I first came to Norway to work on the closing event of Stavanger2008 (or Stavanger-two-two-snorter as it sounded to my English ears). Coming from a country that had succumbed to neo-liberalism, first under the ghastly Margaret Thatcher and then, almost more shockingly, under the ghastly Tony Blair, and was already falling head over heels into an ugly financial crisis, Norway seemed a haven of social democracy and good sense. Of course there’s more to it than that, but the comparison was very striking. We made a gloriously ambitious event involving choirs from all over Norway, and I’m still working with some of them.
So when Mary Miller asked me to make a piece celebrating the bicentenary of the Norwegian Constitution, I immediately said yes. And then thought: heck, from an English person’s point of view that is a seriously niche subject! But gradually I realised that it could be a piece, more generally, about how we’d like society to work, and about how it often doesn’t, a piece, in other words, about human rights, and idealism, and the abuses of power, and protest, and revolution. Potentially very interesting.
The piece begins with a quiet celebration of the 1814 Constitution. I was very struck by the idea of a diverse group of people – well, let’s be honest, a diverse group of men – arriving Eidsvoll from all over Norway, having made journeys which in some cases must have been very arduous. There is an almost sacramental aspect to the music.
In the main part of the piece, we look at the struggle for basic freedoms. First we hear part of a 1885 speech by the great feminist campaigner Gina Krog. In it she argues, brilliantly, not so much that men and women should be equal but that government would benefit from the particularly feminine qualities that women could bring to it. (How ironic that when we in Britain finally got a female Prime Minister it was Mrs. Thatcher.) We take a glimpse at the suffragette movement in Britain which was extremely drawn-out, passionate and, eventually, violent.
We move from Britain in 1919 to its colony India, and thence to Palestine and South Africa. The question is always the same: yes, we all agree in principle that everyone should have equal rights, but in practice are these rights really equal? And then: how do you achieve those rights? What kinds of protest are the most effective? Is it necessary to resort to violence? Can uprisings be spontaneous or are leaders essential? What happens next after a successful uprising?
To say that I have simplified 20th century history is an understatement, but I think the advantage of simplification is that patterns emerge – Gandhi and Mandela influenced by the British suffragettes, the efficacy of hunger strikes, Mandela influenced by Gandhi, the role of women in protest, Mandela’s discovery and subsequent renunciation of the need for limited violence, the Palestinians’ spontaneous discovery of limited violence, Mandela’s declaration that the fate of the black South Africans is bound up with the fate of the Palestinians … And this process is unquestionably helped by ability of both music and theatre to make poetic connections – for example, ululation, common to black South Africans and Palestinians, though subtly different, as you’ll hear, in the two cultures. So, despite all the documentary sources, I’m not aiming at a history lesson, more a piece of poetry.
Finally we hear a vision for a better world, written by the extraordinary Astrid Niebur and members of Ole Hamre’s marvellous Fargespil. For me, the crucial words here are ‘dreams or reality?’ Do we actually want human rights or are we content with the idea of them?
The piece is written for a large amateur chorus – a lovely mixture of adults and teenagers, a children’s chorus, an excitingly diverse group of soloists, orchestra and small band. The chorus is at the centre of the piece. They are always present, whether they are singing a protest song, whispering the names of the Eidsvoll signatories, ululating, shouting slogans or responding to the soloists. The piece is not called Stemmer for nothing ...
Text: Orlando Gough