By Ando Woltmann
Sometimes referred to as “The Paris of the North”, Tromsø bears little resemblance to the original, neither in stature or design. There is, however, a spirit and a will here that many larger European cities would envy. Located at 69 degrees north, it is far beyond the polar circle (or the moral circle as other Norwegians tend to call it), but still the city is buzzing, both day and night.
International academics and students, tourists and travellers, visitors from all over the Barents region come here to work and play. In downtown Tromsø you can hear English, German, Russian, French or Sami languages spoken in the numerous cafés and bars just as often as Norwegian. With a central part not only as the capital of the region, but also as the Norwegian stronghold in the geopolitical importance of the area, Tromsø is the kind of place that makes a perfect backdrop for a spy thriller.
The Insomnia Festival turns 16 this year. An ever-developing project based in the city’s long-lived scene for electronic music. As recently seen in the charming documentary, Northern Disco Lights, Tromsø was the birthplace of the whole electronic movement in Norway. Biosphere, Mental Overdrive, Bjørn Torske, Rune Lindbæk and Röyksopp all sprang out of the local “Brygga Radio”; in the 80s, and their DIY-ethos and goofy fascination with circuits and oscillators seem to live on through younger generations.
“Where other festivals try to make up a theme, we prefer rather not to”, says one of the festival organizers, Gaute Barlindhaug, in his improvised opening speech in the beautiful cinema, Verdensteatret. “Insomnia will always try to be the opposite. Not narrowed down. We seek less focus”, he smiles. The festival has a strong tradition for only booking artists once, preferably before their names are too well known, and the program is carefully curated only from what staff, collaborators and partners find interesting. Like with everything else in this city, bullshit is not tolerated.
Way out North
Seated on a pillow, jazz singer Mari Kvien Brunvoll kicks off Insomnia with an almost dancelike performance on a variety of instruments and electronics. Her collaboration with Ricardo Villalobos in 2013 and her excellent band Building Instrument may still be of bigger repute among the electro-heads, but Brunvoll is a superb solo performer, who narrows the gap between jazz, contemporary music and electronics. After putting on her shoes and leaving the stage, she is followed by Detroit duo Dopplereffekt which, with an elegant shake of the wrist, conjure up some retro-futuristic electro it is hard to dislike. Like if Kraftwerk had ventured into physics after Radio-Akitivität rather than pick up their bicycles. And we’re off!
Insomnia’s nighttime program takes place in the recently opened student house, Driv. A smooth, compact solution with three stages on three different levels, however also characterized by a generic student house feel that, for some reason, seem to be a global thing. Sami artist Ville Järvensivu from the village Utsjoki has done a great job decorating and lighting the ground floor stage though, somehow combining Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Northern Lights of his homeplace. It is also a little reminder of Tromsø’s location on the vast plateau of the indigenous Sami people, sadly enough still a source of conflict in Norway. Happy to say, great sets from Lithuanian semiotic JG Bieberkopf, hometown darling Boska, Swedish duo Varg & AnnaMelina and Russian DJ Inga Mauer, bring the crowd together on the dance floor. At least that’s a good start.
Grimy heavy weight
The festival program is a neatly knitted tapestry, where lack of alternatives is compensated for with a strong quality control. The daytime program, mainly located in the impressive culture hub/recording studio/youth center TviBit, ranges from workshops building electronic instruments to panel talks on urban nightlife, revolutionizing communication and lectures on Norwegian music funds. The local crowd takes eagerly part in Insomnia, and there is a fond intimacy between artists, lecturers, international delegates, audience and the locals. And of course: There are saunas, ice bathing, bacalao dinners, afterparties and hunt for the elusive northern light. Ordinary Arctic activities, some might say.
Friday night starts with a phenomenal blow out from the Slovenian/Austrian duo Zsammm, in what could best be described as a noisy free jazz version of the The White Stripes. Couple Maja Osojnik and Patrick Wirzwallner convey an interesting dynamic between them, part raw expressionism, part elegant showmanship. Other highlights on Friday night include dubstep original Mala doing a grimy vinyl set, encouraging us to “do it propahhh!” People respond by going nuts. “Heavy weight bizznizz, innit?”
Winter announces its entrance Saturday morning and makes the streets of Tromsø a slippery slope, however these obstacles are soon forgotten entering a pre-party celebrating the “grand old man” Per Martinsen AKA Mental Overdrive’s new album, Epilouge. In a funky gallery space called Small Projects, Martinsen builds his set up slowly, from misty ambience to a full on four to the floor. His newbuilt modules, straight from the festival workshop, tick like clockwork, and in a typical Tromsø fashion, Martinsen lends them out to the eager crowd after the gig.”Now it’s your turn!”
Over at Driv the party continues. “I’m drunk!” shouts New York phenomenon and razor tongue Cakes Da Killa during his both hilarious and thought provoking show. The festival has so far been almost remarkably non-verbal, but Cakes The Killa makes up for everything, taking on both hecklers and himself. It’s definitely the most cramped and intense concert of the festival, and it also touches into the ethos of Insomnia: tolerance, openness, curiosity and innovation all mixed up with a healthy attitude and distilled fun.
Deep into the night Barlindhaug tells us about his doctor thesis on semantics in Western music, on how we have separated body and mind in our music. It’s a fascinating tale, even at this hour, and it sums up Insomnia neatly. A tiny little island in a remote corner of Europe, trying to gather us all. Dancing into the wee hours of the seemingly endless Nordic night.