Robert Barry reports from Scandinavia's largest contemporary music festival

Oslo is a musical instrument

It's 12 noon on Saturday and I'm standing in a carpark while a gang of eight young men in black jeans, dark jackets, and white earbuds drum on a large steel gate. The click tracks in their ears are all slightly out of sync, so the sound phases, in waves, like a Steve Reich tape piece.

Then all of a sudden, a few minutes having passed, they're off. Beating their sticks together, or upon railings or paving stones, leading us out of the gate and up the street, eight fashionably dressed pied percussionists. The rhythms are constantly changing in complex polyphony as we march up quiet streets. It's like a dance, spontaneously choreographed; they strike what surfaces come to hand and then, all at once, freeze together with just one player left to keep up a pulse until they all come crashing back in.

Soon we break out of the back streets. Their once almost-private soundworld now encroached upon by the bustle of the city, the whole thing threatens to collapse. Instead it just gets better, making all of us here a party to the liberating sensation of having seized the streets for our own.

At the big crossing where Maridalsveien meets Rosteds Gate, outside the Kiwi Minipris, the drums start to really spread out from what had been a tight circle. At all four points of the crossroads, down streets and round corners, they hammer on road signs and traffic lights. The beeping of the pedestrian crossing adds a delightful pitched pulse to all these clanging percussive sounds now coming from all angles.

Passers-by, about their business or on their way somewhere with friends and family, regard us askance. Still the black-jacketed young men keep tap-tap-tapping, knocking out the rhythms of bouncing balls on every available surface: walls and grates and signal boxes and the a-board of a takeaway pizza place. One guy starts jamming on a drain cover in the middle of the street and a car is nearly forced to swerve to avoid him. They beat out rolls and trills and the revving of automobile engines adds bass and grit.

Now ducking down another residential side street, beating on lamp posts and door jambs. People poke their heads out of their homes like what the fuck is this? and there's a delicious sense of being in on some secret, being part of a conspiracy to subvert the city, to pervert its very bones and make them rattle with some occult music. Even the birds in the park seem to be in on it, tweeting their approval as if pre-composed.

Every lamp post in the park has a different pitch and standing in the middle as the eight drummers roll their sticks upon the poles, the whole place shimmers as if the park itself were about to come.

Koka Nikoladze's roving composition, Sound Stencil 0.1, finally ends, some 45 minutes after it began, with all 8 of the drummers, pounding together upon the support strut for the floodlights in front of the taco stand in the square at Youngs Gate. I don't know how it all must have seemed to people going about their Saturday who just caught some brief moment, here or there. But following the journey from start to finish made every surface in the city come alive. In my head these streets still thrum with secret harmonies.


Ultima Festival 2015, Oslo
Rose Dodd
Tempo / Volume 70 / Issue 275 / January 2016, pp 96 -­ 98
DOI: 10.1017/S0040298215000765, Published online: 07 December 2015
Link to this article:

Midday on Saturday is early in Oslo. Scattered
around a deserted yard, overlooked by a striking,
outsize, almost gothic graffiti artwork, a crowd
straggled together. Mixed messages went back
and forth about where and when Koka
Nikoladze’s (b. 1989) Sound Stencil 0.1 (2015,
world premiere) would actually start. Kids
around the corner were already at work with
spray cans, their incessant soundtrack having
started up for the day. This was coincidental,
but certainly added authenticity and a nice
twist to what happened next. A group of guys
passed by – whom I identified as the percussionists
involved in the piece – but disappeared
for the moment. Within a few minutes the
crowd was seemingly quorate, and the group
of percussionists casually merged and began to
beat in precise and stunning rhythmic unison
with sticks on the iron railings of the yard gate.
So far, so interesting. Then, one by one the percussionists
broke free of the gate, moving at first
along the wall of the yard, but soon swarming
along graffiti-embossed streets, striking anything
they could lay their sticks on: lamp posts, drainage
covers, electricity boxes, gates – all these
adopted as their new instruments in what felt
like a mix of street protest and performance
art. Residential streets merged into a busy road
junction where audience and players were split for quite some time, then we moved back
through more sleepy Saturday residential streets
into a park by the Deichman Library, finishing
up at Yongstorget. Synchronised audio scoring
on the performers’ smartphones dictated rhythmical
patterns and other directions, as well as
providing mutual audibility. Percussionists and
audience spread, mingled, lingered. Buggies
were pushed, the crowd mutable, and a spell
had been cast, so we followed the sound. The
experience was compelling; no one dropped
off. In the second residential section a stillness
and focus descended – the players and crowd
stretched some distance, linked only through
rhythm. A sleepy resident cast an eye out of
his window to investigate all this unexpected
clattering. Afterwards, in the park, it was as if
Xenakis was evoked in an ambisonic circle of
park lamp posts – parents broke free with their
kids for a welcome bit of play.