The scene was the flat floor of an ordinary 1960s school gym in a small community south of Oslo on a cold autumn day in October. I (Geir Johnson) had driven south on route E6 for about forty minutes to the village of Vestby because I wanted to experience SBRÅK! with my own eyes and ears in the company of the group it was intended for, 4th to 6th grade children.
It was already midday, and the four performers were ready for the fray after having rigged the electrical and electronic equipment themselves - a PA system and a sampler, plus various percussion instruments and a double bass. This was the quartet's second concert of the day. They had met in the centre of Oslo at 7.30 a.m. to get on the road in time for the first concert, which had taken place at a small local school two hours later. And they would go on like this for a week at a time.
Could you, dear reader, imagine giving a concert every day of works by Arvo Pärt, Cecilie Ore, Rob Waring and your own improvisations before you had even rubbed the sleep out of your eyes, in cooperation with, and for, a critical, entertainment-gorged audience of children and adolescents? No? For once I was allowed a glimpse of the lives of four of these musicians for a few minutes in the “silence before the storm” prior to the second concert of the day. Most of them were on their way to and from other artistic activities, both before and after ordinary office hours. This is what the timetable looks like for a musician on a NorConcert tour:
Odd, the violinist, had come on the night train that morning from Gothenburg, where he had been playing the night before, and was going on to Bergen the same afternoon for another concert in the evening, a first performance of a one-hour commissioned piece for piano and string quartet. The following day he would be playing a full evening of tango, this time in Oslo.
Rob, the vibraphone player was going back to rehearse for a big project with an Indonesian-Norwegian gamelan ensemble.
Siri, the soprano, was going to continue preparing for a full evening's mass by a Swedish composer.
Edvard, the bass player, had for once refused to play jazz in an Oslo club in the evening, but he still had tomorrow's TV performance to concentrate on, as studio musician on the currently most popular show on Norwegian national television.
As you will understand, you're not looking for an ordinary life if you jump onto this particular roundabout. But the four were full of beans, and as they withdrew to the “dressing room” - an ice-cold air-raid shelter built for the Home Guard in case of war, kids and adults streamed into the gym.
It is strange to see how children have changed in the last 10 - 15 years. Thanks to the media revolution, New York's culture is as visible in Vestby as Vestby's own. Here hip-hoppers were as common as in the centre of Oslo, and the boys were just as conscious of their appearance and choice of clothes as the girls. What would happen when the musicians started playing Arvo Pärt?
Art for children is a special art form. You not only have to aim at creating artistic expression that is of equally high quality as “adult” art; it must also be “applied art” in a certain sense, since in some way or another it must try to draw children and adolescents into the process of creating or experiencing. NorConcert has long been working on developing this art form, and the use of young composers has been a conscious element of this effort. SBRÅK! is the title of a concert where four musicians investigate the borderline between music, language and sound. The music that is played and sung is contemporary. Singer Siri Torjesen puts it like this:
“For all of us, a NorConcert school tour is exciting and interesting, a place where we can try out new ways of communicating, putting together material, for an audience that has no definite expectations of what art represents, but is used to being entertained, while at the same time they are unbelievably creative themselves.”
Part of what the four want to demonstrate in this concert is that the listener doesn't need to understand all sorts of things in order to enjoy the music. Sometimes it may also be an advantage not to understand, like children learning to talk.
Although four different instruments are used by the ensemble, the performance is built up around the voice and its possibilities. The voice is everyone's first and most important instrument. But you don't really learn much about the voice and its possibilities in ordinary lessons. In SBRÅK!, elements of vocal training and breathing techniques are part of an enjoyable game, and also training for the school's singing and music teachers.
During the performance, the four musicians take centre stage in turn. They each have their own solo parts to play, and are always striving for direct communication with the children. The climax is reached when two of the children, a boy and a girl, spontaneously jump into the performance and hip-hop with Rob Waring, who raps an ironic song about the role of the teacher as “guard dog” and educator. Then comes the long commissioned piece, in which the school's newly formed choir makes its debut.
But SBRÅK! is not just a concert. Prior to the tour, NorConcert has sent a cassette with commentaries, examples of the music and parts of the commissioned piece that the pupils must practice. Composer Rob Waring emphasises that it is not necessary to be able to read music to learn or participate in the piece. As French composer Erik Satie once said, “Notes are just black fly droppings on a piece of paper, they aren't the real music!”
And while the equipment is packed away, the last question comes from the children. “How much did your vibe cost? I’d like one of those too...”, while the musicians feverishly write autographs and joke with each other. Yet another working day for NorConcert is over. Now the second part of the day awaits the busiest ones. But the impressions from SBRÅK! linger on.