Notes from Bergen’s Borealis festival


First published by Sinfini on 16 March, 2015

Some contemporary music festivals are plonked into their environs and feed off the surreal energy of culture clash and downright unlikeliness. Not so with Borealis, whose spirit of playful, wholesome creativity is surely a product of its city and those drawn to living here. In the words of Borealis’s new artistic director Peter Meanwell, introducing a programme of nine new scores and abstract films made by Bergen-based artists, “it’s amazing to run an experimental music festival in Bergen because there are so many people already making experimental music in Bergen.”

A simple point, maybe, but one that sums up this small but beautifully formed five-day happening. And that isn’t to imply parochialism: this year’s programme included musicians the calibre of Christian Wolff, global luminary of experimental music, as well as a healthy contingent of boundary-pushing UK artists. But the balance of local and imported feels just right. Meanwell himself recently relocated from London to Bergen, and judging by his inaugural programme he is breathing fresh life into what is already one of the unstuffiest annual events in the contemporary music calendar.

A major factor is space. Bergen — a city smaller than Leicester — is astoundingly well-served by venues in which to do creative things. There are concert halls, theatres and galleries aplenty, plus a seemingly endless supply of studios, cultural centres and industrial-buildings-turned-performance-spaces. It’s all walkable, it’s all stylish and it’s all picturesque. Mornings at Borealis can be spent wandering the forested paths that zig-zag up the side of Bergen’s steep hills, taking in pristine lakes and stunning views across the fjord. It’s hard not to be a wee bit envious.

Unlike Bergen International Festival or (to a lesser extent) Nattjazz, Borealis isn’t a high-budget operation. It works thanks to an army of smiling volunteers and simple branding ploys. Cheerful balloons mark the entrances to venues across the city and swing parks are converted into music playgrounds, giving the whole thing a family carnival vibe. Kids are encouraged to attend the concerts, too, and I found myself sitting next to toddlers in performances of John Cage or South Korean typewriter art. Considering the intimidating image this kind of music often cultivates elsewhere, such inclusiveness is surely a quiet triumph in itself.

And the music is good. I arrived on day four and had already missed a plethora of exciting concerts (cellist Oliver Coates performing from a high diving board in a disused swimming pool; Emily Hall’s new opera Folie à deux; raucous Geordie troubadour Richard Dawson; jazzers Sons of Kemet; an all-night performance by Belgian artists Peter Lenaerts). What I did see was invigorating enough. A.Typist is a trio of South Korean sound artists who perform with implacable expressions — they might be workers in an open-plan office — and whose typing spin off into flurries of rhythmic polyphony. Their Borealis show was about obsolete technology and the creative potential of everyday monotony, about the disconnect and impalpable impact of sounds and actions that affect each other whether we like it or not.

Lina Lapelyte’s Candy Shop was first commissioned by Glasgow’s Counterflows festival and presented here in newly expanded form. Seven blank-faced women, each a formidable musical force in her own right, sang loops and sweet lullabies to blithely misogynist hip-hop lyrics. The juxtaposition was jarring — an old trick, maybe, but still persuasive. More striking was the implication that such feisty women could be subsumed into a culture of normalised sexual violence, each submitting her personality to a rather innocuous whole. Towards the end of the piece a group of young boys from a traditional Bergen youth battalion (or ‘Buekorps’) marched in with snares and uniforms. For me this message was starkest of all: that society indoctrinates its men young; that boys too are the victims.

Saturday night ended with an immersion into the idea of far north. Cellist Lucy Railton and electronic noise artist Russell Haswell had sourced material for their Borealis duo in Kirkenes, on the Norwegian-Russian border, and the resulting film and live-improvised score gave a bleak, challenging and powerful portrayal of the discombobulating experience of such a place. There were caustic passages, giddy junctures and long expanses of nothing much at all, but the final sequence was serene (hypothermia-induced delirium?). It was bold programming for a Saturday night and there were several walkouts. I tend to think that an experimental music festival wouldn’t be doing its job if it was all plain sailing.

Sunday unfolded as a loose, rambling afternoon in an arts complex on the banks of the fjord. Coffee and fresh waffles were served by the entrance and upstairs a broad open space was a jumble of bean bags and sofas, kids and square-bespectacled composers, three grand pianos and an 86-part Toy Instrument Orchestra. The event was billed as Borealis ‘family day’, regardless that the repertoire was careful-listening territory of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff and Cornelius Cardew. Talking later, the 81-year-old Wolff — who had been stationed at the piano all afternoon offering generous, playful performances — reminded us that “being an experimental artist does not mean being alone”. More than anything, perhaps, Borealis is a jubilant embodiment of that statement.