Susanna & the Magical Orchestra

Another thing this blog will cover is contemporary Norwegian music. An esoteric subject, you might think, but it’s something I’m very enthusiastic about and I’m very glad that it surrounds me here in Oslo. I’ll write about the music I think is uniquely Norwegian, but I intend to describe only about four or five key acts.
I start with Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, who have released one album, List of Lights and Buoys (2004). I’ve seen them live three times: at a gallery on Hoxton Square in October 2003, at the London Jazz Festival in November 2004, and this week at Parkteatret in Oslo.

Initially it seems like some outrageous Scandinavian cliché: Susanna, beautiful ice maiden, her face almost hidden by cascades of long hair, emerges from swathes of dry ice, and a long-haired, bearded man (the entirety of the magical orchestra) hunches over a heap of keyboard instruments, his face twisted into a look of strange rapture as he plays. Low-level lighting renders the duo little more than silhouettes.
But the music is 21st Century Norway. The quietest of unusual electronic sounds click and chime. I remember at the London Jazz Festival the BBC men recording the show for Radio 3 were saying, “What’s that sound? That digital click. Get rid of that! Are you getting it? What is that?” – until they were informed that it was the music.
The singing is in the international showbusiness language of English, and Susanna Wallumrød sings purely and clearly, without much embellishment. It’s interesting that they have recorded Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” because in some respects Susanna is a kind of futuristic country and western singer. Just listen to her lower octave on “Believer”, an end-of-a-relationship classic of her own composition. And on the subject of the dissolution of love, I’ve seen them do covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Their love of great, classic songs encourages a wonderful simplicity in their own songwriting, which I think is very strong. But this is pop without the punch. There’s a great stillness in their music, and a sense of space which is so welcome in a world chock-a-block full of insistence and noise. These days Susanna and the Magical Orchestra are even using silence in their music: the live version of “Jolene” includes a very long pause, holding the audience in quiet suspense.
Spaciousness and stillness are things I imagine I’ll refer to again when describing my favourite Norwegian music. But I noticed something else quintessentially Norwegian about this band, something that may prove to be connected with the spaciousness and stillness, and that is a Norwegian shyness and introversion. Susanna barely moves. She holds the microphone in her right hand and the fingers of her left hand pick the air, and that’s more or less it. Morten Qvenild (the magical orchestra) is left to do any talking to the audience, and even when he asks us to show our appreciation for Susanna, she does the same for him by merely gesturing in his direction and smiling. The first time I ever saw them was in that art gallery in London, where they were sitting at a table behind a row of coat hangers near the bar. He was glancing furtively over the shoulder of his leather jacket, and she was wedged in against the wall, hidden. Later that evening when they performed, I wasn’t even sure it was them.
List of Lights and Buoys is released on (and can be bought from) Rune Grammofon.

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

Contact him here.