On Henri Bergson and Improvisation

“Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje is a contemporary Norwegian composer and performer whose haunting sound pieces deal predominantly with an exploration of the limits of vocal technique, and its relation to other artistic disciplines. In treating voice as an instrument in itself, and by revealing its interdependency with movement and duration, Maja Ratkje expands the possibilities of contemporary composition to include dance, electronics, performance and other multi-media outlets. Although her collaborative efforts are considered mainly in connection with the contemporary improvisation ensemble SPUNK, the noise metal band Trinacria and the duo Fe-mail, the singularity of her output as a composer and singer, together with the elegant severity of her unforgettable voice, individuate Maja Ratkje’s work as profoundly effecting the history of new music and art alike.” -Amir Mogharabi(This interview was published in Farimani, Issue #1, New York, March 2008.)


Your work is inherently interdisciplinary; there occurs an enmeshing of different mediums, music with video, dance with music, etc. How do you interpret the idea of “medium” in an improvisational context? What does ‘medium’ mean to you, and what does the medium become when it intersects with a number of other mediums?

It is ungraspable to me what one really means by ‘medium’. Does it mean that art-forms are separated into different ‘mediums’? If so, then my opinion is that I find it limiting to separate, for instance music and movement, if it is so that they clearly belong together in a work. When I collaborate with others, I am interested in the meeting between people more than the meeting of the art-forms. Besides, my experience of music is so that it is impossible to imagine music without a physical aspect of it.

In the program note for a dance performance I did in 2005 I wrote the following: “While the intellect is connected to a spatial view of reality with seconds and minutes and conceptual categories, intuition is connected to reality in what Bergson calls duration. Here lies the key to understanding reality: that all change (movement) in time and space must be understood as a whole. A movement, an auditory action and a bodily response comprise one entity, one duration, which when it unfolds creates time and space.”

These thoughts are based on ideas from the French philosopher Bergson, who called the idea phase an intuitive, experiential state: In short, a state where consciousness is mobilized, and where the term ‘intuition’ describes a level of consciousness that exceeds all forms of conceptual knowledge. I wrote further that “Sound and bodily movement can together create duration but music is also a movement in itself. When the sound unfolds in space it is just as real as a visual action. The idea of disengaging music from movement is just as impossible as measuring experienced time in minutes and seconds.” I think this is a wonderful starting point for people who work in the time related art-forms, to think of the shared work as a symbiosis, a new life form that has values that are different from just adding the different “mediums” together.

We share an aversion to ideas of medium specificity, and it is precisely the dilemma between the division of mediums and the tendency to interpret them as participating in a continual ‘symbiotic’ relationship, which has fueled discussion in various circles.

Exactly, and in an ideal world the term ‘symbiotic’ would even be unnecessary, since it’s just another hindrance from arriving at the creation as it is. What if someone was to look at a person as an aggregate of all the separate parts put together, and not experienced as a whole?

It seems that the general consensus among contemporary artists is that the question of medium specificity is outmoded, and that we need to look beyond their compartmentalization.

Yes, but the problem here are the institutions who are demanding a separation view on it, especially true for the music field which represented by it’s institutions are more closed and self-defining than any other art form.

The inclination to avoid specificity is manifest in your work and the work of many other emerging interdisciplinary artists/musicians. We are reminded of a quote by Roland Barthes in which he says “The Western Spectacle is anthropomorphic; in it gesture and speech (not to mention song) form but one fabric, conglomerated and lubricated like a single muscle that puts expression into play but never divides it. The unity of movement and voice produces he(she) who acts (performs).” What do you think about this?

I am currently in Graz and I have no chance to look up the word ‘anthropomorphic’ but I take it comes from the term anthropos which is human and morphe, which is how forms melt and intervene. This quote would go very well with Bergson’s idea of how sound and movement create time, becoming one thing. I would like to add to the last part of the quote that the unity of movement and sound (voice) is indeed produced by the one who performs (or the ones that perform together) but not less important that it is a result of the conditions where the performance takes place.

Music for me is all about communication. Communication on three levels. All being equally important. One level being the meeting place for the art, the time and the room and the people in it, including yourself, the audience, and your creative collaborators, if any. A constant interaction, which is sometimes very subtle, but must never be undermined, because this is actually what makes it interesting to perform music/art live at all. To know that every performance is unique and can never be reversed, or even played back, since it only created a true meaning the moment it was performed in those specific conditions.

The second level of communication is the communication between those who perform together, and the third is the communication within yourself, with your own aesthetics, always at stake in confrontation with new ideas. You have to be in all these spheres, from the very intimate to the outstretching, searching, approaching, in order to have a genuine expression, I think. Of course I am speaking very ideally here, just thinking of my own experience is enough to know that it isn’t that easy. If there is too much outer motivation, if you become nervous or feel pressured to deliver something very specific, it can make you do what is expected of you, but leaves an empty feeling afterwards. I really try to do things that are not expected of me also to confront the danger of becoming stiff and uninteresting.

The first time I really did this was when I was finished studying composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. I had written advanced scores for chamber groups and was starting to get recognized because of that, so when everyone was expecting a new big ensemble work from me, I dug down in studio and made the Voice album, purely based on voice and electronic treatments of it in very unidiomatic ways. And to work with me on this I even asked my friends in Jazzkammer who aren’t even “real composers”. Two years later, the album was done, and I was very happy about it, but then I had lost all chances of following up the “young and promising classical contemporary composer” image. And I have never been sorry for that, it provides me with more freedom.

It is nice that you introduced Bergson and his notion of duration as related to your work. It is true, both movement images and time images are types of images coexisting on one plane, namely that of duration. It is the unfolding of duration as such, which allows for the derivation of their distinction. Furthermore, intuition, as you stated, participates in an intimate relation with duration which, in my opinion, is why intuition also plays a central role in improvisation. What role do you feel intuition plays in improvisation?

I think the way Bergson defines intuition is quite wonderful, and must not be misunderstood as anything supernatural or mythical. As I understand it, he simply states that one has to trust that creativity is not only a result of your defined decisions and actions, but rather an interplay with the subconscious. The “intuition” is the act of coupling the subconscious to reality. And my guess is that it is your intuition that becomes your personal filter, how you end up expressing yourself in art, your ‘artistic signature’ perhaps. Again, referring to what I said above about outer motivation, I would assume that intuition, just like inspiration, is a fragile plant that really needs to be taken care of, and needs to be given the right conditions in order to grow and produce fruit.

In improvisational settings this is totally required. In my experience it is not possible to give a free improvisation concert if the motivation is forced. And in improvisational settings you are often more fragile than in pre-structured settings, when it comes to the levels of communication, you are very much aware of those, and that if any of those are hindered, it becomes crucial for the outcome.

Can you give a more detailed account of your educational/musical background. Qualms you have with the institution and schooling. Ideas about problems with the way knowledge is produced and disseminated in those environments. In our interview with Fred Frith, we discussed the distinctions between teaching improvisation, and teaching traditional music theory, and interesting thoughts came up in relation to cognition. One of the efforts on our part, is to promote new and experimental methods of teaching in the institutions. What ideas do you have about advancements in teaching methods?

Well, I don’t have that much experience in teaching, but I have often been asked to lead seminars, to give inspiration to musicians who want to learn to improvise etc. And for two years I had a position teaching composition at the NTNU, the University in Trondheim, where I was born. I then had my own class with 10 students with various backgrounds, some from the jazz department, some from music technology and even from the Art Academy. It was a great challenge and we all learned a lot during that period.

In order to do justice to all, it was necessary to go to the bottom of what music really is. Instead of focusing on music history alone and only looking at scores (some couldn’t even read scores), I went through the topics during one year, bringing piles and piles of listening examples from all sorts of music (and some scores) and we spoke about the general fundaments of music: time, timbre, form, rhythm, structure etc. The musique concrète tradition has brought up a new approach to learning music by listening, and people like Pierre Schaffer has with his Solfege edition given a starting point for listening to music in other ways that listening to harmonic functions etc. In this way we can include all sorts of sounds into music, as the thought was when musique concrète was established. Russolo’s Noise Manifesto was already stating this possibility, and then it became a reality. Today it is a must.

With the group SPUNK, we have done plenty of ear-opening seminars, working with sound, improvisation and composition, even with children. It seems to me that children, or young people, are much more open minded before they are formed by an institution compared to after. I have so many examples of how the reaction is when they realize that it can be valuable to do other things with sound than to play the correct notes; and not in the least to speak of playfulness, but to have fun.

If I was the headmaster of a music school for children, I would say that no one was allowed to play from notes until two years of learning about sound, by exploring their instruments, and learning how they work, in order to escape the danger of disconnecting their inner ears to the techniques too early.

While living in Italy, I participated in a workshop with musicians collectively involved in the yearly Angelica project (with Barre Phillips) where we were deeply concerned with increasing our sensitivity to sounds through experiments influenced by the theories of Schaffer. Workshops involved blindfolding ourselves and localizing sounds in a large space within which each participating individual was placed in the middle, thereby determining in which direction a consistent sound was moving at certain intervals. We also performed projects outside where, again blindfolded, we attempted to record the frequency of sounds specific to moving agents: cars, bicycles, motorcycles, humans, etc. and compared the consistency of our results. The purpose was, above all, to heighten our sensitivity or awareness to “sounds” which we believed to have been obfuscated by noise pollution, and by a negative dialectic between the written scores and the experience of sound. As a final question, it is precisely this distinction that I hope you can interrogate. What do you think is the relationship between written music, and the experience of music itself? If we apply the classic semiotic model of language to music, and allow the written note to be the “signifier”, and the sound to which it relates the “signified”, then what do you believe happens to the experience of that sound in relation to what it was before it was rooted in signification?

In my opinion, music is so far from language, it is actually incorrect to say that music is a language of it’s own. It is entirely different by nature. Language is however connected to the way we look at scores, and the academia on music is often so connected to the way music is represented in language/score that sound is often forgotten. As an attempt to put as little focus on the score as language as possible, I am writing very neutral scores which are usually written in a music typing program, so the focus is drawn to the sounding music, not the translation of my hand-writing. On the relationship between written music (scores) and the experience of music itself, as sound, I have some very non-philosophical views; I think I can be a bit fundamentalist here, because even though I write scores that are full of details, micro-intervals, advanced rhythms and special playing techniques, I am not one of those composers who sees the score as a piece of art. And I definitely think about the practical concerns of a score much more than the looks of it.

The optimal score must be practical (that certainly does not mean that it has to be easy to play), but if it is made with love for the musician to play, that the performance of it is the goal of it and you can see that, then in most cases the score also looks very beautiful and musical.

I have lately built up an interest for writing ‘instruction pieces ‘ where the fundament of the piece is a written document, as if it were a theatre play, explaining in words every detail about both sounds and visuals. In this way it is easy to include scenic ideas; movement, lights, costumes, objects etc, more similar to a “normal” theatre piece. Playing techniques are described, and the length of single events as well as lists of simultaneous events are presented. And when necessary, there are extra attachments, reffered to by footnotes, given to those who must perform a spoken text or a note sequence in their part. The similarity between these instruction scores and the scores described before is the practical view on it. It is simply a word document with some attached notes and graphical stage drawings. It is far from the metaphorical instruction pieces by f.i. Stockhausen (Aus dem Sieben Tagen from 1969, which we have actually played from with SPUNK) which brings me over to recognizing the tradition of writing scores that are art pieces on their own terms. Of course it is a whole other way to look at this relationship between the dots and sound, and it is both a beautiful and interesting art, even though it is not representative of how I make my scores or ‘instruction pieces’ at the moment.

Talking about the score as a piece of art (I am of course also thinking of the tradition including John Cage and Christian Wolff and their likes and followers), this movement started in a time where it was uncommon for classically trained musicians to free themselves from the traditional notes and even improvise, and these aleatorical scores functioned as a major inspiration, the artwork giving nutrition to creativity itself, not music alone. But it is wrong to say that this tradition is purely a musical tradition, it is liberated to a greater extent from boundaries, referring to what we discussed initially.

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