Welcome to the Sound Clash
Ultima 2019: Traditions Under Pressure
By Rob Young
According to philosopher Timothy Morton, the world began to end in April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine. ‘An act that commenced the depositing of carbon in the earth’s crust - namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale.’ (Hyperobjects) Another way of expressing the idea is to say that it’s when the Anthropocene age began, when human activity began to affect the entire earth’s ecosystem.
All seven billion of us on this pale blue dot are part of this new geophysical force, and there has never been such public anxiety as there is today about the consequences. Art, culture and specifically music cannot be the tool that fixes the problem, but all these things unique to human civilisation can certainly help in alerting mankind to the problems, reminding us of everything we stand to lose, and in exemplifying the attitudes and ethical positions needed to cause positive change. Traditional ways of life may be forced to change if they no longer serve the common purpose.
Modern music constantly asks our ears to shake off their comfortable habits. It draws on a long history of conventional and experimental music making, and continues to bend and stretch into new forms. Challenging music reflects challenging times: in politics as in the arts, conventions and traditions are undergoing radical transformations and distortions in the face of populism and protest, climate crisis, war, migration and disaster capitalism.
All the above factors create stress tests for societies, as familiar sights, sounds and attitudes undergo change and even disappear. The extensive range of styles, sounds, formats and performers at Ultima 2019, viewed as a whole, gives a voice to these changes and acts as a sounding board as traditions bend and buckle under the pressure. We have separated this process into themes which broadly be projected onto three parallel screens: innovative technology; transformations of classical music and folk forms as they soundclash with avant garde approaches and otherness; and the dystopian ecological and political conditions that give rise to the global migrant/refugee crisis.
Timothy Morton himself is an honoured guest at this year’s Ultima, taking part in the ambitious, exhilarating and scary collaboration with Jennifer Walshe, TIME TIME TIME. This work is a great example of a tradition under pressure - the opera/vocal work colonised by digital media, cut-up text, injected with contemporary philosophy and utilising a three dimensional approach to the performance space in which the audience are not simply invisible observers.
Technology is the driver of innovation in music, and Ultima’s participants make full use of new developments in digital media and instrument development. The festival can open up some incredible aural journeys, as well as reminding us that technology is not only the portal to a utopian, gleaming future. Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang’s marvellous virtual reality moon probe lifts off to a graveyard of human memories, waste and failed evolutionary paths; while Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s research into electronic voice phenomena detects electrical ghosts in the television tube.
Make a beeline to our specially designed Sonic Wunderkammer, an architectural dome where you can sit and hear the past, present and future of electronic music via an incredible multi speaker system installed by Notam. Over the past century, electricity has made sweeping changes to the traditions of classical music. Yet electronic music itself has accumulated its own traditions since the post-war pioneers came along. Innermost by Natasha Barrett & Marc Downie is one of the new pieces premiered in the dome: combine this 3D sound piece, where sounds evolve behavioral characteristics, with a trip to Stefan Maier’s video cavern babbling with weird distortions of language and logic – the silicon nightmares of artificial intelligence. Sound artists Jacob Kirkegaard and Christina Kubisch give us access to the sounds of hidden environments – water purification plants around the world, or our own urban space. Kubisch, a German pioneer in sound art since the early 70s, is highlighted this year with exhibitions both physical and online, a headphone walk around Oslo and a brand new installation at Atelier Nord.
Classical and folk music are always particularly concerned with the idea of tradition. The contemporary end of music has spent a century undergoing rapid transformations and subverting its own traditions, but early in the 21st, many of those transgressions have become traditions in themselves. At Ultima 2019, you’ll see examples of composers, performers and all types of artists, aware of the traditions they come out of, and the various, weird and wonderful strategies they use to escape and pull away towards new territories.
Nature and the environment are the first inspirations for human traditions and ritual, and this is reflected in our opening concert in which composer Lasse Thoresen transports us to the Arctic. This sonic submersion in the sublime comes with a warning about the precariousness of this global storehouse of ice, shrinking under the pressure of human impact on climate.
Olivier Messiaen believed the song of birds was the eternal music of planet earth, and as well as hearing his unique visionary Catalogue d’Oiseaux performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard from dawn to dusk, you can hear how Norway’s own Rolf Wallin responds to the mythology of birds in his Large Bird Mask. This premiere is commissioned and performed by contemporary chamber group Cikada, celebrating their 30th anniversary this year as Norway’s leading champions of new music.
Folk music is the next closest to nature that we have in our culture, and in Therese Birkelund’s Ulvo’s Absence to Ruth Meyer’s reimagining of the medieval Haugebonden, it enters the threshing machine of modern music and comes out transformed. Penelope Sleeps, the dance piece by Mette Edvardsen & Matteo Fargion, deconstructs Homer’s Odyssey. Connections between ancient and modern remain strong, and you’ll also find programmes throwing old and new together - Norske kammerorkester’s mix of baroque and new baroque; the European Fantasias celebration of Barbara Strozzi with Susanna, Elizabeth Holmertz, Kenneth Karlsson and others; Nils Bech crooning to the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland; Jon Øivind Ness’ dialogue with the texts of the late poet Tor Ulven; Oslo Philharmonic’s dizzying voyage from pre-war modernism and Norway’s innovator Bjørn Fongaard to newly commissioned premieres. POING, celebrating twenty years of championing new music, perform contemporary works across the spectrum plus a riotous night tearing up the jazz repertoire. Connections between artistic ancestors and new innovators remain strong, but each generation reserves the right to transform what has gone before.
The biggest stress test for cultures is when they are forced to react to unfamiliar elements from outside. The current migrant crisis has created rapid influxes of people of foreign nations inside other more settled communities. This both enriches and challenges the host society. Many events in Ultima directly or indirectly reflect this new reality, such as the refugee stories in Julian Skar & Kjetil Skøien’s Lost Rooms, Du Yun’s epic audio-visual saga of enforced migration, Where We Lost Our Shadows, and the clash of east and west in Bjørn Erik Haugen’s It Takes All Sorts To Make the World, Sir. The psychology of displacement is a factor on the science fiction-flavoured Black Quantum Futurism by Moor Mother at one of our two Ultima Nights club events, and in the avant dance work We Come in Peace.
With so many different types of event, including live music, dance, film, performance and art, Ultima 2019 remains committed to diversity, eclecticism and events to provoke and stimulate thought (as in The Practice of Love, a brand new music/visual/performance in which the confrontational artist Jenny Hval tests the limits of creativity by transforming voices, sounds and bodies into texts). What connects all of these interwoven journeys is the insistence that modern music is unafraid to jump into the pressure cooker of this complex era, and help us to navigate a world where the familiar can no longer be taken for granted.