Geir Johnson: Musical Bridge-Builder

"Troll, be sufficient unto yourself!" is how Norwegians are described in Ibsen's Peer Gynt. This is how Geir Johnson, one of the most enterprising members of the Norwegian musical community, still regards his country's approach to cultural policy. Now he is trying to persuade us to reject the troll mentality and become part of the international community.

Geir Johnson, Ultima

Geir Johnson's current concern is to make Norwegian music more visible abroad, i.e. more than the distribution of visiting cards and sporadic embassy concerts. His first step is towards France, where Sweden already has an exchange agreement and has suggested that Norway join in as well.

Johnson jumped right onto the bandwagon and entered into an oral agreement with the French Ministry of Culture which may lead to a long-term music exchange scheme. It will be introduced with the tour of the BIT 20 ensemble to France and the return visit of the Court Circuit soloist ensemble to Norway. Perhaps even more important; the French authorities will be commissioning new works by Norwegian composers over a five-year period.

That's where the Norwegian troll enters the scene. What are we doing in return? We who are so good at looking after ourselves that anyone wanting to break out of the cocoon is stymied because all funding basically targets activities in Norway. “It is not unwillingness but perplexity that affects Norway's way of tackling this matter,” believes Geir Johnson, who is anything but perplexed. On the contrary, he is constantly approaching Norwegian institutions and begging them to commission works in France in order to foster genuine interaction.

“Norwegian music must go out into the world! The artists have become used to performing at the international level. Now the authorities must follow their example. It's not enough to play in Paris once. Long-term interaction is required to create spin-off effects and build bridges.”

Geir Johnson knows what he's talking about. Musical bridge-building has been his chief concern for almost twenty years. He thinks like the French: controversy and conflicts generate new activity. He has been involved in musical activity since he was a child. At the age of eight, he joined the St. Olav's Choir and grew up with the entire church repertoire, from medieval music to Knut Nystedt. Renaissance and Baroque music are in his blood. His first meeting with new music was when the Norwegian Soloist Choir, which under Nystedt had sung every requiem and oratorio imaginable, took part in the first Norwegian performance of Arne Nordheim's Eco in 1974.

“For me, that was a turning point,” says Geir Johnson. Eco filled him with wonder, with respect for the unsaid, and awakened something he had to get into touch with. Since then, he has sought the outsiders of musical history and has introduced many of them in Norway, names like Giacinto Scelsi, Gubaidulina, Feldman, Murail, Tan Dun, Conlon Nancarrow.

“Music is most interesting when it has large fractured areas. The great artists work on the threshold of history. Life is about exceeding your own limits and your own roles.”

At the beginning of the 1980s, scepticism about the avant-garde was still rife and in his first professional job, as music coordinator at the Henie-Onstad Museum at Høvikodden outside Oslo, Geir Johnson made a conscious effort to build bridges between musicians and composers. With Åse Hedstrøm, currently artistic director of the Ultima Festival, Johnson produced 50 concerts a year, gave the young generation of composers acceptable working conditions and built a new electronic sound studio (the first was moved to the Norwegian State Academy of Music and abandoned). At the same time, he was active in Ny Musikk (the Norwegian section of the ISCM) and editor of the music magazine Ballade.

Even then Johnson realised how frighteningly out of step Norwegian music was with the international scene. His ambition to start a contemporary ensemble was impossible to fulfil at the Henie-Onstad Museum, but eventually became a reality in Bergen, where he studied and worked for six months a year until 1988. However, neither his philosophy nor his music studies brought him where he wanted to be and he felt a strong need for a broader education and a wider perspective.

Abroad followed studies under various composers in several places, including Darmstadt, seminars and contemporary music festivals, work on scores, rehearsals of ensembles like the London Sinfonietta, and gradually the vision of a contemporary music festival, the Music Factory, emerged.

Pianist Yvar Mikhashoff was enthusiastic about the idea of a contemporary music festival - in reality a festival for composers and performers - and in 1986 accompanied Johnson to the innovative director of the Bergen International Music festival at that time, Daniel Bohr, and persuaded him to support the idea of a fringe festival. At its permanent premises - an abandoned sardine factory - the Music Factory successfully celebrated its tenth anniversary last summer.

New music was not Bohr's field, but he wanted to supplement his repertoire and provide a different picture of contemporary artistic expression. This was the start Johnson needed. It also opened his eyes to the fact that many Norwegian musicians wanted to play a different repertoire than the one they usually played.

That is how music researcher Geir Johnson came to foster the establishment of several ensembles, such as BIT 20 in Bergen and Cikada in Oslo - at the same time as he was President of Ny Musikk from 1989 to 1994, writer, journalist, critic and involved in his pioneering “Break the Sound Barrier” project for children.

Bergen's musical life changed with the advent of the Music Factory. A new generation of composers emerged in its wake and new opportunities for performing their works also increased public interest. Many others wanted to approach music in a new way, and the Music Factory willingly helped its own challengers with their strategic planning. Gradually new projects emerged: the Autunnale Festival in Bergen, contemporary music festivals in Stavanger and Trondheim and the Ultima Festival in Oslo. All these festivals were established during Geir Johnson's presidency at Ny Musikk, and partly with his assistance.

After 1989, three groups joined forces in Bergen: orchestral musicians from the Bergen Philharmonic, where David Stewart was leader, some musicians from the Norwegian Defence Forces Staff Band Wed led by Stein Henrichsen, and Geir Johnson himself. They had common interests, but had not previously managed to combine them. Now the time had come to establish a professional ensemble, which became BIT 20. " ‘Bit’ means piece - as in ‘a piece of the cake’ - and ‘20’ stands for our own century. But ‘bit’ is also a computer term, the smallest element of memory,” says Johnson, who can today pride himself on the fact that the ensemble is well established and well known.

Like other performers, they feel particularly at home at Music Factory events - the “festival of the peculiar voices”. Here, prominent performers transcend the borders of genre, whether it be music theatre, dance, electro-acoustic music, musical happenings or events on the borderline between the avant-garde and popular culture. It is a matter of promoting a form of artistic expression that is rather different from what others do - ranging from the hypermodernist to the naivist - anything that doesn't go along the beaten track. Others can take care of that.

“We didn't think of the side effects when we began, but have since understood that the quality requirements and the level of expertise of the programming and international orientation have led to higher quality all along the line. In other words, if anything drastic and challenging happens in Bergen, it has spin-off effects in Oslo,” says Geir Johnson, who has also challenged himself to breaking point.

He had to choose between the roles of composer and organiser; going abroad and staying there, or staying at home and making something happen. Now that he has made everything happen, he spends a little more time on himself – but his type of involvement leads to new challenges. In Bergen, influential politicians asked BIT 20 to establish something that could reach a large audience. Opera!

“Bergen does not have a professional theatre for musical drama. Henrichsen and I fantasised about establishing an opera which could work more across the dividing lines between the respective conventions of music theatre and contemporary music, where we could combine the musical aesthetics of our time with a modern theatrical and visual expression.”

The “idea” became Opera Vest - an opera company which concerns itself with the repertoire that no-one else in Norway will touch. Its main task is to create a tradition for the performance of more contemporary opera, and Opera Vest's repertoire has included Philip Glass' The Fall of the House of Usher and Michael Nyman's The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The latter was a project in cooperation with the Bergen theatre Den Nationale Scene which gave Opera Vest a new lease of life and this cooperation will hopefully continue. The ambition is to produce three or four performances a year - including one new, one classical and one for children.

In the year 2000, Bergen has been chosen to be one of nine European Cities of Culture. For Bergen, this has led to a new, fruitful dialogue between artists, bureaucrats and politicians.

“We are working together to take cultural life into a new millennium, and what could be more natural at such a time than to focus on the innovative?” asks Johnson.

In spite of his enormous contribution, Geir Johnson does not promote contemporary music to the exclusion of all else. He is equally fond of classical music, but feels he has a more important job to do for new music.

“The music itself is the driving force, interest in the unique experience. Which aesthetic language is used is less important to me."

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 1
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