This interview was made in The Wire’s issue for March 2003 – edited from the original conversation

ON SPUNK AND FEMALE BEHAVIOUR

Why is your group called SPUNK? And what does your obsession with Pippi Longstocking come from?

The origin comes from a Pippi Longstocking book, where ‘spunk’ is a key word. Pippi hits upon the word and wonders what in the world it could mean, and then she goes out looking for it. And what does the music of SPUNK mean? Nothing, -or anything! It’s free music. I still think Astrid Lindgren’s novels are well-written, funny and important. As an undogmatic role model for young girls, no one’s better than Pippi. She was extremely controversial in the 40s, but she still is; a little girl living by herself, totally anarchistic when it comes to sleeping and eating habits, what to say, how to behave etc., but good as an angel inside. British people react on our ensemble name. When we found out we didn’t care, rather found it more interesting. (The keyboard player Pat Thomas is still very shocked.) Our music is totally unpredictable. SPUNK is spelled with capital letters by the way, we don’t want to exclude the possibility that it could be a shortening for something.

Did you use to have any female role models when growing up?

I used to think I had a problem having no clear idols, I didn’t even have an urge to idolize any particular star as a child. I’ve always liked a lot of different things. It makes no sense to some people, but today I see it as an advantage. When it comes to female role models, Pippi is already mentioned, but I guess growing up in a family with strong women has had some impact on me, being not used to questioning whether what you do is a typical female thing or not. Not until I entered the Music Academy I started to think about the consequences of the obvious lack of women in this field.

A friend, who is not particularly fond of experimental music, after having seen SPUNK live, commented ‘this is too female and irrational for me’. Do you often get comments of the supposed link between the female and irrationality/madness?

Why not be more surrealistic or irrational? The world becomes boring if you don’t see as much potential in new things as possible. The child’s curious view on the world is easy to lose, it’s however not a contradiction to gain experience. ‘Open-minded’ is not the same as being naive. Many people are frustrated when they don’t crack the code of SPUNK’s musical universe, but does that have anything to do with us being women? Since there are so few in this field, it’s impossible to say anything in general about whether any particular way of playing is caused by the fact that we are four girls improvising. SPUNK concerts are never the same! No rules or secret agreement before a gig. Perhaps your friend would’ve thought we were some real macho, male chauvinistic players if he had heard another concert in the radio not knowing what it was?! Who knows…

Historical women who were not “behaving” are very often labelled as mysterious or dangerous, especially if they were seductive as well. Those women have always been a threat against the authorities. Just think about the suppression of women through the hundreds of years of witch burning. (I recently improvised to “Häxan”, a 1922-movie on witch hunt. Striking good movie!) I’m sick and tired of the only two true possibilities of female behaviour; the whore/madonna dualism is limiting the possibilities of expression for women who are “different”.

Do you think composition and improvisation is a male dominated scene and if so how do you feel being a part of it? Despite your qualifications has it been hard to convince people that you are serious about your work due to being a girl?

Composition and improvisation scenes are mostly dominated by men, that’s correct, but I don’t feel I belong to any such “scene”. I don’t think that has anything to do with me being a woman…, well, it’s impossible to know! But I don’t want to waste my energy thinking about THAT. When I studied composition I felt the surroundings being sceptic towards my split musical personalities, but luckily I found the musicians in SPUNK to share a new language with. But I have to emphasise that SPUNK being a female ensemble is just a coincidence. We started to play together because we where friends. In the beginning two guys were supposed to join us, but they didn’t show up when we started to rehears. Today I work with a many good people, both male and female.

Are you a feminist?

I believe more in being a role model based on what I produce than declaring myself a feminist officially. The drawback talking too much about it is that it moves the focus away from the music. (I wouldn’t have answered if this was a Norwegian daily paper.) My task is to say as much as possible through my work, not talking stupidly all over the pages like this, but not forgetting that art becomes boring if the “message” is too obvious.

ON POLITICS AND AESTHETIC CHOICES

You music strikes me as exceptionally free almost bordering of the insane. Is there a political message in your works? Are you personally involved or interested in politics or is your music mostly the result of aesthetic choices?

I’ve always been seriously interested, and a bit involved, in politics, but mostly that doesn’t affect my music directly. “Aesthetics” is also too academic -I’m into sound, sound is Sound. My message is idealistic, I’ve always been full of energy for what I feel is the right thing to do, and that is hardly ever corresponding to the established society. Making music has made me a much calmer and “straighter” person on the surface, but the energy is still there, it has just taken another form. Perhaps the sum of defiance and adjustment is constant in one’s life? I believe in non-commercial and experimental music being a political statement in itself: one chooses to omit the prevailing, the conformist and the commercial aspects of artistic expression, giving people another alternative, something new to explore, to hopefully function as an eye-opener for other possibilities, in the end to make a difference! You simply can’t speculate in the audience’s anticipation and reception and at the same time be honest towards your ideals, you’ll never manage that!

ON THE ACT OF PERFORMING

Are you interested in exploring boundaries of live music and performance art? Can you describe some of the experiments you have done live?

About performance art, I do admit that some gigs remind more of a visual performance than a traditional concert. I could have told about early chain-fights on stage with Oslo Industrial Ensemble, toilet performances with wireless mic etc., but it’s not so important. Things like that have been done way beyond that by other people long ago, and for my own sake it’s only interesting at the time it happens, as a result of improvisation. The visual aspect becomes an artefact of the music, and so does the audience’ reaction. Concerning SPUNK, one could say that throwing about with plastic tubes and metal scrap in concerts is just a way of drawing attention to the “crazyness” of our music, but honestly it’s all about searching for unheard sound combinations.

What is the weirdest or most difficult thing that has happened to you on stage? Has the audience erupted into any kind of reactions? Can they be threatened by your unorthodox music?

We’ve had some experiences with SPUNK. When we started playing in 1995, we were forced to play in awkward places in Oslo because there wasn’t any stage for that kind of music. (The already well-established club BLÅ is only five years old.) One of our first concerts was at a techno club where they didn’t have regular concerts. All dressed up in colourful clothes and with a cheerful attitude, we played the strangest, ugliest, non-comprising music they had ever heard! I remember a lot of people entering the room, standing still at the very spot where they first caught sight of us and listening with their jaws wide open in disbelief till the concert was over. Today the Oslo audience is much more used to alternative expressions.

It always surprises me that people find my music provoking, that’s not my intention at all. I try to give people an opportunity to chose something different, I don’t want to scare people or make them angry at me because they don’t “understand”. That makes me sad. I love music, it’s the joy of my life! I wish my music to be a direct, honest and Thought-provoking (that’s different). More often I get positive reactions, from people never having heard anything like it before.

ON ‘VOICE’ AND FREEDOM IN MUSIC

The obvious reference point for ‘Voice’ is Diamanda Galas. Are you inspired by her?

My intention with extreme vocal sounds is not pubescent horror stuff, it’s more about Sound. I wasn’t shocked when I first hear her recordings, I coldly analyzed her techniques, comparing with what I was then already far into doing myself. She has a very expressive attitude, and I like that and respect her doings a lot, but I would never tell such obvious “stories” myself.

Do you like performing or recording better?

Music is all about communication, so performing is more interesting. Composing is however equally important. It never occurred to me that I should limit my doings to that only, even when studying composition. I have always done both with even focus, but it’s the first time I seriously merge the two with my solo album Voice, with support from Lasse and John in Jazzkammer.

I’ve read you are interested in setting frames for freedom when you compose. Why? What kind of frames are they?

I set the frames because pure and unreflected freedom often can turn out to something quite indifferent. On Voice, the frames are obvious: my own voice, but that’s more on a conceptual level since it’s impossible to hear for most people. (In the process of making it’s good to have a filter for your ideas, or something to measure them against, it makes you see things clearly.) Frames are very technical, they don’t have anything to do with the musicality or creative intuition.

Is the freedom seemingly demonstrated on Voice a result of you renouncing your formal training from the past? Or do you feel that there is a lot of scope of freedom within formal composition? Are you seen as a kind of ‘wildchild’ in the Norwegian composition scene?

My music is extremely hard to classify. After touring abroad with SPUNK, I’ve discovered that people aren’t so focused on our background as they are in Norway. We played in a festival called ‘Taktlos’ in Switzerland last year. I love that name! For the first time we felt that we where the centre of attention, not just a fringe project in a festival with “jazz”, “modern music” etc. in the label. Voice is not an attempt to break out of something conventional or formal, it’s rather a document of what I’ve been occupied with musically the last years. I think freedom in music is a necessity, but it’s something you have to define yourself, based on your knowledge and your possibilities. There are possibilities in everything, remember, but you have to be very sensitive to use them right. If it results in freeing yourself from conventions, that’s of course great. One way of breaking out of formalities on Voice is how I deal with recording equipment. In most recordings of contemporary music the ideal is to make the recording process invisible, but all recordings filter the music in some way. I wanted this filter do be a part of the music. You can _hear_ the recording process: fumbling with the minidisk-player, turning the dictaphone on and off, the distorted input signal, the locations etc. The goal was all the time the Sound = the Music, but to explore the potential of this particular concept (to record my own voice and to edit the material) I made a point of using different devices with different sound qualities side by side, ignorant to the fact that some people consider analogue or digital stuff better, and ignorant to the range of “value” of the items I chose.

There’s still a long way to go when it comes to messing up pre-defined styles or genders and prejudice across the borders. Even in Norway where there’s a lot of work done to break down the fences between classical modernism, free improvisation, rock and electronics, the festivals and institutions are still reluctant when it comes to music not possible to trace clearly from any of those points of departure. And the improv scene hasn’t had a festival for free improvised music until last year when drummer Paal Nilssen-Love invited me and some other musician friends to arrange a new festival to be held in Oslo. We call it “All Ears”, and you saw the last programme in The Wire’s January issue, featuring both younger electronic performers like Lasse Marhaug and free music legends like Evan Parker.

ON INSPIRATION AND BACKGROUND

Who are you inspired by (apart from Pippi Longstocking)?

In no particular order: Zorn, Messiaen, Bach, Scelsi, Xenakis, Gubaidulina, Saariaho, the Residents, Tom Waits, Jaap Blonk, Merzbow, Björk, my late grandfather (who was a Norwegian champion in boxing and professional violin player at the same time!), Michael Ende, the authors of the Nag Hammadi Library, Paul Celan, Milan Kundera, and I love movies! (Lynch, Kubrick, Kaurismäki, Godard and many, many more…) But I don’t have television. It’s the worst form for brain washing in our time. I meet a lot of inspiring people when touring or travelling!

Is there any record or concert you have witnessed that you felt changed your life in some way?

Hearing Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” in headphones at the library when I was 19 changed my whole perspective on music. I hadn’t heard anything like it! I was amazed, shocked and totally seduced. Then I decided to become a composer; I dared to focus on the music, which until then was more of a fun-to-do hobby. Lately I’ve had some similar awakening through exploring some of the Japanese music scene, especially the noisy part of it. I heard Guilty Connector in Tokyo in 2000, wiping me out totally. Listening to Merzbow and Otomo Yoshihide as well as Japanese court music has had a great impact as well.

I saw you’ve done a lecture about Japanese music – do you feel an affiliation for Japanese improv and noise? Why does it interest you?

Japanese music has its own Spirit. You can feel it, in anything from harsh noise to gagaku music. It’s limitless, and at the same time a peaceful spirit. In 2001 I made a piece, “Gagaku Variations” for string quartet and accordion which is now released by Frode Haltli and the Vertavo String Quartet on ECM New Series. Besides a vinyl release with Lasse Marhaug, “Music for Shopping”, including a lot of my own field recordings from Japan, “Gagaku Variations” is my only serious attempt to catch some of this spirit into my own music. I’ve felt very much like “coming home” musically meeting the Japanese music. The directness and focus, the time-irrelevant forms, the dedication to the music -not the person, the breaks, the expectant silence (they call it “Ma”). I find it in most kinds of Japanese music. Western tradition is too focused on development in a linear way, as if a piece of music makes sense only if you have a dialectic form with some obvious themes building up to a certain point, and then a “reasonable” conclusion. I’ve been criticized in Norwegian press for having a lacking sense for form, even though I work more with the form than most people do; perhaps it’s my Japanese affiliation? Once I played a recording of a percussion quartet I made in 1995, way before I had heard any Japanese music, for a leader of a teiko-ensemble in Kyoto; he said it was 70% Japanese… Who cares anyway.

I haven’t seen or heard the ‘Music For Shopping’ record, can you tell me more about it?

“Music for Shopping” was released in January 2003. It’s a result of an unambitious jam session with Lasse and me, connecting our gear on the floor of the unfinished SPUNK studio in December 2000, and recording directly onto a minidisc player. It’s a 100% live recording, no overdubs, no editing. The only track which wasn’t included on the LP is released on a ‘Special shopping edition’ together with some remixes by Lasse, me and Petter Flaten Eilertsen who is the label manager of Synesthetic Recordings.

ON NOISE, FE-MAIL AND SEX

What is it with noise?

Noise is a positive energy even if it has dark forces. It’s directness goes straight to my heart. Playing or listening to noise is like covering all dull colours with white paint, a powerful white wall fencing off all personal frustrations and hang-ups.

Do you experience the noise scene as macho? (I’m thinking of artists who seem to align ‘power’ and noise quite closely. Sometimes it seems like there is a drive to see how loud and hard it can possibly get, and then see who ‘can take it’). Do you have any experiences with that or do you see Fe-mail as going beyond that? And why did you settle on the name ‘Fe-mail’ for your noise project?

As I’ve said earlier, my affection for noise is not caused by the immanent “fuck you”-attitude, it’s based on the sound experience. The reason that’s considered macho must be because there are mostly men doing it. Still studying composition, I was once asked by a leader of a seminar why I made such loud and powerful music being a such a little girl, if I did it to oppose or if I really meant it musically! Luckily I don’t get many reactions like that. I’ve always used a broad register of expressions, from loud to tender. I still remember my first works, being 8 years old, attacking the family piano hitting as many keys as possible as loud as possible, and then in the next moment playing a sad and silent song in minor, called “dead roses” or something like that.

The name Fe-mail is obvious, it’s a word play on ‘e-mail’. The Italian composer Scelsi called himself a ‘messenger’. Perhaps we are an attachment? Ha, ha.

On the Fe-mail record you and Hild Sofie Tafjord are pictured in typical feminine flowery tops, all made up, in what looks like a holiday snap from Majorca. Can you talk a little about what you wanted with that record and why you decided it to look like that?

Pure, untreated pictures of the players are not very usual in that kind of music. That cover is very ironic! When we had those pictures taken, we never thought of using them on a cover. It was TV5′s label manager Sindre Andersen who wanted to use a picture of me and Hild, and he picked that one after getting copies from the photographer. Seeing the result however, I don’t mind. It feels great braking the conventions for what a “serious composer” should do. After all the contrast to the music is shockingly good. I don’t know what you expect, but I’m sure it’s not what you get!

Is noise sex? Is there a connection?

Noise is a very physical experience. Of course there is a connection, but I’m not making a point out of it like Merzbow does. Noise is refreshing Sound more than anything else, makes me feel happy and alive!

ON NOW AND THE FUTURE

What are you working on at the moment and what are your future projects?

At the moment I’m at the Ilios festival in Harstad, that’s in north Norway. I had a solo gig with voice and electronics at a student house here the night before. I’m currently working on an opera, a really grim anti-opera, hahaha.

Does fe-mail have any future projects? And SPUNK?

A collaboration release with Fe-mail and Lasse Marhaug will be out spring 2003 on Gameboy Records. We also have a lot of concert plans, some verified gigs are at the Bad Bonn Kilbi in Düdingen and at the opening of the Nordic Pavilion at Venice Biennial 2003, both in June. And we’ll play at the Safe as milk festival in haugesund in july. Fe-mail is also working on a European tour with the Swedish dancer Lotta Melin who we played with at the Avanto festival last fall. Fe-mail is also working on a record with texts by Cecilie Løveid, noise music for children! SPUNK is touring in Norway this spring, and we are planning some concerts in Europe as well, but I don’t know what’s verified now, you’ll see! SPUNK has a concert series lasting over 12 years, one concert every year, all in different locations in Oslo. It’s a meditation over the last millenium. We call it “Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK”, because we’re only playing one note for each concert. The first concert was in 2001, the 20th of January starting precisely 20:01. Then we played a fourty minute long composition on the tone Bb in the Emmanuel Vigeland Mausoleum. Last year’s concert was the 20th of February, playing an A in a basement in Oslo. You see the point? After 12 years we’re done with the whole scale, the first four concerts starting with B-A-C-H. We record every concert, and hopefully we’ll release a box with everything after 2012. For the next concert on the 20th of March at 20:03, we’ll try to get permission to play in a shopping centre. SPUNK is of course included in my “opera” plans. This summer I’ll do a solo at Kongsberg, it’s the first time I’m booked to a Norwegian jazz festival. And I’ll continue my collaboration with Jaap Blonk, releasing an acoustic vocal duo sometime during next year, we already have enough material for several records.

What music do you listen to at home? What do you particularly like at the moment?

Right now? Chicks on speed, Skarnspage, Aube, Merzbow/Haswell, Knudsen & Ludvigsen, Erkki Kurenniemi, Tom Waits, Hosokawa, Lachenmann, Sten Sandell…

Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje 04.02.2003

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