© Willa Wathne

All Tomorrow's Music

One of Europe’s oldest contemporary music festivals comes to Aarhus. We profile Ung Nordisk Musik, which is as ageless as Madonna and contains Icelandic vulgarities from 1612.
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    Edition S
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    Kunstkritikk

UNM (Ung Nordisk Musik) festival can now, at 75 years old, count itself as one of the oldest festivals of contemporary music in Europe. For comparison: Donaueschingen (Germany) turns 100 this year, Darmstadt (Germany) is also 75, Warsaw Autumn (Poland) is 65, Huddersfield (UK) is 43, and Ultima (Norway) has just reached 30. An interesting paradox for a festival that, by definition, is focused on youth. I have attended and reviewed the festival several times, and 2021 will be my last year, as I have finally aged out of consideration.

Each year I am struck by similar questions: What does UNM represent for young composers? How does this multi-committee, multinational structure manage to create a coherent festival? Is there any point in trying to divine the future from what happens at UNM, or is it just a random assortment of pieces haphazardly glued together?

In my view, UNM, like the popstar Madonna, has stuck around so long because of it’s ever-shifting, malleable nature that lends itself to reinvention and rejuvenation

This year’s 75th anniversary edition, with the theme »(un)common ground« will take place in Aarhus between the 9th and the 15th of August. I sat down with two of this year’s committee, and the creators of three of this year’s pieces, in another attempt to get some answers. 

A recipe for disaster?
UNM has a unique, decentralised, constantly shifting structure: Every year, each of the five Nordic countries select seven pieces by young composers (‘young’ being defined as any composer under the age of 30, or in full-time education). Each country has their own method of selecting these pieces. The festival also rotates around the Nordic countries, so there is a different board managing events every year. On top of this, board members are constantly dropping in and out – work is voluntary, and the vast majority is undertaken by young musicians. There are myriads of different approaches to juggle, and all large-scale changes must be approved at a board meeting of all the committees, which takes place thrice a year. 

So: No artistic director, no daily leader, no independent board, and no central organization beyond the bi-annual meeting. It should be a recipe for disaster, but 75 years speaks for itself. In my view, UNM, like the popstar Madonna, has stuck around so long because of it’s ever-shifting, malleable nature that lends itself to reinvention and rejuvenation. I spoke about this with Mikkel Schou and Dylan Richards, chair and vice-chair of this year’s committee – and tried to find out how they approached the task of creating a coherent whole out of so many disconnected parts.

It was a concern for them right from the start. »One thing that we did was to announce the theme for the festival before the open call, and then encourage people to submit pieces that might relate to the theme of (un)common ground… it’s particular in how we thought about the format of the events,« says Richards.

»And then the fact that we curated events around the open call,« adds Schou. »We wanted to work with how we can make this each piece even more relevant for the people coming, and for the general audience. UNM is normally concerned with just putting on [the 35] pieces from the call. Whether or not this change will stick around after this year’s festival, no one can tell, but it’s an interesting change.«

Go really big
The approach this year, then, has been to think bigger than merely putting on the works of the open call, while at the same time honoring the works chosen. »We only confirmed one ensemble before receiving the results of the call,« says Richards, so it wasn’t about partnership with this group or this space – everything has been based on the works.«

On the occasion of the 75 year anniversary this year's UNM Festival also contains an exhibition of works by among others Frederik Heidemann (DK) and Ilmari Karhu & Tatu Nenonen (FI). Screenshot
On the occasion of the 75 year anniversary this year's UNM Festival also contains a retrospectiv exhibition with works by a.o. Frederik Heidemann (DK) and Ilmari Karhu & Tatu Nenonen (FI). © Screenshot

Throughout my talk with Schou and Richards, I am struck by the open, confident, and fluent way they have of talking about administrative and funding structures. »We’ve had a really good funding situation, so we’ve been able to go really big,« says Schou at one point. But this is not a boast or a brag – there is a palpable and infectious sense of excitement at the huge opportunities up for grabs, and what’s at stake in this anniversary edition. As Schou says: »This gives us a lot of freedom.« This freedom has been taken full advantage of – this year’s festival is loaded with panel debates, installations, lectures, club nights, and outreach workshops. 

Narrowing focus from larger organization to individual artists, I decided to highlight three of the upcoming works at this year’s UNM: two from the very youngest composers of this year’s crop, and one that exemplifies a trend that has been steadily growing over the last few editions.

Performance enhances the feeling: Rob Durnin

I started with the 23 year old, British-born, Denmark-based composer Rob Durnin, whose work 25 chords a 3 second pause and then 10 chords will be performed on the 11th August as part of a concert at ARoS art museum. The concert is an example of the board’s experimental approach to concert production – five pieces in five different locations, each performed five times, with audience members encouraged to choose their own route, thus creating their own unique concert experience.

The instrumentation – drum, saxophone, voice, and electric bass – is a nod towards a classic jazz band line up; but Durnin’s intentions lie in the opposite direction: »I was going for an anti-performance, unamplified, extremely quiet, private and inaccessible feeling. It’s tapping into a feeling of loneliness and detachment.«

But there is another level to the piece beyond the music itself. Durnin (as befitting a frequent collaborator of Schou and a member of his K!ART ensemble – who will be performing the piece), has a keen eye on the visual and performative elements of his work. 

»The music [i.e. the chords of the title] came first, but then I thought about how do I present this in a way that people will want to hear it.« Although this may appear to stand in opposition to a ‘private and inaccessible feeling’, it actually works as an intensifier. »The performance is a way to enhance the feeling. Choosing this jazzy instrumentation – maybe you’ll expect something else going on – this whole melancholy, nostalgic, blues atmosphere.«

Durnin, then, is a composer with a focused and clear vision of what he wants to achieve. But this is not to say he limits himself. »Every time I do a project, I have to learn a new skill.« In recent years, these skills have been staging, animation, video production, or script writing.  »I’ve gone into an interdisciplinary direction… I take in a bit of everything I’m seeing.« UNM and Durnin could be made for each other – a young composer eager to expand himself, thrown into a situation designed to have many different artforms and ideas cross-pollinating.

As for the future – Durnin’s approach of broadening, expanding, and questioning what it is a composer actually does is representative of what has been happening at UNM in recent years, as more and more composers move away from traditional genres and instrumentations, and look towards a kind of ‘structural play’ – winking at or even dismantling traditional hierarchies.

Islandic vulgarisms from 1612: Hjalti Nordal

Durnin, like myself, is an immigrant to Denmark, and part of me suspects (admittedly, based on my own experiences) that this way of looking beyond traditional structures might relate to the immigrant experience: the sensation of looking in at something from the outside, and trying to navigate your own way through it. It was interesting, then, to talk to a young composer who, by birth, has found himself situated within ‘the tradition’. 22 year old Icelandic composer Hjalti Nordal is the grandson of the well-known composer Jón Nordal, and has just graduated from the Icelandic Academy of Arts. His work, Umbot, for choir, tape, prepared piano, percussion, and cello, grew directly out of this connection.

»I was approached by Reykjavik Cathedral Choir: They wanted to do a concert with a work by my grandfather, a piece by me, and a piece by my nephew (who will also be at UNM).« 

»He wrote the foulest poem in the Icelandic language – lots of swear words from the 1600s«

The sound-world of Hjalti’s music, however, is a long way from the postmodernism of his grandfather’s. »I’m looking forward – I’m not trying to keep much of a tradition. I try to distance myself from traditional theory…using noises as a source of material.«

Nordal Jr., especially in Umbot, is concerned with roughness, shouting, noise, foulness, and vulgarity. Umbot uses a text from 1612 by Icelandic poet and sorcerer Jón lærði Guðmundsson (‘John the Learnéd’), who traveled the country exorcising demons. »He wrote the foulest poem in the Icelandic language – lots of swear words from the 1600s.« Nordal’s music leans into this coarseness. »The choir is just shouting, to try and get the energy of what Jón lærði was doing – shouting at a demon. Everything surrounding it is just noise.«

Nordal does have plans to move abroad to complete his studies, but these have been put on hold due to the pandemic. For now, he is remaining in Reykjavik, and studying fine art. We discuss this in relation to Umbot, and how visually strong the score is.


 

»I wasn’t trying to make it pretty – but it does have an aesthetic.«

Nordal speaks about his music with a quiet confidence beyond his years, in terms of both vision and skill. I get the sense of a composer who knows where his music is coming from but also knows the direction in which he would like to grow as an artist.

Not afraid to fail (together): Creative Catastrophe Collective
Another of the Icelandic pieces this year represents a completely different approach towards composition – a collective approach. There are multiple collectives on the programme this year, markedly more than I have seen in previous years. I spoke with the Creative Catastrophe Collective, made up of composer Sól Ey, visual artist Soyun Park, and percussionists Antoine Josselin and José Silva. The collective met while studying in the Hague, and their piece Perspectives grew out of their collaborations.

»The process started with some collective brainstorms, tryouts and experimentation,« explains Sól Ey. »What defines our group is coming together in a space, trying things out, and experimenting… It’s about spending time together, not necessarily with a goal or purpose, and not being afraid to try out and fail.«

»Every one of us has different disciplines in their practice,« adds Park. »It’s also about how to combine that or how to grow with it. We have completely different backgrounds, but we all have an understanding of how a stage works, or how sound works – so how are we going to add values? How do I as a visual artist understand the piece, and how do I perform an immersive environment?«

But it’s not a case of ‘more is more’, piling layers on top of each other. There is a constant dialogue about what is needed and what is not needed. Park continues: »I see them playing and they tell me ‘this is about this’. Then I think what makes sense to add, because sometimes it’s not necessary. I jump in only in the necessary part. But sometimes it’s the other way around – I’ll suggest something, and they’ll react and compose something.« There is a strong sense of reciprocity in the working process – this is not visuals for music (or vice versa). It is the creation of and working towards a common and yet constantly evolving artistic goal. 

Sól Ey adds »[Perspectives] has to be immersive: It’s about creating spatial dynamics between the audience, so the question of how to create an immersive environment is inescapable.« The collective have managed to find a way to combine their skill sets so that they can broaden their focus beyond merely what happens in the piece – they discuss social spaces and architectural aspects as key elements of the piece.

The collective approach – at least, for this collective – has required a rethink of roles: In Perspectives composer, performer, and visual artist all taking on each other’s jobs. Most refreshingly, this collective approach represents another step towards dismantling the spectre of the troubled, isolated, almost invariably male, almost invariably white composer-genius that still looms over even (perhaps especially) contemporary music. But when I put it to the collective that their work might be a reaction to a lack of opportunities, or of being shut out of a system, I am surprised by the answer:

»I don’t know if we’re necessarily making a new space, it’s just a more fun way to work, honestly!«, says Sól Ey. The response is symptomatic of the mood in the group – these are four people who enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy making music together. If they can translate this joy into their performances (and I strongly suspect they can), then a future of music filled with ‘possibilities-of’ opens up – so much more enjoyable than a future of ‘reactions-against’.


Young music in the future

What about the future of UNM, then? In practical terms, the festival will go over some changes in the next few editions. The Baltic countries are up for consideration for inclusion, there will be more emphasis on works created during the festival rather than pre-existing pieces, there will be more work with outreach and educational workshops. But I would argue that UNM as an entity does not exist – and in practical terms, this is demonstrably true. 

Far more interesting is the future of the individual parts of UNM – the links formed by composers, musicians, artists, and administrators formed at this year’s festival will go on to have huge repercussions in the future, as has already been proven again and again. Mikkel Schou and Dylan Richards are already working on a new project together –  MINU_festival_for_expanded_music, in Copenhagen from November 16th-30th. A quick browse of the programme shows that Schou and Richards have taken their ambitious approach from UNM and are applying it moving forwards. 

But UNM is more than an industry networking event. It is a celebration of what the music of tomorrow could look like. In Schou’s words, it is »music for young people, by young people.« The huge breadth of styles, genres, approaches, formats, and events at this year’s festival point towards two things – that the future is uncertain, and that the future is exciting.