There are many remarkable things about Tromsø, a Norwegian city whose people - whether disabled or not - achieve an enviable standard of living on a small island 350 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, 240 kilometres from any other town and 1000 kilometres from another city of similar size. Tromsø also boasts the northern-most University in the world and in the summer of 2008 the University Music Department, together with the Tromsø Culture School invited Charlotte White to write music for, and attend this year's 'Nordlysfestivalen' (Northern Lights Music Festival). The Northern Lights themselves proved elusive but Charlotte, Jackie (Charlotte's PA) and I enjoyed an unforgettable week in Tromsø from 20th to 27th January.
We awoke, late on Wednesday morning to a dusky half-light. The sun, which had deserted Tromsø in late November, was for the first time peeping over the mountains at the end of the fjord. It didn't peep for long though, and we were plunged back into darkness by 2.30pm. During the afternoon we visited our hosts, Elin, Einar and Johann at the SKUG centre - an Assistive Music Technology powerhouse within the Culture School, whose links to Drake Music and Dr. Tim Anderson go back a number of years. We also finally met Øyvin Kristoffer and Vibeke, the two disabled musicians with whom Charlotte had remotely collaborated to compose the music for the Festival's opening performance via a combination of Skype, VNC and Dropbox file sharing. We relied on taxis to get us around town for most of this first day but thereafter, on Charlotte's insistence, we braved the sub-zero temperatures and began making our own way around the streets, despite much of the tarmac being buried centimetres beneath sheet ice or heavily compacted snow.
There is a prevailing attitude in Tromsø that anything is possible, so long as you believe strongly enough that it should happen and find common-sense solutions. By the early 1990's for example, increased traffic congestion began to seriously threaten the small city streets and wooden houses. But instead of widening the roads it was decided to build a network of underground tunnels and car parks, paid for through a small increase in the cost of fuel that has now recouped. The achievements of disabled musicians at the SKUG centre, and indeed the general level of aspiration by and for disabled people in Tromsø is emblematic of this positive outlook. And, as with the best Assistive Music Technology, the cyclists who whizz past on the icy roads also employ a simple, practical solution to defy initial expectations. Their tyres, just like those of all other vehicles in the winter, are fitted with metal spikes to ensure a firm grip.
On Thursday and Friday Charlotte and I presented, and Charlotte performed to staff and music students at Kongsbakken College, and the University Music Department. Charlotte greatly impressed everyone with her performance of the Bach Cello prelude and her demonstrations of Sibelius and Reason using her 'SmartNav' hands-free mouse and a range of assistive software. For me, it was brilliant to be able to present alongside her and I'm sure that the audiences went away with a much more profound appreciation of her achievements, and of the potential of disabled musicians in general, than I am able to engender when presenting on my own.
On Friday evening we got to see and hear the culmination of Charlotte, Øyvin Kristoffer and Vibeke's hard work. The opening performance of the Nordlysfestivalen was a stunning, open-air event in Tromsø's main square, attended by the Crown Prince of Norway and an audience of about 500 people. A troupe of dancers depicted the Norwegian fairy story of "Havmannens Sønn" in and around a set of beautifully lit snow sculptures, with Charlotte, Øyvin and Vibeke's pre-recorded music commanding everyone's attention from the massive PA towers. Charlotte's pieces rose brilliantly to the occasion and the dancers clearly loved dancing to them; the young boy in the story (the sønn) skipping around gleefully to her skittering, breathless flutes. I hope to be able to post some video of the event online soon as it was filmed for broadcast by the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC. Afterwards, at the opening concert in Tromsø's main concert hall (also attended by the Crown Prince) Charlotte and her collaborators were presented with flowers in recognition of their fantastic contribution to the festival. Not surprisingly, we all went out for a well-deserved celebratory meal and a few drinks afterwards.
The weekend was filled with a succession of amazing arctic experiences: a sight-seeing drive into the mountains, visits to both Johann and Elin's homes where we enjoyed wonderful hospitality, a spot of sledging, a baroque flute concert, a flight over Tromsø and the surrounding mountains in a small four-seater plane, a seal show at the 'Polarium' and finally a return to the city concert hall to hear music for Euphonium and web-cam.
We spent Monday afternoon back at the SKUG centre, exchanging Assistive Music Technology tips and tricks and making music with Øyvin, Vibeke and a number of other young, disabled musicians. Before the return flight on Tuesday there was just time for Charlotte and Jackie to fit in a dog-sled ride through the spectacular mountain scenery while Elin, Einar and I drank tea by an open fire in a traditional Sami tent and plotted the next phase of our collaboration. We're all keen to extend the potential of the remote collaborative music making which produced such fantastic results at the Nordlysfestivalen. It could unlock previously unimagined access to music for disabled musicians scattered throughout remote arctic communities in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, as well as being extremely useful for musicians working with Drake Music in the UK. If you don't believe us, you probably wouldn't believe the speed of the cyclists in Tromsø either.
Hear / download Charlotte's compositions for "Havmannen's Sønn", recorded by Elin Skogdal with musicians from Tromsø University and the Tromsø Symphony Orchestra:
Watch Charlotte's performance of the Bach Cello Prelude on YouTube