I’m in Oslo for a few days for the Ultima contemporary music festival. The lineup is stellar. I wasn’t here for the first week, so I’ve missed, among other things Young’s the Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China (1962) in a Setting of Dream Light (a piece that lasts almost as long as it takes to say its title), and Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (the night before it was also performed, by a different group, in London). But tonight it’s Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero cycle, and Stockhausen’s Sternklang (in the Ekeberg Sculpture Park), so I’ll manage.
The highlight of the three concerts I saw yesterday was Trond Reinholdtsen’s bizarre, funny, exasperating yet ultimately convincing Theory of the Subject, a piano concerto with both those words in inverted commas. You might remember Reinholdtsen from those witty conceptual music YouTube videos he made seven or eight years ago, in which he would create pieces by slapping music theory books together or rustling their pages. On the evidence of Theory of the Subject he has moved a long way in terms of ambition and scale, although the relationship of music to theoretical text – specifically in book form – clearly remains a preoccupation.
Theory of the Subject takes its title from Alain Badiou’s book, which in one section of the piece we can see the soloist (Ellen Ugelvik, shown on a live video feed) reading on a sofa in the Green Room, a concerned look on her face. Yes, the pianist is still backstage at this point, her part so far having been taken up by a manic Nancarrow-esque player piano. When she does eventually make it on stage, followed by the camera, it is to play just one note, which in a clever pastiche of 90% of mainstream contemporary music since Ligeti, turns out to be enough to set the orchestra on its own meandering path for the next few minutes. (Ugelvik, meanwhile, has returned to her sofa.)
While we watch her read, however, the orchestra plays a cinematic bed, suggesting anxiety and tension. Ugelvik goes up to the practice piano, attempts a few things – but we can’t hear them. The score on the stand is marked with absurd instructions – fingering single notes with two fingers from each hand, for example. The roving camera – reality TV style – takes us into the adjacent room where Reinholdtsen and his assistant are drowning in cables, computer components and orchestration textbooks. “This is the problem with a work like this,” mugs Reinholdtsen to the camera, holding up a nest of wires (I’m paraphrasing from memory). “There’s so much to organise. And I cannot find my Geist.” He gestures to the corner where someone is squatting with a sheet over their head, two holes cut out for eyes, and the word Geist written across the front. “Whoooooo,” goes the spirit.
I know what you’re thinking. And when I first read the description of the piece, I was thinking it too. (“The soloists’ role fluctuates between Maoist activism, depressive exhaustion (seen in a live video feed from the performer’s dressing room), resignation in the face of new technologies (represented by a player-piano that surpasses the soloist in mechanical virtuosity), and the total isolation from the public (retreating into a kind of shelter underneath the piano).”) I was also thinking it through the first few minutes of the work, as badly proofread slides (“kitchy,” “neo-classisism”) about conceptual art were projected behind the orchestra. And I was still thinking it as the orchestra’s music became increasingly stylised, to the point that it well demonstrated the composer’s skill at pastiche, but was otherwise just filling time.
But then as the work got weirder and weirder, and Reinholdtsen continued to kick down the fourth wall (to the extent that I wondered if there weren’t also fifth and sixth walls that people don’t usually bother about), it began to win me over. I started to forgive (or at least forget) the small errors around the edges. It helps that Reinholdtsen is a good comic on screen. And his understanding of the languages of both TV and the concert hall is exemplary (he has good jokes about both). Ugelvik also responded to her part, which is more David Blaine than Daniel Barenboim, extremely well. It struck me that perhaps this ultra-knowing, snarky, Stewart Lee or Chris Morris-esque approach to new music is more common in Norway – it’s a feature too of Lars Petter Hagen’s music, after all, and he is the festival’s artistic director – but it’s rarer in the UK, I think. The only examples I can think of off hand are comparatively po-faced; not nearly as silly as this. As it happens, I enjoy silliness and dumb gags as much, if not more, than contemporary music. I loved this.