Young Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth is putting her country on the musical map

Reviewed: Tine@Munch.

Tine@Munch
Munch Museum, Oslo

For a city synonymous with The Scream, Edvard Munch’s outpouring of modernist angst, Oslo is a terribly civilised place, home to the Nobel Peace Prize and landscaped in an appealingly contradictory mixture of broad 19th-century boulevards and parks and sharpedged contemporary architecture.

The contradictions continue in the city’s latest venture, a festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth with a series of intimate chamber concerts. The architect of this project is the young Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, an Oslo native who is putting her country on the musical map.

One evening in June, three major international musicians played Beethoven in a small hall in the Munch Museum, watched over by the monumental figure of the mother in the artist’s painting Alma Mater. Munch’s love of music and his relationship with musicians is a major preoccupation that emerges in his letters and writings – and one that forms the basis for Helseth’s festival.

Helseth makes a double Proms debut this summer but her move into commissioning and curating shows her ambitions lie beyond a life as a trumpet soloist. “I wanted to show my home town of Oslo some of the amazing musicians I work with around the world and at the same time to show off Norway’s musical talent to my colleagues,” Helseth says. The initial result brought together the British violinists Nicola Benedetti and Charlie Siem with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the cellist Truls Mørk, both from Norway, to form a company of musicians, each appearing in many different chamber permutations throughout the three-day festival.

It’s a miniature version of the model that has made the Verbier Festival in Switzerland a success, encouraging musicians to risk new repertoire, play with new people and experiment in a workshop environment. There was a liberating sense of work-in-progress, an off-duty freedom showing a different side to the performers. How often in the UK do you get to hear Benedetti in such an intimate venue, sitting close enough to see every gesture, every detail of fingering?

While each concert was themed around Munch, exploring his musical friends (Delius, Strauss) and the repertoire he would have heard (Franck, Sinding), the most compelling was an evening examining art itself, meditating on iconoclasm, stylistic revolution and the relationship between art and its age.

Paul Hindemith’s inscrutable 1939 Sonata for Trumpet and Piano is a true document of its time and, performed by Helseth and Andsnes, a revealing opener to the evening. The first movement, “Mit Kraft”, finds harmonic resolution consistently just out of reach, the music pacing uneasily up and down in the piano’s nervous rhythms and the trumpet’s melodies. Helseth coaxed a range of colours from her instrument that made her closer to an oboist or clarinettist. Her skill was showcased in the restrained simplicity of the third movement, with its mourning melodies growing to a howl of raw anger. She was matched by the impeccable Andsnes, whose quasi-folk theme in the second movement did valiant battle against her trumpet’s interruptions.

Then came Three Pictures by Gisle Kverndokk, a work commissioned by the festival and the weekend’s most direct engagement with Munch. Taking three of his works as inspiration, Kverndokk has produced a threemovement trio for trumpet, violin and piano, capturing the artist’s range of colours and techniques in self-contained tone poems. The pointillist energy of Rue Lafayette emerged in trumpet sallies and plucked violin fragments, all silhouetted against a backdrop of piano, while the vices of the casino in Ved ruletten i Monte Carlo found musical life in an almost tarantella-like frenzy of repetition, driven by Helseth’s trumpet.

Helseth has curated a festival that succeeds in putting classics alongside new commissions and curiosities (Busoni and Korngold), while sustaining a dialogue with another art form and promoting local talent. That she has done so while performing herself is all the more impressive. Oslo’s establishment seems to agree – the festival is expected to become a regular fixture of the city’s cultural calendar.

Tine Thing Helseth performs at the BBC Proms in London at Cadogan Hall on 5 August and the Royal Albert Hall on 18 August

Horn of plenty: the trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times