How did Norway become Scandi-cool in the wider world?

Time-honoured ideas of the Nordic may point the way for a changing world
We Scandinavians want to be included in the international art scene, Anders Beyer writes. Photo from the opening of Nordic Music Days in Southbank Centre, London 2017.

By Anders Beyer

I trundle around the cultural complex Southbank Centre in London, and overhear fragments of conversations.

“Did you know that Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland have been voted the world’s best countries to be a woman in? Or that the UN has proclaimed the Danes the happiest people on the planet?”

Throughout 2017 Southbank Centre housed the Nordic cultural campaign Nordic Matters, an ambitious initiative where the public could enjoy different kinds of Nordic culture and lifestyle.

I’m going to a concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Finnish Esa-Pekka Salonen. They are playing music by the two up-and-coming Icelandic composers Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daníel Bjarnason, in a musical sandwich of Sibelius symphonies.

The concert is part of Nordic Music Days, which is arranged alternately by the various Nordic composers’ societies. The Nordic composers who are on the spot in London are looking forward to being part of the city’s pulsating cultural life, and dreaming of success in the same way as they did in 2002, when the Norwegian Composers’ Society arranged Nordic Music Days in Berlin, an event they gave the name Magma.

Lava-hot from Iceland

We Scandinavians want to be part of the international art scene. Optimistic actors are making risk capital available in an attempt to evoke a response in the major metropolises.

So what has happened in the interval between Magma 2002 in Berlin and Nordic Matters in London in 2017? We can note that new music from Iceland has become as hot as lava, something that was definitely not the case at the beginning of the millennium. In London it was cool to see old Icelandic stagers talking about their works as part of the international avant-garde.

To put all this into perspective: Daníel Bjarnason’s violin concerto was recently premiered at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. That is big.

Maybe what is happening to new Icelandic music is comparable to what we saw in Finland in the 80s: a formidable boost for Finnish musicians, conductors and composers. Finland invested in the education and development of young talent – the rest is history. Internationally, Finland took a leading role among the Nordic countries – a position it still keeps up.

The experience from Finland and Iceland confirms that it pays to invest in art. As we await the new Norwegian government, we can note that hitherto a lot has been done to invest well and properly in Norwegian musicians and talents, enabling them to raise their profiles internationally. Recently we have seen that attention to the training of conductors is also growing. That is positive and it is high time.

The Norwegian potential is great. It will be interesting to see whether the new government will seize the chance and invest further to enable performers, creators and presenters of art to climb the heights in the same way as we have seen in the world of sport.

The interpretation of dreams

How did it happen that we became Scandi-cool out in the wide world? What is it we can do in our cultural sphere that is valued so highly? Well, of course we have Nordic cuisine, film, architecture and design, which have all set the agenda internationally.

In addition to being innovative and quality-conscious, there is also an interesting shared sounding-board. In the North popular movements and opinion are grafted on democracy, of which public debate is a mainstay. Our sense of justice comes down in an unbroken succession from Old Norse concepts like honour and integrity as a basis for freedom and inviolability.

This view of humanity has given our part of the world the reputation of “the good society” with values which in so many areas can point Europe and the world towards the future.

We take a stand on the environment, abuses of power, war, violence and intolerance. You could say that the Nordic democratic movements dream up a brighter future, with their unshakable faith in reason and progress. A dream that is understood as both reactionary nostalgia and as progressive rationality.

The dream metaphor comes from the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who analysed modern society in his work Passagen-Werk, written between 1927 and 1940. Benjamin viewed Paris under Napoleon III as a precursor of the twentieth century.

In his version the nineteenth century was already dreaming of the twentieth century, both in the sense that it anticipated it in the dream and in the attempt to dream itself away from reality. The culture of Paris involved both a dream of the unimagined possibilities of technology and a fear of the consequences of a brutal, metallic reality.

In the same way one could say that we are now dreaming of a new age.

Free flow of art

Is a combined Norwegian and Nordic identity and solidarity at all possible and desirable in a multicultural world with global networks and communication options whose extent we can only glimpse today?

We have to be careful about projecting lines of development too far into the future. But some things are clear: our everyday life, cultural life and information-sharing are undergoing radical transformation, and in just ten years’ time the world will be very different from today. Every day that passes, some more of what was once called ‘science fiction’ becomes reality.

We have moved from a public-sector monopoly culture to an individualized multimedia culture, and opinion-forming today has its origins in new modes of communication. To an increasing degree art flows freely via global networking systems. The end result of interactive communication via hybrid networks, electronic high-technology, robots, virtual and extended reality will inevitably be global integration.

In the future we shall see ever more new art forms and modes of expression that have been ‘born digital’. Will the digital be able to replace mankind’s fundamental need for the analogue encounter with an art experience? Hardly. On the contrary, that need will probably grow as our lives become digitalized.

Time-honoured idea for the future

Art today is global, well helped by technology. The “Nordic sound”, on the other hand, is experiencing more and more difficult conditions. In London the Icelandic composers Thorvaldsdottir and Bjarnason were asked about their music’s affinities with the Nordic sound. The question quite clearly made them uncomfortable. The polite answer was as empty of content as the question from the hopeful journalist.

Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Halvorsen, Stenhammar and Melartin had a sense of community and clear familiarity with one another’s art. The same is by no means the case today.

So why make the effort to seek out and strengthen Nordic bonds? If there are indeed areas where the Nordic countries continue to meet in a mutual solidarity, then they are in culture and to a certain extent in language, religion and spirituality.

This perception is reflected and confirmed in others’ images of the North, which is often viewed from the outside as exotic and indomitable. Our dependence on nature does not exist in the self-understanding of the average European.

Perhaps we are talking about a Nordic form of society and life. Perhaps it is the time-honoured idea of the Nordic, based on history, politics and culture, that constitutes our Nordic self-understanding. And perhaps it is precisely this essence that can contribute to cohesion in the coming, inevitable integration process in a European house that is full of harsh dissonances and a lack of trust.

© Anders Beyer 2017

The article was first published in Norwegian in Aftenposten 15 October 2017.