Nu:nord describes itself as “an international community of emerging new-music creators from Canada, Norway and the UK.” They are launching their 2014 session in Oslo next week, presenting four concerts there between 7-14 August. Following that, all 21 of the artists will present a Grand Finale in London, at LimeWharf on Saturday 16 August starting at 5pm. Their SoundCloud page includes a number of the results of previous collaborations, and you can also keep track of them on Facebook. I recently spoke with Mira Benjamin (who is co-director of the group along with Stine Sørlie) to learn more about nu:nord, how it got started, and what it has become so far. This is without a doubt the best conversation I have experienced about how artists can be mutually supportive of one another and build an effective community.
How did the name come about?
Oh, that’s interesting. I know that we have one of those names with a colon… but nu:nord has a different meaning in Norwegian. ‘Nu’ in Norwegian is a variant of ‘nå’, which means now, and ‘nord’ means north, so nu:nord literally translates to now-north. But nu is also an English homophone for ‘new’ so we liked the name because it seems to suggest “new, now in the north.”
Whose idea was nu:nord in the first place?
It sort of happened by accident, and by realizing something good was already happening. I was invited in 2011 by the Norwegian composer Arnt Håkon Ånesen to do a workshop with nyMusikks komponistgruppe, which is the emerging composers’ society of Norway’s nyMusikk organisation. I went to Oslo to give a solo violin recital and workshop new violin and electronics pieces by nine Norwegian composers, and they said, feel free to bring some Canadian repertoire. I had three pieces that I had commissioned that year, and the composers of those pieces decided that they wanted to come to Norway for the concert. So we decided that we would have a sort of informal conference.
Actually, that first week in Oslo was very unusual… we, the Canadians, arrived in Oslo three days after the terrible shootings at Utøya Island. So naturally, the entire country was totally in shock. And we basically got off the plane and walked in the vigil parade with the Norwegian musicians. It was the first thing we did together.
That puts a lot of other things in relief.
It framed the week, and made everybody really want to open up, and be a little bit more honest with one another. It made us realize that we were there not only as professionals, but also as people. Through that week, we realized that there were a lot of really interesting ideas to be shared between Canada and Norway. After that initial experience, we decided that we would formalize the cooperation under a community called nu:nord. And many of those Norwegian composers who were part of the first session continue to be involved today, as well as the Canadians. They’ve been our core group. I now co-direct the project with one of those original participants, Norwegian composer Stine Sørlie.
So there’s a group that has continued from the beginning. It’s not just the co-directors?
Yes. Once a person has worked with us, we consider them part of our community. Some of our participants have been involved in most of our projects. Others have been involved in just one, but we continue to stay in touch, and in the meantime, they’ve collaborated with other participants on new projects, and that’s what we hope will happen.
What was the conversation of saying, we’re going to take this further? What were the next steps?
Well, Stine and I had a beer after the 2011 session, and we said, this felt better than other things we’ve done. We sat down, and we realized that in light of the circumstances during that week, everybody had pitched in where they could, and everyone had been a really active participant in every aspect of the project: in the production, making food for each other, setting up and taking down chairs for the concerts… it felt like a real team, and it was natural. And we felt this was a structure that was missing from many young artist’s courses, and that we had actually probably learned more from one another than we might have from established mentors.
It happens in graduate school, too.
Yes, it certainly does. There are a lot of expectations placed on people about how and what they’ll learn, and when that learning will happen. With our first nu:nord experience, we found we were able to learn on our own terms. And I think we’ve been trying to continue providing that participant-generated structure, a structure that’s based on the personalities of the individuals involved.
More of an organic structure than just hierarchical, top down.
Yes. So we thought we would try to have a session like that every summer. But we came to the conclusion that having a rigidly scheduled summer meeting with a colloquium where everyone gave a presentation on their music, did not really provide a structure that encouraged people to be open-minded.
That’s like being back in school.
Exactly. And so we realized it would be better to provide an ongoing outlet for our participants. We wanted to allow nu:nord to grow, and serve the participants as they needed, as a kind of hub for community building. So that’s what it is today. It’s an international community of new-music creators from Canada, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
How did the UK come in?
Like anything that starts as a volunteer grassroots initiative, nu:nord began with the people who were already there, so it was about Norway and Canada.
But soon after, I had been speaking to two Brits — cellist/composer Gregor Riddell and composer Richard Glover — and they were really interested in the project. So we invited them to join us as guests for our 2012 session, and it turned out that it made sense to include the UK as well.
And then there’s that organic development.
Yes. There are certain shared social and aesthetic tastes and values between Norway and Canada, even if our national takes on those values are unique. We felt that England also shared some of the same priorities, but had another take on them that was really enriching to our experience. For example, I think there’s an appreciation of improvising and experimentalism in all three countries, which makes for good conversation.
And ultimately it’s the individual artists, too.
That’s the biggest thing.
How did the performers get brought in? Was that part of the whole scheme in the first place?
Performers are brought in the same way as composers — by word of mouth, by interest, and by people who seem to be on the same page in terms of building community.
And the two directors are a composer and a performer, too.
That’s right. We’re two women from different backgrounds and countries, with sometimes very different perspectives on music. It makes for a dynamic partnership!
What are the proportions between women and men in the group?
Well, in the first year, it was completely equal, because there are just a lot of great women composers in Norway. This year, I think we have slightly more men than women, something like 55 and 45 percent. Relatively equal numbers are not something we’ve actively planned, although it’s something that we’re proud of. And we will continue to work hard to include artists of all different ages, personal identities, and walks of life.
Talk a little bit about the idea of shared values, and what you’ve done, and what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.
There are learning structures that exist in our minds — for example, one person standing in front of a group and talking about their own work. I don’t find that these structures always encourage the attitude that we’re trying to support at nu:nord. What we’ve found does encourage that attitude, is allowing people to get to know each other and find things in common as individuals, not only as musicians.
When you hear someone present their work but don’t find the chance to then follow through on your questions or concerns, it’s easy to make snap judgements. We’re trying not to encourage that kind of thinking. One way we’re addressing this issue is to employ a two-year structure to our projects. We have workshops and experimentation in the first year, after which the composers get a whole year to compose before the performances happen in the second year. This really gives us the space we need get to know one another, get past initial differences, explore initial sympathies, and make pieces we’re all proud of.
So it’s two years from initial assignments and personnel until the performance.
Yes. Following a performance year, we’ll speak to all the participants and get a sense of who might want to participate again in the future. Then we’ll determine who will be involved for the next two years.
So you’re starting a new cycle in 2015.
Yes. England will be the host next time around.
The two years leading up to the performances sound like they’re crucial.
The performances are really only one part of what we do. Every day, we have participant-lead workshops on topics that concern music making. Two or three of the participants together will lead each workshop, give small presentations and invite a group discussion on a specific topic. The topic could be something like indeterminacy in composition, or language as musical artifact, or the idea of new and old in music – generally standard, universal topics that are somehow related to everyone’s practice.
We also have times where we split off into small groups, and so we all have a chance to chat with everyone involved. Some groups might choose to sit with scores all afternoon, while others might end up going bowling. The idea is just to get to know people on your own terms.
And where are people staying?
Out-of-towners are billeted with other participants from the host city, or with local musicians and friends of the participants.
So I want to go further back for a second to what makes you so interested and so committed to this idea of community. What does community mean to you? Or you can talk about it in group terms if you prefer.
For me, community means not feeling the need to define oneself by how one is different from others. We can see things happening that aren’t what we do, and rather than feeling the need to meet difference with equal and opposite difference, we can notice and observe and appreciate differences. We can also allow those observations to encourage us in how we do things, perhaps to make us question what we do, or just to be okay with the fact that there is difference in the world.
At nu:nord, we describe community-building as respecting the stylistic diversity of individual practice, while fostering social responsibility. We’re talking about creating a better sense of interest and engagement and support among creators of new music, whether they work with semi- or fully-notated music, installation, improv, open compositions, electronics, whatever.
It can be a progressive sort of sense of isolation: well I’m an artist. Artists have it rough. I’m a musician. I’m in new music. Well I do experimental music. And then all sorts of other things are privileged over you, and then there’s resentment that builds up, and barriers.
It aggravates the question, why are you doing the thing you’re doing in the first place?
Exactly. I think it’s really, really important that we all remind each other of that all the time. When you cut something in half, you see a cross-section, and it looks a certain way. But if you cut it in half on a different axis, the cross-section would look very different. We all exist kind of in all of these states all the time. So we should concentrate on what is healthy and what makes us happy. I think it makes us more productive and happier to just take a curious attitude towards ourselves and others.
People actually caring about each other.
Precisely. And I feel very responsible to encourage that kind of attitude with nu:nord, because I think that there are a lot of expectations placed on musicians, especially people who are newer in the field. These can be what people expect us to do based on our personal backgrounds, or what we’re currently doing in our practice.
If one of our projects produced no professional connections, but many friendships, I would consider it a success. Friends are the people who show up to your next concert! That’s part of community-building, and part of our social engagement as musicians.
Have there been things that you’ve had to stop or reshape or redirect, because they were going in the wrong direction?
Yeah, I think each year we’ve taken stock of what happened, and decided what we would like to learn from that year.
You didn’t have to be heavy-handed about it.
No. I think the biggest challenge has been to keep encouraging generosity among the participants, because that’s what really makes or breaks our project. We always remind our participants that everyone’s relying on everyone else to give their best.
And they want to do their best.
Yes, even if it’s an unfamiliar proposition. We’re not always given the kind of generous situation that allows us to make the best of something. I think that’s been a challenge for every individual involved, including myself.
You’ve talked about this as being for emerging new music creators. I know just looking around in my experience, people tend to feel isolated in those early days, and having some sense of being in it with some other people makes a huge difference.
It does. But it’s very important to us not to discriminate based on age. In fact, we had a 68-year-old emerging composer the first year! That said, the majority of the work we do is with younger artists, or those who have more recently entered into the field, because there are so few opportunities for them that are not based on competition. And there are also very few opportunities in which emerging musicians aren’t put in their place based on their education, age, or the number of prizes they have won.
Each of our participants has a different background, and everyone has something different to offer. I think when you let people work with their strengths, and you provide a safe space for them to not know something and explore their own weaknesses, everyone learns more than if you say, you are a beginner, and therefore you belong in this group.
So I’m an American. My first reaction is, okay, this is great, but it’s for three other countries’ participants. If I wanted to do something like this on a small scale, I might first think, but these are three countries that actually give some money to artists. I can’t do anything like this. How much of it is actually the money?
Of course we are grateful for the support we have received from many different arts councils and organizations. But our work is not all about money. We do our best to work to provide each participant with professional support — be that funding, resources, materials, etc. — from the arts councils that are available to them. I think this year, most if not all participants got some sort of support, based on a lot of applications that the organizers, the performers, and the composers put in.
But it’s understood among our participants, performers and composers alike, that if support doesn’t come through in the way we hope, we will contribute and participate anyway. We’ve never had a composer in nu:nord who didn’t write the piece because they didn’t get the grant. Never, not a single one. And that’s been very important.
First and foremost nu:nord is a community investment from each participant.
For you it’s kind of like a part-time job, I think.
Yeah, it takes a lot of time and thought. This session coming up next week has been in my mind for two years, and in Stine’s mind as well. But the work gives us a lot back.
What fuels you to put in that work and want to keep on doing it?
I think every person involved in nu:nord would have a different answer. So this is my answer.
I have felt disappointed by some attitudes I’ve observed in the music community — defensive, judgemental, aggressive attitudes which seem only to hinder music making. Yet, to criticize something is to take something away from it, to remove something from the world. So I feel responsible to put something back, which I feel is better than what I took away. I see a lot of potential in nu:nord to balance some of those negative attitudes for those involved.
“This is my answer.”
Yeah. I don’t think we’re changing the world or anything like that. I’m just doing what I can do, and I hope that everybody who’s involved in nu:nord goes away from it thinking, I can expect good treatment from my colleagues, and I can expect positive musical experiences. And I hope each of them tries to then do something to spread that feeling to other people.
And also do more and stay creative, and not just retreat into a shell.
By no means should we ignore the artistic side of this, you’re totally right. The whole point is to feel more free to create the music we actually want to make, and to feel able and responsible to continue educating ourselves. We should never be afraid to ask questions.
Like can you do a double stop like this?
Yes, technical questions, and also aesthetic one, like “why do you think XYZ is a valid compositional tool?” One must not be afraid to ask such questions, and one should not feel insulted if asked something like that. I think if a question is asked with the goal of understanding, and an answer is given with the goal of being understood, then people can learn.
One thing I’ve seen among emerging artists is, if somebody finds a job and gets to do that work, and somehow get paid in a relevant field, that may set them up. But if they don’t, and if they don’t have active friendships within that field, it’s very hard to keep going.
Many of our participants are professional full time musicians, but there are also many who are not making a living with their music. They’re doing it as their pastime and as their life work, but they’re not doing it as a livelihood.
So that doesn’t become a hierarchy in the group either.
I think people can be pressured into thinking that way by environment, but I hope our environment encourages the opposite.
Can you give an example of an interaction or a type of interaction that happens in rehearsals, or those composer small groups or whatever, that has fed back into the creative work?
I remember when Richard Glover came to Montreal and presented his music, and it was a new thing for quite a number of the composers who were there. It was inflammatory for a certain number of people. It made them maybe feel a bit uncomfortable, or it surprised them, and many people had a lot of questions. But quite a few of those composers went on to actually write pieces that were in some way informed by the kinds of ideas that Richard presents in his music. And I think that it’s an example of how that initial ‘no’ reaction, given time and a safe environment, can be formative.
Another good example is something John Lely said about working with Tre Voci Cello Ensemble. He had workshopped a new piece with them, and afterward said, “Through playing and talking we arrived at a suitable tempo and dynamic, and the musicians found their own way to play the piece. These solutions seemed to emerge very easily – mostly, I think, because of the musicians’ sensitivity and open-mindedness.”
So a composer wouldn’t be judged as being less professional for coming in with something incomplete. The idea is to come and work with people.
It’s often integral to the process! The performers just love to be involved at the creative level in a piece. And I think that process allows a composer to write a piece that’s really suited to a performer. It just leads to more investment in the piece overall. Tre Voci performed that trio of John’s about a dozen times by now. It’s part of their repertoire.
There are two kinds of unhealthy dynamics that I’ve witnessed between composers and performers. One is, oh, the performer is there to service my piece. They’re the vehicle. The other is when the performer thinks, these people don’t know what they’re doing. Let’s just get through it. And those kinds of dynamics, if people actually care about each other and have the room and time to work and a lot of time for the creation of a project. That two year frame sounds idyllic.
Yes it is, and we also know music making can’t always be like that. But I do think what our timeline does is illustrate that a 45-minute read-through with a famous ensemble isn’t necessarily the best a young composer can hope for. We’d like people to go away thinking, this 45 minutes should just be the beginning, and maybe I should seek out people I get along with to work a bit more. Maybe I shouldn’t always focus on finding the most famous group to play my piece. That can feed back into a pretty unrewarding dynamic.
The group that will look great on my resumé.
Yeah, collecting keys for your keychains. I don’t think nu:nord means much to anyone except the people who’ve participated. But I think it’s been valuable to those who have.
But one of the goals is that it can be in some way a springboard for people, and some way for them to have other opportunities and move forward too. And that’s happened many times over.
Yeah, I think so, and I hope it continues to. As we involve more people, and as others return, we can continue to grow together. What nu:nord is right now isn’t necessarily what it was, or what it will always be. It’s constantly growing, and I think that that is how we look at people as well.
We also welcome others to take our ideas and use them. We don’t own them. They’re not really even based on anything to do with music. They’re based on just being kind and respectful to other people, and socially responsible within our community. I encourage other people to set up their own projects, and they’re welcome to use nu:nord as a model if they like what we’re doing.