Maja Ratkje – Looking Forward

She’s on a hurry and with many projects in her head. Always travelling, always doing something, always changing present vocal music scenarios. Wait for her in your hometown – she’ll be there one of these days

Rui Eduardo Paes

Composer, improviser and vocalist Maja Ratkje is always on the run these days. Her name growed extraordinarily the last few years and she’s being very requested for concerts, records and even films all over the world. This interview found her the night before the departure for an American tour.

Rui Eduardo Paes – You’re not a conventional singer and you’re not exactly a sound poet, even if there’s a Dada element in what you do. How do you relate yourself with those two domains?

Maja Ratkje – Spoken work for me has always had a double function, the semantic meaning of language, poetic or narrative being one dimension and language as sound on the other hand has always fascinated me. The latter shows through my interest for languages that I don’t understand, I have always been interested in the sounds that colour a particular language, in how a language is culturally built up around a certain selection of sounds! Sometimes I incorporate this in my vocal improvisation, doing so-called nonsense speaking with emphasis on sounds from a selected language that I feel drawn towards at the moment. It is always easier to do this with a language that doesn’t have a semantic connotation for me, then I can listen to the musical side of the language in it’s pure form. On top of this, there are the emotional connotations, the abstraction of emotions like anger, happiness, grief, stubbornness, child-like associations etc. I abstract myself from emotions while I improvise these kind of vocals, but bringing in the experience of emotional aspects as well, heard from others in real life or through films or media or self-experienced. When working with language that I do speak (several Norwegian dialects, Nordic languages, English or German) it is in particular the limit between language as semantically meaningful and language as musically meaningful (abstract sound) that interests me. I draw on experience from sound poetry, however not being a performer in this specific genre myself, but drawn to the idea that vocal music can be so much more than just singing melodic lines with poetic words.

R.E.P. – Like in classical or pop singing…

M.R. – Classical singing is so established that contemporary music has had a great challenge to break it down or make new meanings apart from this traditional aspect. Berio’s “Sequenza” perhaps being the most established work. But it is still so much within the classical language that I found it more interesting to go to the dadaists for inspiration. Most important is however the knowledge that I have developed as a singer by working with other musicians playing other instruments, in SPUNK we have for example worked with practising sound imitation, where you are to imitate a sound made on another instrument as perfectly as possible, including unpitched noisy sounds and really alternate playing techniques. This has helped to explore one’s own instrumental (and for my case: vocal) limits and always stretching further for unheard possibilities in the use of the voice.

R.E.P. – What do you like in singing and sound/phonetic poetry? What are your big references?

M.R. – I have always been eager to imitate sounds around me since I was a very small child, being nature sounds like birds and other animals and all sorts of machines and alarms. And I must mention my collaboration with the Dutch performer Jaap Blonk who I have recorded two albums with and done several concerts with. He is a great performer of sound poetry and he improvises as well. Through him I have heard the works of Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball and others from that era, and that has been very inspiring.

R.E.P. – You said just now that your purpose is to abstract emotions from the voice. It seems to me that this is a strugle very present in today’s experimental music. Why this opposition to emotional expression?

M.R. – It’s not an opposition to emotional music! But I have to abstract the emotional side of performing live because it is limiting me from getting as far as I want with music. How else could I jump easily and extremely quickly from one “emotion” to another? Also in respect to the audience, I do not wish to push my own private emotion upon the listener as that is also very limiting for their experience of the music which can certainly include totally different emotional connotations than the one’s I think I include, and as I want the music to be as full of ambiguity as possible, opening up for more than one solution of perception, I need to put the focus on me as a private person in the background and make the music valid as well for the one’s I share the experience with.

R.E.P. – I know you composed an opera, “No Title Performance and Sparkling Water”, but you call it an anti-opera, like Cage did about his “Europeras”. Why?

M.R. – The opera was a collaboration project between me, the director Siw Merethe Mikalsen and the writer Plinio Bachmann. We chose to call it an opera from the start, and we got an opera company to produce it. In the end it was questioned a lot in the local press whether it was an opera or not, but that is really not important for me. The work was full of spoken words, and half of the singers were not classically trained. I guess I wanted to confront the traditional opera form, but the main intention was to make an interesting performance, and I think we managed to do that.

R.E.P. – Quoting you manifesto from 1999, you say that music is archetypal and one of our most forceful means of communication. Do you think that notion was influenced by the fact that your first instrument is the voice, the communicacional organ by excelence?

M.R. – Interesting thought, but it didn’t occur to me that that might be the reason. How will I ever know? I think however I meant that music as phenomena opens up a room which is truly unique, a room which has to include forms of communication, a room where humans can communicate by other means than the ordinary. This is a wonderful idea and it gives me hope that music can solve conflicts and disturbance as well, and in the best cases also lead to openness and the ability to think differently, which is certainly required in the mainstream media controlled world of today’s western society.

R.E.P. – You said once that the voice is the most complex of all instruments. Even the computer, which you’re using more frequently now?

M.R. – A computer cannot make emotional associative complexity like the voice, and the sound possibilities and the response rapidity of a human vocalist is still much more elaborate than computer generated sound, if you ask me. Computers are good tools for composing, but it feels always refreshing to work with my primary sound source, my voice. Some very good musicians have the same relationship to their instruments, but I guess it is easier for vocal performers to get that relationship since the voice is so naturally a part of the body.

R.E.P. – Your “in between” musical identity have other parameters: you’re a contemporary “classical” composer but you also improvise, you play acoustic (with SPUNK, for instance) and we find you in electronic situations (more and more these last few years). You work solo but you’re also a co-founder of several groups and projects and you have a large list of colaborations, from Lasse Marhaug to Jaap Blonk. Why this multiplicity of interventions? What are you searching for?

M.R. – It is the search in itself that interests me and gives me the drive to go on in different fields. I also feel that I am working on the same project always, even though the final output changes a lot from time to time. And it’s true that I search for something between what is established forms of expression, I think I can never be truly and entirely just one of the things, like electronic musician, voice performer, or contemporary composer of scores for instrumental ensembles. These roles were more separated some years ago in my work, but now they intervene more and more, and I don’t really know, and don’t really care either what I should represent in most cases. This makes the task almost impossible for people on the outside to try to categorise my doings for archive purposes or for other domains like fundings or institutional recognition.

R.E.P. – You have a personal vision of “noise music” as something that deals directly with sound, and not as a cultural or social confrontation or whatever motivations that are external to the sound world. Sexual, for instance, like with Merzbow. Since the reductionist school deals also with sound (if we accept that silence is sound), I would like you to explain me your idea of noise. You define music as “conscious structuring of noise”…

M.R. – Noise is still for me a very physical musical experience compared to other sorts of music in which an extreme can be more like a brain work puzzle. When people, for instance primitive radio journalists, ask me if I consider the noise I make music or not, I have always been a defender of noise as music, in contrast to many noise artists who in their nihilistic attitude see noise as a non musical provocation. For me, noise music is a complex and interesting form of music which is best when it is performed live. It has all to do with texture in the sound and the volume. With Fe-mail we also tend to work with musical form and gestures drawn from our experience as free improv performers when we play noise, this is also a different approach than “traditional” noise which is wonderful in it’s minimalistic way, the Asian inspired approach of timelessness being central to the experience, perhaps similar to the minimalistic movement in US in the seventies.


R.E.P. – It’s obvious that you have political and social concerns. Reading your manifesto we know, at the same time, that for you “expressing opinions, explaining and arguing must be secundary”. So, you’re political in the music itself. I remember you saying that people who listen and play this kind of music are doing a “celebration of freedom”, against the establishment. And that “experimental music is a political statement in itself”, “an eye-opener for other possibilities”…

M.R. – Yes, I still mean that creating and sharing a network with alternative music is a celebration of freedom against the establishment. All forms of underground music or alternative art must stop to quarrel and make a strong front against the main enemy: brainwashing mainstream culture, owned by the richest with one underlying goal: to make more money, and secondary goals, to keep people from thinking differently so that the regime can keep the materialistic acceleration, mostly upkept by tying people to the television with it’s simplified versions of reality. I’m running out of time here. Have to be quick, sorry…

R.E.P. – SPUNK was presented by the media as an “anarchist feminin band”. Anyhow, “anarchy” is a word you usually use. For real? It’s certain that sometimes you keep things loose, but you also like to structure and even to have total control of the sounds. What anarchy are we talking about?

M.R. – Freedom in choosing exactly what I want to do artistically, not being forced to think that certain ways of expressions are more valuable than others.

R.E.P. – By the way: what happened to SPUNK? It’s a sleeping project? We’ll have news soon about this band?

M.R. – We have a ten years anniversary this year. And we are releasing another album on Rune Grammofon which is already recorded. We use an external producer for the first time: Jørgen Træen (Sir Duperman). We will celebrate with a SPUNK festival in Oslo in November.

R.E.P. – About the “feminin” thing. Do you think that the fact of being a woman determines in some way the music you play and compose? Considering that your music is very affirmative and loud, some critics and listeners question the genre of your playing – there’s the notion that a woman can’t be agressive. I suppose you don’t like this perspective that a feminin art must be soft and gentle…

M.R. – It surprises me a lot that people find it awkward for a woman to make such music. For me it’s the most natural thing to do, and it is not forced. Femininity is so much more than polite softness.

R.E.P. – It seems to us that there is a boom of the experimental music scene in Norway, thanks to labels like Rune Grammofon and Sofa and to projects that goes from the radicalism of Jazzkammer to the more pop induced Jaga Jazzist. This is a new reality in your country or does it comes from the past and the only novelty is its visibility?

M.R. – It’s true that the scene today is larger and more interesting than in the previous decade, and it shows through the attention Norwegian experimental music gets abroad. It is not easy to say what the reason is, but it’s a wonderful environment to be in where people collaborate naturally across old fashioned boundaries, between artforms and music styles.

R.E.P. – What will be your next steps?

M.R. – Tons to do… I did a solo concert in Italy yeasterday and the week before I came home from filming. I have just made music for an art film by English-American Daria Martin, on the myth of Persephone. I also starred in the film as one of the two main actors. The music was all based on my vocal improvisations. Fe-mail is releasing another album on Seattle based Psychform Records, we are going on a three weeks tour from tomorrow, all in the States, first concert now on Sunday at the Tonic, a gig we share with Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins. Looking forward. But now I seriously have to pack! Leaving early tomorrow morning. Will also make a dance performance together with a Norwegian dancer in Oslo this fall, which means I will stay more home. Bye now.

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