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Irresponsible Science - An Interview With Maja S. K. Ratkje
Russell Cuzner , October 17th, 2018 06:43

Before her appearance at next month's Le Guess Who? festival, Maja S. K. Ratkje talks to Russell Cuzner about her wide-ranging work that, whether freely improvised or composed for orchestra, consistently bears the mark of an uncompromising, unconventional spirit

Portrait by Ellen Lande Gossner

The recent feature length documentary, Voice - Sculpting Sound..., about Norwegian composer and performer Maja S K Ratkje, somehow manages to present her complex praxis in not only an accessible way, but also by revealing a coherency to what can otherwise seem like diametrically opposed processes.

In the nineties, Ratkje attended the Norwegian Academy of Music and formed the free improvisation quartet SPUNK with fellow students Lene Grenager, Kristin Andersen and Hild Sofie Tafjord. The unalloyed freedom they maintained throughout their exercises, experiments and performances would seem to go against the strict grain of composition Ratkje was studying at the time. Since then, as well as continuing to perform with SPUNK (who celebrated their 20th anniversary with a special performance in Oslo in 2015), she has composed a vast range of pieces, encompassing works for large ensembles, chamber and electronic music, multimedia installations and even music for children. In 2002 she also emerged as a distinctive recording artist with her debut solo album, Voice, entirely made from her experimental vocals. It rinsed listeners minds with its startling contrasts where ferocious shrieks and howls abruptly invade cool, beguiling tones, and gained an Award of Distinction during the following year's Prix Ars Electronica.

The documentary's seasonal shots of the beautiful, mountainous landscapes of Ratkje's homelands divide scenes of diverse performances, from folksy cover versions of working-class song, to abstract soloing accompanied by a full-scale orchestra. As behind-the-scenes shots, involving travel, research and family life, are interspersed, an equilibrium starts to form where any dichotomies perceived among her diverse approaches begin to evaporate. Instead, we see an unconventional artist whose essence is to discover and celebrate sound in all its glory, from scientific scoring to wayward experimentation; where what is realised through the disciplined writing of a score synergistically enhances her undisciplined, unbound performance side, and vice versa.

In a wide-ranging discussion she reveals how her ongoing quest into the world of sound has even led to the invention new instruments.

You're just back from Krakow in Poland where you were installing your piece, ‘Aeolian’, which involves kinetic sculptures.

Maja S. K. Ratkje: Yes, together with British artist Kathy Hinde, who I've worked with for more than ten years on different projects. [‘Aeolian’] is a pure collaboration where she designed these kinetic instruments for an ensemble of twelve musicians playing conventional instruments together with these homemade instruments. Everything is based on the flow of air, everything is mechanical - it's solely human effort that is charging the devices. We have been through a lot of phases - taking apart accordions and pump organs and putting them back together with new devices.

Voice mood trailer 2012 from ijb on Vimeo.

Where did the idea to avoid electricity and do an autopsy of an accordion come from?

MR: The accordionist, Andreas Borregaard, contacted me to commission a piece. I had this idea to place the accordionist in the middle, to turn the accordion inside out - to be inside it - and have the musicians surrounding the accordion, and then have the audience surrounding all of that. I felt the need to include a visual element, and I wanted to work with Kathy Hinde, so I asked if she wanted to join the project. Incidentally, I had come across some old organ pipes from a church organ that had been taken down. Suddenly, the idea came that they could be used in the piece with the accordion where the accordion would push air into the organ pipes and other things. Kathy Hinde picked up on that idea and we soon realised it was impossible to have enough air in the accordion to give air to the rest of the ensemble, so Kathy got a lot of tubing and mechanical pumps. We then made many sorts of air devices. For example, there’s something called the ‘Balloon Tree’ where we blow up balloons and put them on a tree with metal tubes that have valves at the other end, and when you release them you steer air to different devices.

Are these devices played by members of the Red Note Ensemble?

MR: Yeah, everything is done by the Red Note Ensemble. It's not clear when the concert starts because they’re blowing up balloons and mounting them on the ‘Balloon Tree’, there is no light change as we are not using electricity - it's just a bare room and it's actually really quiet. One of the instruments, a ‘Pearly Pistol’, has a hand cranked pump that ‘fires’ a bunch of pearls. They fall onto a harp which is mounted on the floor and it plays really quietly.

Red Note Ensemble: Aeolian from dotbot on Vimeo.

Another recent piece I was intrigued by was called ‘A Highway In State Space’ that you've composed for Jeffrey Ziegler (ex-Kronos Quartet).

MR: This project is called ‘The Sound Of Science’, and I was among the composers he asked to contribute a piece based upon the work of a famous scientist. My mother is quite a famous scientist in her field, so I chose to work with her. I thought that would be kinda special to do that, I mean, music is completely irresponsible compared to science which is a very responsible field, so the piece takes something that is very accurate and looking for a right answer and turns that into something which is very inaccurate and looking for wrong answers! [laughs] Art is supposed to ask questions and give ambiguity, whereas science is searching for correctness.

I saw an excerpt of the score and was curious about the different motifs - one labelled “Entropy” another “Steam reforming” - it seems like you were transposing scientific research into sound.

MR: Yes, it's not meaningful to try to describe science with music, but I got inspired by some of the models from the articles my mother has written. It is about how a system that is very chaotic can stabilise over time and how energy will always find the easiest path through a substance. The background for this work is to find energy efficient ways of dealing with things like entropy based on natural processes for use in science and industrial production. It was easy to find inspiration in this because many of the models my mother worked with look like graphical scores.

I read that you had originally planned to have a career in science.

MR: Yes, that was a long time ago.

I wondered how your interest in science had influenced your music?

MR: I think my approach to sound was very much related to my studies in physics and chemistry that I did just the year before I started to study composition [at the Norwegian Academy of Music]. When I started composing I was immediately interested in Iannis Xenakis who used architecture and also scientific models to transcribe the physical world into music in different ways. It's almost a clinical process and it generates material that you would not be able to compose by yourself and I used that as material I could compose further with. In the beginning I used mathematical models to create waveforms inspired by waveforms in water or in air. I started to analyse sounds with spectral analysis, sounds that did not follow the rules of ratios. For example, I found that a lone note on a tenor saxophone has a spectrum where the overtones are much denser here [at the upper end of the spectrum] than here [at the lower end of the spectrum], that's why it never sounds in tune. That analysis lead into many of my first pieces that were based on that spectrum, it was an important thing to find. I also got interested in musique concrète, listening to sound objects not related to the source.

When did you first decide to use your voice as an instrument without words or narrative?

MR: When I started to study composition at the Music Academy, improvisation was not looked upon as something important or valued among my colleagues. I wanted to perform, not to have music like a ‘brain-thing’, but to have contact with musicality. I had always performed, so it was natural for me to be on the stage, but the things I had been performing before were very commercial, playing in bands and musicals. But then we formed the group SPUNK while at the Musik Academy. We did not study in the same music department, but we met there to play free improvised music. Our instruments didn't follow any conventional band formation: French horn and cello and trumpet and voice - so we didn't sound like anything from the free jazz department or rock-related. We had the freedom to find our own language.

In the beginning we couldn't play for more than 10-15 minutes as we got totally exhausted. We met and played regularly over half a year, just acoustically, then we increased the instrumentation to include electronics and a lot of other secondary instruments and toys, all in the spirit of Pippi Longstocking [the Swedish children’s fictional character] who invented the word 'spunk' actually [to mean an indescribable energy as opposed the English seminal connotation]. And, everything is possible - we call it anarchy, but a very welcoming anarchy where if someone contributes something it is developed by the whole ensemble - it's integrated. That's the reason why I started to use the voice because I wanted to perform with SPUNK and we deliberately tried to get away from our own conventions. To stretch our minds and our physicality with the instruments we created exercises that would get us much further into exploring sound, for example, trying to copy each other’s sound perfectly, but on a very different instrument. If someone played something to me I would have to do exactly the same thing with voice and sometimes it would be impossible, but, in trying to copy that sound exactly you find something along the way.

You write scores for conventional instruments and perform free improvisations. These would seem to be diametrically opposed.

MR: There is freedom in both ways of creating music. The processes are different, of course. When you create music in real time maybe there's more at stake because it can go really wrong, that's one of the things I like about performing - that you can't sit back, you have to be responsible for what you are doing there and then, to handle your mistakes in real time and try to make it convincing. But to solely do that would not be enough for me because I also like to make structures and compose. I also like to work in the studio with sound, I like that slowness in work. And I think my experience from behind the mixing desk and also from writing scores perhaps makes me a different performer than I would be if I were just performing.

At Le Guess Who? festival I understand you are performing solo with electronics - how and when do you decide what you will be performing?

MR: When I start playing! The instruments I choose to bring to that gig I will decide the night before when I pack, but they are just tools, I don't have any pre-recorded things with me, just something on a Dictaphone that I normally carry as a random element. But at the gig, everything will be in real time, there and then. I really have to do that because that is the most dangerous thing to do, and it gets me out of my comfort zone. It's a huge pressure, so I don't play solo very often, usually it's good to do, but it's very, very exhausting.

There’s a couple of recent pieces I'm familiar with where you bring improvisation into composition. The first is your ‘Concerto For Voice (Moods IIIc)’, where you perform with an orchestra (including a typewriter!).

MR: I don't normally write pieces that have huge parts of improvisation in them, but here it was because I was going to perform it myself. I have made several versions of that orchestra piece, the first was a commission from Radio France. They wanted a piece for orchestra and to have me as a soloist and I said, "No way, I'm not going to do that!" and then they talked me into it [laughs]. I had to leave the voice part pretty much open as I didn't want to invent a way to write for the voice when I was going to perform it myself, so I just made some cue words and ended up doing pretty much the same each time I performed the piece. The vocal part is open, but the orchestra part is very rigidly notated, even the typewriter. The typewriter is improvising a little bit together with me, but apart from that it's like a percussion instrument.

The other example I was thinking of was Crepuscular Hour where, alongside three choirs and a church organ, you had noise artists who played within specific frames with loose instructions on how to operate.

MR: It was important to do it that way because I wanted to include those musicians who are not able to read scores, to use their own language in my piece.

Unlike the Concerto For Voice, this piece uses text (sung by the choirs) which are taken from the Nag Hammadi codices - what drew you to these Gnostic writings?

MR: I was commissioned to write an opera in 2001 called No Title Performance And Sparkling Water. It was a huge project - I was using SPUNK as musicians and the trio Poing, a folk singer and a tenor and a mezzo, three actors, a tango dancer, and electronics. It was a collage of many things and was based on text from this Nag Hammadi library -that's when I first got into that material. And, like many things, when I get into it, it sticks with me for some time and it can reappear in other pieces. It perfectly suits the theme of Crepuscular Hour, where you have these ancient voices - they're speaking about death and life and war and peace - coming up to the surface through all the noise in the crepuscular hour.

Crepuscular Hour was written to be performed “in a cathedral or similar with musicians surrounding the audience”. What importance does place have for you when performing?   MR: All places really affect my sound. That is also why I improvise when I perform solo because I want that to happen - I don't decide what to do until I get there and play with the room. I have a long sound check, it's on my rider, because I want to take the room in and not to force my music upon the place but to take the room and play with that in order to let that get me somewhere new.

Voice – Sculpting Sound… is a recent feature-length documentary film by Ingo J Biermann and Kai Miedendorp. It gives a very balanced picture of your life composing, performing and travelling but also with your family, so it was clearly filmed over quite a long period of time - what was that like having cameras following you in all areas of your life?

MR: Ingo and Kai followed many of my projects over two years; they went to maybe ten per cent of what I was doing, so it didn't feel like they were there all of the time. They never interfered with my deals with venues, they would contact the places themselves - Ingo would let me know: "Yeah, by the way Maja, we are coming to Finland for that festival you are doing there, we should take some of that in because it's an important show for you” - they were completely independent and in the background. Even my kids didn't notice their presence because they were so anonymous. When we were in England with Kathy to make the bird installation [Birds And Traces 2010] and to work with the kids (which is in the film), we lived in an apartment there because I had my whole family with me. When the week was over I suggested we make dinner for everyone, to invite Kathy and the producer, and then we said to our kids: “We are also going to invite the Germans.” And they asked, "Which Germans?" So I told them, "The Germans that have been filming all week!" And it turned out that they hadn't noticed! [laughs] That's a very skilled film team! So, by that time, I was not uncomfortable having them around. Ingo said I would have the last word in the film, I just trusted him, I didn't have anything to say when the film was done. He asked me to make a voice-over and he wanted me to say certain things to introduce what he had filmed. So, it's really his work, it's not my work at all. I like it a lot! I wish more people had seen it.

Earlier, you described one aspect of your performance as “anarchistic” and, thinking of the more political associations of that word, I wondered whether you think abstract music that doesn't have words can promote libertarian attitudes or can be political?

MR: Avant Garde music is political in itself because it is different from the mainstream, but it's not enough, like with so much contemporary music which is also not supplying society with anything other than fulfilment. I definitely relate to the word as something political as well - I come from quite a radical background, as a teenager and being part of protests, frequently being part of scenes that were in opposition to the establishment. We don't use that word with SPUNK anymore; in the beginning it was a sort of statement that we'd rather belong to that than the classical contemporary scene. You can also say that “SPUNK” is “Samtida-PUNK” - “samtida music” is “contemporary music” in Swedish - so it’s like “contemporary-music-punk”. That's one way of looking at the word that we emphasised in the beginning. That attitude also gave me more confidence with my own music making, it's a checkpoint for your inner motivation [when] it's easy to fulfil expectations, even in an art scene where you're supposed to be radical and different.

To please the crowd?

MR: Or to please your professors or music critics. With SPUNK it was so easy not to please any crowd because we were doing everything wrong, being four women and even using humour or colourful clothes - so different from that black, doomy way of making dark electronics, or the worn-out jeans in free jazz, or the all-male Futurist movements of the Avant Garde.

You campaign on environmental issues.

MR: Oh yeah, that's been going on my whole life, longer than music.

I was thinking of your efforts to stop oil companies from sponsoring the arts in Norway.

MR: You have something similar in England - a bigger movement.

Yeah, it worked with the Tate recently [who, after 26 years, stopped accepting sponsorship from BP from 2017]. How's it going in Norway?

MR: Really, really great. In Norway it's not gone that far yet, we are just a few idealists who have formed a protest group, doing it in our spare time. We have managed to get a lot of attention, and we are often invited to debates. People laugh at us because they say as long as we live in Norway you can't raise these questions because our whole country was built upon wealth from oil. But, I see it very differently. Just accepting sponsorship from the oil industry in order to let them continue their really dangerous and devastating business - is that alternative? I think you can use your freedom of speech to try to stop them. Before the oil wells are empty we have to change, and, if we don't start that now, when are we going to start? I don't want to be a part of the oil industry green-washing their business in cultural life - the culture! - which is supposed to be owned by all people and to show all sides of political and aesthetic diversity. It makes me so sad - the oil industry is really big in sponsoring all the big festivals, events for children and sport, because they see it as a huge investment, they are sponsoring culture in order to buy credibility … and also to own or mute the debate. And I know that this has caused me a lot of inactivity in Norway.

It's stopped you from performing?

MR: Yes, at some highly acclaimed festivals. But for me that's okay - I'm at a point in my career where it doesn't matter, but, if I was at the starting point then that would be very difficult: to have feelings about the environment and to live in Norway and to be depending on playing at the big festivals here - I can't accuse young people of going into that because you have to take the best opportunities.

In addition to your performance at Le Guess Who?, and performing ‘Aeolian’ in Aberdeen towards the end of October, what else have you got coming up?

MR: I am currently mixing a record - I think it will be quite something - I'm sitting on some material that the world hasn't heard yet and I think it's quite amazing! [laughs] It is called Hunger Suite and is based on music that I made for the Norwegian National Ballet’s adaptation of the novel Hunger by Knut Hamsun, a classic from the 19th Century. We performed it earlier this year - choreographer Jo Strømgren made it into a dance and I played the music live on stage. For it I created an instrument that is really amazing. I think I am in my acoustic period – in the last year, apart from performing solo, I've been making acoustic pieces like ‘Aeolian’, and this piece for the ballet uses a long pump organ in the middle and I built things around it. You just have to see it: there's twenty lines coming out of this station where I'm sitting and playing with hands and feet and singing at the same time. So, it’s a one woman show. We did eight performances and the week after I borrowed the instrument and took it in the studio for two days, and this is what I'm making a record of for now.

What's the instrument called?

MR: It doesn't have a name. There's a pump organ in the middle, and it's completely out of tune, so I'm making music on the organ and amplifying it from inside, so you have all sorts of squeaking sounds and malfunctions. There are three-metre-long tubes sticking out on one side, bass guitar strings that I control with a foot pedal, and a little guitar that is in a frame just above the keyboard, a lot of percussion things, a wind machine…

When might it be released?

MR: I haven’t even made a deal with a record label yet, I'm sitting on the material. As soon as I do then we start to have opinions and I am a control freak, so I want to do everything myself first. [laughs]

Maja S. K. Ratkje performs at the Le Guess Who? festival on 11 November 2018. Red Note Ensemble perform ‘Aeolian’ at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on 27 October 2018