It’s ‘To The Moon’ At Ultima Festival As Arts Converge

Laurie Anderson’s and Hsin-Chien Huang’s virtual reality fantasy ‘To the Moon’ was a highlight at Ultima, Oslo’s eclectic (with a capital-E) late summer festival. The activity is genre-defying and borderless.  (Photos by Fuglesteg Luksengard)

OSLO – Around 30 years ago a movement of contemporary music makers began to rustle Norway’s music establishment. It was a prosperous time. The now highly recognized ensembles Oslo Sinfonietta and Cikada were established. Oslo’s flagship contemporary music festival, Ultima, emerged as a result of the energy generated after the city’s successful staging of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World Music Days.

Now Ultima, the annual late summer festival­ on the cusp of its 30-year anniversary (in 2020), stands as a unique model for a consortium approach to festival design. Seventeen institutions constitute the Ultima Festival. They range from the Oslo Philharmonic to multi-disciplinary venues such as the Black Box Theater.

Festival chief Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen seeks playground ambience.

These unified resources, shaped by artistic director Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen, offer a stable financial framework and a playground ambiance that extends from local to global. If winning international interest in a festival based on local productivity is the challenge, the diversity of output is extraordinary for a nation with a population just over 5 million and a city of more than half a million.

The multi-perspective and multi-generational burst of activity is genre defying and borderless. It is capital-E eclectic: Dance, theater, literature, electronica, installation, avant-garde pop, classical, opera, and orchestral all converge with contemporary music.

For its 2019 iteration themed “Traditions under Pressure,” second-year artistic director  Tønder Hansen provoked his audience to look at how traditions bend and buckle through contemporary application, specifically noting technology, nature, and musical heritages such as folk and ancient forms.

It is a crazy ride. One minute, donned in VR goggles, I was voyaging beyond the earth, heading into weightless space with Laurie Anderson’s and Hsin-Chien Huang’s epic virtual reality fantasy To the Moon. The next minute, I was in an Oslo cathedral, summoned to the sobering mystical intentions of Messiaen’s L’Ascension with the 100-year-old Oslo Philharmonic.

Messaien’s ‘L’Ascension,’ featuring the 100-year-old Oslo Philharmonic, resounded at the 17th-century Oslo Domkirke.

There were two other events of interest that accentuated the miscellany of this festival. Du Yun and the Oslo Sinfonietta – in co-commission with American Composers Orchestra, the Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, the John F. Kennedy Center, and CAL – presented Where We Lost our Shadows as part of a three-pronged evening of insights into the many personas of Yun. Reflecting on the passages of human migration through music and film, with footage of a Syrian family crossing the Aegean Sea, Where We Lost our Shadows is a 30-minute collage, in concertante style, that combined orchestra with virtuosic playing by Pakistani raga specialist Ali Sethi, New York percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, and Swedish jazz-experimental singer Sofia Jernberg.

Dunkelman opened this work with astonishingly fluid bravura, her drums whispering or shattering the air with equal impact. A fascinating dialogue and juxtaposition followed where improvisation met notated music. Sethi offered an emotional set of ragas, while Jernberg delivered a clarion, vibrato-free contribution of longer-phrased mellifluous material.

Du Yun’s ‘Where We lost Our Shadows,’ a 30-minute collage on the experience of migration, is an Oslo co-commission with Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, American Composers Orchestra, London’s Southbank Centre, and Cal Performances.

Yun is a master colorist, and in this very successful work, supported with distinction by the Oslo Sinfonietta, she wove multiple cultural worlds and their divergent scale systems with excellent spatial acuity allowing the disembodied vocal contributions to mesh naturally. The result was a metaphoric application of how the human experience of migration is a conflicting journey of alienation and assimilation.

At the Black Box Theater, avant-garde pop musician-singer and novelist Jenny Hval drew her fans. For her theater-making debut, Havl adapted the tracks from her latest album, The Practice of Love, to the stage. In her words, the 70-minute piece investigates “the connection between life and art – an umbilical magic.”

Jenny Hval’s stage adaptation of her album ‘Practice of Love’ explored the ‘umbilical magic’ connecting life and art.

With a cohort of fellow female indie folk singers, a saxophonist, and a percussionist, Hval gathered her meanderings in a loosely linked set of “chorusy” songs, monologues, and screen time. The ensemble performed facing each other around a communal electronic table, creating loops and rhythm tracks together – much like a family gathering for a meal at the kitchen table. The Practice of Love seems to be petitioning for collective creativity.

The result is all very domestic, purposefully un-theatrical, leaving the audience to make its own conclusions in this very open ended, approximate exercise.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.