Notes from the Borealis Festival, Birgon 2024 – Part 1.

Notes from the Borealis Festival, Birgon 2024 – Part 1.

My name is Paula Ryggvik Mikalsen, and I hold a postdoc position connected to Arctic Auditories situated at the Institute for Gender and Women’s Research at the University in Tromsø. I had the pleasure of attending the Borealis Festival in Birgon/Bergen, and I wanted to share my experience of the festival with you. The Borealis Festival celebrates experimental music from all over Norway and Sápmi, and this year it focused on Sámi experimental music, in collaboration with Sámi artist Elina Waage Mikalsen. From the Borealis homepage:

How does who you are affect how you listen?

Are you excited or tired, or both?

Are you with friends or alone?

Are you listening to something you know, or is it new to you?

What histories and structures are you assuming are “normal”?

The Borealis Festival team in collaboration with Elina Waage Mikalsen

These questions I thought resonated beautifully with what we’re investigating in Arctic Auditories. Over the course of three days and three panel conversations, we listened to artists, researchers, composers, and craftspeople talk about how they use their roots and traditions to connect with their art, histories and culture. The journey began on Wednesday morning.

The journey south felt very apropos, traveling from one cold, dry hydrosphere and arriving in a wet, extremely humid one in Birgon. Winter still held Romssa firmly in its grasp when I left early on Wednesday the 13th of March, and I had to switch my wool coat for my long raincoat and seek shelter from the onslaught of rain. I traveled with my friend Ellen Marie Bråthen Steen (@new_sami_music_phd), who’d been asked to be part of the panel on Sámi experimentalism on Thursday. The kind folks at Borealis picked us up, and they told us they had hoped that the fine weather they’d enjoyed up until now would continue, but alas. It is curious how much cities and its people are shaped by their weather conditions, and the excess or absence of water. Ellen and I had packed more wool than rainproof gear, as we were perhaps more optimistic about travelling to a more gentle climate. Our idea, as North-Norwegians, of spring is that brief interlude between the grey-black of lingering snow and the bright green of summer. This spring in Birgon, on the other hand, was wrapped in mist, clinging to the evening air, obscuring our vision, and augmenting the sounds of wet tires on wet asphalt; the rubbing of jacket cloth as you bundle up tight to keep the moisture out; the heavy flow of the rain running down slanted streets into the harbour.

Thursday – Sámi Experimentalism

I purchased Johan Sara Jr. new album of classical music Gávcci jahkodaga The Eight Sámi Seasons.

At breakfast on Thursday morning, Ellen introduced me to her co-panelists Jakop Janssønn (@jakopjanssonn & @sami_ritmmat) and Ánndaris Rimpi , and later by artist Johan Sara Jr., and Jalvvi Niilas Holmberg. We told stories over coffee and talked about music, about joik in academia, acoustemology (how to interpret the world through sound) and what we dreamed of last night.

Do you know who called me 35 min ago? It was Björk. She wants to work with me. The only problem is – it was a dream.

Some decades ago, temperatures dropped to almost -50 in Guovdegaidno/Kautokeino. This news reached the Norwegian broadcasting network, who sent a journalist to interview the inhabitants. He arrived, and struck up a conversation with a local man at the supermarket.

– Wow, it’s really cold now! says the journalist.

-Oh? You think so? says the local man.

-Of course, it’s -50 degrees outside!

– Yes, outside, sure!

After breakfast, we headed out to the library early. We borrowed umbrellas from the hotel – every shop and restaurant in Bergen has “umbrella parking stations” – and arrived in the cellar auditorium of Bergen Public Library. Multicolored orbs were artistically placed around the sofa where Jakop Jansønn and Ánndaris joined Ellen. Jakop is a PhD and a drummer, Ánndaris hails from Oalloluokta in Jokkmokk and is a Lulesami composer and sound artist (and the voice of Olaf in Jikŋon). The lights dimmed, and after a brief introduction and welcome from a representative from the Bergen Sámiid Searvi/ Bergen Sameforening, Jakop introduced himself and his co-panelists.

On the question of his relationship to Sámi experimentalism, Ánndaris replied that it depends on who perceives it as “experimental”, and from there the answer lies in listening, and what we perceive as sound and what is perceived as music. Jakop played a short recording that was made about a hundred years ago, of a man playing a fatnu, a Sámi flute-like instrument made from Angelica root. The recording was made on a wax-roll, which affects the recording’s tempo, pitch, and ‘quality’. Does this qualify as Sámi music? Ánndaris replied in the affirmative and delved further into the idea of leaving room for improvisation as part of project planning. He imagined, using the recording as a point of departure, that at it’s core improvisation was a key component of that recording. Finding the plant, adjusting it, discovering what sounds you could produce, and then playing with these different sounds, are not only the same elements as modern composing but of experimentalism. The ephemerality of the fatnu also becomes part of the Sámi musical tradition. While the sounds produced have a limited lifespan in it’s current form, the melodies, the stories and rituals live on in the people who listen to them. The people travel, and so do the sounds. A hundred years later, this recording has made it’s way to us, for us to make new connections.

Ellen is also writing her PhD (Music Conservatory at UiT) on Sámi music and the use of Sámi culture in new musical forms. Her project is very attuned to the question of what Sámi music is, and who determines its parameters. She talks about listening as a full-body activity, and how during the course of her project, experimental music has cemented this idea for her. The “experimental” nature her PhD-corpus has had a physical impact; she feels it in her body as much as she hears it. There is no Cartesian mind/body division. Sami music is mind/body inclusive, they’re one from the beginning built on the premise that we listen with our bodies.

The panelist also discussed sounds as signals or cues. Different sounds mean and signal different things depending on the context in which they are heard. For example, the sound of antlers rubbing together, for a reindeer herder signals the end of September. Ánndaris explained that he intentionally removes himself from Western mindsets that aver that humans are “masters of nature”. His understanding of the world, based on his Sámi upbringing, situates himself as part of nature, and that all humans are part of, rather than set apart from nature. Working with concrete sounds, he has often experimented with trying to capture individual sounds – “How do I record one mosquito?” – which constitutes huge technical challenges, but I find his practice inspiring. I can only imagine the attention and focus it takes to single out particular sounds in environments of collective species.

Sounds from nature are subjects, not objects of nature and of the earth.


The consensus among the panelist was that sound has a unique ability to transport listeners in time and space, a concept which permeates Ánndaris’ sound installation Birástiddje beljustallam (translation: Sharpened Listening to Your Surroundings). We went to the installation later during the festival, and it was a fantastic experience. Bergen Lydgalleri is a big rectangular space – decorated for the occasion with soft pillows, reindeer fur, sheepskin rugs and pillows in a circle. Speakers formed the outer square, bathing us sounds of mosquitos, old refrigerator sounds, winds, lo-fi beats of about 66 bpm, – the emulation of a human heartbeat. Ánndaris asked us to close our eyes, take a nap, or journey as far or as short as we wanted. I have never experienced anything like it, and I highly recommend experiencing his installations, as they are beyond words. They need to be felt, not described, I think.

The Borealis festival seems very occupied with developing and cultivating listening spaces, and all the panelists throughout the festival were happy to have and share spaces where they could celebrate and engage with their culture, heritage, and diverse backgrounds. Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be aware of my own situated body in all the gatherings. My attendance was rooted in my role as a researcher, but in some ways, I had to leave my academic mindset aside; this was not a space meant for the mind alone. The works and recordings shared by the panelists invoked feelings, memories and places felt too personal to include in any field note or report. This was a small revelation, but a deep-seated lesson I brought with me into the following days. Listening is deeply relational, and more often it reveals information about ourselves as much as our environs.

Part 2 coming soon.

You can listen to all the panels here.

Arctic Auditories Tiny Conference

We’re entering the new year with intention and reflection, and on Feb 1-2, we are gathering all our participants, guides, friends, and colleagues to join us for our Tiny Conference. 

Each project member will give a short presentation on their contribution to Arctic Auditories in their respective fields and disciplines, and share some works in progress.

While this full-day event is for our consortium (all the folks from the community involved in the project) only, this blog is dedicated to documenting and informing the public of our activities. So, for those who can’t attend: among our acticities, we’ll delve into methodological discussions on the evolution of soundwalks with one of our guides, we’ll take a look at some field notes, pictures and of course, some audio-materials.  

The first day will conclude with a talk from artist Margrethe Pettersen on her ongoing “Remembering with Rivers” project. The event is open to the public, free and streams on Zoom. Tickets available here.