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In Extremis

Precious Sounds Uncut: An Interview With Hilde Marie Holsen
Russell Cuzner , November 10th, 2015 10:20

On debut Ask, Hilde Marie Holsen forged a singular sound world of dense, textural pieces out of her trumpet and electronics set-up. She talks to Russell Cuzner about her sonic approach, improvising solo and titling troubles

Photograph courtesy of Kristin Linnea Back

The crystalline minerals used to name all but the title track on Hilde Marie Holsen's debut album Ask suggest organic attributes to complement both the precious sounds and the process that determines them. They help to put words to the otherwise elusive qualities within Holsen's sublime sound world: 'Korund', the mineral that forms ruby and sapphire gemstones, matches the density and lustre of Ask's short, intensely bright opener; 'Plagioklas', a quartz-like mineral found on the moon as well as in the Earth's crust, follows, its smooth theme emerging from a dry, desolate landscape, while 'Alkali', the soluble salt, plays as if suspended in water, its sediments surging under a shimmering surface. Meanwhile, the temporal transformations observed when magma cools to form such geologic phenomena could be said to parallel her extraordinary working method that uses electronic processes to deposit and precipitate new timbres and textures from a single sound source - the trumpet.

While discussing the making of Ask it was initially surprising, then, to learn that these titles were very much an afterthought. "It wasn't until all the tracks were finished and ready to go to the pressing that it was like, okay, I've got to find some titles," the Norwegian musician says. Instead, the conversation reveals a sharp focus on the qualities of sound and not its semantics, born of a combination of academic study and the integrities of free improvisation.

This year has been a particularly busy and significant one in Holsen's development as a solo performer and composer: in addition to releasing Ask and getting more acclaim than any debut should expect, she was awarded an MA in performed music technology from the Norwegian Academy of Music and became a regular fixture on Oslo's fertile experimental music scene. So, with a mini-tour taking place this month that will include Holsen's first solo performances here in the UK, it felt about time to find out about the processes behind Ask's bewitching balance of melancholic melodies and novel clusters of unworldly sounds, and what led to the formation of this singularly talented new artist.

Going right the way back to the beginning, how did you start playing music?

Hilde Marie Holsen: It all starts somewhere doesn't it - I started playing in a school band when I was nine, that's where I had my first musical education. That was just something you would do in your spare time, and then later on I thought that was fun and joined a brass band for adults when I was 14 or something. When I was 16, going to college, I took a music course there and, I don't know, it's just been music all the time. Sixteen was also when I started really rehearsing daily.

Right from the start, has it always been brass instruments?

HMH: Yeah, I also played guitar when I was 14, 15, you know at that Metallica age, so I was dreaming about playing in a rock band - who doesn't? - and I also was part of a choir before that, but I never felt really like I was able to sing, so it's been brass instruments mainly.

And why was that? Like you say, guitar is a common choice as people like the idea of the chance of becoming a rock star, but I would guess brass instruments are a less popular choice.

HMH: I guess that's part of the community you're in, like when you're playing in different brass bands - I also joined in the region youth brass band where we would have weekend gatherings playing together - so I had lots of different arenas where I would be playing and getting lots of responsibility, while the guitar was just something I took lessons in once a week at 15, never really playing together with others. And [playing guitar] is also what everyone else is doing, so I think I had more varied tasks playing the cornet and trumpet at that time.

In those earlier days were you also listening to music that had a lot of brass instrumentation?

HMH: No! We would be given these rehearsal CDs from the adult brass band that I was playing in, so I would be listening to that, but only for means of rehearsing. I was 16 when I met other people interested in music that would share and say, "Oh, have you listened to this?" or "Oh, I heard about this guy called Miles Davis, have you heard about him?" and that was when I started listening to the trumpet as a solo instrument I guess. Also, Arve Henriksen would visit our school and have workshops.

Improvisation and free jazz often involves more than one player, but you've evolved a set-up where you can improvise solo. Did you design your set-up so the electronic side produces unpredictable results you can then respond to?

HMH: Yep, and that's also a part of making improvisation and electronics organic so that I will be surprised while playing - it's fun to play when I don't know exactly what is coming. I'll have some control over it, but still there will be elements of insecurity or whatever you want to call it, although it comes from me.

So what initially led to you incorporating electronics with your trumpet playing?

HMH: That just started with this feeling that this was an interesting field. I started when I was at conservatory in Kristiansand, but there wasn't really anyone else doing the same as what I wanted to do, and while I was studying there most of the other students were more into pop or rock or jazz standards. Well, I wasn't really feeling at home anywhere, but during the first fall at the conservatory my teacher gave me a task to learn the solo to Clifford Brown's 'April Joy'. He advised me to download Ableton Live where you can adjust the tempo without the pitch being adjusted, so I started learning 'April Joy' in a pretty slow tempo and then I would just start messing around in Ableton. But, of course, at the same time I was very aware of musicians like [those at the] Punkt festival - living in Kristiansand for two years I had been at the festival and listening to the possibilities of live remixes and of electronics used in music, so I guess it all started there. It was very intuitive for me to develop my own soundscapes and make things happen the way I wanted them to. It's all been an exploration of my own - there's a plug-in, what does that do to my sound? How can this plug-in fit together with that one? And suddenly I'm having this crazy, real large set-up that makes people ask: "Do you have control of everything here?"!

Is it the case that all the sounds you produce start life in the trumpet?

HMH: Yes. It's all plug-ins that respond to my trumpet.

Is that something you're very strict about?

HMH: Yep. In the beginning I would use some samples, some field recordings or whatever, but I figure they limit my improvisation because at the same time as I'm playing and making soundscapes I will have to think, when will this sample fit and how shall it fit? So, instead, if I get an idea that there's some kind of sound that I want to add I have to be able to make it on the trumpet, and I think that's a very nice restriction because my focus will always be on what I can do in the moment, not what I have prepared for tonight's evening. I'm very happy that I'm able to do everything on the trumpet.

Is your trumpet modified at all?

HMH: No. The trumpet is as classical as it can be!

Listening to some of the pieces on your SoundCloud page that were developed before your album, it seems that the amount of recognisable trumpet versus the amount of electronic and organic textures and noise has changed over time and there's less recognisable trumpet sounds in your current work than there was previously.

HMH: Yeah, I think that's me getting better at doing electronics and expanding my electronic vocabulary. When I started off I was very comfy just playing nice places to be in, to just play the trumpet and feel very at ease with not much co-assistance. But then I figured it's more interesting when you add some noise or some crackles and also more harsh sounds, whereas in the beginning it was quite hard for me to go there - so it's been hard work! But now I feel like sometimes it's almost the only thing I do.

Thinking about your album, what was the process of composition and recording?

HMH: It's all improvised rehearsing actually! I think most of the tracks came to life with Maja Ratkje [Norwegian experimental composer and vocalist extraordinaire], she was my mentor last year [at the Norwegian Academy of Music]. She would come with this task - I would be playing 30 to 45 minutes of improvisation and she would be sitting next to me writing comments listening to what I did. Afterwards she would talk through the sitting, so, I guess, those parts [the tracks that ended up on Ask] are the ones she marked with a star! I am recording most of the rehearsals and most of the concerts I do so I have quite a large library of music.

I read that sometimes when you return to the recordings of your improvisations your feelings towards the piece change quite a lot, where something you originally thought was not so successful has, upon a later listen, qualities you didn't realise were there. I find that fascinating - how or why do you think that happens?

HMH: I guess that happens because while I'm playing my focus is kind of everywhere - it's right here and now on all the different layers I'm making, trying to find out which direction I'm going to go next. At the same time, I also have to keep track of what I did beforehand so the whole improvisation, whether it is 20 minutes or an hour, actually has a form and a build-up and that there is a correlation, or at least some elements will talk to each other, between the very beginning, perhaps middle parts, and the ending. So I have to be everywhere at the same time when I am playing and also, as we spoke of earlier, I have to be able to respond to electronics surprising me or something perhaps doesn't work out as I thought. Like yesterday [at a gig in Oslo] as I was starting to play my iPad, which I use as a MIDI controller, I hadn't got it to sync with my laptop before starting so when I thought I had pushed a button to make something happen nothing happened. Suddenly I realised, oh, fuck it's not synced, and nothing is actually responding when I push - I don't think anyone in the audience noticed this happened, that my intention didn't actually work out.

When I can go back and listen to the recording afterwards I can just sit back and listen and then, for example, I think, oh, what's this part here? I didn't even know this was happening because my focus was everywhere else, so it's quite different from performing to be able just to listen afterwards.

Reviewers of Ask, myself included, noted that most of its track titles are crystalline minerals, why did you choose them? Is it to do with the way your sounds transform?

HMH: I'm actually really bad at titling my stuff - since you have checked my SoundCloud page I guess you will have noticed all the previous titles are just dates like, '21st of April'. That was some of the first things Maja said to me last year: "Hilde, you've got to find some titles, seriously! This is not good enough, you can't just call them dates, that's not saying anything!"

While we were mastering we had some working titles, and actually 'Ask' is the only one that stuck. We were sitting in Maja's studio… there was this evening and I was sitting on Wikipedia going from one place to another and then I wrote minerals - I like the sound of the names and also that it's universal and I started reading about them, about their capacities and how they work and it was like, oh, that's korund, that's a really harsh mineral - yeah, perhaps that fits to that track, so it's all coincidences I guess.

Has the experience of making the album altered the way you may approach your work in the future?

HMH: Yeah, I never had to listen as much to myself as I did last year, obviously trying to find tracks and music for this album, and that also made me aware of how I work and how my sounds respond to each other. I have become better informed in all these things that make up good improvisational composition or whatever, so in some sense I guess it will. But, thinking of my next releases, I feel I still want to do it like I did now - just picking out elements from improvisations and not doing anything more with it. It's still just footprints from whatever I'm doing - yeah, it will be stereo files that I send to mastering and if that sound doesn't work out, well, then perhaps I'll deal with it or perhaps that's not the track I'm going to release, I don't know.

This year's been an incredible one for you - as well as the success of Ask, you also finished your MA this year. What will you do next?

HMH: Well, playing shows, and at the moment I'm composing some music for an art film. It's a 3D film of a shut-down factory where it seems the workers just one day go home from work and then did not return. So there are jackets still hanging on the chairs, there's this oven standing warming up the rooms and the lights are still on, so it's a very kind of creepy movie and it's all very slow, just checking around to see this factory that's been left. There are still human touches, but they are abandoned.

Ask is out now on Hubro. Hilde Marie Holsen plays Blest in Høyanger, Norway on November 13-14, before starting a run of UK dates on November 19; for full details and tickets, head here