For this experimental festival, bring your swimsuit and dancing shoes

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For this experimental festival, bring your swimsuit and dancing shoes
A sound installation in the traditional Sami construction at Borealis, in Bergen, Norway, March 18, 2023. The experimental music festival in Norway has become a space for lively exploration in a famously self-serious field. (David B. Torch/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Gersten

BERGEN.- Little could be predicted about a premiere by young experimental Norwegian-Tamil composer Mira Thiruchelvam. But it was held at a fjord-facing heated pool, so the presenter had a suggestion: Bring a swimsuit.

It was par for the course at Borealis, the experimental festival here that has achieved renown as a launchpad for eclectic projects by musicians from Norway and beyond. If in recent decades, the Nordic countries — facilitated by enviable government funding for the arts — have proved a hotbed of musical activity, punching above their weight in the classical world, Borealis has become the region’s warmhearted fringe festival, showcasing a blossoming experimental classical scene.

Led by Artistic Director Peter Meanwell and Managing Director Rachel Louis, Borealis, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in a five-day festival that ended Saturday, has created a rare space for lively exploration in a notoriously self-serious field. It is the festival that’s “nothing to be afraid of,” as the local paper Bergens Tidende called it in a headline during the week, right down to its “eksperimentell”-themed tube socks.

Part of what gives Borealis its accessible feel is its use of Bergen’s tightly grouped cultural centers, separated by cobblestone alleys, short and often wet — a given in Europe’s rainiest city. On opening night, the United Sardine Factory, a repurposed cannery, hosted short commissions by composers across the festival’s history to honor its anniversary. Listeners could then meander over to a 13th-century royal banquet hall, whose medieval splendor was the backdrop for the Indonesian ensemble Gamelan Salukat, performing works by experimental composer Dewa Alit.

Borealis found its coziest space in a small wooden structure on the mountain of Floyen, built in the style of the Sami, the Indigenous people of the Sapmi region (encompassing parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). Accessible via a short funicular trip and winding hike, the structure was home to a sound installation by Borealis artist-in-residence, Norwegian-Sami Elina Waage Mikalsen — the work’s thrumming bass seemingly keeping pace with the churning flames in the building’s wood-burning stove. Given the Norwegian government’s recent acknowledgment of continuing human rights violations on Sami lands, Mikalsen’s exploration of Sami experimentalism — the subject of her talk later in the week, featuring performances by Sami musicians Viktor Bomstad and Katarina Barruk — felt especially potent.

This year’s festival also saw a number of works investigating the nature of instruments, probing their materials and extending their boundaries. The quietly intense Norwegian violin and contrabass duo Vilde&Inga, collaborating with composer Jo David Meyer Lysne, presented “NiTi,” a dialogue between the duo and Lysne’s metal and wood kinetic sculptures that moved silently back and forth throughout the performance — a poetic distillation of the action of playing a string instrument.

At first, the musicians produced subtle flickering textures using their own instruments, then gradually integrated the fixtures beside them, including a violin harnessed to a contraption that tickled its strings. Much like Vilde&Inga’s forest-inspired collaboration with composer Lo Kristenson a few days later, though, the work felt inconclusive, less a finished product than a fantastical impulse that the collaborators would do well to keep pursuing.

More successful in this vein was “I N T E R V A L L,” created and performed by Norwegian percussion trio Pinquins with artist Kjersti Alm Eriksen. Around a hollow wooden cube, with instruments and industrial and household appliances hung on ropes from its ceiling, the four performers began a sort of haywire scavenger hunt, hurling objects through the frame, blowing petulantly into plastic tubes attached to the cube, even grabbing long poles to bang on the theater itself, for an inexhaustible probe of the setting’s sound-making potential.

A similar playfulness pervaded Norwegian composer Oyvind Torvund’s imaginative “Plans for Future Operas,” performed by soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. Part of a continuing series in which ensembles perform the sounds of hypothetical performance situations, “Plans” is accompanied by a slideshow of Torvund’s scribbled doodles. As various visions flashed on the screen — a “car horn” opera, for which Fraser issued honks; a “telepathic opera,” during which she kept silent, appearing to communicate songs by mind alone as Knoop played — the duo conveyed, with gusto and evident amusement, Torvund’s freewheeling musical language.

Notable throughout the festival was its care for participants of all ages and backgrounds. A performance of the Torvund presented outside the concert hall was geared toward audience members with accessibility needs. In workshops, children created miniature versions of the “I N T E R V A L L” cube using carrots, beads and wire, and recorded shrieks to be played back on tape loops. On one night, four enthusiastic participants in Borealis’ Young Composer program, whose applicants needn’t be young or trained as composers, presented heartfelt premieres.

After-hours audiences found delightfully earsplitting sets by White Mountain Apache violinist Laura Ortman and electronics and vocal duo Ziur and Elvin Brandhi; as the evening wore on, a group of young people began an impromptu residency on the dance floor. The next morning, bathers at — and in — the heated pool witnessed Thiruchelvam’s rollicking commission “External Factor” performed with dancer Thanusha Chandrasselan — part of a series inspired by the Borealis office’s Sunday tradition of fjord swimming. Listeners bobbed to Thiruchelvam’s thumping electronics, interspersed with her improvisations on Carnatic flute and electric guitar, and cheered for Chandrasselan’s jerky choreography, her boots managing impressive friction against the pool’s wet ledge.

One of the festival’s oldest works was among its most forward thinking: pioneering American experimental composer Maryanne Amacher’s “GLIA” (2005), whose title refers to the nervous system cells that support communication across synapses, performed by composer Bill Dietz, a former Amacher collaborator, and Ensemble Contrechamps. As Dietz explained in a preconcert discussion, Amacher would not likely have approved of the piece’s posthumous performance, viewing her works not as fixed sets of sounds, but rather as part and parcel with the circumstances in which they were originally produced. Yet I could not help but be grateful to be wandering around the illuminated pyramid of players in the black box theater, letting the voluminous layers of sound course through my ears.

Closing night began promisingly with Norwegian sound artist Maia Urstad’s enigmatic “IONOS” — an atmospheric dialogue among three radio amateurs that resulted, at one point, in contact with another user somewhere out there. Much to its credit, Borealis is a place where artists can take risks, even if things will occasionally fall short of the mark — as in the final piece, British composer (and former Borealis director) Alwynne Pritchard’s “Counting Backward,” for the Bergen chamber ensemble BIT20, conducted by Jack Sheen. “Counting Backward” was a bloated collage of predictable ambient ensemble writing and hokey prerecorded observations on time and nature, echoed by volunteers planted throughout the audience. As BIT20 played, four performers in the center of the theater tied a knot from thick ropes so they could repeatedly hoist a tree stump from the floor, an act that underscored the degree to which the work’s own threads were disconnected.

The mind strayed toward what would have been a more satisfying conclusion to the week: the Pinquins show two nights before in the same space. At the climax of that work, the performers yanked open the wooden cube’s canopy, spilling a supply of sunflower seeds to the ground. The drizzle of seeds continued, and continued — a hypnotic, seemingly unending invocation of what a festival like Borealis can make possible.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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