Midnight Sun : Sounds Of Norway
Unity Theatre, Liverpool
27 May 2003
It was with some trepidation that I went to Liverpool to see the 21st century’s version of the “package tour”. I’d been told, by someone whose opinion I trust, that most of the evening had been crap when he saw it. In fact he was a bit more splenetic than that. Still you have to find out for yourself, don’t you ?
A ton of print has been spent enthusing over the exciting newness of music coming out of Norway. I agree with some of it. I haven’t heard it all. But I have heard Supersilent, who effectively headline this bill. Their last CD in particular is a favourite. I was hoping that they would prove to be a better live experience than on the first night of the tour. More of that later.
The evening began, for me, with a question. Why is DJ Strangefruit a part of this line-up ? At a gig like this who wants to watch a guy at the turntables, sifting through his vinyl ? Well, no one really. He spun his scratchy mix as people came in, looked for the optimum seat then sat and chatted. DJ Strangefruit seemed to have been assigned the role reserved for the `support act’, drumming up brisk business at the bar. But, as the lights dimmed, he provided a sombre soundscape for Arve Henriksen to build a solo on. Anyone who has heard Henriksen’s trumpet sound will know that it owes something to the breathy, ethereal Japanese flute and tonight in a fairly short solo he showed how it’s done. I can’t reveal the secret but I will say that it was a mournful and moving performance where he breathed and sang into the instrument. I don’t think anyone in the audience was breathing. Then he was gone.
He was followed by Sidsel Endresen with Christian Wallumrod on keyboards and Jan Bang on other things, like samplers and sequencers. Endresen sings, sometimes in English, sometimes in Norwegian and occasionally in `tongues’. People singing in tongues has never floated my boat much. She sounded better in Norwegian. What I really enjoyed though was Jan Bang’s contribution. He had the look of someone who spends a lot of time in front of his machines. But as he sampled Endresen’s voice and looped it in a duet with Wallumrod’s prepared piano he actually brought some warmth to the proceedings. And Bang’s solo, with some strange wrist shaking and whole body shimmying, was worth watching too.
After the interval, during which poor Strangefruit played to even fewer customers, the quartet that never discusses or rehearses their music came on. There were no introductions of course. I’m still not sure who two of them are. The stage was littered with electronic hardware, possibly more than Faust cart with them, and the players seemed peripheral. But once they decided to engage there was a mostly fruitful meeting of men and jack plugs. This was going to be the real thing and no chance for Supersilent to take it away, sift and reconstruct the performance, as happens on CD.
They began with a fairly muted soundscape, and after appearing to impersonate a well known Rodin figure, drummer Jarle Vespestad came to life gently beating his kit with what looked like bamboo or limp cane. Of course the low key approach didn’t last and the piece turned into one of their hardcore, aural batterings. It was still exciting to hear old synthesisers alongside more advanced equipment and even better to hear the sampling of Henriksen replayed against the percussive duelling of keyboards and drums. Despite all the aggression generated this first slab ended with calm washes of keyboard filling the little theatre.
A few punters left as the band shaped up for a further improvisational encounter. This time they were not taking prisoners, it was full blown crescendo from the outset, with a further crescendo, if that’s possible, when Henriksen put down the trumpet and began a cathartic few minutes exorcising his demons and utilising his remarkable voice amid the tempest howling around him. To be heard at all was some achievement. Supersilent ended, as they had with the first piece, reflectively. I don’t know if anyone seated elsewhere noticed but drummer Vespestad spent the last few minutes on his haunches rocking slowly with his arms wrapped around his head. He may not have been alone in this response. But overall it had been a set that tried to balance calm and fury though I have to say the latter was ultimately victorious.