That Random Thing

Barry Kavanagh attended the Random System Festival 2004 in Norway in April…

Oslo, Norway, 15-18 April 2004.

I am inside Oslo’s Parkteatret only five minutes when a Norwegian music journalist tells me “the extremes thrive in Norway.” It’s Thursday and I’m at the first night of the first ever Random System Festival, a festival of electronic and “adventurous” music featuring both international and home-grown acts, and we’re waiting for one of the latter, Jazzkammer, to begin. “Metal, jazz, electronic noise,” the journalist says, “are the extremes of music.” I suppose he is right. This is what Norway is known for.

Parkteatret, in Oslo’s Grünerløkka area, was built in the 1920s as a theatre for the working class. Now it’s an interesting space for film screenings and unexpected art events. Tonight there are two performances by the duo Jazzkammer, Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre, best known for their album Timex (2000) on Rune Grammofon.

Tonight they perform with video artist HC Gilje, and our seats face the large screen showing his work. The first performance is not live; it is Gilje’s footage of urban Japan synced exactly to the development of Jazzkammer’s arrhythmic electronic noises. One way Jazzkammer illustrates the “extreme” is to suddenly cease all sound when the video cuts to a zebra crossing. In silence, the perfectly quiet audience watches an aerial view of a flowing pattern of people crossing these black-and-white lines, and I can hear only the sound of my own breathing. In a way, the second performance is not as effective as this; Jazzkammer and Gilje improvise sound and vision together, but the penetrating noise and flashing screen never reaches anything like what they had in the pre-recorded piece.

The rest of the festival takes place in Blå, on Brenneriverein by the river. This club is like something from New York; the graffiti murals on the walls outside, and gashes in the walls inside revealing the brickwork, are reminiscent of some converted factory in Brooklyn. On the stage, there is a special Random System Festival theatrical set up, with a bare tree and wooden backdrops. I don’t get to catch every act on the four-day programme, but here’s a run-down of the selection I grab.

Friday night. Alog and David Grubbs take the stage together for an unusual collaboration. Alog is another Norwegian duo, Espen Sommer Eide and Dag-Are Haugan, who have released two albums on Rune Grammofon, Red Shift Swing (1999) and Duck-Rabbit (2001), and of course American singer-songwriter David Grubbs’ fame stems from Gastr Del Sol and The Red Krayola. Alog man their noisy laptops while Grubbs takes the piano, and they play a piece that meshes their sounds together. Now they attempt something which seems much more difficult; Grubbs performs songs on the acoustic guitar, and Alog must quickly react to each change, in order to insert their sounds into good places. They look like they are really exerting themselves and their timing seems perfect. Musically, the overall effect is rather strange; even solo, Grubbs’ style of lyrics and singing seem disconnected from his fast picking, intricate melodies and plaintive instrument.

Andreas Tilliander is not what I expected at all. The festival organizers have picked such a wide range of electronic musicians that the stylistic differences between performers are enormous. Coming from Sweden, this man’s mission seems to be to breathe new life into dance music, with his individual brand of reggae-techno with blasts of noise.

There is a Saturday matinee in Blå, a children’s concert with Aeron & Alejandra. American Aeron Bergman and Spaniard Alejandra Salinas are a duo of sound artists and the creators of the Lucky Kitchen label. On you can find evidence of their audio work, such as recordings from underwater Spanish villages, as well as their mission statement (“so-called documentary work is never objective because it always uses the voice of the author with its cultural baggage fully intact. We also do not believe in straight narrative because of its voyeuristic and passive escapist tendencies”). They play sounds to the children and get them to guess what they are hearing. One of the sounds is of an almond being cracked open, and we are all given packaged souvenir almonds! They show the children how one sound could have more than one source, and get them to imagine what they are hearing. This is followed by an audio piece for the imagination, entitled Lost Cat.

I am not back in Blå until Sunday night, the last night of the festival.

Kelly Davis from the USA is the perfect act for a lazy Sunday. His drones give way, after a time, to melody, on top of which he places noises that seem to circle the inside of my head. Gert Jans Prins from the Netherlands follows, with harsh, physical noises based on TV static.

The last act to play is the Animal Collective from Maryland, passionate about strangeness and followers of such acts as Caroliner, Sun City Girls, Amon Duul and Can. They are a visual treat. Two of them are wearing war paint. A third crouches on the ground behind the drum kit, playing the electronics, and invisible underneath an enormous blonde wig; when he stands up to drum, lights flash and I can only see his teeth. A series of hallucinatory one-chord songs melt into one another and the Animal Collective finish their set leaping around and yelping, the bass player having abandoned his instrument for the stage tree.

At no time during this festival do I feel like I am experiencing one genre of music. The selection of artists has, I presume, been done quite carefully, as no two acts are similar. I have no idea if what I have seen and heard has been “extreme”, but I know one thing for certain: that it will be interesting to see what adventurous music the next Random System Festival will present to its audience. Once again, Norway is the place to be.

Random System Festival web site.

An abridged version of this review appeared in Plan B Magazine issue zero, June 2004.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos.

Contact him here.