On this year's programme

About some threads in this year's programme

Ultima is a series of performances, talks and happenings which show off a hugely varied range of contemporary sound and music. That doesn’t mean the programme is chosen at random. Spiralling through the festival’s ten days are several clear threads, like musical leitmotifs or subplots in a novel, which return in different forms, occasionally interconnecting or getting tangled up in one another.

This article provides some brief clues to help follow those threads. Plus, between now and the festival launch in September we’ll be uploading more features to help you pick out the undercurrents flowing through the line-up.

Conflict is an issue affecting the whole planet at the moment. The disruptive nature of war and the terrible fallout in the shape of refugees, destruction and shifts of power, are having profound consequences for the world we live in. For centuries, music has been connected with warfare and the military tradition. The beat of the drum and the blast of the horn were once used to scare the enemy before battle. Now, Norway’s military bands have a more peaceful purpose, but we’ll see how they can reinvent their old traditions for the new age. The music of the 20th  and 21st centuries has been, and is being composed during some of the most destructive periods of war the earth has ever witnessed. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962) celebrated the rebirth of the bombed Europe while lamenting the futility and the death toll in any of the world’s wars. 

Since the birth of modernism in the early 20th century, music has been at war with itself. Rival factions in composition have fought for the supremacy of their individual systems, and different technologies have tried to establish themselves as the dominant powers. The rigorous Viennese/Germanic 12 tone system came up against the aleatoric, chance operations of John Cage, Morton Feldman and the New York School. American minimalism struggled with its own internal tensions and rivalries. Women have fought a long campaign to be recognised as serious composers and performers under their own terms, in a sonic language free of male-dominated traditions. Music has even gone on scouting missions to find new ‘theatres of war’ outside the concert hall: in art galleries, outdoor locations, public space, and in the virtual arena. Above all the assault has been against historical tradition: an inner conflict involving both respect and disrespect for what has gone before.

No one knew this struggle better than Ludwig van Beethoven. In the history of music he is the first major example of a composer who reached a position where he no longer needed to rely on aristocratic or private patronage, and left himself free to pursue his own singular path. Paradoxically one of his guiding ideals was the notion of universal brotherhood, expressed in the Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller, and Beethoven nurtured a lifelong ambition to set this poem to music. He realised this dream in the Symphony No. 9, an internationally recognised work that has been adopted by many political and humanitarian institutions, including the national anthem of the European Union. The inclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth in this year’s Ultima programme is an opportunity to re-examine the maestro via contemporary perspectives, and serves as a reminder that Beethoven too was once a radical contemporary composer, and that many of his preoccupations with the status of the artist, the individual, the revolutionary and society remain at the forefront for today’s artists too.

Works in Ultima 2016 by Trond Reinholdtsen, Stefan Prins, Manos Tsangaris, Maja S. K. Ratkje, Jenny Hval, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Rolf Wallin all address the relationship of the individual to mass society and/or the position of art in relation to society and public space.

Ultima 2016 also dovetails with a parallel ‘straight’ Beethoven festival in which the Oslo Philharmonic will be performing the complete symphonic cycle. Their finale of Symphony 9 is also being treated as an Ultima concert and will be followed by an evening of ‘remixes’ and reimagining’s of the work by younger musicians.

Part of the reason for contemporary music’s resurgent popular success in the past two decades must be attributed to the popularity of the form known as minimalism. With their repetitive motifs, hypnotic rhythms, their apparent simplicity, and connections with the base material of musical composition, the works of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, La Monte Young and others have taken on the status of modern masterpieces, as well as being sampled and praised by a wide range of musicians in other genres. Ultima 2016 is presenting some of the key composers of minimalism including La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Tony Conrad and Morton Feldman - all musicians who fought off musical tradition and established individual styles on their own terms. 

By Rob Young

For a more in depth look at the minimalism at this year’s festival, see our feature here.