Courtesy of Nordic Sounds magazine, MIC can now present a unique perspective on Nordic musical life as we bring you an Irishman’s encounter with Nordic culture. National but not nationalist. Nurturing. cooperative but slightly protectionist. No it isn’t a country’s foreign policy. It’s the response of Irish Times’ music critic Michael Dervan to the contemporary music scene he encountered on visits to all five Nordic countries.
By Michael Dervan
It’s the smaller European nations which, as a rule, work hardest at promoting their music. Plausible explanations for this situation are not exactly hard to find. All things being equal, countries with large populations are more likely to find themselves producing major figures in composition and performance. I’m not suggesting for a moment that it’s purely a matter of statistics. But the perceptions engendered by statistics do come into it.
Smaller countries seem to sense an imbalance worth redressing. In my own country, Ireland, there’s no shortage of international success for performers in the field of popular music. Yet the resourcing of publicly-funded promotional effort in this area is far higher up the agenda in Ireland than it is, say, in Britain.
The Nordic countries have long been among the leaders when it comes to the promotion of contemporary music. A “Nordic Music Festival” was held as long ago as 1888, running every four years until it was interrupted by the Second World War. And a biennial Nordic Music Days festival – with responsibility rotating between the composers’ unions of the five participating countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – was set up in 1948.
Last December, the Irish capital, Dublin, played host to Up North!, a concentrated, four-day festival of new music by Nordic and Irish composers. As an exchange project, it was a dream of an event. Irish performers looked after most of the Nordic composers, and vice versa. Thirteen of the 50-plus works were world premičres.
And over half the pieces played had been written since the turn of the century. The
festival certainly pressed all the right buttons to make funders glow with pride at the innovative nature of the international co-operation they were supporting.
For me, the festival was an ideal opportunity to carry out a project I’d long thought about. The Nordic countries have a great deal in common with the Republic of
Ireland, from small, dispersed populations and a location on the periphery of Europe, to histories of occupation. In advance of the Up North! festival I visited all five Nordic capitals with a view to finding out something about what drives the world of contemporary music in these diverse yet related places.
My first port of call was Sweden, the largest in area and population, where the Society of Swedish Composers was founded in 1918. STIM, the national copyright collecting society, followed just five years after. The composers behind these two ventures knew what they were doing, and made no bones about having their interests looked after by both bodies. STIM retains a significant proportion of the royalties it collects in Sweden for the purpose of promoting Swedish music. EUR 2.79 million was re-distributed in this way in 2001, with EUR 1.7 million going to the Swedish Music Information Centre, which also received public funding of EUR
410,000. STIM also gives grants to the Society of Swedish Composers and the Swedish Association of Music Publishers, and runs a scholarship scheme. The Swedish MIC acts as a publisher, supplies parts for performances, has its own record label, and is active in promoting the cause of Swedish music around the world.
The attractions of this model of support are obvious. The Swedish MIC effectively feels itself to be independent of public funding and all the climate changes that can bring. It’s actually working directly for the people who fund it – it promotes commercial songwriters as well as classical composers – and it functions in a broader musical environment that’s been devised with nurture in mind. Sweden has a publicly-funded national concert agency, Rikskonserter, which promotes around 700 concerts a year – the equivalent of over 4,700 in the UK (or over 22,000 in the US!), if you take population difference into account. It runs its own concert venue and record label, and even has the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble as an in-house group – the Kroumatas gave a free, open-air concert to a delighted, standingroom-only crowd in the arena of a public park while I was in Stockholm. The city has two symphony orchestras and an opera company (there are others outside the capital as well as a network of regional music organisations) and, naturally, the country has an educational structure to supply the profession.
It looks like a rosy picture, and in many if not most senses it is – I haven’t yet mentioned the National Council for Cultural Affairs (Statens Kulturrĺd) with its budget of over EUR 110 million, or the Arts Grants Committee (Konstnärsnämnden), which disburses an annual EUR 11 million to individual artists. This latter organisation offers one-, two-, five- and ten-year grants (income guarantee), as well as project grants across the arts, plus commissions, and wades through 7,000 applications in a single year. There are, I was told, circa 230 composers active in FST (Swedish Composers' Society) in Sweden.
Finland and Denmark
The Swedes, I learnt, are more than a little jealous of the Finns, although it’s the Swedes who, on the broadest canvas, have produced the best-known musical success, Abba.
Finland is a smaller, less populous country, but thanks to a Theatre and Orchestra Act passed in 1993, the mobile phone hub of the world has no less than 30 orchestras, which have managed to generate over one million attendances in a single year. Most orchestras are run by municipalities, who typically look after 60 per cent of the costs, with the state contributing a further 25 per cent. With such an exceptionally large range of orchestral activity, orchestral performances and commissions seem to have become a readily attainable status symbol for Finnish
composers – opera is the one that’s hard to crack. There were 60 orchestral premičres in Finland in 2000, admittedly an exceptional, millennial year (the usual number is around 40), and the millennium also brought premičres of 14 new operas.
Finland has had exceptional success with its conductors. Esa-Pekka Salonen is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo succeeded Simon Rattle in Birmingham, Jukka-Pekka Saraste held simultaneous posts in Helsinki and Toronto, Osmo Vänskä has just taken over the Minnesota Orchestra. Two of its composers, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, have established major international careers, and many of its singers and instrumentalists are also highly successful. According to Kai Amberla, executive director of the Finnish Music Information Centre, the change began in the 1960s, when a nation-wide network
of music schools and academies was set up. “Create an educational system,” he
explained with a helpful smile, “and wait for the results.”
Finland’s Music Information Centre works on a similar basis to Sweden’s, but is not quite so well endowed. This led the Finns to a decision to abandon the approach which saw composers treated with bureaucratic even-handedness. Instead, those individuals deemed most likely to succeed were selected for special attention. The subsequent achievements of Saariaho (winner of this year’s $200,000 Grawemeyer Award) and Lindberg may have ruffled the feathers of others, but the across-the-board benefits to Finnish composers in general as a result of the increased profile of Finnish music are not seriously contested.
The Danes passed a Music Act in 1976, which resulted, I was told, in eight symphony orchestras and the formation of a permanent chamber ensemble, the Esbjerg ensemble. For composers, a peak was reached when premičres averaged out at one a day. Performance royalties are extremely high in Denmark (the jackpot would be something like a new orchestral work being premičred on a live European Broadcasting Union relay), and remain so in spite of a recent cut. However, cuts are in the air in Denmark, with the right-wing government cutting cultural funding by 15 per cent. By the standards I’m used to, there’s plenty of flesh on cultural bodies in Denmark, and many of the people who run those bodies seem as wily as politicians in dealing with their current dilemma. When I was there, the government was in the middle of restructuring its specialised state cultural councils for music, theatre and the other arts into a single arts council. The resilience and resourcefulness I encountered in individuals coping with change in a cutback-driven world was impressive, even if it seemed that the damage on the ground could yet be considerable.
Norway and Iceland
Norway has in Arne Nordheim a musical figurehead currently unmatched in any other Nordic country. His music stoked national controversy in the 1960s – it was branded ugly – and he also had a profile as a music critic for many years. Now, he’s known as the man who has been granted free, lifelong residence in the artist’s house beside the royal palace in the centre of Oslo. He seems to be as recognisable a figure in Norway as Grieg. The country’s major national music organisations have taken over an office building in downtown Oslo, and the annual Ultima Festival has achieved a higher international profile than any other new music event in the Nordic countries. Incredible as it may seem, the loudest moan I heard in the Norwegian capital was about press coverage, and the lack of music criticism.
Remote and rugged Iceland, with an area twice that of Denmark, has a population of just 280,000, not much over one twentieth of the Danish level. Yet it has a symphony orchestra, an opera company with singers on contract (it’s got its sights set on year-round operation), and can boast over 40 active composers. The going is tough for anyone wanting to make a living solely from composing, even for Áskell Másson, one of the best-known of Icelandic composers, in spite of the fact that he’s made it into the repertoire of leading percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The pot is small, and there are many to be fed from it – at the Icelandic rate Sweden would have over 1,260 composers.
The deeper I managed to go into things on my Nordic travels, the clearer it became, whatever country I was in, that contemporary music is primarily treated as a national issue. Yes. Of course the long tradition of Nordic co-operation and exchange means that works do circulate. But, while enthusiasm for local endeavour can be high, rewarding curiosity about what happens in the rest of the world seems to be a lower priority. Festivals are the main forum for foreign infiltration, and I encountered many expressions of regret that the focus of orchestral managements and concert promoters is otherwise inclined to be narrow.
Another common thread was the limited place accorded to new music in the training of professional musicians. All of the Nordic countries have dedicated players who specialise in new music. But it seems to take an exceptional personal enthusiasm for contemporary music, or a lucky break in finding the right teacher, to get properly started in an area that it’s easy for music students to glide blithely past.
Of course, those performers who are interested in the challenges of new music have opportunities that would be denied them elsewhere. Performers can compete for the same sort of long-term career support as composers. Nordic cultural politics recognise the obvious, that composers need performers to reach their audiences, and to support one but not the other is absurd. My own country has arrangements that are much envied abroad. The earnings of Irish-resident creative artists (though not performers) are exempt from income tax, and there’s a national academy of artists, Aosdána, whose members – 19 composers among them – can, subject only to a means test, claim a tax-free stipend, known as a Cnuas, worth EUR 11,000 a year.
Yet support for composers seems altogether more thorough in Nordic cultural life, especially as reflected in the power and resources of the composers’ unions. In
Ireland the Arts Council’s support for the Association of Irish Composers amounted to
EUR 14,000 in 2002 and the council’s fund for music commissions was a measly EUR 23,000. Observers in the Nordic countries will, I suspect, find these figures inexplicable if not unimaginable. And maybe if the seeds of Nordic thinking take root in Ireland, people here will, someday, too.
Area: 324,220 sq km
GDP per capita:
Area: 449,964 sq km
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Area: 43,094 sq km
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Area: 337,030 sq km
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Area: 103,000 sq km
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Area: 70,280 sq km
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Michael Dervan is music critic of the Irish Times
MIC Norway would like to express its gratitude to Nordic Sounds magazine and its editor Anders Beyer for being allowed to publish extracts from the magazine’s latest issue.
More info on Nordic sounds can be found here.