Electro-Players Take the Fjord

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The New York Sun

Stavanger, Norway, is an ideal setting for the cutting-edge electronic music of the annual Nu Music Festival, which ran from last Wednesday to Saturday, because it’s such an unexpected one. The sleepy city of 110,000 is surrounded by pristine natural beauty. I spent two days hiking the fjords, peeking into eel boxes, and eating red currants right off the bushes before the festival began.

Stavanger is already building toward 2008, when it will be recognized as the European Capital of Culture (a rotating designation that has as much to do with sponsorship and tourism as with art). Nu Music, now in its seventh year in the host city, is exhibit A in the city’s claim to cultural relevance.

Co-sponsored by the Wire magazine, the event showcases emergent and dissonant electronic musical talent (broadly defined to include hip-hop and rock) from Norway, broader Europe, America, and Japan. In contrast to the huge crowds and muddy fields typical of the powerhouse European festivals, Nu Music presents progressive acts in a cozy network of clubs, making it possible to catch most everything you want.

Nu Music is also distinctive among electronic festivals for the emphasis it places on history.Along with the mix of bedroom composers, new wave bands, and club DJs you’d expect to find at such an event — among them this year were DJ Spooky, Jason Forrest, Kid 606, and Annie — Nu Music celebrates electronic music’s past. Last year’s headliner was electronic pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen.This year it was Mr. Stockhausen’s one-time teacher, Pierre Henry, who was one of the first formally trained composers to turn his attention to electronic music.

Now 78, Mr. Henry performed three nights in Stavanger Cathedral, a gorgeous 12th-century Gothic structure adorned with pagan-like nature engravings. Seated at a console, facing forward with the crowd, he served both as conductor and orchestra for the jarring, transportive selections from his 60-year career.

As Mr. Henry produced familiar sonic elements such as percussive flute, electric buzzing, sampled voices, animal cries, mashing gears, and sonar-like pinging, you could almost hear the vocabulary of electronic music taking shape in the compositions. Warm, pastoral sections conjured the nebulous vistas of Sigur Rós, while darker, more aggressive moments anticipated the industrial noise of Nine Inch Nails.

After the discordant symphony that Mr. Henry played to kick off the festival, the sugary funk of the Whitest Boy Alive was a welcome relief. Fronted by Ereland Oye of the renowned (and now-defunct) Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience, the band played soulless, spirited funk with a smirk. But it was style as much as substance that carried off the set. In oversized corrective glasses, a ringer T-shirt, and tight-fitting neon sweats, Mr. Oye was the spitting image of Napoleon Dynamite, and even stole some of his dance moves.

Free from the aggressive schmoozing and prospecting of festivals like SxSW and CMJ, Nu Music is a great place for talented young bands to find their sound and for aggressive oddballs to make their case. Japanese artist Mu fell somewhere between the two categories with a jerky, gymnastic performance that called to mind Devo, Bjork, and Yoko Ono in equal measure. Looking Tom Wolfish in a white suit and hat, sexagenarian Louie Austen was also a hit with a kitsch electro lounge act that sounded like Barry Manilow exiled to Ibiza.

Art met hip-shaking with a thrilling improvised set by Keiran Hebdan (better known as Four Tet) and journeyman percussionist Steve Reid (Miles Davis, James Brown, Dionne Warwick) that evolved through free jazz, drone, and noise without hitting a lull or snag. Local heroes and recent Vice Records signees 120 Days brought the same free-form energy to their nine-minute epic “Come Out (Come Down, Fade Out, Be Gone),” which built through Kraftwerkian bleeps to an ecstatic Happy Mondays-ish epiphany.

While Europe may be light-years ahead of America in terms of electronic music, it lags just as far behind in hip-hop — or so it appeared from Nu Music’s Friday night showcase. Norwegian openers Dark Side of the Force fell into a typical trap: slavish devotion and zero innovation.

Kool Herc can at least claim to have been around for the invention of the oldschool style, but while his name may be cemented in hip-hop history for his break-beat innovations, history doesn’t carry a live show.He ended up rehashing James Brown breaks and imploring people to dance (without success) during an awkward hour-long set.

The Nu Art branch of the festival did a better job of representing contemporary street culture by flying graffiti artists to town and giving them free paint and free rein. Tao Scene, an old beer factory on the outskirts of town, served as a primary canvas for their work. But they couldn’t resist the pristine walls of Stavanger. As the week progressed, stencil art, graffiti pieces, and wheat-paste posters began popping up all over the city. It was just one of the ways this ambitious little festival had left its mark on Stavanger.

The New York Sun

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