Maja S. K. Ratkje has been honing her singular, interconnected performing and composing styles for more than twenty years. The process has placed her at the forefront of the musical avant-garde where, depending who you ask, she is either an exciting new talent or a respected elder stateswoman. Despite its boldness and originality, her music is meant for sharing. At its heart lies Ratkje’s own voice, an open door to her individual musicianship and a constant tool for realigning her work with natural expressions and human truths.
Ratkje has collaborated with artists of various disciplines since the 1990s when she sang jazz, played the piano, joined a Gamelan group and co-founded the Oslo Industrial Ensemble. Mathematics, philosophy and the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen and Arne Nordheim all tantalized Ratkje during her first music studies. She forced her way into the Norwegian Academy of Music to discover more, graduating in composition, electronics and vocal studies in 2000.
Ratkje soon discovered the limitations of the twelve notes of the equally tempered chromatic scale. In 1997, she had mapped out the overtone spectrum produced by the lowest note playable on a tenor saxophone. A work based on the strongest 29 notes of the spectrum, Sinus Seduction (1997), became a foundation stone on which a series of landmark works were built under the collective title Moods. The spectral map would shape Waves I (1997) and many works to come.
In 1999, Ratkje won Norway’s coveted Edvard Prize (for the first time) with another Moods piece: Waves IIb, a virtuoso ensemble work also honoured by UNESCO and the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. But already, Ratkje was being lured into collaborations that would see the blossoming of a less conventional but still rooted voice. She worked with the percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and joined the experimental ensemble SPUNK as a vocalist, a move that would have a lasting impact on her day-to-day performing and composing.
Like her fascination with the overtone spectrum, Ratkje’s involvement with percussion sharpened her ear for musical timbre. At around the same time, her performances in SPUNK moved her to explore her own voice; how it might influence the act of composing and, in turn, further interact with those ideas about tone colour. In 2002 she released the album Voice, a catalogue of previously unexplored vocal production techniques fused with electronics that was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica. From that conceptual turning point came a landmark score: Concerto for Voice (Moods III) (2004) commissioned by Radio France, a piece in which Ratkje’s realization of the voice as an instrument came to maturity and which further crystalized her views on timbre.
Towards the end of that decade, Ratkje was heard of as both a journalist (with the paper Morgenbladet) and a climate activist (with Norsk Klimanettverk). In 2010 she was the subject of Ingo J. Biermann’s documentary film Voice and in 2012 she was featured as Composer-In-Residence at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
In Huddersfield, Ratkje’s work for three choirs and noise musicians Crepuscular Hour (2010) was given its UK premiere while the Norwegian ensemble Cikada gave the first performance of “And Sing While Thou On Pressed Flowers Dost Sleep” (2012). The latter furthers Ratkje’s exploration of the interface between voice and music, electronics and acoustics. It asks instruments to do the impossible: to imitate and match electronically sampled vocal sounds. As the work reaches its conclusion, Ratkje’s own voice replaces the instruments one-by-one, exposing and short-circuiting the illusion at the same time.
That piece underlined Ratkje’s ideas surrounding the capability of different musical objects to push one another into life and action. Her music frequently involves stark contrasts, more often in the delivery of balance and kinetic action than to create shock or effect. In large-scale spatial pieces such as Crepuscular Hour we sense her ability to hold disparate materials in her grasp – to objectify and control her material. Her care and restraint with that material continues a certain tradition in Nordic music, together with the sense of fluency that conceals rigorous structural work and an elevating of the role of timbre so that it can dictate shape. ‘Form is the most important aspect of composition and the reason I consider myself a composer,’ Ratkje once said; ‘It must be carefully planned to avoid the obvious.’
At the same time, she has spoken of intuition in relation to form and of intuition as ‘an aesthetic filter.’ The words have extra resonance coming from a performing and improvising musician who charges her creativity with the opportunity and risk of live performance. While many of Ratkje’s scores are notated, many stretch beyond the confines of traditional notation in aspiring to both greater precision and greater liberation. Many ask performers to improvise or produce material themselves.
One example is the hard-hitting work for children’s choir, Ro-Uro (2014). That piece explicitly connects Ratkje to Norwegian identity and politics. Others link her to her beloved Japanese culture (gagaku variations, 2002), to children under the age of three (Høyt oppe i fjellet, 2011) and to instruments as varied as the viol consort (River Mouth Echoes, 2008) and the world’s largest mobile horn speaker system (Desibel, 2009). Just as often, her works simply concern a person and her voice.
Ratkje has contributed to well in excess of 130 albums and has written music for dance, radio plays and gallery installations. She is a member of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, was the inaugural winner of the Arne Nordheim Prize and was nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2013.
Andrew Mellor, 2018