A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related communities [index].
Technology-Based Sonic Arts in Norway
For a brief outline of early history and previous developments in Norway, the reader is referred to the author’s 1995 article, “International Electroacoustics in Norway — This Site Under Construction,” published in Contact! 9.2 (Spring 1995).
The text describes an upswing, and is quite optimistic in its tone. However, the problematic areas in the Norwegian situation, with very little structured education in electroacoustic techniques (let alone technology-based music) and the small visibility of the electroacoustic field in the traditionally oriented festivals for contemporary music (such as the past ten iterations of the Ultima festival), certainly remain. During the last ten-fifteen years, music technology has become popular among large groups of artists of many kinds, and the lack of interest from the principal educators and mediators has strengthened the trend of artist-run concerts, galleries, events and so on. The younger generations have created spaces and venues for their aesthetic niches, and perhaps the lack of a tradition of technology-based music in lower and higher education has actually strengthened this tendency of self-sufficiency and the corresponding fresh look at aesthetic issues. This development correlates with the new amateurism, which rejects the more traditional demands for technical quality and a minimum of artistic awareness of a tradition.
When this general and broad description has been presented, a moderating and closer look at details is required. Given the diversity of the Norwegian scene, this text aims to describe the broad lines of development, and has omitted much detail. The author apologizes for the possible offence some might feel.
Music technology education exists on many levels at most institutions of higher music education throughout the country. However, three have the most interesting offers. Music technology at the Norwegian Academy of Music (Norges musikkhøgskole) is not organized as a specific strand, but has been integrated in instrumental practice and study. In the Music Department of the Norwegian Polytechnic (NTNU — Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Universitet), there is now a music technology program in place, and although it contains instruction in a wide array of aesthetics, the focus is strongest on the engineering and technical aspects of the technology — in this sense it is the most comprehensive program in the country. At the University of Oslo, there is research on the relationship between sound and movement, and how this affects and evidences cognition of music. There are also a couple of doctoral students with music technology-related specialization, but the Institute of Musicology (Institutt for musikkvitenskap) does not have a coherent focus on technology-based music at the Bachelor and Master levels.
A deep and focused education in electroacoustic techniques in composition has always been lacking in Norway, and perhaps it always will. The focus now, here as elsewhere, is on interaction and performative aspects of music, and the Music Academy and University of Oslo have for example pooled some of their resources and created a laptop orchestra, largely based on the Princeton model.
In addition to the education at these institutions, NOTAM (Norwegian Centre for Technology in Music and the Arts) is offering some niche courses on higher levels, courses that attract too few students for the bigger institutions, but that fit well with NOTAM’s large user groups of different artists.
The Norwegian Music Scene
The music scene in Norway is vigorous and active; there is no lack of different approaches to music technology and what it might bring to the listeners’ attention. A number of Norwegian composers enjoy quite successful international careers, and in different traditions: acousmatic music, electronica, noise and sound art. There are of course differences between art and entertainment, but everyday concert and performance practice is not so much oriented along that axis; the discussion of high vs. low art has largely disappeared in the electronic field, and the traditional electroacoustic music in Norway has made the transition from considering itself as an avant-garde expression to becoming one of many niche expressions rather well.
Nearly all the new musical development rejects the Schaefferian focus on reduced listening, and concerns itself with wider issues of what makes music, and musical activity, interesting. Electroacoustic music in highly controlled concert situations has largely been replaced by music in smaller venues, and the more socially oriented presentation modes continually question both what musical values consist of, as well as the cultural hierarchy for assigning musical significance. Festivals such as Happy Nordic Music Days in Oslo, Borealis festival in Bergen, and Numusic in Stavanger express this perspective to varying degrees, and the organization Ny Musikk, the Norwegian chapter of ISCM, is promoting this approach all over the country. In collaboration with the corresponding development on the younger visual arts scene, this dominates how technology-based music is presented for audiences.
The diffusely defined genre of electronica is very much alive, as is noise music of different strands, all with a focus on live performance. The dominant feature of the electronics scene in Norway these days is live performance, with a seamless integration of electronics and instrumental or other artistic practices. The presence of technology is no longer important as a qualifier, technology is more a matter-of-fact in most contexts, and tinkering, circuit bending, small open-source electronics development, etc. all have their place in the current scene. Interest in technology is continually changing direction, and although this experimentation is often simple and unqualified, the musical results are interesting, both in themselves, and as evidence of the changes in the arts scene.
Sound art also belongs in the picture, with its cross-disciplinary approach to visual elements, listening and cognitive strategies. Sound art, although not a new direction in sonic arts, has grown to be a genre of significance over the last five years or so, and the art academies in Bergen and Oslo have hired in competence in this field to complement their course offerings. In Bergen, a gallery dedicated to sound art has also been established, Lydgalleriet. In Oslo, NOTAM mounted an ambitious exhibition on sound art in 2008–09, Absorption and Resonance (Absorpsjon og resonans). Seen together, these efforts represent both an expansion and continuation of the developing interest. Particularly the existence of a permanent exhibition space for sound art is important, because of the possibilities it opens up for long-term, directed programming. The genre of sound art itself is developing rapidly, and a focus on critical listening has grown considerably over the last two years or so, competing with the post- and neo-modernist sound art practices. (The sound itself actually matters!) This focus on critical listening is also carried by environmental concerns for the soundscapes, and artistic work with these perspectives in some ways necessitate a turn away from the new amateurism towards more professional recording- and studio techniques.
Supporting artist centres are more numerous than previously, and they are loosely coordinated under a common umbrella, the Production Network for Electronic Art (PNEK — Produksjonsnettverk for elektronisk kunst). This coordination has so far not resulted in much concrete collaboration in between the local network nodes, but shows the interest in, and tendency of, cross-arts collaboration. NOTAM, which is the national centre with broad tasks that were defined at the time of establishment in 1992, and the Bergen Center for Electronic Arts (BEK — Bergen senter for elektronisk kunst / Bergen Center for Electronic Arts), have a particular focus on music. The financing for all PNEK nodes is currently quite difficult, and the huge flow of public funding into Norwegian culture has not benefited new, creative work with technology in a sufficient manner. Artists can to varying degrees finance their work with grants from the Norwegian Arts Council, but when the institutional support is weak, this situation effectively bars any effort of mounting larger-scale initiatives on a national or international level.
A key organization in the Norwegian sonic arts scene over that last 16 years has been NOTAM, who has consistently supported composers, musicians and artists, and developed its focus in order to serve the creative impulse as it has migrated across genres and approaches. NOTAM has had wide tasks, from research and development work, artists’ support, dissemination of works, and education. The latter eight-nine years’ increase in the number of artists’ centres with technology focus represents a welcome growth in resources, and shows that the interest among Norwegian artists for working with contemporary tools is gaining momentum.
Traditional electroacoustic music has never been strong in Norway, due to the continual lack of institutional support and lack of funding to the specialized concert producers in this area. The number of Norwegian composers that are recognized internationally in this area is relatively small, however the situation has not reduced the interest in working with music technology among wide groups of users, and the scene is vigorous with many-faceted activity and practices, developing and growing with the impulses of new generations of artists.
Jøran Rudi, November 2009