How a Norwegian sound festival puts experimental music at the forefront

The Only Connect Festival of Sound highlights arts funding in Norway

OSLO -- On a warm spring evening in Oslo, a series of brass notes — some electrifying, others solemn — are played by a dozen instrumentalists perched in various corners of the multi-story entryway of the Sentralen, a former savings bank turned cultural center.

The performance is part of the two-day experimental music Connect Festival of Sound, which takes concert-goers on a sonic journey through the building’s most unique rooms, including a former vault and an opulent marble hall.

The festival - which features instrumental ensembles, sound and video installations and electronic music - is one of several events put on by the country’s nyMusikk, an organization that promotes experimental music and sound art.

Like many such organizations, it primarily relies on grants from the Norwegian government to operate.

The festival is emblematic of the country's emphasis on providing artistic experimentation as a public service.

“You can say that we rely on government funding or you can say that the society we have here relies on us to produce very artistic content,” said Artistic Director Bjørnar Habbestad. “There’s a long tradition in our society of setting up mechanisms that ensure these kinds of activities.”

Federal funding for the arts has become practically non-existent in the United States, where even large cultural entities struggle to stay afloat.

In Norway, the national cultural budget is roughly 1.3 billion dollars, according to the Norwegian Arts Council.

Norway's government arts funding model has created a diverse cultural landscape where artists can feel free to experiment.

“With the government funding, you don’t feel like you’re on a leash - you have room to experiment and create what you want,” said musician and composer Stephan Meidell.

Such hard-earned grants have allowed him to have a career in his field.

At the festival, Meidell, along with Berlin-based film company Blank Blank, presented a sound and video installation featuring robotic instruments that create a work of art based on the notes played.

The performance, like others at the festival, dares audiences to experience something new. Other examples include an installation that explores the limits of extreme sound and lasers, by Baltimore-based artist Jeff Carey, and pop-influenced works by jazz ensemble Skrap IV.

However, since Norway’s conservative government took office in 2013, there has been a shift in cultural policy, and in some cases an emphasis on economizing the arts by supporting projects that are more in line with the nation's business goals — a worrying prospect for many experimental artists who rely on existing funding.

Habbestad said that it has become more difficult to secure long-term project grants and the necessary means for new projects in recent years.

Policy in the US, he said, could also play a role in future government grants in Norway.

“What is observable in American politics and media today also affects how we talk about things in Norway today. Norwegian politicians change the climate for discussions —and not necessarily for the better.”