interview

»There’s a lot to see and hear!«

With the cold winds still blowing in from the North Sea, the Norwegian festival for experimental music, Borealis, is about to kick off. We’ve asked artistic director Peter Meanwell what to expect this time around.
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6. Marts 2016
Interview with Peter Meanwell, artistic director of the Borealis Festival

Being presented without a specific theme the programme for Borealis 2016 offers a variety of events. As artistic director, what are your main goals curating this year's edition?

Borealis is primarily a place to explore new expressions of composition, improvisation, music, and sound—the general curatorial approach is to present artists and composers who are doing interesting things at this moment in time, and to disregard the idea of genre boundaries and types of festival. We all listen in a really broad way, and I think by presenting new composition alongside other expressions it brings it back into a broader cultural discourse.

For too long people who are considered composers have been stuck in a classical music box and separated from the rest of the music world. At the same time, the art-music world can look down on people doing interesting things with electronics or performance, so I want to dissolve these boundaries and make sure we have an open and robust dialogue about how music is evolving. We talk about Borealis as a place for »adventurous listeners«—it’s open for everyone who might want to stretch their ears a little!

»Space Is the Place«. Taking place in an old grain silo, the opening act promises some adventurous surroundings. Tell us about your choice of scenes, and how they shape the experience.

I really wanted to make sure the festival is under the skin of the city, and so this year we will present events in 13 different venues. Some of these are curated in a way that responds to the architecture of the space—in the grain silo we have commissioned new work for each of the spaces we use—and in others it is about engaging an audience in a different way.

... asking people to look at buildings not just as capital investments for future fancy hotels

I am trying to avoid the assumption that the physical environment of the performance is not relevant, and to think from the ground up how we present it; acoustically, but also physically. How people feel about their environment, whether they feel welcomed, whether it is clear what will happen—if the traditional concert architecture can be discarded, and the infrastructure become transparent, then the audience can really focus on the art.

It’s also a comment on the way space is used for culture in cities. Bergen, like many cities, has a lot of amazing buildings from across the eras, so it’s about affirming the role of culture in animating a city, taking over spaces and asking people to look at buildings not just as capital investments for future fancy hotels. Having so many venues creates its own logistical problems, but we have a very organised team at Borealis who can work across so many different spaces!

One world premiere that really stands out is »It's All True«, the secretive post-hardcore opera by Object Collection from Brooklyn, New York. But wait, there's more; the very same ensemble will also end the festival with a live-dub of a 1992 »piece of shit, neo-fascist« Steven Seagal movie! »This Time It's Political«, a subtitle might have read. What is the audience to expect from this American visit?

There is no doubt that their music has changed how we think about classical music, but they are also all on the verge of turning 80!

All too often when one reads about American new music, the big names—Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley—are still presented as the leading edge. There is no doubt that their music has changed how we think about classical music, but they are also all on the verge of turning 80! What we don’t hear enough about are the generations of younger composers and musicians for whom this is their heritage, who have grown up with this history of American experimentalism, through Cage and Cowell, Oliveros and Monk, Reich and Glass.

Object Collection are one facet of this younger American aesthetic. Informed by the radical theatre and opera of Richard Foreman and Robert Ashley they tackle head on the idea of what opera can be today. Their performances are visceral, theatrical, often noisy, and it destroys what many would consider as being an operatic aesthetic.

I think the idea of politics being hardwired into an artistic action is interesting—this is not music about politics necessarily, but political ideals are not far from its inception, and I think its position as a status quo disrupting act can be considered a political action. And it’s not only Object Collection coming across the pond. Composer-performer collective Ensemble Pamplemousse will be straddling the line between extrovert/introvert performance in a series of concerts, and the electric guitar quartet Dither are here too.

Now, focusing in on you... Being an Englishman in Bergen, how does one approach curating a Norwegian festival? Or is it simply wrong of me to assume—given the fact that curators travel from festival to festival all around Europe, all the time—that experimental festivals have a national, or even local, identity today?

Bergen is wildly different to London where I was before I came to Borealis, and I spent a lot of time when I first arrived trying to understand how the city works, how the infrastructure of culture is set up here, and which communities are engaged in cultural practice and consumption. It meant I went to a lot of concerts, openings, club nights, and performances, but what I hope it’s allowed me to do is curate in a way that is sympathetic to the audience here—having a sense of what works here, but also what needs to be challenged.

It’s important to celebrate what is happening in Bergen, and Norway, but also bring in projects to inspire and challenge the creative community here

My curatorial aesthetic does not change, but the way I think in relation to the audience and the infrastructure of the city shifts between places. On top of this I’ve also been privileged to get to know lots of brilliant Norwegian composers and artists that I wasn’t aware of before, so in that sense it has a more national identity being a festival here. It’s important to celebrate what is happening in Bergen, and Norway, but also bring in projects to inspire and challenge the creative community here.

Any final recommendations from this year's programme?

I’m really excited by the whole programme, and the way that the events relate to each other creates an interesting experience taken as a whole, so it’s hard to pick a favourite.

On Saturday we start the day with a film club showing work by Jennifer Walshe, Heather Philipsson and Sun Ra, and then the afternoon is our Konsertsirkus creating a space for families to listen to new music together. The evening then starts with a talk from the editor of Frieze Magazine, Dan Fox, which is followed by new composition from Ensemble Pamplemousse in concert. Then we show a new film from Turner Prize winning artist Mark Leckey, followed by a performance for expanded drum kit (think hard drives, tuning forks, DMX lights, and feedback) from Rodrigo Constanzo, and finish with a three-hour exploration of ambient experiments, live collaboration, and low-slung techno from Beatrice Dillon and Kassem Mosse.

That’s just in one evening, but gives you a flavour of how we want to disregard genre boundaries and welcome in as many different kinds of adventurous listeners as possible. I shouldn’t forget the six Egyptian women we have coming from Cairo to present a concert of experimental electronic music and sound art from the Egyptian underground. There’s a lot to see and hear!