was around this time where the atonal temperament of the music started wearing thin on the listener and although Afrikan Sciences introduced a groove to the strict machine-like rhythms of the modernist compositions thus far, I started longing for a melody or at least some conjunct movement between pitches that didn’t seem to take an eternity to arrive.
It seems for the most part contemporary music is based within the landscape of the drone or still very much reliant on objective tonalities that saunter around ideas of a tonal centre rather establish itself firmly within one. Dissonances are common practise and a tonal resolve is shunned from every point of view. We’ve moved from serrealist music through to minimalism to arrive at this point where drones immobilise harmony and melody happens everywhere at once, without materialising anywhere specifically. Today, the ingenuity in the music is not exactly in the music but how they arrive at the statement through the innovative practises, and the strange thing that happened for me during this particular festival is that focus is turning to acoustic means of expression again. During the final concert – a performance that saw Norwegian techno innovator André Bratten team up with Violinist Ole-Henrik Moe for a classical arrangement of glacial magnificence – a very interesting thing happened. Walking through the isles one musician manipulated differently pitched bells into vibration using a bow. Alongside the arrangement, which very much relied on long legato tones flowing over each other to create dense layers of perpetual sound, the bells formed a layer that would come in and out of focus as the musician moved around the church, like a synthesised sine wave moving around the stereo field. In the darkened church whose interesting murals were lit be the artificial street light floating in through the windows it set a very distinct mood, one that immediately struck a chord with the promise of contemporary music. The tram rolling by in unregulated intervals outside and the squeaking of the pews under distracted audience members became a significant part of the performance in the desolate musical arrangement. It’s in the musical pieces that relied on acoustic sources (possibly manipulated in the digital realm, as with Hilde Marie Holsen and Matmos) that I found the most interesting results occurred in the music of today. It’s in this element, alongside the theatrical performances, that Ultima festival continually proved to be a contemporary music festival and brought something unique to the table. And there was one particular work that embodied both this ideal completely for me, UR_.
The opera by Anna Thorvaldsdottir combined an abstract musical language and a deconstructed opera experience to create something truly wonderful in both theatre and music. The musical results are completely disconnected from their origins as string are scraped, cymbals scratched and percussion is massaged into sounds that fall not that far from the tree of electronic noise and drone music. The leading voices follow suit and negate obvious lyricism for phonetic expressions that share some similarities with Of Leonardo as they pull and tear at the score. What stands out however with UR_ was where the balance was met on occasion between the traditional operatic voice and this abstract form of music. At times it seemed to mock the stoic pomp of the opera tradition while taking it in its stride in true post-modern fashion. The deconstruction of the processes behind the staging were truly effective and even though the work is very obscure in terms of any literal narrative all the pieces fell into place effortlessly to come to some sort of conclusion through that final evocative scene that will forever be burned in my memory, a scene that can only ever be experienced and no arrangement of words will ever be able to it justice.
It’s on this note that the Ultima contemporary music festival ended for me. Alongside all the other magnificent artists on the bill, that final scene summed up the sentiment behind the festival most perfectly for this writer. A completely unique experience in the world of music, Ultima showed Oslo and hopefully the world, the next step forward in contemporary music. It featured an excellent selection of artists, and I was truly blown away by the number of new, or original, pieces performed at the festival. From Andre Bratten to Matmos to UR_ it was a truly exceptional curation of artists, and while many festivals lay claim to “curate” their programme Ultima has been the only one in my opinion where that term can be properly applied. It’s apparent, form the programme magazine to the choice of venues, that a lot of effort and thought has gone into the festival and the result was an unforgettable experience for anyone that attended any one of the shows.
As I turn my back on the Oslo Domkirke to leave it starts raining again, but the rain is light and I swallow my curse words on this occasion recalling Elaine Mitchner’s strange evocations during Of Leanordo as she encountered the black giant living inside her mouth. Or was it the protagonist in UR_ who wanted to get the antagonists out of her mouth? There are so many good memories from Ultima 2015 to savour. I feel more at peace with the rain after Bratten and Moe’s mellowed arrangements and it certainly has something to do with the fact that the water is not washing me away down the street. I’m reminded of a word that repeated during Matmos performance, accord. Or was it a chord. No, it was accord and that is… a fact.