Sounds from Svalbard
I’m around 600 miles from the North Pole, a place where there are more polar bears than people, where winters bring total darkness and summers bring the midnight sun.. I’m in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, the most northerly part of Norway, though a very long way from the Norwegian mainland. And all in the name of jazz - the Polar Jazz Festival.
We left Tromso on the northern coast of Norway and flew for an hour and half into the Polar night. As we got further north the skies became darker while down below long jagged fingers of ice stretched out into the sea. White peaks loomed out of the freezing waters, a first glimpse of a landscape which seems to belong to another planet. We were heading towards the top of the world.
Svalbard is many things. Beautiful, powerful, dangerous . You’re forbidden to leave the main area of the town without being accompanied by a rifle carrier in case of polar bears. You daren’t go outside without several layers of protective clothing against the bitter cold. There’s also a strong sense of its importance for the rest of the world. I stood beneath a giant satellite dish which tracks the activity of the sun and experienced the eerie sound made by the movements of this huge metal structure. Close by was the station which monitors the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Satellite stations track the ever increasing amount of debris hurtling around space.
Climate change and environmental concerns brings experts from all over the world. Svalbard is also the world’s northernmost university centre where students from Norway and around the world study and conduct research about the Arctic in the Arctic.
The church in Longyearbyen
The highlight of the first night of jazz was undoubtedly Solveig Slettahjell (left) and her band. (Solveig was guest on Radio 3 Requests a couple of weeks ago.) She’s a great singer/songwriter with a warm sense of communication, and a fine band of musicians well known to the Late Junction audience: Morten Qvenild (In the Country, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra) on keyboards, Per Oddvar Johansen on drums, Sjur Miljeteig playing trumpet, Jo Berger Myhre (Splashgirl) on bass and Even Hermansen (Bushmans Revenge) on guitar.
To get into the hills and valleys I, as well as Solveig and the band, joined a snowmobile expedition early in the morning. Swaddled in Arctic suits and helmets we looked rather like something out of a James Bond film, sinister in the darkness. The further we went, the greater was the sense of isolation, and the sense of the power of this icy landscape.
Gradually the sky showed the promise of the light which would come to Svalbard before too long, and we saw the short stocky Svalbard reindeer looking for the moss and lichen beneath the snow.
The festival had been working up to the premiere of a new piece by composer Brynjar Rasmussen to be performed live for the photos and video art of photographer Werner Anderson. Between them they captured Svalbard’s intriguing mixture of wildness and isolation, and also the sense that it holds the key to many environmental concerns for the rest of the world. Pictures from archive material - coal miners, hunters, were matched with simple but moving texts from Svalbard residents of another generation read by the Norwegian actor Bjorn Sundqvist.
Another Late Junction favourite lit up the final night of the festival, Stian Carstensen (right - also star of LJ’s 10th birthday party broadcast) who astonished even those of us who know his playing well, with some extraordinary playing, first on accordion thrashing Bulgarian rhythms into submission, magically whistling above the accordion in the style of a reed flute. Some breathtaking banjo and lap steel from him and all with his inimitable humour.
The inevitable question when I get home will be 'did you see a polar bear?' The answer is - not yet, but like many other people here at the festival, Svalbard has got under my skin and I will return!
Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington is an expert on Scandinavian music, which she features regularly on Late Junction. All photos © Fiona Talkington
A trapper's hut in the compound