The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Geir Johnson
Mr. Geir Johnson, the Festival’s Director
Stein Henrichsen
Mr. Stein Henrichsen, the Chairman of the Board
Presenter Interview
Norway's Ultima Contemporary Music Festival is held annually each autumn. This year the spotlight is on Japan.  
The Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival held each autumn in the Norwegian capital is Scandinavia's leading contemporary music festival. In 2005, the first week of this festival wil l focus on Japanese contemporary music as “JAPAN IN FOCUS.” We spoke to the festival's direc tor, Geir Johnson, and chairman of the festival’s board of directors, Stein Henrichsen, when they visited Japan in December. They gave us their insights on running a quality music fest ival and building an audience for contemporary music as well as a preview of the Japanese ar tists who will be appearing next autumn in the Ultima Festival.
(Interviewed by Robert Reed)

The Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival

What has made Norway the home of one of Europe's leading contemporary music festivals? What is the cultural background behind contemporary music in Norway?
Johnson: You have to go back almost exactly 100 years to the end of the 19th century. After 500 years under the rule of Sweden and Denmark, Norway was involved in an independence movement, and it was the artists and musicians who were in the forefront of this movement. The composer Edvard Grieg, the playwright Henrik Iibsen and the painter Edward Munch, they were all prominent international artists and were also strong spokesmen for independence, which made them prominent figures in the national consciousness. After our independence in 1905 and WWI, however, there was no strong artist movement. It wasn't until the 1950s and 60s that a strong artist movement came together again and become a prominent part of Norwegian society. During the 1970s this artist movement began to lobby the parliament for grants and laws protecting artists' rights in areas like publishing and printing music for instance.
Another important outcome was their lobbying for more art education in the school system. By the 1970s and 80s we got fantastic music schools as a result, and they were beginning to turn out outstanding musicians and the first new generation of composers. You see there was no composition training in Norway before 1973. Grieg and his contemporaries all studied in Germany. So ours was the first generation to come up under a program where the Norwegian government was positively supporting the creation of new art.

Henrichsen: We have to also mention the formation of the Norwegian National Arts Council. After the WWII we had to rebuild the country. Half of the country had been bombed during the War. And as the educational system was being rebuilt, there was an ideal at work that all Norwegians should have the right to receive education in the arts. The National Arts Council took a strong role in making sure that arts education was an important part of the education system. And one of the special focuses of the Council was on contemporary arts.

Johnson: So, after many decades when there was no education in the arts going on in Norway, we finally got three nation institutions dedicated to the distribution of art: one in theater, one in music and one for the visual arts. As a result of this focus on the arts we have, for example, some 500,000 active amateur musicians in a Norwegian population of just 4.6 million people.

Henrichsen: And it is important to note that although there is strong government support for the arts in terms of funding, the administration of the funds is done by private-sector organizations. So, there is a good arms-length distance between the operating bodies and the financing bodies so that the arts remain independent from political forces. If you look at our state budget, you will find that almost 1% of the budget goes to supporting the arts. I think that compares very favorably with most countries. But the main reason for the strength of contemporary arts in Norway today is the Arts Council, which is an organization run basically by artistic committees and not by the political bodies.

Johnson: This is a big difference in the Norwegian contemporary arts scene and that in Sweden, where government support for the arts is administered by the government and not by the artists themselves. In our Norwegian system it is artists deciding who gets the funding based on artistic merit. I think this independence we have from government control has made our arts scene very active. Twenty or thirty years ago, by the way, the Swedish arts scene was the most active in Scandinavia by far, but now even the Swedes themselves acknowledge that this is no longer the case.

What are your personal backgrounds? Are you both musicians?
Johnson: I started out as a choirboy as a child and studied music through high school and university, and then I began working in music, I sang in rock bands and such. I actually taught popular music at the university level for many years and eventually got into contemporary music through various job offers.

Henrichsen: I am involved with the Ultima Festival on the administrative side as chairman of the board, and our board is made up of people with artistic backgrounds and well as political and financial background. I personally have an artistic background. I am a trained musician, having studied in Norwegian, American and Danish universities. Later I began working with contemporary music ensembles and I am artistic director of one.
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