There's plenty of brass up north
The Up North! festival of Nordic and Irish music, invites an exploration of just how well new music is funded in Nordic countries.
By Michael Dervan
It's the smaller European nations which, as a rule, work hardest at promoting their music. Plausible explanations for this situation are not exactly hard to find. All things being equal, countries with large populations are more likely to find themselves producing major figures in composition and performance. I'm not suggesting for a moment that it's purely a matter of statistics. But the perceptions engendered by statistics do come into it. Smaller countries seem to sense an imbalance worth redressing. There's no shortage of international success by Irish performers in the field of popular music, yet the resourcing of publicly funded promotional effort in this area is far higher up the agenda here than it is in Britain.
The Nordic countries have long been among the leaders when it comes to the promotion of contemporary music. A "Great Nordic Music Festival" was held as long ago as 1888, running every four years until it was interrupted by the second World War.
And a biennial Nordic Music Days festival was set up in 1948. The running of this festival is shared by the composers' unions of the five participating countries; Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. They take it in turn to manage and fund-raise for the event, which means that each country has a 10-year preparation period. This year's festival had the Norwegians at the helm, and they decided to take the music away from home territory for the first time, and mount a nine-day event in Berlin under the title Magma.
Nordic music and Nordic co-operation are coming to Dublin this week, in the form of the Up North! festival, run by the Crash Ensemble with funding from the Arts Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers. As an exchange project, it's a dream of an event. 14 of the 50-plus works heard over four days will be receiving world premières (Irish performers looking after most of the Nordic composers, and Nordic performers doing the honours for the Irish), and over half of the pieces to be played were written since the turn of the century. There's no telling what such a mélange will actually be like, but it certainly presses all the right buttons to make funders glow with pride at the innovative nature of the international co-operation they're supporting.
I visited all five Nordic capitals this year, with a view to finding out something about what drives the world of contemporary music in these diverse yet related countries which have so much in common with Ireland, from small, dispersed populations and location on the periphery of Europe to histories of occupation by more powerful neighbours, this latter admittedly a fluctuating internecine matter in the case of these particular countries.
My first port of call was Sweden, where the Society of Swedish Composers was founded in 1918, and STIM, the national copyright collecting society, just five years later. The composers behind these two ventures knew what they were doing, and made no bones about having their interests looked after by both bodies. STIM retains a significant proportion of the royalties it collects in Sweden for the purpose of promoting Swedish music. €2.79 million was re-distributed in this way in 2001, with €1.7 million going to the Swedish Music Information Centre (MIC), which also received public funding of €410,000.
STIM also gives grants to the Society of Swedish Composers and the Swedish Association of Music Publishers, and runs a scholarship scheme. The Swedish MIC acts as a publisher, supplies parts for performances, has its own record label and is active in promoting the cause of Swedish music around the world.
The attractions of this model of support are obvious. The Swedish MIC effectively feels itself to be independent of public funding and all the climate changes that can bring. It's actually working directly for the people who fund it - it promotes commercial songwriters as well as classical composers - and it's working in a musical environment, the like of which most Irish music-lovers haven't got around to imagining. Sweden has a publicly funded national concert agency, Rikskonserter, a bells-and-whistles Music Network, which promotes around 700 concerts a year, runs its own concert venue and record label, and even has the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble as an in-house group. Stockholm has two symphony orchestras and an opera company (there are others outside the capital as well as a network of regional music organisations) and, naturally, the country has an educational structure to supply the profession.
It looks like a rosy picture and in many if not most senses it is - I haven't yet mentioned the National Council for Cultural Affairs (Statens kulturråd) with its budget of over €110 million, or the Arts Grants Committee (Konstnärsnämnden), which disburses an annual €11 million to individual artists. This latter organisation offers one-, two-, five- and 10-year grants, as well as project grants across the arts, plus commissions, and wades through 7,000 applications in a single year. There are, I was told, around 300 composers active in Sweden.
The Swedes, of course, are more than a little jealous of the Finns. Finland is a smaller, less populous country, but thanks to a Theatre and Orchestra Act passed in 1993, the mobile phone hub of the world has no less than 30 orchestras, which have managed to generate over one million attendances in a single year. Most orchestras are run by municipalities, who typically look after 60 per cent of the costs, with the state contributing a further 25 per cent. With such an exceptionally large range of orchestral activity, orchestral performances and commissions seem to have become a readily attainable status symbol for Finnish composers - opera is the one that's hard to crack. There were 60 orchestral premières in Finland in 2000, admittedly an exceptional, millennial year (the usual number is around 40), and the millennium also brought premières of 14 new operas.
Finland has had exceptional success with its conductors. Esa-Pekka Salonen is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo succeeded Simon Rattle in Birmingham, Jukka-Pekka Saraste held simultaneous posts in Helsinki and Toronto, Osmo Vanska has just taken over the Minnesota Orchestra. Two of its composers - Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg - have established major international careers, and many of its singers and instrumentalists are also highly successful. According to Kai Amberla, executive director of the Finnish Music Information Centre, the change began in the 1960s, when a nationwide network of music schools and academies was set up. "Create an educational system," he explained with a helpful smile, "and wait for the results".
Finland's Music Information Centre works on a similar basis to Sweden's, but is not quite so well endowed. This led the Finns to a decision to abandon the approach which saw composers treated even-handedly. Instead those figures deemed most likely to succeed were selected for special attention. The subsequent success of Saariaho and Lindberg may have ruffled the feathers of others, but the across-the-board benefits to Finnish composers in general as a result of the increased profile of Finnish music is not seriously contested.
The Danes passed a Music Act in 1976, which resulted, I was told, in eight symphony orchestras and the formation of a permanent chamber ensemble, the Esbjerg Ensemble. For composers, a peak was reached when premières averaged out at one a day. Performance royalties are extremely high in Denmark (the jackpot would be something like a new orchestral work being premièred on a live European Broadcasting Union relay), and remain so in spite of a recent cut. Cuts are in the air in Denmark, with the right-wing government elected a year ago cutting cultural funding by 15 per cent. By Irish standards there's plenty of flesh on cultural bodies in Denmark, and many of the people who run those bodies seem as wily as politicians in dealing with their current dilemma. The government is restructuring its specialised state cultural councils for music, theatre and the other arts into a single arts council.
The resilience and resourcefulness I encountered in individuals coping with change in a cutback-driven Norway has in Arne Nordheim a musical figurehead currently unmatched in any other Nordic country. Nordheim's music stoked national controversy in the 1960s - it was branded ugly - and he also had a profile as a music critic for many years. Now, he's known as the man who has been granted free, lifelong residence in the artist's house beside the royal palace in the centre of Oslo. He seems to be as recognisable a figure in Norway as Grieg. Small wonder, then, that the country's major national music organisations have taken over an office building in downtown Oslo. Incredible as it may seem, the loudest moan I heard in Oslo was about press coverage, and the lack of music criticism.
Iceland, with an area 50 per cent greater than the Republic of Ireland, has a population less than that of Cork - the county, minus the city. Yet it has a symphony orchestra, an opera company (busier than Opera Ireland, and with singers on contract), and can boast over 40 active composers.
The going is tough for anyone wanting to make a living solely from composing, even for Áskell Másson, the best-known of Icelandic composers, who's even made it into the repertoire of Evelyn Glennie. The pot is small, and there are many to be fed from it.
The deeper you manage to go into things, the more clear it becomes, whatever Nordic country you're in, that contemporary music is primarily seen as a national issue. Yes. Of course the long tradition of Nordic co-operation and exchange means that works do circulate. But, while enthusiasm for local endeavour is high, curiosity about what happens in the rest of the world seems to be on the low side. Festivals are the main forum for foreign infiltration, and I encountered many expressions of regret that the focus of orchestral managements and concert promoters is otherwise inclined to be narrow.
Another common thread was the limited place accorded to new music in the training of professional musicians. All the Nordic countries have dedicated players who specialize in new music. But it seems to take an exceptional personal enthusiasm for contemporary music, or a lucky break in finding the right teacher, to get properly started in an area that it's easy for music students to glide blithely past.
Of course, those performers who are interested have opportunities that would be denied them in Ireland. Performers are granted the same sort of long-term career support as composers. Nordic cultural politics recognises the obvious, that composers need performers to reach their audiences, and to support one but not the other is absurd.
And, much as we like to pat ourselves on the back about Aosdána and the Cnuas, support for composers seems altogether more thorough in Nordic cultural life, especially as reflected in the power and resources of the composers' unions. Nordic music lovers, I suspect, will find it inexplicable, if not unimaginable, that Arts Council support for the Association of Irish Composers amounted to €14,000 in 2002.
Money and power for composers, of course, are no guarantee of great or even good music. How the art itself is faring in northerly climes is something that only an event like Up North! can begin to reveal.
Up North! is a festival collaboration of Irish and Nordic composers and performers. In addition to 51 performances, which include 13 world premières, there will be lectures, discussions, open rehearsals and workshops with featured composers and performers. Events will take place at Dublin city centre venues from Thursday, December 5th to Sunday, December 8th.
For further information please visit www.crashensemble.com/upnorth
Michael Dervan - critic at The Irish Times"