5 Questions to Peter Meanwell (Artistic Director, Borealis 2018)

Borealis is a festival for experimental music and adventurous listening held annually in Bergen, Norway every March since 2004. Borealis is committed to gender-balanced programming, and in 2017, the festival was awarded the first Gender Equality Prize from the Norwegian Society of Composers. Borealis 2018 features equal gender representation in both the composers and performing artists throughout the 28 scheduled events over the 5 days of the festival. We asked 5 questions to Artistic Director Peter Meanwell about Borealis 2018 and inclusive programming ahead of this year’s festival, which is scheduled for March 7-11.

Can you give us an overview of Borealis 2018?

We want to create a space where over the course of five days, a community of listeners can go on adventures. Rather than a music festival where you decide to attend based on if you like who is on the lineup, Borealis is more like an art gallery where you go because you want to see what is new and have the experience first, before you make your mind up. If people don’t like everything they see or hear at Borealis, that’s fine by me. The important thing is to have the experience and then, ideally, have a discussion about it later. In this way, Borealis tries to give space to artists and composers who are pushing at the boundaries of their genres, and then make it possible for people to come in to contact with these new expressions.

So, this year it’s 28 events in 12 different venues over 5 days, featuring over 50 artists. Each day runs from morning to night, and includes conversations and workshops, composed music, improvisation, installations, electronic music … in some ways the idea of genre is not so relevant, but what is important is that people are doing something exploratory. Often, we are enabling projects to happen for the first time. In March, we’ll have the first performance of an outdoor opera for construction cranes and large ensemble by American composer Natacha Diels that we’ve been working on for a few years; a big new piece by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger for Stian Westerhus, BIT20 Ensemble, SWR Experimentalstudio, and Ilan Volkov; a night we’ve programmed with artist Joachim Koester inside his exhibition that’s showing in town… there’s lots of exciting things happening.

Though Borealis 2018 will host an international roster of artists, can you tell us about some of the young Norwegian composers and performers?

There are so many! Pinquins are a really exciting ensemble that will perform new works by two young Norwegian composers Danielle Dahl and Ingvild Langgård. They’re officially a percussion trio, but they tend to end up doing everything, from hitting stuff to using their voices and bodies. With Bergen National Opera, we’ve commissioned three mini-operas from Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi, Lars Skoglund, and Øyvind Mæland, to give a new generation of Norwegian composers access to the resources of the opera house. asamisimasa are a brilliant Norwegian new music ensemble who are performing new works by Laurence Crane, Joanna Bailie, Johannes Kreidler, and Kristine Tjøgersen–and Kristine is a Norwegian composer who brings together a visual and musical language that is at once very exacting but at times quite off–kilter and witty. Stephan Meidell will be presenting a new live version of his 2017 Hubro album Metrics, that combines a baroque ensemble, prepared piano, improvisation and live electronics; Jenny Berger Myhre is a great up and coming musician from the Oslo DIY scene; and FAKETHIAS is a young producer and DJ who’s playing on a bill with MHYSA and DJ Haram from Philadelphia.

Programme Launch – Borealis 2018 from Borealis Festival on Vimeo.

This will be the third contemporary music festival I’ve attended in a Nordic country. Can you explain this correlation between Scandinavia and ambitious, experimental programming?

Culture has been prioritised in Norwegian public life, most visibly through public funding and financial support for the arts. This means that people have access to more cultural experiences more of the time, and through active schools arts programmes, grow up with an idea that the arts are important. The more culture there is, and the more it is considered as part of the social mix, the more room there is for experimenting and pushing its boundaries. It also means that there is less of a fight for resources between artistic institutions, so people are more open to interesting collaboration, rather than spending their energy battling each other for the small funds that are available.

I also think Scandinavian countries tend towards non-hierarchical social systems–add to that Norway’s low wage inequality and there is more of a sense that culture is for everyone, rather than a particular section of society. These are generalisations of course, and it’s not perfect, so we still have to work hard to make sure that we’re not just talking to a narrow section of the community. The aim is to make a festival where the art can be as experimental and rigorous as it needs to be, but the frame around it doesn’t turn anyone away. If people think that the festival is too exclusive, or they feel excluded or unwelcome, or even if they can’t work out where to go, then we’re not giving them the opportunity to come in to contact with the art, and that for me is a problem.

Many performers/composers/festival curators say they want to see gender-balanced programming, but Borealis has actually achieved this. What does it take to enact inclusive programming?

There’s a quote from Donna Haraway that I came across recently that I love, “the spell can not be only written, it has to be cast” … basically we have to stop talking, and start doing something.

The composers and artists and performers exist, so there is no problem in finding great people to programme. What takes time and energy is first to question your own motivations, biases and privileges; and then to actively combat the infrastructural bias in the music industry that has presented male artists as the only option for so long. It takes a bit more time, to read, to research, to listen, but increasingly there are more and more resources to help people think more broadly in their programming–Balansekunst in Norway is a great organisation that helps make the case for more inclusive arts programming, Konstmusiksystrar is a Swedish organisation that profiles female and trans composers and sound artists, female:pressure is a huge international network of female, transgender and non-binary electronic artists, and there are lots more.

I think if you really want to be more inclusive, then you also have to think early on in the process what you want to achieve, and keep assessing where you have got to go. If you don’t consider this kind of diversity throughout the process of building a festival line-up, then it’s very easy to start off with good intentions, but because the industry as a whole is not balanced, you can easily end up with a fairly unbalanced programme. If you’re committed to it, you have to make a stand and use your position as a gatekeeper to influence how the broader music industry acts–talking to ensembles or promoters and ask them to reconsider their all male programmes for example.

Crucially, we also have to make the case for why diverse line-ups are important–not just because the political pressure is on now–but because curatorially it is more interesting, it makes better programmes, and it’s better for audiences. I was hugely inspired by discussions at Darmstadt in 2016, with Georgina Born, Ashley Fure, Jennifer Walshe and others, and I think the more discussion we can have about how practically to change things, the more we can share and talk about the challenges, and the more we can help each other to achieve something. We don’t always get it right, but we’re trying to be open about the process, and keep questioning ourselves and learn from those around us.

Borealis Artistic Director Peter Meanwell and Managing Director Tine Rude

Borealis Artistic Director Peter Meanwell and Managing Director Tine Rude

How do you respond to people who justify homogeneous programming by saying, “I don’t pay attention to gender/race/socio-economic status/etc.—I only pay attention to the quality of the music.”

Very clearly it isn’t–and has never been–just about the quality of the music. Gender/race/socio-economic factors have always played a role in who has access to resources, who is encouraged to become an artist, who has the agency to be on the stage. Plus, I’ve been to lots of festivals and concerts full of boring pieces by men, so the argument that inequality is justified because it is “all about quality” is nonsense. This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been great pieces by men, but I think it’s fairly evident that having a penis is no guarantee of quality.

So if we start from the position that diversity of voices on (or off) the concert stage gives us the widest possible perspective on what say, silence and noise or complexity and simplicity, could mean, then it becomes a curatorial imperative to consider all of these factors. To paraphrase the anthropologist Georgina Born, it is not a zero-sum game–it is possible to consider gender/race/socio-economic factors alongside quality without diminishing it. You could make an argument that working to have a broader pool of art to choose from gives you the option of more quality.

It isn’t simple of course, and many institutions operate blind selections, which then also results in homogenous programmes. But to consider equality only from the perspective of the work is to ignore the past, present and future situation of the art form. In the 70s, in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Linda Nochlin wrote, “the question of women’s equality–in art as in any other realm–devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.” So until there is equality of access to resources, education, role models etc. a blind listening may only reinforce existing biases within the system.

We’ve had a few hundred years of male only programming, so why not now try and even it out for a bit? If culture collapses because of it, then we can think again, but if it doesn’t, we can start to create new role models, write more inclusive histories, hear different things, and challenge our own perspectives for the better.