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Principal's Speech

Astrid Kvalbein at the end of the Spring term 2022.

Here you can read Principal Astrid Kvalbein's speech from the opening ceremony in Lindemansalen 29 August.

It’s a great pleasure to be standing here today and welcoming you to a new academic year at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Starting right now, this building will be bustling with activity: teaching, practising, concerts, research, ensemble play and conversations in the canteen and elsewhere about topics big and small.

This year we hope to be able to do all these things without being asked to wear face coverings and keeping a one-metre distance. That in itself is worth celebrating!

In fact, we’ve already made a start. Last week we welcomed our new bachelor students, and we held a staff day entitled “NMH up close”. The title seems particularly fitting now that the restrictions – if not the pandemic itself – seem to be behind us.

Anyway: here at the NMH we are always working “up close”. Music brings teachers and students close together in a way that often feels personal. This is a privilege, and something we have to make the most of.

Astrid Kvalbein

Perhaps this year we should really try to take advantage of this to see whether or how both new students and those who were here during the pandemic continue to be affected by it. The younger you are, the more of your life you’ve had to spend on your own – for better or for worse – and you’ve missed out on both formal and informal learning in bands or orchestras. You’ve barely sat an exam and not been able to perform in many concerts.

Talk to each other!

This year’s students may have to be especially brave. Do let us know if we should provide more support, if you feel things are difficult. Talk to your teachers, student advisors and not least: each other!

This does not mean we can solve everything: teachers and student advisors are not psychologists, they are not your bonus parents or best mates, and they’re certainly not potential love interests for the students they teach (just saying).

But thanks to the music – by performing together and not least listening – academy students are all set to get the support they deserve, enjoy themselves and make optimal progress in the direction that suits each individual.

Most of us therefore begin the year with optimism and enthusiasm, albeit in the shadow of a pandemic.

The shadow of a war

We also start the year in the shadow of a war which feels very close, in Ukraine, and after a summer during which climate change and environmental problems began to manifest themselves in earnest – with heat waves, droughts and an energy crisis, again amplified by the war.

In light of these challenges it may perhaps seem a bit trivial to be here, at a music conservatoire. Can we make a difference, and if so, how?

Astrid Kvalbein

The NMH as an institution can’t solve the world’s problems. But we can engage, and we must believe that music is so important to every human being that it has earned an indisputable role in making the world worth living in. In making the world worth saving.

Eco-Lighthouse

And we are doing something: in the past year the academy has been certified as an Eco-Lighthouse. This means that we have adopted a system and a set of concrete targets for contributing to the green shift. With that comes responsibility.

We have also asked a few wise heads to start developing research projects under the label “green research” with additional funding from the Norwegian government.

And not least, we are aware of and will act on our students’ passionate feelings about climate change.

We will – and must – be part of the conversation about sustainability. What does it mean, to us?

Astrid Kvalbein

I believe that the sustainability of music itself will be important in the green shift. Music is good for your health, there is plenty of research to prove that. Music can move us and whisk us away from the daily grind without having to jump on a plane or go shopping for yet another piece of clothing that we really don’t need. To achieve this, we often need no more than what was needed some three hundred years ago: one or more instruments, a room, someone who performs, and someone who listens.

It takes no more energy to perform Bach’s solo cello sonatas today than in the composer’s day.

Historical sustainability

This example also says something about historical sustainability. That kind of sustainability is robust here at the academy and in much of the music world. Maybe too robust, according to some – because our traditions are reluctant to embrace that which is new, voices from outside Europe, female voices and voices with ambiguous gender identities, or with different levels of functional ability.

It takes no more energy to perform Bach’s solo cello sonatas today than in the composer’s day.

Astrid about energy

The NMH is making gradual progress in these areas. But we’re working on it. Amongst other things, we will be commemorating that it is now 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Norway with a range of events under the banner “A queer look at the NMH” in week 44.

When those shots were fired at the London pub here in Oslo in June we were reminded of how fragile gay rights are – if not on paper, then in the street, in the wider world.

Putin’s war against Ukraine is a terrifying reminder of the same. It’s a war against some of the so-called Western values many of us take for granted – against democracy, human rights and diversity.

What is it like joining NMH today?

While preparing this speech and trying to imagine what it’s like to be joining the NMH at this point in time, I began to think back to when I myself enrolled here. It’s 30 years ago this year.

What did the world look like back then, in 1992? Well, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, and there was optimism in Europe.

Astrid about when she was a student at NMH

The Soviet Union had lost its grip on Eastern Europe and eventually broke up. Many countries regained their independence.

Former Eastern Bloc countries went on to join the EU – Europe opened up. We believed in glasnost, both in Melodi Grand Prix and in politics.

Then February 2022 arrived, and it was as if a clunky fist from the old Soviet dictatorship came down – on Ukraine.

Most of us would’ve felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I felt embarrassed when attending an international conference in Tallinn in May, and my colleagues from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other former Soviet states called us naïve for having persisted in the belief, or hope, that Russia would not go to war.

Does music matter?

In a situation like this, is there any point in telling ourselves that what we’re training for and how we’re refining music as an art form and a resource in people’s lives – that this is in any way important? Does it matter in this world?

Again: I’m absolutely certain that it does.

I've also been thinking a lot about an image dating from just before I became a student that’s been etched in my mind. It’s a picture of the famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in front of the Berlin Wall a day or two after it fell in 1989. He’s sitting there playing Bach cello suites, in front of the graffiti and rugged grey concrete.

Astrid about the time the Berlin Wall fell

Rostropovich – who had to emigrate from the Soviet Union because he had spoken up in support of a dissident poet, and who was deprived of his citizenship and still hadn’t had it restored (he got it back in 1990) – he put himself and his music there, right in the middle of history, so to speak.

There are numerous similar pictures and videos which are now being spread even faster, reminding us that music appears where things happen. From wars throughout the ages there are pictures of musical instruments, in trenches and bombed-out buildings, with lone musicians or entire ensembles standing upright in the ruins. And music also happens without instruments. What did the young people on Utøya do to gather courage as they hid from the terrorist? They sang. Just like the little girl who performed “Let it Go” from Frozen in a bomb shelter somewhere in Ukraine this winter, offering solace to everyone who was there.

Existentially vital and powerful

Music is existentially vital. It’s powerful. And yes, it can also be things other than “good”. It can be used to mobilise to abuses of power and war. But it’s important in ways that we sometimes forget as we focus on getting better, on details, on the curriculum and on timetables and technical challenges.

All this is obviously important too, and I do hope that the problems in the world don’t get in the way of everyday life and creative musical moments.

The moments

But on a day like this, on this solemn occasion, it may be worth pausing at some past events that have become historic.

One extraordinary thing about the picture of Rostropovich and his cello is that he’s not sitting in the ruins of something beloved by the people and consoling them. He’s sitting next to a wall that the people tore down, and he’s celebrating that the world has opened up, to something new.

Rostropovich didn’t know how the new age would pan out, but he celebrated the opening.

Now that we’re opening a new academic year at the academy, we would do well to keep that thought in mind as we go about our everyday business. Can we let ourselves be inspired to pull down barriers that perhaps once had some sort of historical logic but which no longer give meaning? Do we have the courage to create new openings, towards the unknown?

I don’t know what the NMH and the global music scene will look like by the time you new students are able to look 30 years back in time. But I’m convinced that we will be playing, singing and creating music and that it remains vital to humanity.

Astrid Kvalbein

And with that I’d like to welcome our most recent students to the stage, all of you. They’ve already impressed us greatly by performing two concerts on Friday – Terry Riley’s “In C”, a 54-minute-long bath of sound and rhythm which took the atrium in the university library at Blindern and the Majorstukrysset by storm. The work you’re about to hear is a prayer most apt in an unsettled world: “Prayer of the Children” by Knut Bestor.

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