One of the many things that, time and again, continue to draw me back to Norway – the non-EEC country that Jeremy Irons once called Europe’s best kept secret – is the quality of the music being made there. Last year, I was fortunate enough to spend a week or so at the Molde Festival on the west coast of the country, where the guest festival artist was Pat Metheny. Over the week, Metheny appeared in a rich range of contexts with Norwegian musicians, including a shape shifting big band featuring superb arrangements by pianist Erlend Skomsvoll and spirited vocals from Live Maria Roggen, a fusion meeting with pianist Jan Gunnar Hoff and saxophonist Tore Brunborg, a free-ish encounter with the young saxophonist Håkon Kornstad and his hot power-play trio and a delicately woven set of standards and originals with singer Silje Nergaard – the latest in a long line of fine Norwegian vocalists which stretches back through Sidsel Endresen, Kari Bremnes and (the late) Radka Toneff to Laila Dalseth and Karin Krog. Throughout, it was obvious that Metheny relished the quality of the musicianship he encountered, which (for me at least) reached its absolute peak in the two trio performances Metheny gave with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Paal Nilssen Love.
With these two musicians, Metheny encountered the origins and the ongoing power of up-to-the-minute Norwegian music. Andersen is famous for both the role he played in the Jan Garbarek Quartet of the late 1960s and early 1970s and his co-leadership with the drummer from that quartet, the great Jon Christensen of the Masqualero quintet which featured saxophonist Tore Brunborg, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and pianist Jon Balke, and which cut its first album for the Norwegian Odin label in 1983 before later making several albums for ECM. Drummer Paal Nilssen Love is currently establishing a reputation for himself as perhaps the hottest new thing in contemporary Norwegian jazz, with appearances on such committed new labels as Turn Left Productions, SOFA and keyboardist and producer Bugge Wesseltoft’s Jazzland.
Ten years that both separate and join Andersen and Love have seen Norway produce an extraordinary diversity of high-quality music ranging from the sort of quintessential Nordic lyricism (and writing for strings) evident on an ECM release like Andersen’s Hyperborean to the far more American overtones of the free flowing improvisations recorded by saxophonist Frode Gjerstad with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake at Oslo’s Ultima Contemporary Music Festival in 1997. In between these extremes, Norwegian musicians have both covered and created a good many of the angles that constitute the space that is contemporary music. The purpose of what follows is to offer a rough guide to some of the more important of such angles, concentrating on jazz-related or improvised music but with some coverage also of so-called classical or “serious”/composed music. There is no attempt to be comprehensive: I simply hope that what follows will alert the curious listener to a little more of the wealth that is both contemporary Norwegian music and its history than that listener may have been aware of before.
Just as Edvard Munch is the artist most likely to spring to mind when non-Norwegians are asked to name an important Norwegian painter, so have two distant but related figures come to dominate popular European awareness of on Norwegian music form the past century or so: the classical composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and the jazz inflected improviser Jan Garbarek (born 1947).
Great as Munch is, any enthusiast who visits the painter’s home city of Oslo should quickly learn to value the many qualities in the painting of such contemporaries of Munch’s as Harald Sohlberg and Ludwig Karsten, Halfdan Egedius, Nikolai Astrup and Harriet Backer. And given the quality of the various galleries and museums in Oslo, such an enthusiast should quickly become aware of the richness and diversity of Norwegian painting and graphic art in the decades that have passed since Much’s death in 1944 – a richness and diversity indicated by such names as those of Johs Rian, Inger Sitter and Jakob Weidemann in the field of abstract art. and Kai Fjell, Ludwig Eikaas and Frans Widerberg in the parallel world of figurative art. Similarly, exceptional figures as Grieg and Garbarek are, anyone who responds to the mixture of transformed folk sources and chromatic sophistication in their work should find congruent pleasure and stimulation in a wide range of further – and often very different - Norwegian music, from both the so-called “classical/serious” and “jazz” worlds.
As with all forays (however brief) into the worlds of art and music, some knowledge of the past may be a useful complement to any investigation of the present. In what follows, there are some thumb-nail sketches of some of the chief figures in post-Grieg, pre-Garbarek developments, and then a focus on the sort of exploratory work that has made Norwegian music of the past few decades – and today, especially – some of the most exciting in the world.
Two distinctive characters from the Norwegian classical world – Harald Sæverud (1897-1992) and Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) – summarise a chief theme in Norwegian music, from Grieg to today. Through decade upon decade, especially after the Second World War, Norwegian musical life bore witness to many a debate about whether or not that life should remain focussed upon what was often characterised as a tonally rooted an fold-inflected nationalism of manner, or open itself instead to various post-Schönberg developments (including free tonality, atonality and serialism) of the international scene. The Hardanger-based Tveitt was both an ardent nationalist, who like Grieg was fascinated by the special sound and overtones of the Hardanger fiddle, and a sophisticated neo-classicist. Suffused with the spirit of folk tales, watersprites and sagas, the best introduction to his dance-inflected and melodically rich world is the attractive Suite nr.1 from A Hundred Folktunes form Hardanger distilled by the composer himself from his many hundreds of transcriptions of folk tunes.
While Tveitt’s relation to Grieg is clear enough, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen had observed earlier that the music of Harald Sæverud was “as Norwegian as Grieg’s, but in its own particular way (Notes to Sæverud Complete Piano Music). Strongly associated with the west-coast city of Bergen – which today enjoys an extremely lively cultural scene, with its Bit 20 Ensenble, in particular, attracting much international attention for recordings such as the 1997 Aurora release Profils by Grieg relative, and multi-faceted composer Edvard Hagerup Bull – Sæverud is known for both an imposing range of large scale orchestral works, including three famous symphonies composed during the Second World War, and a body of music for solo piano which is as characterful, in its own alternately craggy and lyrical was, as that of Grieg.
Many a Norwegian has spoken of the “Norwegianness” of works like Sæverud’s Tunes and Dances: the composer himself remarked that while he had never felt any urge to imitate any particular feature of his country’s folk music, he had certainly tried to “imbibe the spirit” of that music. Similar remarks would be made later by such noted Norwegian jazz musicians as Garbarek, Christensen and Andersen – with Garbarek drawing upon far-flung Nordic folk material in recordings like the 1980 Eventyr and 1989 Rosensfole and sensing parallels between the folk music of Norwegian valleys and that of the Balkans, Christensen finding much t relish in Sæverud, and Andersen quoting Grieg at the end of his notes to his folk-inspired 1993 release Arv: “Life is like folk music. You never know whether it’s in major or minor.”
If the work o Sæverud and Tveitt shows how a certain stream of folk-inflected melody, ambiguous tonality and driving rhythm runs deep through much post-Grieg Norwegian music, two very different figures serve to indicate the extent to which that music has been open to avant-garde developments from abroad. Fartein Valen (1887-1952) and Arne Nordheim (born 1931) are the two great initiatory figures of Norwegian internationalism in the world of classical music. The former – whose work has just received welcome fresh exposure on the Rune Grammofon release The Eternal, which includes the classic Valen piece The Churchyard by the Sea – fashioned a flowing, dynamically stimulating world out of a poetically considered use of twelve-tone or serial means. The latter, recently honoured by a special Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs booklet and compilation CD My Longing Is Not My Own: Arne Nordheim 70 Years, has spoken of the “inner intensity” crucial to a composer. This is a quality evident throughout Nordheim’s work, whether it be his setting (for soprano voice and chamber ensemble) of three poems from the Swede Pär Lagerkvist’s Evening Land collection in the mid-to-late 1950s or the many electronically generated pieces which established his reputation from the late 1960s onwards, and which he developed at the experimental electronic studio housed at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre at Høvikodden, just west of Oslo. Some of these pieces have been revisited recently in two further Rune Grammofon releases: Electric, a compilation of signature electroacoustic pieces such as Solitaire, Warsaw and Colorazione from 1968 and 1970 and Arne Nordheim Transformed, and ambient reworking of several of these works by the contemporary Biosphere/Deathprod ensemble.
Between 1969 and 1971 Nordheim took part in one of the most radical of all Norwegian musical projects. The two-LP Sonet release Popofoni. Recently released as a double CD by Aurora, Popofoni found Nordheim in the company of such fellow Norwegian avant-garde classical composers as Kåre Kolberg and Alfred Janson – plus Norwegian jazz musicians Karin Krog, Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen. Norwegian jazz pianist-turned-classical composer Gunnar Sønstevold and Swedish jazz pianist Bobo Stenson were also present on a release which represents a defining moment in recent Norwegian musical history – and which I discuss at some length in my Jan Garbarek: Deep Song (Hull 1998). The record’s various blends of avant-garde composition and jazz improvisation, romantic poetry and political protest, Western Expressionism and Eastern-oriented reverie introduced a good deal of the spirit of both cross-genre and cross-cultural openness which has increasingly come to characterise much of the best Norwegian music of today.
In any account of new Norwegian music of the past decades, the names of Krog, Garbarek, Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen have to feature at least as prominently as those of Arne Nordheim, Kåre Kolberg and Alfred Janson. For these are the key figures who took Norwegian jazz, folk- and classically inflected music to previously unsuspected levels of poetic expression: of both individual and group virtuosity and national and international visibility. Of course, there had been excellent Norwegian jazz musicians before. In fact, so good was the quality of modern mainstream players like trumpeter Rowland Greenberg and saxophonists Bjarne Nerem, Arvid Grahm Paulsen, Kristian Bergheim and Mikkel Flagstad that the period 1955-1965 is often referred to as the first “golden age” of Norwegian jazz. (Bjarne Nerem’s full-toned, somewhat cool-school excellence can be sampled on a number of recent CDs, such as the 1948-1981 selections of the 1991 How Long Has This Been Going On and the later music of the 1984 This Is Always, both on Gemini; and it’s well worth searching the second-hand shops for the 1998 limited edition boxed three-LP set, presented by the Oslo Jazz Circle and Herman Records, which showcases Paulsen, Bergeim and Flagstad in the company of Greenberg and other Norwegian notables of the swinging mainstream scene of the late 1950s and early-to-late 1960s.
The next instalment will follow next week.