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Escape Velocity

Out Of The Page Into The Sensual World: Jenny Hval Interviewed
Adam Bychawski , September 30th, 2014 11:04

Following the release of her excellent LP Meshes Of Voice in collaboration with Susanna this month, Adam Bychawski chats to Jenny Hval about sonic extremity, the violence of voyeurism and inhabiting bodies

Photograph courtesy of Karl Edwin Schillin

"I am the very soft voiced person at the party that all of a sudden says something that people think that I wouldn't say. I kind of burst out with things," says Jenny Hval, speaking over Skype from her home in Oslo. "There is some aspect of my personality I think that demands extremes in order to say something." In her music, as well as her casual conversation, Hval delights in catching her listeners by surprise, opening her last two albums with bold, provocative statements, oft-quoted for titillation. Later in our conversation, she jokes about wanting "to make music that's very hard to talk about in interviews", revealing a mischievous ambition to frustrate attempts at exegesis of her work.

That's not to say that Hval makes music that's wilfully obtuse; on the contrary her music is challenging and confrontational without being impenetrable. Over the course of four albums - two of which released as Rockettothesky – Hval has never shied away from broaching intimate subjects. "Coming from pop music [I'm] not so afraid of the emotional," she asserts. One of the recurring themes in her work has been the nature of desire, which Hval never couches in euphemisms, articulating female sexuality in a way that's at once frank, poetic and humorous. But when outlining her writing process, Hval expresses some reservations about whether music can fully convey her inner thoughts. "I'm not sure how extreme my records have been if I compare [them] with what's in my head", she admits. One of Hval's favourite lyrics, "stepping out of the page into the sensual world", captures this tension; a line from Kate Bush's sixth album, which was the subject of Hval's masters dissertation. These concerns about the fallibility of language perhaps also account for her intent to obfuscate interviewers and let her work speak for itself.

Equally, voice plays a significant role in Hval's music. For Hval, voice and identity are interlinked, and her vocals - manipulated through different stresses, cadences and guttural sounds - become the conduit for a myriad of transformations that are corporeal, spatial and frequently transgress the boundaries of gender. Hval's latest release, Meshes Of Voice, a piece she wrote and performed together with Susanna Wallumrød back in 2009, realises that subversive potential of voice. Wallumrød and Hval were first introduced to each other through mutual friends and kept in close contact during the making of Hval's 2008 album, Medea. When Wallumrød received a commission from Oslo's Ladyfest she asked Hval to work with her on the project. Five years on, the original live recording of Meshes has been released this month to coincide with a short tour.

As the singular voice in the tile suggests, Hval and Wallumrød were interested in exploring different possibilities for duetting. Over e-mail, Wallumrød explains: "We were focusing on using our voices in new ways, making new sounds and not just harmonising. But also digging into longer stretches, and blending the voices with voices, and voices with instruments, effects and noise." Hval, likewise refers to Jo Berger Myhre and Anita Kaasbøll, who contribute double bass and percussion respectively to the piece, as "third voices". Meshes blurs the distinctions between voice and instrument: on 'I Have A Darkness', the low register of Hval's intonations is caught up in the vortex of bass and reverb. Likewise, the rises and falls of Wallumrød's vocals on 'I Have Walked This Body' are warped and distorted by the peaks and troughs of pitch shifting noise until they become indistinguishable from one another.

As well as giving Hval and Wallumrød freedom to experiment with longer and more freeform compositions, the voices of Meshes serve as a fluid and shapeshifting marker of identity. "We were interested in creating mythological, monstrous, but also beautiful and artificial, bodies through sound and the sound of vocals, especially the sound of vocals that are distorted or twisted like mythological bodies, or to be more specific the almost human female bodies that we worked with," Hval says. One myth which Meshes draws on is that of Medusa, a seminal figure within 20th century feminist theory; an example of how Hval and Wallumrød's music implicitly engages with theorists like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, among others. On 'O Sun O Medusa', Wallumød adopts that tragically fated persona, mournfully but resiliently pleading "let me see the sun, let the sun see me, I'm begging you Athena", one of the album's most affecting and poignant moments.

Hval's solo work is similarly rich with literary and mythical allusions from references to Oedipus on Innocence Is Kinky, to citing Georges Bataille's The Story Of The Eye as an inspiration for 2011's Viscera and reinterpreting the legend of Medea on her second album as Rocketothesky. The allusive nature of Hval's music is in part a reflection of her multifaceted creative interests. Aside from being involved in a number of musical projects since her high school years, Hval studied creative writing and performance art at the University of Melbourne and went on to publish a novel, Perlebryggeriet, through Pearl Brewery in 2009. As with Meshes, Hval constructs her own narratives from the texts her music alludes to, playing with identity in the process. Doing so, she explains, is one way of evacuating gender constructs from voice. "I've always been interested in gender, and voice is in a sense an expression of gender. But then you can change it, especially when several voices come together and create this monster of a noise vocal, it's a very liberating experience - hopefully also for the listener. I think it's important to explore identifying with shapes and humans or human-like shapes that you don't quite understand. But I think we're not just interested in the technical aspects but also the emotional component - what do you feel when you hear those voices?"

Both Hval and Wallumrød brought their own individual influences to bear on Meshes. 'House Of Bones', written by Wallumrød, is a reference to Antoni Gaudí's Casa Batlló (the title a literal translation) and many of her lyrics on the album express a similar preoccupation with nature and organic forms to Gaudí's architecture. For Hval, Maya Deren's surrealist short film Meshes Of The Afternoon,, played an equally significant role in the creation of the album. Deren's film, released in 1943, has been a continued source of inspiration to many artists, its mysterious mirror-faced black-robed figure has appeared in Sun Ra and Janelle Monae's videography and David Lynch's Lost Highway is indebted to the film's metaleptic narrative structure. Coincidentally, Meshes Of Voice is not the only piece of music released this year to be inspired by Deren. 'Meshes', the standout track on Sd Laika's debut album That's Harakiri, also pays homage to the film.

"I watched it in 2008 just before we started working on the project and I found it very inspiring," says Hval of the film. "I sometimes find that film is more musical than music so I find a lot of inspiration in film. In my mind I kind of converted it to music. I just found that film just transformed into music instantly, it had that kind of abstract approach to the world of vision and world of editing that I just naturally find in my own way of thinking about sound. The use of repetition and angles and architecture all transferred onto me. I love this image of the [the robed figure] with a mirror as her face, its very modern or even postmodern rather. Or post-postmodern."

Perhaps part of the reason Meshes Of The Afternoon seems so ahead of its time, is that its deconstruction of the male gaze anticipates film theory by several decades. One scene in particular stands out, in the film's final act, the protagonist (played by Deren) lies in bed as her partner sits at her feet. As he turns to look her, the flower beside her pillow transforms into a bread knife which she throws at him, shattering the mise-en-scène as if it was made of glass and exposing through the cracks a picturesque seascape, waves washing in and out of the shore. "To me it's like the moment when you cut [a piece of audio] and there's noise instead of a beautiful sound," Hval reflects. As she goes on to explain, Hval often uses noise as a blank canvas for her compositions: "I like to have lots of background noise or random YouTube videos in my recordings which [creates] this whole different way of thinking about time." Like Deren's ruptured screen, Hval's music also fissures and bursts, often violently, in resistance to acts of looking. "Tearing my eyes in and out and in and out and in out of face" she cries on the title track of Innocence Is Kinky.

As well finding inspiration in film, Hval conceives of her music in visual terms. "I think of music almost as a visual narrative. A lot of the time I have a way of thinking about imagery that I transfer to sound - like this component in audio equipment which turns analogue into digital - it's like my brain that converts visual to sound," she says. Those parallels are particular apparent in the vocal and editing techniques that Hval uses to disrupt the gaze in her music: moving between spoken word, screeches, whispers, acoustic instrumentation and noise sometimes as abruptly as a jump cut. All of which prevent any passive engagement on the part of the listener. "I do think that I'm very obsessed with destroying the control of the gaze with sound and I have become more and more interested in it as I've started working more with sound pieces and editing stuff myself. So I often think of changing perspectives through cutting up voices and unusual singing techniques as disrupting this very pleasant gaze-like ear that you have to pop music. I find that so much about pop music is about being seen rather than heard, it creates something almost to be seen."

Live performance has offered Hval a medium in which to directly contest both the pleasing spectacle and gratifying sonics of pop. Touring larger festivals after the release of her debut album, To Sing You Apple Trees, was a particularly formative experience. "I remember in my first year of playing big festivals in Norway I would play quite soft music and I felt really stupid - here I am on stage, acoustic guitar, girl it's just all lined up isn't it. If people were very noisy and if guys were very drunk and loud when I was playing I would feel this urge to play as soft as possible: I would hardly touch my guitar and sing as softly as possible and then I would just really want to scream. Those dynamics have been really important to me as well to remind people I am not a genre, I'm not a stereotype. When you feel like you're being a genre or you're feeling like somebody is watching you and making a lot of presumptions that's when you feel like you're just being seen and you're not being heard."

Earlier this year, Hval supported Swans on their tour of Europe and the US. Having caught Hval's performance at the band's London tour date, I had the chance to hear the intense and charged nature of her live act. Given the space to experiment with her vocals, Hval stretches the human voice to its limits, rendering it both uncanny and discomfiting. "I really start to explore the extreme potential of my music in my songs when I perform live and especially with the Swans tour, the canvas just got six times bigger," she says. But for Hval sonic extremes are more than just amplification. "I am definitely interested in contrasting extremes, like the intimate and soft voice but with very sharp content and textures. I think I end up exploring [the extremes of sound] because what I write is disturbing and if I didn't write things that disturbed me and made me feel like I needed to challenge the way you perform it in order to express what I wrote, I wouldn't be exploring the extremes as much."

Hval's fourth full length, Innocence Is Kinky, released last year, unites many of the concerns of Hval's live performances in its critique of scopophilia. The album opens with Hval taking on the position of voyeur: "That night I watched people fucking on my computer/ Nobody can see me looking anyway". The concept for Innocence Is Kinky came about from a soundtrack Hval composed for a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent movie masterpiece La Passion De Jeanne d'Arc for Øya music festival, which she later developed into an audiovisual installation for the Henie-Onstad Art Centre. In the accompanying video, Hval edits the portrait-like close-ups of lead Renée Jeanne Falconetti, with a series of associative images of women from a variety of sources including Nightmare On Elm Street, Paris Hilton's sex tape, Dreyer's Ordet, and the Norwegian version of Teen Mum. The latter series, which Hval discovered through a friend, became a window into the world of reality television. "I thought, 'Well what happens if I go into this world?' and what happens is a lot of violence I think," says Hval. "I've noticed there is so much being branded now for a specific audience. We have different TV channels for men and women and girls and boys - Disney has its own boy channel for example. I just got interested in what is a girl product because I never felt like I fit into the girl or woman categories very well, I've always felt very uncomfortable about that stuff."

Viscera, Hval's third album, feels like it belongs as a companion piece to Innocence Is Kinky. If the latter "investigated the transparency of women's faces", then the former delved below the skin. Released in 2009, the album was in part a reaction to what Hval describes as the sanitised and superficial representation of the female body in popular culture: "Women's faces are portrayed like a surface with nothing underneath it," she points out. Through the grotesque and surreal imagery of Hval's lyrics, Viscera charts an odyssey through the anatomy of the body. "I want to see the body differently - as a space, pioneer territory, something surprising and eye-opening. Psychedelic? Frightening, but also ecstatic," Hval told The Arts Desk at the time of the album's release in 2009. That vision is no more apparent than on 'Blood Flight', in which the body is metamorphosed into strange new forms: "I carefully rearranged my senses/ So they could have a conversation/ Taught them to switch places;/ From each pore in my skin grew shimmering eyes/ And fingerprints filled the eye sockets".

"I was thinking about stepping out of yourself and seeing yourself not as this one body entity but this frightening pile of limbs that don't necessarily belong together," says Hval. This idea of the body as disordered, incoherent and constantly in a process of transformation, recalls Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's theories of the body. The pair offer the term "desiring-machines", as a way of envisaging the structure of the body as an assemblage or circuit of machines producing desire. In much the same way, Hval seems to conceive of the body not a unified whole, but a series of components in a machine that never exhausts its capacity for desire. "I am the engine now," proclaims Hval on Viscera's opening track 'Engines In The City', motor and flesh becoming one in the pursuit of pleasure.

There is something revelatory in the act of opening up and dissecting the body for Hval. "The feeling of stepping into other bodies, feeling like actually going out of yourself and into someone else is a deep experience", she says. When talking about the effect she wants her music to have on the listener, Hval uses similar terms: "I like to think of [it] as cutting the listener open in a way". But she counters the suggestion that this is an antagonistic metaphor, instead emphasising that music is a transformative experience. "This is one of the reasons we listen to music, we want to be changed. So it's a beautiful act and not just a violent act," Hval says. "That's why music is so important because it's teaching you how to be human and not just closed inside yourself and seeing the world only through your own gaze."

Meshes Of Voice is out now on SusannaSonata