Deep Listening: Only Connect Oslo In Review

John Doran and Peter Meanwell report back from Oslo's Only Connect Festival Of Sound. All photographs Henrik Beck

John Doran

The perception of “depth” is a matter for individual interpretation.

Oslo’s Only Connect rapidly became one of my favourite festivals in 2014 after it hosted an invigorating line up of artists, expertly selected to interpret the writing (and subsequent film adaptations) of J. G. Ballard. It is gratifying, on returning this year to see that having the seemingly much looser theme of "The Deep", has not diminished its returns in any way. In fact when my eyes first rest on the octobass, initial impressions suggest if anything, this celebration of the intersection between music, art and literature has grown in scale and adventurousness.

The outlandish instrument stands on the altar of Majorstuen Kirke – exactly like a double bass in its proportions but from tail spike to hand-carved wooden scroll, standing a good four metres tall. It towers over the church’s pulpit and all of tonight’s congregation; its uncanny and savagely unusual scale makes you feel as if you’ve been transported into a painting by Max Ernst or Giorgio De Chirico. There are only seven of these leviathans in existence and this one manages to come across as both brilliant and ridiculous before a single note has been plucked or bowed. The sound wave it emits when the bass string is played open is 20 metres long (someone in pew M is going to get an internal pummelling tonight) and it comes as no surprise to find out that Wagner was a fan of this outsized low end provider.

The octobass is an important symbol for the festival. As much as it might suit some to talk or think of leftfield music in academic or overly serious terms, when you’re looking at an instrument the size of a great white shark stood on its tail in a church, you have to approach the subject at hand primarily with a sense of wonder, if not a sense of fun. The composer and rock musician Guro Skumsnes Moe (along with partner in crime Ole-Henrik Moe – no relation) leads a specially assembled ensemble The Touchables through a piece specifically written around the huge string instrument.

She has to stand on a stool to operate the bow and even then a special keypad on the back of the instrument is necessary to hold down the strings on the neck mechanically. Should the extremely unlikely and unhappy eventuality ever arise, Guro could be buried inside the body of the beastly instrument four times over.

As she starts manipulating the lowest string, the rattling, rasping note produced sounds like the precursor of an earthquake as the rest of the group build sound round her into a drone. The octobass’s rumbling tones skirt right at the edges of what I am able to perceive as a musical tone. A rolling crescendo and diminuendo of timpani underlies just how exciting this is. The highlight showpiece section of the ‘Svart/Hvitt’ composition is a slow sustained build from the lowest note the octobass can produce, passing across the brass and string instruments played by The Touchables, pitching up and up until we end up with the highest note the piccolo can produce, again skirting around the edges of what I can perceive as actual music.

Earlier in the same church we are treated to a stunning walk through of ‘Joik’ musical practices by Sami musician Torgeir Vassvik, from Finnmark, the northernmost tip of Norway. He rattles a lengthy gut string containing scores of reindeer shin bones, he whirls a hollow tube over his head producing a high pitched, reverberant tone and produces a dizzying array of effects from a hand drum. We are clearly being invited to consider different ideas of spiritual depth while listening to his throat singing – which is similar in execution to the Tuvan/Siberian method – featuring high and low end notes independent of one another produced by one singer utilising circular breathing patterns. This amazing set is over far too quickly. I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to see Torgeir perform again. I really hope so.

Another revelation is the trumpet player Hilde Marie Holsen who improvises with brass and digital processing, via Abelton Live. And literally all of the multitude of sounds she creates tonight come from the one brass instrument. She explicitly reminds us of this when she holds the trumpet away from her mouth into a microphone and starts tapping her valves open and shut violently, creating a clicking sound which she loops and processes into a falling scree which tumbles into a landslide of noise.

John Doran

While talking about Miami Bass, writer Dave Tompkins makes the kind of dizzying cognitive leaps that one would normally ascribe to an LSD powered guru or insane interglalactic despot from a sci-fi novel… were he not so down to Earth and agreeable. Despite having been up all night with jet lag and claiming to be barely awake he stuns the audience with his alternative (or parallel perhaps) history of bass – the story of sustained decay.

For him, the story of booty bass goes way further back than the development of the Roland TR 808; in fact it goes all the way back to the formation of coral reefs and takes in Nazi submarines, J.G.Ballard (yeah, that guy again), Florida housing projects, speed skating rinks and nuclear missile guidance systems. If this talk is anything to go by, his book, when it finally arrives next year, is going to be damn near essential reading.

The collaborative work by Susanna and Jenny Hval, Meshes Of Voice, was one of tQ’s albums of the year in 2014, so it’s a pleasure to see both artists separately contributing to this year’s Only Connect. Susanna Wallumrod explores much stranger realms tonight with a commissioned work Mass For The Witch Woman to be performed by the new vocal ensemble Oslo 14. But in order to experience this, first you must descend into their world… slowly as to not get the bends.

Oslo 14 total an actual 19 members – all female singers bar one token bloke – and line consecutive steps down from street level into the basement venue of Fabrikken – both to your right and to your left. They use a multitude of vocal effects as you pass between them ranging from Ligetti drones, pitching up and down in microtonal increments to what sounds like the jabbering of crazed congregants in a backwater evangelical church speaking in tongues. One singer changes the style, which then spreads across the ensemble in ripples. As uncomfortable as it is for your not very intrepid reporter to pass down the stairs, it suddenly becomes much more enjoyable to watch the varying reactions from everyone else filtering into the venue – ranging from mortification to unabashed delight. And this isn’t even the actual main show; it’s merely a palate cleanser.

In the belly of the venue Oslo 14 break apart like an operatic power ranger and then reassemble on stage in a straight line facing the audience. The actual Mass is simple but stunningly effective. Each singer has been assigned the same note with the only differences between them being in terms of attack, sustain, delay and, in a couple of cases, octave. From these simple rules, they perform something that is part way between Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson and is utterly ear-boggling. And then, ten minutes into the performance the singers flip into making audible exhalations of breath, each, again, with an assigned style – whether that be sexual arousal, shock, horror, yawning or gasping etc. This builds to a nerve jangling staccato conclusion of massed vocal stabs that gather the dread weight of Bernard Herrmann’s vicious Psycho shower scene scoring. Susanna is the bomb… or in the context of the festival, perhaps I should say, she is the depth charge.

(On the final day of the festival at Black Box Teater, Jenny Hval delivers a piece based on her new album Apocalypse Girl. Given that her music is ‘unperformable’ live, she teams up with the American video artist Zia Anger and some contemporary dancers to produce a – genuinely – surreal, torrid and unsettling hour of audio visual deterritorialisation, which resembles a dreamlike mix of the dance sequences from Inland Empire and a stripped down Knife live show mixed with a polemic against Both Hval and Susanna are clearly at the top of their game at the moment and are both personal highlights of the festival.)

Susan Stenger’s new piece Deep Songs combines fiddle, bass and alto flute, not to mention field recordings of volcanic activity and the shifting field of tones makes an appropriate soundtrack to the shifting visual field – a film of various natural textures (ice, water, igneous rock, mineral etc) made by Siobhan McDonald. And again we’re being lowered stage by stage even further down towards the abyssal oceanic depths.

Taking a very literal approach to immersing his audience in his work is the magisterial Chris Watson, who unleashes the very appropriate North Atlantic Drift (Boreal Mix). Introducing the piece he begins by praising Susan Stenger and observing that he believes that the spirit and nature of a place can be divined from the sound and music it produces. He reveals that his piece was the result of an intense period of recording nature in the Bergen region and the piece is edited into a literal trip from the highest mountain peak, down, via glaciers to the shore’s edge and then deep under water to where he heard “the most beautiful sound I’ve ever recorded – bearded seals singing in the dark under the ice”. Given the number of locations, the lengths of time and the various conditions involved – it should be pointed out that not only is Watson a recorder of uncommon skill but also a fiendishly good editor.

One of the more surreal events of the weekend happens when a pair of absolutely clattered men, the height and width of lumberjacks (they completely outbulk and overshadow your not entirely willow-like correspondent) stumble into the room in order to have a really loud aggressive conversation. A big shout out to my colleague Peter Meanwell who delivers a ‘Shh!’ so imperiously that they immediately shut up… despite clearly being pro-actively on the prowl for a ruck. So eventually we are left alone to revel in the bearded seal song but with just the merest hint of an uneasy conundrum hanging in the air – who goes to a field recording playback in an arts centre pissed out of their minds looking for a fight?

(We have the sheer luxury of having not just one sound recorder par excellence this weekend but two. Jana Winderen has brought a piece initially commissioned by New York Department Of Transportation to be played in the closed down Park Avenue Tunnel over to Oslo. 80 speakers were used to recreated the recordings made by the same number of long lead hydrophones, which were slowly lowered into the waters six minutes away from North Pole pack ice, picking up everything from shrimp to humpback whales. As ever though it is the recording of the ice itself which is truly sublime. The stresses and strains of such a large body of frozen water sounds like an unfathomably large orchestra of doors slamming open and shut conducted by György Ligeti. In a weird sort of way it feels like the mirror image of Chris Watson’s immersive 2010 installation recording for Kew Gardens, Whispering In The Leaves.)

After more wine, the two drunk man mountains are not quiet for long however. They start yelling at Canadian guitarist extraordinaire Eric Chenaux who drawls: “It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between cocaine abuse and Asperger’s syndrome these days.” Which is such a withering put down it causes the pair of massive drunk helmets to leave the venue for good. I’ve always been a fan of anyone who combines difficult and mainstream strands of music, and Chenaux really delivers on this front. I’d heard him compared to Derek Bailey or Bill Orcutt before but, to these ears at least, I can’t really hear the studiously difficult style of the former and the raging attack of the latter. Instead tonight he sounds more like Kevin Shields playing Martin Denny style exotica on a fiendish robotic guitar which insists on tuning and detuning itself at random in order to keep the player on its toes. He sings as clear as a struck bell over the top and the combined effect is enchanting.

Fennez also combines the difficult and mainstream. Look beyond the impressive amount of processing he uses on his guitar to create noisescapes and you’re presented with a guitarist who is more Ry Cooder than Sonny Sharrock, Thurston Moore or Keiji Haino however. The sound he produces is undoubtedly impressive live but, like with anything that relies heavily on digital FX, it’s quite ephemeral and when he starts struggling with his equipment, the bubble, for tonight at least, is burst.

Luckily we have a banging set of bass music courtesy of Dave Tompkins and Martin Bjornersen to see us off into the night. And when the pair drop Three Six Mafia, all drinks in the venue end up looking like the glass of water in that scene from Jurassic Park.

Peter Meanwell

I was thrown back to the school coach trips of my youth, before the Megabus ruined coach travel and it had an air of convivial municipal outings, memories of trundling along the A40 to Beckonscot Model Village being lectured on good behaviour by now forgotten class teachers, their voices crackling in and out on a poorly maintained coach public address system. Except the kindly teacher was David Toop, and we were on our way to a Speaker Factory.

So began Day Three of Only Connect.

A curatorial coup saw the daytime events located in one of Norway´s few factories, the SEAS speaker manufacturer, based in a small non-descript coastal town 40 miles south of Oslo called Moss. En route, over the coach PA, writer and improviser David Toop recalled visits to anechoic chambers, and meditated on the nature of listening. True to my childhood memories, the microphone crackled, and as he read Beckett or mused on his time in silent spaces the sound would cut in and out, his sober delivery flecked with only a hint of annoyance, the whole experience redolent of a Burroughs cut-up. Then when the microphone was switched off, a CD of Chinese classical guqing music cut in. Arriving in low-rise industrial Moss, we were already transported to a place more surreal than we had imagined.

The choice of the SEAS speaker factory was driven in part by its possession of a spacious anechoic chamber, but it doubled as a candy shop for a busload of listening fanatics. Amongst piles of high end drivers, speakers cones, and talk of diamond tweeters manufactured for “high worth individuals” alarmingly free reign was given to the audience as we wandered between alternating hi and low tech work benches. Such is our daily detachment from industry that to see the hand wrought tools, worn and greased, was as much a thrill as marvelling at the precision of high end speaker manufacture. This was a family affair, each work bench touchingly decorated with family photos, and one lady´s collection of comedy hats, one for each work day of the year.

Nestled amongst the cones and cables though was the art. At one end of the factory, in the spacious anechoic chamber, a room so stuffed with sound baffles that there are no sound reflections, and walls and a door metres thick so that no sound can enter, Norwegian composer and sound designer Trond Lossius was presenting a series of field recordings. Rather than the sculpted composed recordings of Jana Winderen and Chris Watson we´d heard earlier in the festival, these were purposely mundane. A dog and some children on a street in suburban Germany, for example, were to animate Lossius´ multi channel speaker system, carefully balanced on the wire mesh floor of the chamber, so that we would experience these mundane audio environments in a completely uncoloured way. Not hearing the reflections of the room or any external interference, but directional sound. The ghost in the machine was not on his side unfortunately and an 11th hour exploding sound card reduced the experience to a stereo feed; yet the notion of sound in space still endured. And bar the die-hard anechoic visitors, the experience of this odd claustrophobic acoustic chasm overcame any technological glitches.

Back on the factory floor, diminutive vocalist Stine Janvin Motland was meditatively pacing around a large wooden and perspex cube. The Subjective Frequency Transducer is the next chapter in her exploration of the sound our bodies make, following on from an excellent album of vocal excursions released on Lasse Marhaug´s Pica Disk label. Here, facing a Heath Robinson contraption that wouldn’t feel out of place on a lost episode of Tomorrow´s World, with no announcement she pushed a button on one of the cube´s four panels and it began to talk to her. Inviting her to place a body part against the transducer set in the cube´s side, and then by means of a tiny lever adjusting the frequency of the cube´s vibration to match that of her body. Not much but low rumbles could be heard, and then as soon as she had begun she was heaving the bulk of the cube onto another of its sides, its umbilical cord of audio cables trailing across the factory, the machine pushing deeper in to the assembled audience. Next a forehead, then a calf each body part being measured out in vibrational resonances – the process a captivating physical performance in itself. Stepping back from the machine as it instructed her to “now, listen to the sound of your body” the whole structure leapt into vibrating action.. the transducer playing back to us the measured out frequencies of corporeal Stine – her vibrational energy charted, and now prosthetically singing back to us, and to her. Growing louder, she began to duet with her own body sounds, her particular brand of mouth music, at times delicate, often explosive, a visceral counterpoint to the rumbles of the cube, climaxing with a moment of playful feedback between her microphone and the Subjective Frequency Transducer acting as speaker, creating a third plane of transformation – a regurgitation of the body´s essence.

Performance over, the machine switched from Norwegian to English, and we the audience were invited to measure our bodies. Now with my lower back lodged against the perspex it became clear how connected the sounds we heard were to the physicality of the performer. Ranging from a tickle to a massage chair, as I wound the tiny dial from 20Hz upwards the sweet spot at which my body and the cube were in tune was alarmingly clear. Whilst I knew deep down that this was an elaborate parlour game, here I felt the machine was speaking to the fleshy parts of my existence, and on some vibrational level we had become one, to paraphrase Karlheinz Stockhausen, it was playing a vibration in the rhythm of my body. Having completed all four sides, with my head thrust in to the centre of the cube, the rhythm of my body sounded pretty good.

Later at the Black Box, following Jenny Hval, we processed dutifully in to the bar of the theatre, a semi industrial space, where flanked by the towering speakers of Årabrot, David Toop and Camille Norment had laid out a smorgasbord of sound devices across a single long table – seated like rulers at a medieval banquet awaiting their guests. Fresh from her Venice Biennale triumph, Norment was building on a Cafe Oto residency with Toop from 2014, and together they set to weave a tale of the deep, evoking legends, stories and mysteries. Norment, a space-age sage with a microphone headset, over washes of Toop’s micro sounds would intone fragments from literature. Here a line from Moby Dick, its essence intact but subject to a repetitive pronoun-shifting process, rendering the recognisable poetic and abstract at the same time. Toop had martialled an army of vibrating motors in jars, bubbling water devices and ebowed guitars amongst others, building strata of sound, unconnected to the narrative of the texts, yet creating a sedimentary bedrock layers deep, underpinning Norment´s concatenation of words. With the addition of Norment´s played wine glasses, and resonant glass bodies, this evocation of the festival theme created an eery but effective sense of disquiet, like a drifting angler fish in the twilight at the bottom of the ocean.

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