The world has lots of music festivals that focus on experimental music, but in Bergen, Norway’s Borealis – en festival for eksperimentell musik – is that rare project where the organizers approach making a festival as an act of experimentation. The 16th edition of the festival (the last five of which have been programmed and operated by Peter Meanwell and Tine Rude) ran from March 6-10, and offered a dizzying variety in terms of the music presented, but also where events took place, how they were staged, and how listeners and community were engaged.
Artistic director Peter Meanwell’s introductory remarks to many of the events provided unusual context and pushed attendees to consider what they were about to witness in different ways. During rigorous daytime discussions with artists and curators, Meanwell pressed participants about socio-political issues that are inextricably woven into the practice of making music and sound art, exposing conversations about how performances are presented to a public that rarely, if ever, encounters them so frankly. While the festival is run as smoothly and professionally as any I’ve ever been to, it is also remarkably intimate and transparent. The largest performance space during the entire fest was Røkeriet at the multi-room USF Verftet, which seats 350.
There was an afternoon of family-friendly performances at the local library; Bergen’s own Saxifraga Quartet – along with visiting Mexican singer-composer Carmina Escobar – provided a sound track for festival participants who decided to take a collective morning polar dip in a chilly fjord (or a nearby heated swimming pool); and vocalists Stine Janvin and Cara Tolmie performed an a cappella piece near the platforms inside the city’s train station.
On another evening, the Bergen-based Norwegian Naval Forces Band played new contemporary-classical works by composers Therese B. Ulvo and Ørjan Matre, while an audio-cinema work that a group calling itself Reality-based Audio Workshop built from field recordings made at an oil refinery in Mongstad, an industrial zone north of the city, was played in darkness on a multi-channel sound system inside a local cinematheque.
The festival opened with another kind of outreach: a collaboration with Mexico City presenter El Nicho (aka Eric Namour). Norwegian sound artist Jenny Berger Myhre unveiled a dreamy collaboration with Mexican filmmaker Manuela De Laborde that was developed and premiered last year in Mexico City. Notas y notas y notas… offered an installation/performance that collaged field recordings (sounds of a picnic, distorted music booming from storefronts, conversation), disembodied beats, and homemade-sounding electronics that reminded me of some of the best work by L.A.’s Lucky Dragons, while images of Mexico City and geometric abstractions were set amid lights flickering in the din of spinning fans. It was as if Myhre shared her sense of wonder, guided knowledgeably by her collaborator, through a new land, with a group of strangers. The work felt like a dream diary, albeit one masterfully paced and meticulously edited.
Earlier the same evening the acclaimed Bergen new music ensemble Bit20 performed works by prominent Mexican composers Marcelo Toledo and Marisol Jiménez, but it was a new piece by Bergen composer Øyvind Torvund that stole the show. His Prehistoric Night and Morning (Tone Poem) was both deliriously joyful and beguilingly weird, with analog synth squiggles dissolving into tuba blurts and smeared brass patterns and electronic beats undergirding half-baked martial passages.
Occasionally members of the audience turned around to locate the source of sounds emanating from the back of the hall—which I initially mistook for a multi-channel set up. But, indeed, members of the Mexican collective Liminar were located in a rear balcony, providing wildly effective percussive accents and thrilling string counterpoint. The piece is set to head to Mexico City with a few members of Bit20 complementing the full cast of Liminar later this year. In the middle of the opening night, four members from Liminar performed four audacious works including 150pF, a solo work by Hugo Morales rendered by percussionist Diego Espinosa, whose fingers and tongue danced upon five quarter-inch jacks to produce a crudely pulsing flurry of buzzing tones enhanced by video of ridiculously phallic imagery. The set concluded with a ritualistic piece by vocalist Escobar.
One of the most anticipated performance of the fest was TIME TIME TIME by composer/performer Jennifer Walshe and philosopher Timothy Morton. The richly humorous work weaved together pop culture references – one particularly hilarious section riffed on grief management in the hyperactive style of an infomercial, while another video projection overlaid the text “National Physical Laboratory, Supplier of Time for the UK,” over an image of computers – with constantly shifting notions of time. Morton’s ecological writing constantly returned to the pressing issue of global warming, playing with the idea that humans won’t trifle with the urgency of addressing the situation because of the earth’s timescale. Archival video footage toggled between films of people performing antiquated mechanical tasks over a staccato rhythm shaped by Walshe’s remarkable ensemble, cartoonish animations of dinosaurs, and a mandala-like images of the earth’s crust evolving over millennia.
The comic delivery of Walshe, adorned in a garish, green sequined gown, was expertly complemented by the straight-man deadpan of M.C. Schmidt of Matmos, wearing his trademark suit-and-tie, who at one point played a pair of paper cups as if they were maracas with utter earnestness. One of Walshe’s masterstrokes was allowing the disparate ensemble members to do what they do best, while masterfully blending those elements into a cogent whole: the microscopic lowercase sounds of Lee Patterson, summoning a tactile, earthbound vocabulary, the locked-in improvisations of Streifenjunko (trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen, who moved from easily from breathy abstraction to fanfare-like clarity), the crisp string articulations of double bassist Inga Margrete Aas and violinist Vilde Sandve Alnæs, and the alternating glistening and lyric, and brittle and jagged harp passages of Irish polymath Áine O’Dwyer, who also sang a series of harrowingly beautiful melodies, especially near the end of the performance.
Morton sat in silence, yogi-style, on a pillowed dais for the entirety of the performance, contributing a mix of new age absurdity. The first half of the 90-minute performance was infectiously fast-paced, mirroring the information overload of the text, while the second half slowed-down—including an extended section of glacial movement, with only occasional plucks from O’Dwyer’s harp. The piece was unwieldy, but its vastness made sense considering the massive scope of what Walshe and Morton are grappling with.
Much smaller in scale was a wonderful performance by Tolmie (a Scottish artist living in Stockholm) and Janvin (a Norwegian). They began out of view, uttering what sounded like a made-up language from opposite entrances to the Bergen train station, each anticipating the other telepathically, as if finishing each other’s sentences—except they were monosyllabic mouse-like blurts rather than complete thoughts. They both played with the reverberant acoustics of the space magnificently, slowly walking towards one another—each sound was accompanied by a delicate footstep closer. When they did meet, coming face-to-face, they began a seductively magnetic, increasingly melodic, fast-paced hocketing.
As their breathless vocalizing increased in intensity, Janvin and Tolmie began walking dreamily around the space. Each singer had adorned one hand with hideously fake painted fingernails, which they used to fake-stroke plants, pillars, signage, and anything else they could reach. This element of touching presaged the final part of the piece, in which they climbed upon a platform and began a bizarre demonstration of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) with close miking capturing Tolmie rubbing a Swedish cardamom bun with exaggerated delicacy and Janvin gently crushing pink meringues. Sonically this last section felt out of place in the cavernous train station and musically disconnected from their stunning vocal part, although a different sort of presentation – maybe letting the audience hear the sounds through headphones – might have helped tie it together. It was an experiment that mostly worked.
On the other hand, the closing concert fell flat despite a promising concept. Love was a collaborative piece between the Icelandic performance collective the Icelandic Love Corporation, Berlin-based Ensemble Adapter, and British composer Juliana Hodkinson. The audience was intimately involved: sitting on the floor, surrounded by curtained performance stations, numbers were drawn for tickets randomly passed out to attendees, which resulted in listeners being guided to those different stations to observe, and in the case of percussionist Matthias Engler, to perform, the musical action, which felt largely improvisational despite the participation of a composer. But the cumulative sound and the static performances by Jóní Jónsdóttir and Eirún Sigurðardóttir of the ILC couldn’t support the weight of attendees waiting for something – anything – to happen, even if they were one of the lucky ones whose number was called. Yet even when Borealis as whole fell short in some of its experiments, its fearless sense of exploration succeeded, day after day.
Peter Margasak is a longtime music journalist who spent more than two decades as a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, and also has contributed to Downbeat, Chamber Music, Bandcamp Daily, The New York Times, and more. Since 2013 he has curated the weekly Frequency Series at Constellation in Chicago, and since 2016 has been artistic director of the Frequency Festival. He presently is attending the American Academy in Rome as part of its Visiting Artists & Scholars Program.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.