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The Voice That Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Maja S.K. Ratkje

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Jean-Claude Gevrey speaks with avant-garde composer Maja Ratkje about her new solo recording on Tzadik, curating festivals, and the role feminism plays in new music.

The Voice That Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Maja S.K. Ratkje

For followers of the avant-garde, it’s hard to avoid Maja Ratkje these days. Hailing from Norway, she first accrued acclaim in the late ’90s as part of the all-female free improv quartet SPUNK, then yanked away the spotlight herself with the debut solo effort Voice, which earned her a distinction award at Prix Ars Electronica in 2003. That album, conceived and produced with the support of noise godfathers Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre (Jazzkammer), not only put Ratkje on the map, it vaulted the Norwegian noise scene to an entirely new level of notoriety. While Voice was a solo record in many respects, it made such a splash, the ripples soon brought notice to her frequent collaborators, a list spanning noisemongers, contemporary dancers, and a few Scandinavian metal bands. At 34, Maja Ratkje has explored an impressive number of genres and directions and shows no signs of settling down. River Mouth Echoes, her new album on Tzadik Records, is the first full-length to shed light on her contemporary compositions. Ratkje kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for Dusted.

Dusted: Taking a look at the variety of your output, one may have some difficulty to pinpoint you in a well defined musical area. How would you introduce yourself as an artist?

Ratkje: Composer and performer. It’s not up to me to put too many words on that. I do what I do and time will show where history chooses to place me, if at all!

D: What is your actual background besides attending the Norwegian State Academy of Music? Your country is often considered as a haven for a variety of extreme music genres: has this been an influence on you?

R: I haven’t been aware of experimental music or extreme music till I was in my late teens. I don’t have any music education besides the Academy. I was not going to study music, and my family background did not suggest that I would end up where I am now. So I have to disappoint you and say that I was a late bloomer. I made my first avant-garde compositions and I started with free improv back in 1994, the year before SPUNK was founded. Before that I was more interested in environmental politics and in studying everything else than music: my favorite classes were maths, physics, and religion! I graduated with the best grades but then decided to take a year break to enjoy my hobby, music, at Toneheim, a folk high school in the countryside of Norway. This was in 1993, that year changed everything. I heard experimental music for the first time, played jazz in a band with Hild Sofie Tafjord and decided to become a composer after listening to works by Stockhausen and Arne Nordheim.

The year after, instead of going back to higher technical studies in Trondheim, I moved to Oslo, earning money as a newspaper deliverer and sitting at the front desk of a physiotherapy office, taking lessons and learning everything about music I needed to make the entry exam at the Music Academy. I really wanted to study composition and this was the only place offering that kind of education in Norway. I had never met a living composer before I moved to Oslo. I didn’t know who they were or what they were talking about so I felt quite different from the beginning. Luckily I found someone to improvise and have fun with otherwise I would have ended up disillusioned and unhappy. The first noise piece I made was Sinus Seduction, experimenting with the equipment in the studio of the Academy in ways the teacher had certainly not advised us to do. I didn’t know anything about the noise music scene then. That was shortly before I met Lasse Marhaug.

D: Since you mention him, your encounter with Lasse Marhaug seems to have been quite influential on some aspects of your own work…

R: Lasse is among my best friends and both he and John Hegre of Jazzkammer are composers/musicians that I have learned a lot from and respect a lot. Shortly after the first SPUNK album was released (1999), we decided to invite a lot of Norwegian artists to make remixes of it, and Lasse’s name came up. Later he asked me to remix a track for Jazzkammer’s Rolex album featuring people like Zbigniew Karkowski, Merzbow or Pita. This was the start of a collaboration that led up to the album Voice, with Jazzkammer as co-producers. At the time people were really surprised to see me making such an album, finishing composition studies and then inviting two noisenicks to team up on my most important musical statement back then. This was also something salutary I had to do to avoid getting too stuck in the mainstream contemporary field. Now looking back I find it remarkable how critics are either full of respect or contempt toward the noise/improv side of my work, depending on their own background. They probably would be better off concentrating on the music as it sounds rather than debating on where it belongs according to their aesthetic views. If I write scores or if I play an improvised noise concert on bad speakers it’s all about the same: it’s the love for music and sound!

D: You look quite comfortable traveling from one music world to the other, academic or not…

R: Hild, Kristin, Lene and I (the four girls in SPUNK) have all been students at the Music Academy in Oslo, never in the same year or class, but nevertheless it was where we practiced and recorded the first years. We recorded our first album there in the studio at night times and we played around in obscure places in Oslo. I also have been collaborating a lot with POING (Frode Haltli, Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and Håkon Thelin) since I wrote Essential Extensions for them in 1999. They have a similar academic background but they represent a new generation of musicians who are equally comfortable in a classical setting as in jazz, improv, theater or in collaborations with everyone from Norwegian pop-stars and DJs to traditional musicians. When I made my first “opera”, they were a natural part of the performers on stage, together with SPUNK, two drummers, tango dancers, two classical singers and a folk singer. I also perform with POING every first of May since 2001 in a worn out place in Oslo called Tranen, doing labor songs from the whole world including songs from the Weill/Brecht repertoire.

D: Singing, or more generally the use of voice, is obviously at the core of your work. Do you see yourself mostly as a vocalist and what was your particular training in this area?

R: No I don’t consider myself mostly a vocalist, more a performing composer. Voice is my main instrument, yes, but I have no classical training as a singer and you could not use me for any conventional singing. Still I have worked hard to develop my technique. I just do what I feel like, within the limits of what I can do without hurting myself too much. I usually say that it’s the girls in SPUNK who taught me how to use my voice through improvising together.

D: You have recorded a couple of discs with Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk: is this duo still active? What are the other people you admire in this field?

R: Jaap has had a sabbatical year last year to think things through. Very smart: everyone should do that! But now he’s back and I will perform with him at the North Sea Jazz festival this summer (July 08, Rotterdam, NL) so the duo still exists for sure. Other than that Phil Minton and David Moss are great vocal performers with whom I have been lucky enough to collaborate: I have sung with Phil and I have worked in David’s Institute for the Living Voice. And in Norway we have Sidsel Endresen who is very famous and who has been a big inspiration for a whole generation, including myself.

D: You also have written several scores for dance performances and have a noteworthy partnership with Lotta Melin. What kind of influence these collaborations have on your musical practice? Any other influences from the extra-musical world: literature, cinema…?

R: Agrare is a performance trio consisting of Lotta Melin, Hild Sofie Tafjord and myself. We create our performances in a collective manner. We learn a lot from each other; all the ideas take shape in the course of the working process when we are together. Even though Hild and I are more experienced in music and Lotta in dance, the three of us are responsible for all movements and sounds at this point. For the piece Carrying Our Ears and Eyes in Small Bags, we were lucky to collaborate with British video artist Kathy Hinde whose work is truly amazing! This project is only one of many collaborations that I value very highly. SPUNK is the oldest, we started as a free improv group but we are doing much more than regular concerts as well. Lately we have been building a huge installation which will be premiered this fall in Norway.

I have never thought about it as a big deal to do other things than strictly making music. And collaborating is a must for me, it is about letting go and giving in to ideas that belong to the collective spirit of the group rather than being remembered as individual contributions. I would be a very sad and uninteresting composer where it not for the people I work with in other settings. I think life in general can inspire, it doesn’t need to be “art”. I travel a lot, see new places and meet new people: that is inspiring. It is also inspiring to read a good book or to watch movies, I love movies (Bergman, Lynch, Tarkovsky)! And I don’t have television at home so I don’t need to waste my time with that. Other collaborations apart from the music field include those with Norwegian writers Aasne Linnestå, Monica Aasprong and Øyvind Berg, London-based Californian video artist Daria Martin (Wintergarden on my new CD comes from that collaboration), dancer and choreographer Odd Johan Fritzøe, the Icelandic Dance Company with choreographer Olof Ingolfsdottir, Norwegian artists Per Inge Bjørlo and Karl Hansen and many others.

D: Femininity (or should I say feminism?) seems to be an important theme in your work whether it be the playful and glamorous imagery of some of your record covers or the straightforward “all men are pigs” statement from the Fe-mail/Marhaug disc. Is there any kind of subliminal message here? How serious is that?

R: The Fe-mail/Marhaug disc cover is a big joke and it was Lasse who insisted on both the artwork and the title! Not to make any excuses: I am a feminist of course, and damned serious about that, even though it is not an outspoken topic of my work. My work is much too ambivalent and self-contradicting or abstract. I certainly can speak about feminism, but I don’t want my work to be about it alone. I believe it is liberating and important to question stereotypical representations through provocation and contradiction. Take for example the controversial group Whitehouse: they place anti-feminism next to shocking messages supporting pedophilia and racism: people have to make the connection themselves. Through contradiction, their “anti-message” becomes even stronger as it challenges people and compels them to react in some way. Obviously they have been deeply misunderstood but I have to say they are among the friendliest and most supportive people I have met. Agrare is perhaps the most feministic project I have been involved with. Our performance Carrying our Ears and Eyes in Small Bags is very loosely based on Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. It is a collage-like work circling around the isolated, disillusioned sisters in their domestic rituals, trying to make something out of their longing, their anger and their smothered vim. The piece is very funny and surrealistic, but also very strong, dealing with the status of women in society with some literarily speaking bloody metaphors!

To go back to the issue of female presence in avant-garde music or anywhere else, I think we need some significant improvement. The other day I got a program in my mail for a sound festival in Norway called Happy Days. As I read their booklet it occurred to me that it was made by men, men interviewing men and referring to each other: I counted 100 men listed for 10 women. And this was a relatively global event involving writers, philosophers, visual artists, journalists, you name it. When I confronted the festival organizers with these numbers, they responded that perhaps the theme of the festival, anger, made it more male-dominated than normal. Can you believe this? It’s sad that people don’t see what’s happening right in front of their eyes. We are just accepting what we are used to, but how are things supposed to change by themselves? Sometimes I wish more men would speak on behalf of women made invisible or simply being treated (in)differently, it should be in everyone’s interest to make things change.

D: Visibly never too busy, you are also responsible for the All Ears Festival in Oslo together with fellow musicians Paal Nilssen-Love, Lasse Marhaug and Kjetil Møster. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

R: All Ears was initiated in 2002 by (free jazz drummer) Paal Nilssen-Love who is still the artistic leader. I have been organizing the festival together with him since the beginning, and after some years, Lasse joined and eventually Kjetil. It is a very idealistic work, but very very fun, and we get to invite our favorite people to play. This event is the only free improv festival in Norway. The crowd is great even if it is in January. I guess it has to do with people being fed up with Christmas and New Year’s celebrations and hungry for something else. I have just made up my mind to withdraw from the festival now that my personal situation has changed a lot and I no longer live in Oslo. But the festival will find a good substitute, and we will still continue to play and work together. Slugfield, the trio I have with Lasse and Paal, just played at the Nattjazz festival in Bergen, Norway. And Lasse and I finished recording a new album for the “Music For…” series.

D: Talking about River Mouth Echoes, your latest record, it comes as a surprise to some that it is being released on John Zorn’s label. How did this come up? This can be seen as an eclectic collection of quiet chamber works next to electro-acoustic noisier material: how did you pick up the pieces?

R: River Mouth Echoes is made in collaboration with John Zorn himself, we discussed various pieces and ended up with this selection. Zorn suggested an order that I think really works and ties the pieces together in a nice way. Composed over a time span of 10 years, all six pieces are works that I reckon as extra important in my total production. All the pieces have their own “story”, their own essence, some are strongly related, others less. I could talk forever about any of those but it’s also good to let it be up to the listener in the first place. The way I treat the acoustic instruments is very influenced by the electronic sound that I have developed. All six pieces have in common that they are both soft and loud, harsh and melodic, I use contrasts a lot. Even the acoustic pieces have their moments of “harsh noise”. I wouldn’t exactly call them quiet. Try Arvo Pärt instead if that’s what you’re after! Now if I were to make a list of my most important pieces, there’s certainly a couple that needs to be added, and that’s the 25 minutes long Gagaku Variations for accordion and string quartet released on Frode Haltli’s ECM record (Looking on Darkness and a Concerto for Voice (unreleased) in which I perform an improvised solo vocal part along with an orchestra. There’s also some collaborative works that I would like to give more attention to when compared with the rest. I have already mentioned the album Voice (released on Rune Grammofon), then there’s Blixter Toad (released on Asphodel) by Fe-mail, the three albums by SPUNK (released on Rune Grammofon) and Carrying our Ears and Eyes in Small Bags by Agrare.

D: Any other project in the works?

R: I have just finished a work for NMFU (Nordland Musikkfestuke, to be held in August 08). I will be a “composer in residence” at this festival. This is the first time I get such a high-profile commission in my own country. The installation I mentioned by SPUNK will also be premiered there, and I will do many concerts in various settings. North Norway rules! I will start some new work soon, but I don’t like to talk about it, it feels too vulnerable. I don’t want to destroy the early creative process by putting too many words on it. All I can say is that I will collaborate again with Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori later this year and there will be many other things as well. For those who want to keep up with that, please look at the calendar on my website (www.ratkje.com).

By Jean-Claude Gevrey

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