We must support cultural exchange
KNUT ERIK JENSEN
I am a professional pianist, accordionist, and opera coach resident in Selbu, Norway, near one of the country’s cultural hubs in Trondheim. While my career is based in my home country, I have been performing in the United States since 1995, when I came with an accordion club.
For me, North America has become a “home away from home,” where I have many colleagues and close friends. I cannot imagine my life, both as a performer and on a personal level, without this experience
My first performance as a solo artist on the other side of the pond was in 2007, where I gave a concert for the Sons of Norway in Scottsdale, Ariz. This led to new opportunities around the United States. Over the years, I have played in about 35 states—I’ve stopped counting now. For three years, I was resident in Palm Springs, Calif., which became my U.S. base for touring in North America.
More recently, before the pandemic, I was the pianist at the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices in Reno, Nev., where I accompanied the Wagner class for the program. That followed an ongoing project with the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society (NWEGS) to perform the complete songs of Edvard Grieg—all 173 of them—with soprano Laura Loge and baritone Alan Dunbar in Washington and Oregon.
It is difficult to overestimate the value of these experiences. International exchange creates culturally authentic experiences for audiences that they wouldn’t otherwise get without traveling to the other country, making them accessible to anyone, regardless of finances.
These programs also bring repertory to the host country that might not be heard or are even accessible. I have helped bring Grieg’s repertory that is not regularly performed, but it is also important that American audiences hear the music of other composers who have lived in his shadow: Geirr Tveitt, Alf Hurum, David Monrad Johansen, and Klaus Egge, to name a few.
Because these composers are not well known to an American audience, it is necessary to frame their music in a narrative context. Through my American experience, I learned the value of more open dialogue between artist and audience, and I’ve brought this type of lecture format back to Norway with success.
“The Complete Songs of Edvard Grieg” project has been especially fruitful. For me, it was time to move to a larger project, and it was a way in helping the newly formed NWEGS develop.
My prior knowledge of the Grieg’s musical scores allowed me to work with the performers directly in a meaningful way that would be more difficult to achieve with a locally based pianist. I already had the repertory under my belt, having previously performed the entire songs of Edvard Grieg for a university project in Trondheim.
I had also heard the songs performed by an array of performers in Norway that they were not able to experience from abroad. And as a native speaker of Norwegian, I was able to help them interpret nuances of the texts to heighten their performances. A native Norwegian musician can easily recognize the many Norwegian folk elements in the music.
But this exchange of knowledge and experience also goes two ways. The first time I performed with Laura, she had put together a program of Norwegian composers I had never heard of. She had put together the program with fresh eyes, including pieces often overlooked in Norway.
As a Norwegian musician, it is also important to get a fresh take on the music itself. Because non-Norwegians haven’t heard the music performed over and over, they have to rely on the composer’s score to interpret it without preconceived notions.
Through my travels and residency in the United States, I also realized that it was just not the country that I had learned about in textbooks, movies and on social media in Norway. I came in contact with real human beings, getting to know them in a way that can only be achieved through personal contact. The time with my hosting sponsors and the communities supporting them was in many ways equally as important as the time in rehearsal rooms and on the stage. It motivated me to visit all 50 states and many places in Canada, and I plan to go back to many of them.
But unfortunately, not only the pandemic has made cultural exchange between Norway and United States more difficult. Over the years, and especially since 9/11, the U.S. visa process has become more cumbersome and expensive, to the point that coming to the United States to perform has become increasingly inaccessible and in many cases impossible.
There are different types of visas available for foreign artists wanting to come to the United States to perform, and that is perhaps where the difficulties start for many. The options are not always easy to understand. If your sponsoring group is unable to help you, it can be hard to understand which visa is necessary or appropriate.
In my case, I most recently opted for an O-visa, because I wanted to perform in multiple venues over a period of three years without restrictions. The fact is that the cost and effort to obtain this type of visa is the same whether you will be giving one concert or several within in the three-year timeframe.
I also learned that in many instances, it may not even be possible to navigate the system if you don’t have the money to hire a U.S. attorney—which is the start of an expensive journey. If you are not lucky enough to find a lawyer willing to work for you on a pro bono basis or a sponsoring organization to pay the fees, you can expect to pay a lawyer at least $400 an hour.
Some specialized law groups will change $3,000 as a fixed rate to obtain the visa, which is, nonetheless, expensive for a young artist. The sponsoring groups in the United States, often non-profits, also do not have the means to support the visiting arts at this level.
You must first make your way through the formal application. There are pages upon pages in English to read through. You will then have to prove that you are an individual with “extraordinary ability or achievement.” This ambiguous concept puts younger artists at a disadvantage. As a start, you will need to acquire glowing letters of recommendation attesting to your qualifications.
If you are able to make it through the application, you will be required to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Oslo for an interview. Distances can be long, and the trip can be expensive. You have no concrete idea of how long the process might take, and the final outcome is unknown. The U.S. Embassy will hold your passport for 10 days, so you cannot work abroad during that time.
Granted, there are possibilities to enter the United States under the ESTA [Electronic System for Travel Authorization] visa waiver program, provided no real payment for work in the United States will be made, but these circumstances reduce the viability of the engagements for many who cannot perform without any monetary compensation.
But there can be more uncertainty. Performers have been turned away at the border because they have not been able to explain their situation correctly or because incorrect information about their scheduled performances was posted on a website somewhere.
Money, time, confusion, and finally, uncertainty: these are all hallmarks of the current visa process. It favors both big established visiting artists and large, well-funded organizations in the United States.
You may ask yourself if all this is worth it. In my case, the answer is a definite “yes.” My time in the United States was the springboard to my career in Norway. I hope that this type of artistic exchange will be encouraged and supported with a more accessible and affordable visa process, so others can also share in this experience.
In the end, I want to stress that it is important to start this type of cultural exchange early in your career, not only after you have become an established or even famous performer. It’s about learning and growing together across borders. Cultural exchange provides for a better human connection through sharing of culture and arts, leading to more friendship, empathy, and mutual understanding of our similarities and unique qualities associated with our countries.
This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.