Borealis – Review from The Wire, by Andy Hamilton

Various venues, Bergen, Norway

The theme of this year’s Borealis festival was Alchemy, and alchemical transmutation took various forms through a brilliantly conceived and executed programme. The cost of the Splitter ensemble and staging for François Sarhan’s new work The Last Lighthouse Keepers meant that there were fewer events. But it continued to attract a strikingly young audience.

The programme opened with Free Exercise by Marina Rosenfeld, written for Bergen’s Kunsthall, with a Norwegian naval band plus Karin Hellqvist (violin) and Heloisa Amaral (piano). The players’ motivic rhythmic exercises were meant to cross four exhibition rooms, but an errant conductor went off script, segregating musicians and disrupting the performance’s unity. No such problems elsewhere. Pianist Ian Pace performed Alistair Zaldua’s Spogyria, its title a compound of alchemical concepts. The composer translated alchemical texts into notated music – binding musical material, piano action and resonance. The piece set Pace’s virtuosity against holding patters of resonance, in a stuttering, distended, gargantuan performance.

Laimonas Puisy’s surrealist film, inspired by Soviet director Lev Kuleshov, juxtaposed footage from Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin and Man With a Movie Camera, with live music from Ensemble Avgarde that moved from ambient to vaudeville. There was more surrealism the following evening at the United Sardine Factories, with François Sarhan’s The Last Lighthouse Keeper for pianist, percussionist, Foley artist and actor. The audience sat on the floor, in the centre, while the beam of an imaginary lighthouse switched on and off. Voices doubled instruments and a cartoonish stage design was mobilised and finally destroyed.

Liv Kristin Holmberg’s Les Ténèbres – “ritualistic music theatre for a church space” – ran through the festival: each performance of this music based on Messiaen’s last organ piece Livre Du Saint Sacrament and Heidegger’s philosophy was for an audience of one. Having booked my slot, I knocked on the Korskirken west door, was blindfolded and led into the church. It was curiously relaxing being made to lie down and wrap up in what felt like a rug, as the strange ceremony came to its climax.

The festival’s high point, for me, was Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals, the Italian composer’s final work, written in 2003. Romitelli studied spectral techniques at IRCAM in Paris, which he brought together with a passion for psychedelic rock. Index is scored for soprano and 11 amplified instruments. It’s anchored in a reiterated chord from Pink Floyd, heard in a playback, overlaid with vinyl appliqué and glitches. This visceral piece treats sounds as physical objects – glissando is the dominant kind of movement – with a video of Roschach ink tests and op art. The BIT20 chamber ensemble’s performance was totally un-chamberlike, with bass guitar a key element.

Close to Index was Constructing Jungle Books by Øyvind Torvund. The 24 member Splitter Orchestra were dispersed round Bergen Kjøtt, a former meat-processing plant. The Berlin based ensemble featured Axel Dörner on trumpet and Burkhard Beins on percussion, and their instrumental vocalisings fitted seamlessly with bird and animal recordings. Finally a mention for an extended version by Felix Kubin of his Paralektronoia from 2004, a cross between a lecture performance and a live radio piece, which worked tightly with the Borealis theme.