Norway, more than Ibsen and Grieg

Norway’s Ambassador to the US discusses the international impact of his nation’s culture

Ambassador Kåre Aas
Washington, D.C.

In early February, acclaimed writer and playwright Jon Fosse’s play Someone is Going to Come drew to a close here in Washington, D.C. Fosse, whose works have resulted in 900 productions staged in more than 40 languages, is just one Norwegian currently drawing international accolades.

One of my many pleasant tasks as ambassador is to present Norwegian culture to an American audience. I’ve often thought that a nation’s culture not only shows that country’s face but also reflects its “soul.”

Norway’s cultural image abroad has long been defined by well-recognized works such as Edvard Munch’s Scream, Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” or Henrik Ibsen’s psychological dramas. Those powerful works will always endure.

But Norwegian culture today is so much more. More than ever before, contemporary (and often young) artists, authors, filmmakers, and performers are making their mark internationally in many different areas.

Some of them reach out to a very broad audience, often thanks to social media. For instance, Norwegian “tropical house” dance music artist Kygo hit one billion streams on Spotify faster than any other musician. After one of his concerts in California, the Los Angeles Times wrote that his “keyboard melody was one of those riffs that, like it or not, follows you the whole ride home from the show.”

Similarly, Alan Walker has joined him in the 10-digit club. Videos of Walker’s “Faded” on YouTube have generated more than a billion views—and counting.

This level of international recognition is rare, perhaps close to unprecedented, for Norwegian artists.

On the literature front, Jon Fosse is not the only big name internationally. “Nordic Noir” author Jo Nesbø was recently listed by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the 25 most powerful authors in 2016. His books are available in 50 languages, with 30 million copies sold in Norway and abroad. Nesbø’s antihero rank-and-file police officer Harry Hole seems to have hit a particular nerve with readers. They flock to Oslo to experience the atmosphere described in the books.

I also need to mention film director and Academy Award nominee Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. This historical drama about Alan Turing and his Enigma code breakers during World War II has grossed more than 233 million USD worldwide.

And through Netflix or Amazon, Norwegian TV series such as Occupied, Mammon, Lilyhammer, and Nobel—Peace at Any Cost are reaching a broad audience. An American version of the Norwegian TV show Shame is now scheduled for production. The original is a low-budget show about a group of Norwegian teenagers in Oslo. It has become a major international hit—probably because of the way it deals with the often-sensitive issues that young people grapple with.

While Norwegian design and architecture continues to win acclaim in many parts of the world, the same goes for many performers within both classical music and jazz.

Small but visible
Why is Norway, with a population of roughly five million, so visible on the international cultural scene?

I could take the easy way out and say it’s all about talent. But being really good at what you’re doing isn’t always enough. I would argue that one reason for Norwegian artists’ international success is the small population of the country itself: a market of just five million people is too small for professional artists to make a living from their art.

Getting your name out there often depends on being present in the right arenas. For the large U.S. market, it’s seen as essential to participate at the South by Southwest marathon of music festivals and conferences that take place in Austin, Texas, every year.

And in the world of theater, the annual APAP performing arts conference and marketplace in New York plays an important role. This year, 18 Norwegian groups were represented.

A festival for every taste
Back home in Norway there are several important festivals that attract international agents and talent scouts. Norwegian Wood, the Øya Festival, and the Slottsfjell Festival are just three of them, all for popular music. Classical music lovers meet every summer at the Bergen International Festival or at one of many chamber music festivals (for instance in Risør, Trondheim, or Stavanger). There are also numerous acclaimed jazz festivals throughout the year. Not to forget the international festival for indigenous music, Riddu Riddu.

And as you might expect, there is an Ibsen Festival and several others related to performing arts. Architects and designers from all over the world assemble at the Oslo Architectural Triennale.

Bottom line: If you are planning to visit Norway anytime soon, I strongly recommend that you schedule your trip to coincide with one or several of these festivals.

In addition to having a good time, you might learn a thing or two that you didn’t already know about the country and the people living there.

This article is reprinted with permission from An Ambassador Abroad, the blog of Kåre R. Aas, Ambassador of Norway to the United States. To read more, visit

This article also appeared in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.