In August/September 2015 I travelled to Oslo, Norway to spend a month with the incredible bassist Håkon Thelin. The idea for this trip first came about through investigating the music of the late Stefano Scodanibbio in 2013 - and if I'm honest, that only came about through the chance that my improvising group Ricochet gave me to investigate extended techniques on the Double Bass. So it's been a long time in the planning.
(Warning: technical stuff!) The techniques in question deal mainly with manipulation of harmonic tones - both arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked). Harmonics in their simplest form can be described as limiting some of the waveforms in a string from sounding, therefore sounding "partials" in the string. For example, the midpoint of a string will have a waveform running through it at twice the speed of the "end-to-end" waveform, and will therefore sound 1 octave above the open string (double the frequency). There are around 14 naturally occurring partials in a bass string before the sound-to-noise ratio gets too high and stops the pitch from being audible under the bow, most of which can be accessed at multiple points. Then you can start to deal with artificial harmonics, pizzicato harmonics, multiphonics, the interchange between natural notes and harmonic tones (just to begin with - an exhaustive list is neither practical nor really the point).
I arrived in Oslo at about 8am local time on Saturday August 22, about 30 hours after leaving home. First flight was great - the flight attendant Mai gave me the emergency exit aisle seating and we chatted throughout the flight. Second flight was crap, but there's no room for negativity in this post, so I won't bother. It got me here on time! Håkon and his partner Sarah picked me up at the airport and we drove through Oslo and picked up the bass I was hiring. Oslo itself is very reminiscent of Hobart - a city on a harbour, on the foothills of mountains. Arriving in beautiful sunlight to the house of Harald Fetveit and Agnes Hvizdalek (who have been absolutely wonderful to live with), I struggled through the first day doing a bit of grocery shopping, trying to kick my body clock into gear by going for a quick run, but was asleep by 8.30pm nonetheless.
Practice started the next day and was - as you can guess - the majority of what I have done here. Agnes and Harald have been immensely patient with me playing for hours and hours each day! My first lesson with Håkon was on the Tuesday, and we mostly looked at the Scodanibbio arco techniques in the study "On Turning", as well as some starters in two handed pizzicato techniques. Håkon is softly spoken, a very precise and driven personality with a good sense of humour (hidden beneath an often serious exterior) and has been great to work with. I came into this month quite reserved about how little I knew about these techniques, and Håkon has been very encouraging and positive about what I've achieved throughout the stay and what I have in store for the future. Throughout the rest of my study time I have been mostly absorbed with Håkon's pieces "Amacord", "oibbinadocS", "Tablon-Tactil-Pulsar-Sonar" as well as the Scodanibbio pieces "Due Pezzi Brillanti" and the Six Studies for Double Bass ("Sei Studi" - in particular the aforementioned "On Turning"), the Lars Petter Hagen piece "Hymn" and a Richard Davis/Dolphy transcription of "Come Sunday". I also spent an afternoon talking about music with a wonderful Norwegian improvising bassist Per Zanussi, who was kind enough to let me buy him lunch in exchange for a lesson - a lunch which was very pleasant! I've linked through the various titles to online resource to listen or look at scores for the various pieces - if you're curious, follow the links! I'm going to leave much of the technical side of this post there for the moment - but I'm always happy to talk more, if you want more technical information please ask and we can chat!
Håkon has been very welcoming also in inviting me to hang out in various parts of his professional life - whether that be recording things at the Notam Studio in Torshov with the wonderful folk singer Unni Løvlid, or letting me come into the Oslo Opera House to watch rehearsals for upcoming shows. I was also fortunate enough to see Unni and Håkon perform at Sentralen - an old bank being transformed into a cultural hub in the city center.
Oslo itself is a beautiful city, it's quiet with far less traffic than Melbourne. The public transport infrastructure is good and simple to use. For a couple lessons I've had to drag a bass from home to the train and then from the train to the Norwegian Academy Of Music and even this has been quite doable. The architecture in the city is clean, lots of straight lines, simple colours and quite free of advertising. On a number of days I've spent an couple hours wandering around the city aimlessly, exploring on foot areas like Akershus Fortress (built in the 1200's), the waterfront Aker Brygge, Grønland (great Veggies! Or as they're known here "Grønnsaker" which translates to "Green Stuff"), and especially the forested area near Øestensjo where I'm staying. The forest has been a constant retreat for running when I need to get out of the house and take a break from practice. It's beautiful up there, with lakes around every corner and deep green forest. I've been unable to find out the exact name of the Forest, but if you type "Noklevannet" (one of the lakes there) into a google search you'll see it. It has been summer here but rains more often than not - on one occasion there was enough rain over two days to wash huge chunks of the Noklevannet track away. Oslo has an ability to feel like a different world - with low clouds hugging the mountaintops and sealing the harbour into a little bubble, and forest on my doorstep. The time difference to home, and the fact that I have no mobile reception has added to this feeling of living inside a "snow dome" - a kind of self imposed retreat from the real world into a bubble of practice, learning and running.
The first three weeks flew by - I rarely got out, spending huge hours practicing as I looked out the window onto the garden, determined to make the most of my stay. I would head into the city on occasion for a walk, or run through the forest, go buy groceries or visit a gallery or museum, but my time was based around practice and lessons. Again - if you want a breakdown or more information on hour after hour of bow technique, feel free to contact me, but otherwise I'll move on.
The best of the museums was the area on Bygdøy - a small connected archipelago to the west - that features the Norwegian Folk Museum and the Viking Ship Museum. The Folk Museum is entirely outdoors, with many norwegian traditional structures from throughout history - either original or recreated with traditional techniques. I also met a young woman named Ilva here in one structure who was playing traditional Norwegian fiddle. One of the pieces I've been learning has some quartertonal tuning taken from this Norwegian fiddle music, and we chatted about the systems for half an hour before other tourists came by. The Viking Ship Museum was also spectacular - the ships are much bigger than you imagine, and quite intimidating. The three ships in the museum had been buried as part of funerals, and were in varying states of decay - from nearly 100% through to a much more damaged ship, but they were all interesting and illustrated a different aspect of construction or tradition.
At the end of my third week here the Ultima festival started (curated by the previously mentioned composer Lars Petter Hagen), which is the largest contemporary classical music festival in Norway. It's been completely fantastic - I've attended a huge range of concerts that have opened my ears and brain up further. Håkon's partner Sarah has attended the majority of these with me (most while Håkon has been busy with his own concerts) and has been fantastic at being translator, tour guide, and good conversation. Festival highlights have included (chronologically) Oslo Philharmonic presenting Olivier Messiaen's "Turangalila", The Oslo Sinfonietta with Dans les Arbres presenting the World Premiere of Henrik Hellstenius' "Ørets teater III: Om naturen", Ensemble Musikfabrik performing old and new works for the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch, the solo bass recorder show of Gobi Drab, Ensemble Ernst with "In Vain" by Georg Friedrich Haas, and the finale concert. This final concert was performed in the central Cathedral here in Oslo or "Domkirke", and featured an Arvo Part piece and a premiere of a new work by André Bratten and Ole-Henrik Moe. This performance featured an Octobass! If you don't know what I'm talking about check out a link to photos here. It was played by Guro Moe (as pictured in the links) who then turned up at home later on for some fish on toast (as you do here...). It also featured a wonderful choir and was a spellbinding and suitably minimalist end to an exceptional music festival. (Also a special mention to scoring an entry to the opening night afterparty - where there was free food and beer. Beer can be $20+ for a pint of draught here, so the freebies were very appreciated)
There are a number of other events from this last week worth mentioning, starting with the photography exhibit opening of my host Harald Fetveit - he's been working an a photography series detailing a white box in various lighting, film and studio conditions but always from the same angle, for 14 years. This kind of patience and discipline I find staggering and is very inspiring. When Ricochet performs a minimalist or restricted improvisation for an hour I feel like we really achieved some patient art - but I might have to re-evaluate that in the wake of Harald's work. The photos themselves are excellent, and are delightful in the details that emerge when studying them at length. As a tourist checking out lots of art galleries, things can become overwhelming in the "smorgasbord" nature of the presentation, or the desire of artists to achieve satisfactory complexity (Note: with the exception of the Munch/Van Gogh exhibition and the Damien Hirst Retrospective at Astrup Fearnley, both of which were excellent collections and presentations). This show was a wonderful antidote to that overwhelmed feeling I was given by the local art galleries, and a great reminder of the detail that can be highlighted through studying apparent simplicity.
The second event was a talk by American/Nigerian writer Teju Cole. I finished reading Haruki Murakami's "Kafka On The Shore" - a surrealist fiction novel - on Tuesday, and clicked online to read some other people's thoughts on the book. The very first thing I saw was Melbourne woman Melissa O'Donovan's post sharing Teju Cole's picture of Haruki Murakami's boarding pass - that had fallen out of a book Teju Cole was reading in the Oslo Literaturhusset before his talk. Seemingly continuing my surrealist reading experience into the real world, I felt I had to attend the talk and did. I bought Teju's book "Open City" that deals with the thoughts of a man wandering the streets (of NYC in this case), which again felt quite connected to my recent wanderings. All in all it was too enticing a sequence of events to have ignored. The talk itself was quite good - I don't think it's ever negative to hear an eloquent artist discuss their view of the world.
Also in this last week I "bumped into" (Ok, I saw on facebook she was in Sweden, and it turned out she was coming to Oslo) an old school friend in Alexis Mamacas. It was surreal to have my little solo Oslo bubble burst by someone from the "outside world", and very enjoyable catching up. It was interesting to play tour guide, and surprise myself with how much I knew about the city. She's here with family and we went out for dinner all together to "Lorry" a great pub near the Royal Palace. We wanted to go to a Norwegian place in Grunerlokker, but I was hit with my only major public transport headache of the trip, when the whole train network broke down and I had to take a series of badly chosen buses to the city and ended up being two hours late (and very hungry).
And yesterday was the bookend on my time in Oslo - the Oslo Marathon Festival where I ran the half. I'm currently dealing with a muscle imbalance between my calves which gives varying levels of pain week to week - but I was feeling good about this run having done 32k in one run the week before and had a light week of running this week. The scheduling meant that the Half started at 1.30pm and the sun was baking down, I struggled badly and came through in 1.47, 13 minutes slower than my PB. I'm currently training for a marathon so speed was never the aim, but it was a tough race in any case. Håkon and Sarah met me post race and bought me dinner and some beers, which was lovely of them. I had a traditional Norwegian meal of Sildetallerken (the same meal Håkon is eating here) consisting of herring, capers, onions and eggs with butter, sour cream and rye bread. Before the run Agnes had made me Beetroot Chocolate Ice Cream (we had been discussing the running benefits of Beetroot) so I was spoiled all day long.
The study portion of this trip is now complete. I can say without reservation that my development has exceeded my expectations - I thank Håkon for this and also understand that I worked really hard both in the lead up to the trip and while I was here. However, the biggest test is of course not whether I could develop an understanding of this musical language and technical facility, but whether I can use it to say something meaningful, and something unique to me. This is the adventure that lies ahead, and what I am most thankful for to Håkon is that the path is a little clearer - although what it will involve has lost no mystery. I'm excited to head home in a week and throw myself into figuring out how to apply this new vocabulary to the music I make.
As always there were other things that I didn't quite have time to write about - hanging out with Gobi Drab and her immense Square Recorder, seeing Agnes and Jakob's project Demi Broxa, the lovely older couple from Maine I met in the Architecture museum (architect husband and musician wife) and lots of good conversations over dinner tables or coffees. I'm so grateful for every moment I've spent here and the wonderful people I've been fortunate enough to spend my time with. I'm sure I'l be back just as soon as I can!
I'm really thankful to my partner Melissa for encouraging me to come on this trip, to my parents for their added financial support, to Espen Poulson for the bass, Håkon and Sarah for their time and friendship, Jon Heilbron for giving me some lessons before I came, and Agnes and Harald for letting me stay with them and being great people to hang out with!
Now, I'm off to the West Coast tomorrow to spend a few days walking through National Parks before I return home. If you've made it this far than I'm very flattered that I've managed to hold your attention - let me know any thoughts you have on the writings below, I'm planning to do more in the future so feedback is appreciated!