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Sound Check Norway: Music from Norway: Just How Important Is It, Really?

By John Kelman, Senior Contributor (former Managing Editor), AllAboutJazz.com. Posted: 28. Oct, 2013

When asked, by the newly minted Music Norway, which brought two separate organizations together at the beginning of 2013 – Music Export Norway (responsible for exporting the country’s music to the world) and Music Information Center (responsible, for many things, including acting as an archive/information source) – to write a piece about the Norwegian music scene from an outsider’s perspective, it seemed, at first, to be a truly daunting challenge…and no small honour. The music scene in Norway is so rich, so diverse, so huge that trying to answer some of the obvious questions and capture what the essence of this music is, seemed an almost impossible task in the space of but a few thousand words. But after spending the last eight years traveling the country, from Kristiansand to Svalbard, from Molde to Oslo, from Bergen to Kongsberg and from Trondheim to Stavanger, I’ve been fortunate enough (with the kind support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Music Norway and more people than I can list here) to have been afforded a rare opportunity to gain exposure to a scene few (if any) from my neck of the woods have.

Why and how has the Norwegian scene managed to build such a reputation, not just on its own turf but around the world? There are a number of answers to that question, but first and foremost is a commitment to the arts that began more than 40 years ago and which has, unlike so many other countries, remained a priority ever since. When Sverre Lunde, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke at the 2013 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand – announcing that, after nine years, the Ministry would be providing some well-deserved (and much needed) financial support to the festival, and that Punkt was now considered amongst the country’s elite events – what was, perhaps, an even more compelling statement was that the country’s goal has been to devote a full one percent of its budget to culture. That means that last year, in 2012, ten billion Norwegian Kroners – nearly 1.7 billion US dollars – was devoted to the arts. As a Canadian in a bilingual country, there’s a French word to describe this: incroyable!

But while many people at home and abroad say, when it comes to the way Norway supports culture, “Well, they have oil money,” the sad but true obvious response is: “Yes, but were Canada to come into the same per capita money, they would absolutely not spend it the way the Norwegians have.”

But seriously: ten billion Norwegian Kroners per year? A lofty achievement and one that permits a country of approximately five million to make music an actual profession, placing culture up there with health care and education, right where it belongs. Culture, after all, may not be measured in empirical terms, but its impact on quality of life is undeniable. But it’s not just a federal objective in Norway. When, in 2000, the town of Kristiansand decided to begin selling off its excess electricity, invest the money and donate the interest income (approximately eight million Norwegian Kroners or 1.4 million US dollars annually) to the arts, it was that very initiative–Cultiva, whose mission is to secure jobs and good quality of life through grants to projects within art, culture, knowledge institution, and innovation – that provided startup funding for the Punkt Live Remix Festival for its first three years, helping it get off the ground until it was capable of becoming self-sustaining.


Jan Bang

Punkt, about to reach its tenth anniversary in 2014, is a particularly good example of what’s right about the Norwegian approach to culture; a very Norwegian idea that has, in its near-decade of existence, gone completely global. Not just a festival, but a concept, one that is about taking music of any genre and, immediately after its performance, remixing it live and engaging additional live musicians, Punkt has become a moveable feast, invited to festivals around the world (in locations including the UK, Turkey, Germany, France, Estonia, and with more being added each year), where it not only brings Norwegian artists to help further the cause of Norwegian cultural export; it also collaborates with musicians from whatever country/city it’s in, building an ever-expanding international network of musicians, media, presenters and fans who may not have known each other before, but who now continue to collaborate on various levels. To put some context into it, some of the artists who have been involved in Punkt collaborations include ex-Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, American Fourth World Music progenitor, trumpeter Jon Hassell, British avant-songsmith David Sylvian, Germany’s Ensemble Modern and J. Peter Schwalm, Finland’s Vladislav Delay and Estonia’s Weekend Guitar Trio.

Commitment to the arts doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. A decision has to be made that it is important and that, while it may not be something measurable on the bottom line of a spreadsheet, it enriches everyone’s lives, and its impact can be seen, heard and, most importantly, felt across the country, whether in a city the size of Oslo (approx 500,000), Molde (24,000) or Kristiansand (75,000).

Another response to the assertion that the Norwegians have money is this: it’s not just the bigger cities like Oslo that get cutting edge arts venues like the world-famous Oslo Operahuset; Kristiansand opened the contemporary culture centre Kilden in 2012, to house not just the city’s opera and symphony – a city of 75,000 with an opera and a symphony?!?!! – but to provide a number of high-tech performance spaces that range from a couple of hundred to 1,250. In North America, a town the size of Kristiansand is lucky to have a cinema or two; Kristiansand, in addition to Kilden (which replaced the older two-room, 550-seat Agder Theatre), has an art gallery (the Kristiansand Kunsthall) and a music conservatory. Even a town the size of Molde now has Plassen, also opened in 2012, which acts as the town’s public library but also, more importantly, a cultural focal point with two state-of-the-art performance spaces. The kinds of tours that take place in Norway, hitting so many of the small towns that are peppered across the country, would almost never hit similarly sized locales in North America – and we’re talking music across a wide spectrum being brought to small-town Norway. Clearly, the country has not only used what some might consider an embarrassment of riches to bring infrastructure, education and health care to the many small towns that are scattered around the country and across which its relatively small population c is spread; it ensures that culture remains an important part of the social fabric.

And forty years later, the impact is palpable. While there’s no doubt, walking around Kristiansand on a Saturday night, that popular culture from North America has found its way to these Northern European shores – you’re just as apt to hear the latest Miley Cyrus tune as you are Susanne Sundfør’s most recent release – there is a difference: unlike North America, the pop machine doesn’t dominate; it’s a more balanced part of the overall music scene. And, perhaps more importantly – though this is not strictly a Norwegian mindset, but a European one – interest in the arts is inclusionary rather than exclusionary. It’s absolutely possible – allowable, more importantly, especially for youngsters – to not only like Miley Cyrus, say but also an Estonian choir. Sadly, in North America, the overall culture is one of exclusion: one can like this or that, but not this and that.

A quick anecdote, from my first visit to Molde in 2009, might help to put things in even further perspective. Seated in one of its older, pre-Plassen venues, waiting to see pianist Christian Wallumrød perform with his ensemble as part of trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s Artist in Residence series that year, I noticed a young man beside me, who couldn’t have been older than 20. We began speaking and, when he told me that he was collecting all of Rune Grammofon’s releases, it was a powerful statement. A label that, like so many Norwegian imprints, has been about art without compromise since inception, starting with noise improv groups like Supersilent in its early days and running the gamut now, from progressive/fusion bands like Grand General and singers like Susanna Wallumrød and Jenny Hval, to lyrical piano trios like the Espen Eriksen Trio and electrifying, electrified balls-to-the-wall bands like Elephant9 and Fire!, there’s a lot seriously challenging music across the label’s 100+ releases, and certainly not music that a typical North American 20 year-old would know about, let alone be collecting as a completist.

It’s that very open-mindedness at a young age that is so rare in North America. But why is that? How is that?

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer: a commitment to music education from an early age. A more complex answer: beyond education, parental exposure of their young children – surely at their most malleable, despite certainty of the exact opposite by too many North American parents – to bands like Supersilent., In the Country and Splashgirl, classical composers like Rolf Wallin, Frode Haltli and Maja Ratkje, or more decidedly jazz-centric artists like trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and Terje Rypdal; the money to create an infrastructure which allows artists to make records and tour the country, even to some of the smallest towns; and an overall decision that culture is not a dirty word. When it’s possible to visit Svalbard during the first week of February for a jazz festival that brings everyone from Solveig Slettahjell and Stian Carstensen to Beady Bell and Halvdan Sivertsen – not to mention a commissioned work, Arctic Moods, being premiered for the first time – you know you’re not in Kansas anymore!

From an educational perspective, one of the key ingredients that is often missing in music education but seems endemic to the Norwegian approach – one need look no further than the heralded Trondheim Conservatory, which has turned out so many notable musicians, ranging from Arve Henriksen and Håkon Kornstad to younger musicians like Moskus pianist Anja Lauvdal, saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg and PELbO tubaist Kristoffer Lo – is the concept of creativity and finding your voice. When asked about his education at Trondheim, Kornstad once said, perhaps a little flippantly, that he was given a key to rehearsal room and told, “That’s your curriculum.” An exaggeration, perhaps, but indicative of an emphasis on the creative spark being as important – more so, even – than the acquisition of chops and technical knowledge. Of course, one has to learn the theory, the scales, the harmony, the rhythm. But if that’s all one learns, then once you’ve graduated, what comes next? In Norway, in particular at Trondheim, musicians seem to emerge fully formed and, while they may still have growth ahead of them, they’ve already got an idea of their overall direction.


Stian Westerhus

When it comes to jazz in Norway, one of the accusations from the US “jazz police” (by no means representative of everyone, any more than the right wing extremists represent the entire country) is that the music Norway is making may be good, but it’s emphatically not jazz. The truth, if you dig beneath the surface, however – sometimes not very far at all – is that many of the musicians who are famous today, like Arve Henriksen, Stian Westerhus, Nils Petter Molvær, Thomas Strønen, Ståle Storløkken, Ola Kvernberg, Eivind Aarset and Håkon Kornstad, all have the background to play something more akin to American jazz; they just choose not to. Henriksen was, in fact, the featured soloist in a recorded performance of the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans album Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960)–a collaboration with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble and invited American conductor Maria Schneider. Jan Garbarek’s recent music may have deserted the freer influence of Albert Ayler and latter-day John Coltrane from his earliest days, but he still makes clear, on German bassist Eberhard Weber’s 2007 ECM recording, Stages of a Long Journey, that he can still swing hard with the best of them, and has no problem winding his way through complex changes, soloing with characteristic fire, relentless attention to tone and overall effortless aplomb on a version of Carla Bley’s “Syndrome.”

And there’s plenty more. A most revealing passing comment with guitarist Eivind Aarset when asked, in a 2010 All About Jazz interview, about studying jazz theory and playing John Coltrane’s rite-of-passage “Giant Steps,” was his typically understated reply: “I can play ‘Giant Steps,'” he said, “but at a very slow tempo.” Nils Petter Molvær’s current music may seem a very distant cousin to the American tradition, but he first came to international attention in the 1980s in Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen’s Masqualero (named after a Wayne Shorter tune recorded with Miles Davis), a band that tread the fine line between American tradition and something more decidedly Scandinavian. And, to this day, Arild Andersen continues to prove capable of swinging his ass off, both in his stellar trio with Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinacchia, last heard on Live at Belleville (ECM, 2008), but also in other contexts, like his first time in a quarter century performance with guitarist Bill Frisell that, fleshed out by poet Jan Erik Vold’s reading of American writer Wallace Stevens’ work, was first performed at the 2010 Kongsberg Jazz Festival but later released on the Norwegian Hot Club Records imprint as Black Bird Bye Bye in 2012.

Clearly the capacity to emulate or extrapolate on the American tradition is there, and groups like Atomic, The Deciders and Motif, along with trumpeter Gunhlild Seim (who has recorded with notable Americans including pianist Marilyn Crispell) and younger groups like Hanna Paulsberg Concept continue to shape cornerstones of the American jazz tradition into something….else. Just as saxophonist John Surman – a British expat now living in Oslo with his wife, singer Karin Krog – brought experiences gained as a youth in boys choirs into his more decidedly (but particularly broad-scoped) jazz-centric music, so, too does Arve Henriksen bring the influence of choral music into his own expansive approach to improvised music and a reverse-engineered compositional approach.

And if Bugge Wesseltoft’s recent look at songs from the Great American Songbook, Songs (Jazzland, 2012) took them to much slower, quieter places than might be expected – a consequence of the calming influence of millennial Norwegian forests that also had a place in Eple Trio’s In the Clearing / In the Cavern (NORCD, 2011), a similar but different concept of taking well-known tunes and slowing them down – way down – brought singer Solveig Slettahjell to prominence with her Slow Motion Orchestra, while singer Live Maria Roggen’s work with Come Shine was considerably more reverent.

But the real question is: why should Norwegians continue to emulate the American tradition, to the exclusion of the formative influences that have shaped who they are? The answer is simple: they shouldn’t. If the Great American Songbook is not a part of their DNA, and even as they study notable American jazz artists to gain some familiarity with the vernacular, should they not also create music that, while improvisational in nature, reflects their own backgrounds and roots? Saxophonist Trygve Seim has contributed some of the most forward-thinking contemporary medium ensemble music to the jazz canon, with elements ranging from Carla Bley to Edward Vesala (and, perhaps more significantly, Iro Haarla); but while improvisation is built into Seim’s largely rigorous, through-composed music, it’s not the freewheeling kind, with extended extemporization; instead, it’s a crucial component of the music, but oftentimes only a small handful of bars – sometimes, even, just a single bar…or even half a bar. Clearly Seim has a different idea of how jazz should sound…or, is the term becoming antiquated itself and should what he makes simply be called music?

What’s most remarkable about the Norwegian jazz scene is its breadth. Those only familiar with music coming from Norway on a superficial level often use terms like “Nordic Cool,” as if the country’s music can be described with such a simple, reductive phrase. Without coming close to describing the breadth and depth of the Norwegian scene, here is a list of just a few of the artists stretching the boundaries of today’s music (by no means comprehensive, and apologies for the many who’ve been left out):

    • Musicians like saxophonist (and goat horn player) Karl Seglem (who also runs the NORCD record label), saxophonist Frøy Aagre and singer/kantele player Sinnika Langeland blend traditional folk music with liberal improvisational élan;
    • Improvising units like Atomic, Motif and The Deciders bring an edgier kind of American-centric (but, ultimately, still somehow Nordic-tinged) extemporization informed by Americans like Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, but also Europeans such as Peter Brözmann, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink;


  • Groups like the 1982 Trio employ traditional instruments like harmonium and Hardanger fiddle in utterly free improvisational contexts;
  • Bassist Mats Eilertsen’s SkyDive (with unsung guitar hero Thomas Dahl and better-known saxophonist Tore Brunborg), Eple Trio, featuring Andreas Ulvo, and fellow pianist Espen Eriksen‘s Trio approach jazz from a more lyrical but still open-minded aesthetic;
  • The Source has, over the past two decades, looked for nexus points where the music of the Middle East and other cultures intersect with into its own music, unmistakably informed by the Norwegian traditions;
  • The growing Punkt festival axis – which includes out-of-the-box thinking trumpeters Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvær and Mathias Eick, maverick guitarists Eivind Aarset, Ivar Grydeland and Stian Westerhus, stylistically unfettered drummers/percussionists Audun Kleive, Ingar Zach and Erland Dahlen, singer Sidsel Endresen and, most importantly, the festival’s co-artistic directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré (producers, remixers, live samplers and more) – continues to not only stretch the boundaries of improvisation, but of composition, all with a decidedly multidisciplinary philosophy;
  • Saxophonist Håkon Kornstad is currently beginning to combine his ongoing exploration of loop-driven solo saxophone with more recent studies in classical singing, while singer Sidsel Endresen’s groundbreaking duo with guitarist Stian Westerus combines the guitarist’s often-times ear-shattering, effects-driven sonic explorations with a unique, cell-based and thoroughly acoustic-driven vocal language, creating music that can range from jagged angularity to tear-inducing beauty;
  • Pianist Bugge Wesseltoft not only explores the Great American Songbook with a decidedly personal bent, but continues to find an organic meeting place in solo performance, where acoustic instrumentation and electronic processing meet;
  • Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad’s lifelong exploration of classical constructs and improvisational freedom with artists ranging from Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen to Arild Andersen and Evind Aarset.
  • Eivind Aarset pushes the boundaries of the guitar, though processing and extended techniques, into hitherto unheard textural spheres, in a variety of combinations but, most recently, attaining a new plateau that combines his longstanding Sonic Codex group with live sampler Jan Bang;
  • Nine-piece beyond-category group Jaga Jazzist blends complex compositional constructs rooted in jazz and progressive rock (while sounding like neither) with an energetically appealing, youthful approach that has garnered critical and popular acclaim around the world;
  • Legacy artists like Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen – the four who, along with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, represented the “Big Five” who really put Norway on the map, thanks to their early relationships with the then-nascent ECM Records, out of Germany – continue to explore a variety of arenas, from Garbarek’s hugely successful collaboration with classical vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble, heard most recently on Officium Novum (ECM, 2010), and Rypdal’s recent larger-scale compositions like Melodic Warrior (ECM, 2013) , to Andersen’s recent big band collaboration with Tommy Smith, Celebration (ECM, 2012), which explores some the most iconic music found on the record label he has called home for over 40 years
  • Keyboardist Jon Balke explores a personal mix of baroque instrumentation and cross-cultural rhythmic concerns with Magnetic Book, while fellow Magnetic Book mate, trumpeter Per JørgensenJøkleba!, a largely improvising trio with Balke and drummer Audun Kleive that has reformed in recent years for the occasional concert and recording;
  • Pianist Tord Gustavsen has managed to fashion a very successful career, garnering international attention, mining a very limited range of tempos and somehow imbuing his classical training and Norwegian traditionalism with the gospel music of the southern United States;
  • Multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen and his group Farmers Market have managed to bring humor into music that is at once tremendously complex and relentlessly appealing while, at the same time, busting down cultural borders and making music as redolent of the Balkans as it is the Appalachians, and as much about pedal-to-the-metal fusion as it is a kind of skewed chamber music;
  • Guitarist Hedvig Mollestad’s trio, Bushman’s Revenge, Møster! and Elephant9 bring high octane rock energy to a jazz context;
  • Pianists/keyboardists Kjetil Husebø, Andreas Ulvo, Andreas Stensland Løwe , Andreas Utnem, Morten Qvenild, Sigbjørn Apeland, Christian Wallumrød, Anja Lauvdal, Øystein Moen and Ståle Storløkken all expand linguistic, compositional and textural opportunities through either a fearless rejection of convention or, at the very least, an uncommon stretching of it;
  • Drummers/percussionists including Audun Kleive, Wetle Holte, Per Oddvar Johansen, Andreas Bye, Gard Nilssen, Erland Dahlen, Torstein Lofthus, Thomas Strønen, Pål Hausken, Terje Evensen and Jonas H. Sjøvaag prove themselves capable of working in virtually any context, from the “Blackkazz” of saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby’s Shining, the softer climes of In the Country and the paradoxically lyrical yet powerful arena of trumpeter Mathias Eick‘s group to the guitar power trio of Bushman’s Revenge, the acoustic-driven Zanussi Five (led by bassist Per Zanussi), the electro-acoustic improvising duo Humcrush (which, featuring Strønen and Ståle Storløkken, also includes occasional guest Sidsel Endresen) and the more recent Anglo-Norwegian collaboration Eyes of a Blue Dog (Babel, 2013), the brainchild of Evensen, British trumpeter Rory Simmons (of Fringe Magnetic) and singer Elisabeth Nygård;
  • Like Jon Balke but in a completely different fashion, saxophonist Trygve Seim and pianist Christian Wallumrød regularly redefine the concept of medium-scale ensemble composition, incorporating elements of classical music both contemporary and of antiquity;
  • Singers including Sidsel Endresen, Susanna Wallumrød, Jenny Hval, Eldbjørg Raknes, Live Maria Roggen, Solveig Slettahjell, Sofia Jernberg, Hanne Hukkelberg and Susanne Sundfør all redefine and reinvent whatever vocal space they occupy, whether it’s singer/songwriter, avant-garde or even straight-ahead jazz.


Sidsel Endresen

One of the most significant specific innovations coming out of Norway – and one seen time and again with so many of the artists listed above – is the integration of technology with traditional instrumentation. Norway is by no means the only country where artists extend the sonic potential of their instruments through use of effects processing, looping and other devices, but few manage to do it so seamlessly, so organically, so naturally. From pop singer Bernhoft to more jazz-oriented artists like Håkon Kornstad, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Stian Westerhus, Eldbjørg Raknes, Nils Petter Molvær, Morten Qvenild, Bugge Wesseltoft, Ivar Grydeland. Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, there’s a preponderance of Norwegian musicians who don’t treat technology as a separate adjunct, they see it as an absolutely organic extension of whatever instrument(s) they play. In some cases it goes even further; live sampler Jan Bang’s instrument is actually an old Akai sampler – a box with switches, buttons and knobs which he has transformed into a musical instrument, sampling music going on around him in real time, processing it and morphing it into something else before feeding it back to his fellow other musicians.

Another strength seen with musicians in Norway has nothing to do with the music – or, at least, directly so. When Norwegian musicians come to Canada to tour, they almost always tour with a sound engineer. While it is true that most venues and certainly most festivals have house sound and light engineers, what the Norwegians have figured out that others seem to have not (or, to be fair, cannot afford – though there are absolutely times where Norwegian artists take less money in their own pockets in order to ensure they can include a sound engineer on the contract) is that the value of having a consistent sound engineer who knows the music, knows exactly how each member of the group needs to sound and what the overall group sound is cannot be understated. There are also those who travel with their own visual artists, and over the years, certain names continue to come up, time and again: Asle Karstad and Johnny Skalleberg are two sound engineers in high demand, while Tord Knudsen is more than a lighting engineer, he’s a visual artist who improvises with his lighting console, computer and projectors the same way a musician improvises with his/her instrument. It is absolutely no coincidence that Knudsen has been a member of Nils Petter Molvær’s various groups longer than anyone else – nearly 20 years, in fact.

I’m often asked how such a scene has emerged in a country so small – how and why is it so distinctive? Beyond the commitment to culture, from education to exposure, and beyond the massive and, frankly, unprecedented amount of money being injected into the arts, there’s something to be said for the base Norwegian culture from a historical perspective. Prior to the oil boom that began in the 1970s, Norway was a relatively isolated country – and a near-homogeneous one at that, the impact of multiculturalism still a couple decades in the future. Being as far north as it is, days were long in the summer and short (in some places, non-existent) in the winter, with harsh weather conditions and equally challenging geography. The result of these collective conditions seems to have engendered a fearless mindset that, rather than viewing problems as obstacles, sees them merely as things to be solved.

But how has this funneled back into the music? While American jazz musicians did, indeed, make it to Norway as far back as the 1960s, when festivals like Molde and Kongsberg were in their infancies – and musicians like Jon Christensen, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek had the opportunity to play with them (in particular, American composer George Russell, who lived in Northern Europe for a few years and regularly engaged these musicians for some recordings that have since become classic) – there was always, it seems, a drive to do something different. With traditional Norwegian music so fundamental, it’s not difficult to hear how, even when Garbarek was, on one hand, influenced by American saxophonists like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, his phrasing contained, on the other, the unmistakable lilt of the Hardanger fiddle. And if Terje Rypdal was, indeed, informed by the psychedelic, blues-based music of guitar icon Jimi Hendrix, it’s not difficult to understand, when seeing where he grew up (and still lives, on an island in the large Molde Fjord), that the where is absolutely as important as the who – inseparable, in fact – and can absolutely be heard in his music, his immediately recognizable tone imbued with a curious icy heat that does, indeed, exemplify the concept of “Nordic cool.”


Jan Erik Kongshaug & Manfred Eicher

Looking back at Nordic music of the past 50-60 years, there appear to be two significant points where the music seemed to undergo an evolution so major that, thanks to the help of international labels like Germany’s ECM Records (which also distributed Rune Grammofon in its early years, making that label similarly influential), it changed the shape of music to come. Like most European countries, the first half of the 20th century found Norwegian jazz musicians largely emulating their American touchstones. But the 1960s – and the freedom it seemed to engender within first world countries – seemed to be the time when countries finally began to assert their own musical identities. And when, in the late ’60s, ECM’s Manfred Eicher encountered Garbarek, Andersen, Rypdal, Stenson and Christensen, is it any surprise that the music that emerged – in particular, records like Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1971) and SART (ECM, 1971) – suggested something that, despite being informed by American free jazz, also referenced Norwegian traditionalism?

There’s no denying a lot happened in the ensuing years, with ECM continuing to shine a significant spotlight on a country that had, beyond classical composers like Nordheim and Grieg, never before seen such regular exposure. The label also encouraged some significant cultural cross-pollinations, whether it was Garbarek and Christensen playing in both pianist Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet (Belonging, ECM, 1974) and with American guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner (Solstice, ECM, 1975), Garbarek also collaborating with Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti and American bassist Charlie Haden (Magico, ECM, 1980), Rypdal coming together with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and American drummer Jack DeJohnette (Rypdal, Vitous, DeJohnette, ECM, 1979), Andersen putting a smoking hot group together with up-and-coming American guitarist Bill Frisell, British pianist John Taylor and American drummer Alphonse Mouzon (Molde Concert, ECM, 1982), or singer Sidsel Endresen collaborating with British pianist Django Bates and American cellist David Darling (Exile, ECM, 1994) for an early sign of even greater things to come.

Still, 1996-98 seemed to represent an even greater watershed, one where the electro-acoustic integration of technology emerged with full force- and shook the world with even greater force, thanks to the international reach now possible via the internet, with it now possible for people from virtually anywhere to gain access to music previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It meant that, more than at any other time, the world suddenly became extremely aware of Norway. Four particular releases – Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer (ECM, 1997), Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1996), Supersilent’s 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1997) and Eivind Aarset’s Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998) – suggested new directions for jazz, and revealed a scene that had been growing, unbeknownst to most, for many years but which now reached critical mass.

Since then, the Norwegian scene seems to have exploded, growing almost exponentially. There’s “festival inflation,” with over 600 music festivals taking place across the country annually; a bevy of record labels to add to Rune Grammofon, ODIN, Curling Legs, Kirkelig Kulturverksted and Jazzland, including SOFA, NORCD, Jazzaway, Smalltown Supersound, Resonant Music, Inner Ear, Losen, Drolleholå, Gigafon, Optical Substance, Va Fongool, Atterklang and Hubro, amidst countless others. There’s more music coming out of Norway – and from across the broadest possible spectrum – than ever before. So all seems well. Or does it?

Well, it’s a tremendous plus that Norway’s commitment to the arts has made it possible for so many musicians to pursue creative endeavors, both on record and in performance, and actually make some kind of living. But there are those who feel that the availability of such funding has given Norwegians a disproportionate and unfair advantage. Some question whether the music coming out of Norway is truly as innovative as some suggest, while some actually express anger that this music is not just diluting what jazz is supposed to be (in and of itself a heated debate with no empirical answer possible), but that it’s actually denigrating “real jazz” (again, whatever that is) and taking work away from “real” jazz musicians. Are any of these accusations true?

Certainly, there is a preponderance of Norwegian music finding its way into many jazz festivals around the world, the result of tour funding that would otherwise make such touring impossible. But can Norwegian artists be blamed for taking advantage of their country’s clear agenda to export its music abroad, something achieved with great success in recent years with programs like JazzNorway in a Nutshell, Silver City Sounds and Jazz Expo, where presenters, club owners and journalists from abroad are invited to Norway for a few days of Norwegian music – usually through an existing festival like Molde, Kongsberg or Bergen’s Nattjazz, but also including special showcase performances, arranged specifically for attendees – with the hopes that Norwegian artists will be booked at festivals and clubs around the world, and that journalists will be encouraged to write about them?

Clearly, based on articles like this one – and writings from notable authors like Peter Margasak and Joe Woodard – it’s working, and in ways that go even beyond simply exporting Norway’s music. A recent roundtable discussion, during the 2011 Penang Island Jazz Festival, revealed that its five participants – including participants from Italy, Norway, Japan, China and Canada (yours truly) – had all met through Norwegian events. What these Norwegian programs have done is to create lasting and, more importantly, growing partnerships with people from around the globe that, in addition to successfully working to promote Norwegian music in whatever capacities their respective job entail, regularly collaborate in other ways – one example being my collaboration with British radio host and series curator Fiona Talkington on the liner notes to Arve Henriksen’s career-spanning 7-LP Solidification vinyl box, released in 2012 by Rune Grammofon.

That there is some jealousy abroad for the opportunities made possible to Norwegian musicians is something that should be quickly dispensed with. Is it fair that Norwegians have the advantage of both funds and infrastructure to more successfully promote their work to their country and to the world? Perhaps not, but then again: is life fair?

Norway’s inimitable programs have succeeded in ways even their organizers might never have foreseen, and the funds for recording, writing and touring have certainly appeared to be more than successful. But can the availability of so much arts funding also result in substandard music gaining exposure it doesn’t deserve; can it result in complacency, of artists creating music that ultimately succeeds based on names so established that fans will buy in, irrespective of whether or not the music is actually any good?

Of course it can – and does. But that’s not anything specifically endemic to the Norwegian scene, it’s only that, with so much touring and recording support, it’s more visible than in other countries, simply because if a disproportionately greater amount of superlative music is being made, it stands to reason there’s also a larger number of average or even substandard projects also finding their way out into the world – and even garnering critical and popular acclaim; some, it seems, will accept anything from Norway as good, simply because It comes from Norway – a dangerous mindset, indeed, especially if we’re talking media. But one look at the American jazz scene and it becomes clear that, while the cream usually rises to the top, so, too – and against all logic- does the occasional bit of sour milk manage to find its way there, too.

Is there anything the Norwegian scene should or could be doing differently? Beyond perhaps instituting some kinds of metric (and this may already be in place) that measures the success of groups receiving support – and success is not necessarily reflected fiscally; it can be measured In other ways: the number of gigs; the number of people attending; the number of records sold off the stage (at least a partial reflection of how well the audience was won over); the overall critical response. While implementing empirical measurements can seem antithetical to the very idea of art, there are, nevertheless, ways of determining whether or not money spent on an artist has been well-spent.

But truthfully, the biggest thing that Norway can do to bring its music to the world in a way that encourages less envy and, consequently, knee-jerk backlash, is to do what some of its artists are already doing: collaborate with other musicians from other countries; encourage a cultural exchange that will allow everyone to evolve in an organic fashion. Jazz is and always has been an inclusionary art form, and the only risk Norway runs by having the support it does is to become insular. That it was, indeed, an isolated country in decades past was unavoidable, but no longer holds true. And while work visa costs for getting into the United States are excessive, and costs to tour places like Canada are high simply because it’s a big country that makes travel expensive, these should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles.


Ingebrigt Håker Flaten

Just as some American artists now spend half their year living in cities like Berlin to be connected to the European scene, so, too, should Norwegians consider – as Håkon Kornstad did, for a time, spending half his time in Oslo, half his time in New York City, and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who now lives in Texas – spending some of their time living elsewhere, whether to study explicitly, or to simply assimilate the culture of wherever they are through osmosis.

From an outsider’s perspective, the Norwegian scene continues to grow and appears to be healthy. Exposure to other cultures will only help it to evolve further, and become part of what has, in the past two decades since the advent of the internet, become true globalization, where artists from many different countries can engage in collective music-making. The results may not always be successful, but the experience is always valuable; sometimes the journey is more valuable than the destination, after all. And while it’s perfectly natural to look at Norway’s good fortune with envy, it’s also important to remember that, as mentioned earlier in this piece, Norway’s oil money is not the reason that its leaders choose to devote that one percent to the arts; it simply acts as facilitator, albeit on a very large scale. Before you have money you must have visionary leaders prepared to commit to something without a bottom line impact, and to do so for the long haul because they believe it will enrich the lives of their constituents, just as Cultiva did in Kristiansand. Rather than looking upon this situation as something to merely envy, it should be seen as something to which to aspire by other countries, even if they don’t have access to the same sized pot of gold.

Culture needs to stop being a dirty word, and the only way to make that happen is through gradual exposure, beginning at an early age and including education. If anything, Norway should be viewed as an example of how a long-term commitment to culture has not only yielded great fruit in the sheer numbers of exceptional musicians that have emerged over the past forty years, but in the life of the average Norwegian, who clearly supports these musicians through purchasing recordings and supporting live performances. If a city the size of Oslo can support its large number of live venues – a few examples ranging from the tiny but wonderfully funky MONO and 300-seater jazz club, Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, to the larger Rockefeller and, of course, Oslo Operahuset – is there any reason why a city, for example, the size of Ottawa, Canada cannot? The answer is complex, but in a nutshell: no, there is absolutely no reason. But in order to do so, the city would have to examine what drives the inhabitants of a city like Oslo to go out and support live music and theatre, art exhibitions and other cultural events.

It may not be perfect, but it’s an exceptionally compelling model. Coming from Ottawa, Canada, a city twice the size of Oslo whose one and only jazz club went belly up in 2012, it seems that the idea of looking to Norway as a model of how arts should be funded and presented, and how arts can be made once again popular – even if there’s less money per capita to go around – is an admirable objective, and one that should be pursued sooner rather than later. Norway has proven the value of making the broadest range of culture a part of its nation’s overall social tapestry – and that is, in many ways, a far more important raison d’être for arts funding than its direct impact on the artists it supports.


John Kelman