Fantastic Asheim - Marhaug sabotaged

In the sense of musicality and dramaturgy, a church concert can be mixed blessing. Saturday’s concert with Nils Henrik Asheim’s free improvised organ virtuosity was a highlight while noise-king Lasse Marhaug’s performance was badly affected by disastrous sound conditions. Read the second to last dispatch from Nicholas H Møllerhaug, MIC/Ballade’s Magma 2002 reporter.

Nils Henrik Asheim - Magma 2002

Saturday was Magma’s Grande Finale day. Both Sunday and Friday were ok, but Saturday was nothing but grand as the listeners (including composer and organ legend Knut Nystedt) were treated to Nils Henrik Asheim’s fantastic organ improvisation. 90 year old emeritus Nystedt didn’t come to Berlin for the sake of Asheim and his organ-universe only. Prior to Asheim’s performance, Harald Herresthal played a Nordic organ programme which included works from Nystedt’s pen.

Throughout Asheim’s concert, Nystedt must have come to many realisations. One of them are likely to be that Norwegian organ music has advanced light-years lately. Asheim’s free-improvised artistry is unique in an organ context and for the blessed audience it was an experience far from the ordinary. For listeners based in a traditional church environment, and Nystedt being one of the most striking representatives, it must have been an unusual night.

In the sense of musicality and dramaturgy, a church concert can be mixed blessing. The thing I love is that it’s like you’re seated in a bus with the seats facing the wrong way, the placement of the driver and the direction of travel is reversed. Once in a while you have turn around to have a look – particularly when the going gets tough.

In this sense, Saturday’s concert was something out of the ordinary. Asheim quickly brought out his refined I’ll-drown-this-organ sounds. By sucking out all sound of the organ, Asheim manages to produce simultaneous fade and pitch modulation effects. One listener in particular turned around in awe: Nystedt. The old composer dropped his jaw in amusement, much to the delight of an audience that was given unusual non-musical entertainment.

Asheim’s effects are just a fraction of a greater whole - they are the most aural recognisable details though. I’m tempted to say that the silence that followed after the violent suction of sound is of an even more striking poetical nature. Unfortunately, this kind of silence is not often experienced on the organ’s arena. As the organ was silenced, Asheim managed to display all of this magnificent instrument’s tiny micro-nuances.

Asheim’s ability to listen deep is a feature most other organists can only envy. This is the diametrically opposite to monotonous psalm sight-reading. Asheim deserves a grand hurrah, or maybe a hallelujah is more appropriate since we’re in a church. His organ improvisation is devoid of any clichés, a contrast to traditional organ improv. The traditional vein is also based on classical baroque phrases, another element that’s absent from Asheim’s experimental instrumentation.

Asheim’s work is renewing in its character, as was Nystedt’s some years back – although his was different and in a more traditional approach. In this sense, Nystedt’s wide-open mouth was an additional concert bonus. More than anything, it marked a change of paradigm within the Norwegian organ culture.

Regrettably, this Saturday also sported great disappointment: the evening concert at the Tränenpalast. Electro-acoustic music was the focus of this evening (if guitar-solos can be viewed as an electro-acoustic instrument that is). Norwegian noise-music king Lasse Marhaug was among the invitees and this was to be his first performance in such a “serious” setting.

It could have worked out perfectly, if only the event had been on Marhaug’s terms.

As much as Marhaug’s concerts are musical experiences, they also have a strong bodily aspect due to the vibrating volume. Earplugs to the audience is a must, as are sound crews willing to comply with Marhaug’s terms. Tender and classically oriented sound techs are a no-no. With due respect to the composer: I have never heard Marhaug being performed so badly – it’s disrespectful!

Somebody ought to express regret – that’s the simple truth. It’s not for no reason that Marhaug is called the Norwegian king of noise, as the festival’s programme brashly proclaimed. I must ask, why then, was the sound and volume as lousy as if it was a crappy barn dance at the Norwegian countryside?

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