In Defense of the Disturbing

This is a translation of a response by Borealis’ Artistic Director Peter Meanwell & Managing Director Tine Rude to a text by composer Jon Øivind Ness published on the online cultural magazine ballade.no 22 April 2021. Original text by Borealis on ballade.no.

In a recent article for the online cultural journal Ballade headlined “Disturbing that scored music is being displaced”, Norwegian composer Jon Øivind Ness expresses concern for the future of scored music in general, and worries that Borealis in particular «programmes anything» just to be politically correct. It’s sad to read, but his concerns in no way resonate with us.  

It appears Ness was inspired to write his article after reading a review of our 2021 festival in the national newspaper Klassekampen written by Magnus Andersson – a review which is limited in scope, based on only 3 of 5 days of the festival, and then on only parts of the programme. It seems clear too that Ness has neither been to this year’s festival, had a look at the full programme, or even watched our Online festival content or heard the concerts and conversations that have already been broadcast on the BBC and NRK (Norwegian National Radio). If he had, perhaps he wouldn’t be so concerned, and could instead reflect on how the composers at our festival present a rich and varied world of contemporary music. Instead Ness sweeps away the music and art at Borealis by building an argument without knowing anything about what the programme actually contains. 

Scored Music is doing fine at Borealis

 Scored music has a good life at Borealis, sitting alongside other musical expressions by artists and composers from Bergen, Norway and the World. Every year the festival commissions new works from Norwegian and international composers, both scored music for traditional ensembles and for new constellations of musicians. At the same time, we also create space for various experimental musical expressions, which gives us the opportunity to listen to and think about music in new ways. 

In light of Ness’ article, it seems we need to make a list of what scored music could be experienced at this year’s festival: if he took part in this year’s opening concert he’d have heard works written for the Royal Norwegian Naval Forces Band by composers Agnes Ida Pettersen, Ruth Bakke, Svein Henrik Giske and David Longa, and later in the evening enjoyed Sarah Hennie’s scored work Contralto, performed by the Norwegian ensemble Aksiom. During the break, he could have strolled around an exhibition of composer Raven Chacon’s scores, watched films of Opera Avgarde’s newly written micro-operas from West Norwegian composers, or heard the young musicians of Åsane Unge Strykere perform works by Nils Henrik Asheim. Elsewhere in the festival he could have heard newly composed works from our Borealis Ung Komponist participants – our mentor program for composers at the beginning of their careers, heard Ruth Bakke premiere her new work on the organ of Storetveit church, or enjoyed Ricardo Odriozola’s solo violin concert which overflowed with both new and older scored music. The classically trained accordionist Andreas Borregaard performed new commissions from Marcela Lucatelli and Philip Venables, and if that wasn’t all too much he could have attended the wonderful closing concert with the excellent BIT20 Ensemble where four scored works by composer Raven Chacon brought this year’s festival to a close. 

Be nice! 

It is important that we address the way Jon Øyvind Ness talks about the artists who have been at Borealis. In his text, he reduces them, and ironically himself, to being just representatives of their gender, orientation, skin color and age, without showing any insight into what they have contributed artistically to the festival. Even if you don’t like Linn da Quebrada or Abdu Ali’s music, it is essential to know the context in which their music and art was presented. Quebrada is a Brazilian musician with an embodied political performance practice, in a country where right wing politics persecutes the bodies and very existence of those who do not conform. Quebrada’s work greatly influenced classical composer Marcela Lucatelli, whose scored work Drift for accordion player Andreas Borregaard was premiered in the same festival, and the documentary was shown as a natural extension of this contribution to the festival. If it’s difficult to understand how Abdu Ali can perform at a festival of contemporary music, then just taking part in the online event Abdu Ali’s as they lay at this year’s festival could have increased that understanding. Focused on the voices of Black musicians and composers exploring creative solidarity across the Atlantic, inspiration was drawing as much upon Holberg prize winner Paul Gilroy as Paulo Freire, and people listened to each other and brought new perspectives as to what it means to exist as a musician in today’s society.

If you want to criticize the artistic profile of a festival then please do not extract two random voices from the whole to build a shaky argument. Especially not when they happen to be black and queer – then the whole enterprise becomes reactionary and unfair.

Political correctness or real change?

Borealis has always promised to be a festival that explores and celebrates how experimental and new composed music is being made now, in all its nuance and complexity. Scored music has been with Borealis since the beginning – and still is! But Borealis has never been a festival that consists of scored music just for the sake of it. Ness may well wish for a festival like this, but it is not Borealis, nor is it our mandate or mission. We want to represent the world as it actually looks, with a great diversity of important voices and ideas, not to diminish the field through narrow-mindedness. 

And let us be crystal clear – quality is at the top of our agenda. The question is where to look for quality, and what you consider excellent. There are an infinite number of talented, exciting and challenging musicians and composers in the field, and we are clear that we will find these.

Unfortunately, Ness reasserts the rather crude and lazy binary: “the good old days” vs “political correctness”. This is flawed at its very core. It assumes that what happened before was only about quality, and now the only qualifier is some kind of over eager identity politics.  It is a classic mistake to assume that the past was all excellence and apolitical.

After all, the existence of cis white male bodies has never felt the need to be political, because they have held all the privilege. It hurts to lose privileges, but the solution is not to shout «politically correct» to undermine the natural currents and necessary changes that must take place now. Would it be preferable for the festival to be «politically incorrect»? Should we maintain the centuries old tradition of only allowing one group of people on to the platform at the exclusion of others? Has resorting to «political correctness» as a critique become a shorthand to express some ugly ideas in the field of culture? 

Contemporary music also has context

We believe that neither humans nor music, scored or otherwise, exist in a vacuum. 

Just as Schubert was inspired by Goethe, and Grieg by Ibsen, composers of contemporary music today draw their inspirations from many places – from dance, from landscape, from technology, to other musical forms. Just as some composers explore what music can be through the medium of the orchestra or sinfonietta, some explore what music can be through the medium of their own bodies, through non-musicians or even non-human actors. 

Just as the trauma and politics of the Second World War fractured the consensus of late romantic music spawning a multitude of ways of exploring the new world through composition, (cf. Stockhausen, Messiaen, John Cage, Boulez even Richard Strauss and Poulenc) so music today also responds to the world we live in, which just in the last year has included seismic shifts in popular political consciousness  around the Climate Crisis, systemic racism and Nationalism.

Nor should we ignore the fact that just as once women, Black and indigenous people were excluded from voting, so, for much longer they were excluded from the conservatoire and from the concert platform. Few people today would question universal suffrage, but in concert halls and opera houses these historic biases linger on. Repertoire is still monochromatic, and the absence of diverse voices a reality. 

Happily though contemporary music today is being made by people from inside and outside the conservatoire, from across the world, with different identities and view points, different creative impulses and lived experiences. This in turns means new role models, and new audiences entering a space of attentive listening and critical enquiry

For Borealis one cannot exist without the other, as musical genres and boundaries blur and develop. For example to consider the musical aesthetic of noise, one that we hear at least as far back as the Italian Futurist compositions of the 1910s, it’s crucial not only to explore the work of a score based composer like Peter Ablinger (as we did with BIT20 Ensemble in 2018), but also to invite a DIY noise musician from outside the conservatoire to perform (as we did with underground artist B L A C K I E in 2019). 

To consider contemporary music as beyond contextualisation does a disservice to its complexity and brilliance, and is an insult to the capacity of its listeners to stretch and explore. 

So, rather than accusing us of displacing scored music, or having a diffuse artistic agenda marked by political correctness, perhaps a visit to Borealis and broader insight into the program would reveal that this year’s festival actually explores different ways of expressing the art of composing. Just like life, and the world we live in, contemporary music does not benefit from a single narrative – it includes‚ but is not limited to‚ notes on paper, or the experiences of ‘white men who have passed 50’. Having different musical voices in our contemporary and experimental music festivals can only lead to more discovery, more delight, and more discussion. We will fight for Jon Øyvind’s right not to enjoy everything at the festivals he attends, but Borealis will continue to present a dynamic and strong programme with exciting and exploratory composers, musicians and artists from Bergen, Norway and the world. And we’ll do this ensuring that we represent the breadth of society. To do anything else would be unconscionable.