The dada voice of Maja Ratkje

Interzona 2005, the original Q’s & A’s.

When did you decide to become an artist and how did you choose what way to follow?

I knew from when I was very little that I wanted to express myself through creative work, I enjoyed to make music and to create all sorts of artwork from I was very young, I started to play the violin from four etc. But I was not brought up in an environment where it was natural to think of it as something one could base a living upon, that’s why it took many years before I found out that I should aim for a career as an artist. I decided to become a composer in 93/94. I was just finished with gymnasium where I studied science and maths. I really wasn’t planning to make a living from music. But fortunately I took a year at a folk high school to enjoy my greatest hobby (music); a whole year before continuing, as the plan was, to go on in a scientific direction. But something happened to me that year, I found it so much more meaningful to work with music, even though at that time I didn’t have any formal training, and I must have been a really lousy composer and musician. So instead of going the safe way of studying science as the plan was, I moved to Oslo to study music. I entered the Music Academy after one year, to study composition formally for a five years. In the meantime I found out that it was necessary to keep up with my playing, and luckily I found people around who were interested in doing free improvisation. I have never been a typical desktop composer, and today I see no contradiction doing both improvised and composed work. Actually, it’s starting to interfere more and more.

One of the most impressive things for those who approach your work is your incredible activity, regarding released works, collaborations, projects, live performances all over the world. What does it mean for you to live as an artist in this way?

Since I don’t want to get stuck in any aesthetic direction, I always want to be able to change and interfere with my surroundings, however keeping constant focus on my own choices. I need to work with other artists in different fields. That’s the best way of learning about your own taste as well as letting go of your own clichés. I have been on the road most of the time the last seven years, and I enjoy it a lot! Meeting strange and wonderful people in different corners of the planet as well as different corners of artistic fields is one of my main sources of inspiration. And for me, music is something that has to be shared. It is all about communication, so it has to be alive, and that means that the concert format is still the most valuable form of sharing music. I have experienced over the years that playing improvised music is such a fragile and situation dependent form of communication that the musical experience changes totally from event to event according to the room, the people, the situation and you and your fellow musicians’ state of mind.

Except for the remarkable number of instruments and objects that you usually play, the voice is the main instrument in your music. All the sound is full of radical vocalisation, creating and defining a new and unknown language. Do you agree with those who talk in particular about the transgressive side of your voice, comparing you to Diamanda Galas?

It’s not the first time I’m confronted with that question. And it is of course a relation in what I’m doing as a vocalist to people like Diamanda Galas, or you might say Mike Patton, Jaap Blonk, Yamatsuka Eye, or Phil Minton, who all share that the voice can be used in other ways that to perform lyrics to a melody. When it comes to transgression, I must emphasise that my approach to vocalisation is to abstract the voice from the emotional. The sound is my focus, not the idea of being transgressive or boundary crossing, that’s up to the listener to decide. It is obvious that what I do relates to certain emotions when I use my voice in extreme ways, but when I perform, I have to go beyond that surface, be an observer; drawing on experience of emotions, yes, but to be able to use it musically you have to distance yourself from it, if not it becomes too one-dimensional. My aim is to show ambiguity and have various possible interpretations of the music floating at the same time.

How do your compositions conceptually born and take shape?

Usually it starts with a clear, but a still abstract idea of sound. It developes subconciously over some time, over months or even years, then it starts to take form and I have to find the devices needed. That’s when the actual composing starts. I play with the material and it talks back to me. It’s a game between the boundaries of total control and total anarchy. I try to include some of both.

What means according to you to make music and to be artist in a
changing reality in which the revolution of new media lead people to the expressive contamination of media, the massive use of electronic equipment, the impossibility to have a fixed role?

It is easy to be stuck in the wonderful world of technological possibilities, and one has to be careful not to dissolve into an impersonal media community where everything just becomes average. For my case, the electronic equipment set-up that I’m using has been added and changed gradually according to where I feel I’m heading musically. Since my background is as a musician and composer I’m not afraid that the technology is guiding me and not the opposite. Besides, I’m not an expert when it comes to technology, I just use whatever I come across that I find interesting, no matter how old or new it is. Equipment is just a prolongation of your own ideas as an artist. Equipement cannot lead to anything interesting without a vision, and that can never be replaced by a computer. I use a lot of different electronic devices when I create music, but I’m not really into updating the latest software and keeping track of all the possibilities, it’s basically all about what kind of ideas you have and how you use the stuff, no matter how high or low tech it is. One of my favourite instruments is my analogue dictaphone which I sing into and play back from when I perform. I think I could make a whole concert just with the dictaphone if necessary.

In a scenery in which people, comprehending and distinguishing with difficulty what art is, seem to feel a gap approaching contemporary arts, what kind of role do you think the artist could have today? And what about this gap, according to you?

Art needs to be fluent with it’s time, and of course I consider this when I create something, if it has any value at all for other people, but I seldom question if it is art or not, and I don’t see myself as a representative for any specific scene in arts today, my work is far too diverse and messed up. I also think music is different from other art fields here, since music is easier to define as an isolated artform which covers the meaning of sound. The main problem today is that the music scene is so infected by commercialism that people who are not a part of a community which manages to connect to the world wide network of underground and non-commercial music can live a whole life without knowing of it’s existence. That bothers me, and I think it’s necessary to try to bring the music out to people at unexpected places.

What is the relationship between art and politics today?

Art in general has become far too institutionalised to have the effect of changing a political system, but I believe that art can still be very forceful when it comes to connecting people who disagree with the expected social behaviour or political system. It just takes another form than the established. After all, the tradition has always been to break the tradition, and that the most interesting stuff is happening in other places that the institutions is both a healthy and expected tendency. It seems like people who go to concerts and buy records with the music that I like are looking for something apart from the mainstream crap that’s served through all main media channels throughout the world. This is also why it gives me so much to do concerts, because people seem to appreciate to experience something unpredictable. I think people in the western world in general suffers from the danger of being bored to death despite the ever growing entertainment industry. It’s too safe and predictable, and the power is to far from the guy in the street. I think that people who search for other means of expressions are tired of being directed by conventions, and it’s very inspiring to meet all this people at concerts. In communities in outer places like China or in the east of Europe there’s a different attitude among people who share an interest in weird art, it’s more joyful, a celebration of liberty.

Most of your works are characterised by a reference to a strong and polemical female role against the stereotypes of the contemporary society. It seems that you have defined, from SPUNK to Fe-mail, a new contemporary female way of being. What can you tell us about it?

Well, it’s not right that most of my works are discussing the female role, if you look at the list of my works, you’ll notice that all of them expect some very few projects that I have done, like my opera and and some projects with SPUNK, perhaps also with Fe-mail’s appearance, actually confront the female stereotypes. It’s not through my works that I do this, more in the way I am as a person. I am not saying that I’m not concerned of woman rights etc. but it’s not an issue that I want my music to be overshadowed with.

What kind of influence do the artists you are inspired by and collaborate with have on your work?

This could be a very long and detailed answer, but I don’t feel like writing a book right now, so you either have to ask more specifically or live with this: All people I meet influence me. As well as all kinds of situations. And it’s not easy to say what inspires what directly, but of course, there’s a reason why I collaborate with people over many years, because we still inspire and challenge each other.

Your live performances are usually unforeseeable and absolutely surprising for the audience. During the last years you have played in different festival and venues in the world. What kind of relationship did you establish with the people that come to see your performances?

In general people interest me, and since music is for me all about communication, it requires an open minded attitude both from the audience and myself. However I don’t make many private connections, I am quite self-protective, it’s very exhausting to be working so much, and I can’t digest all the impressions. If I ever make music that seems indifferent, i would stop. People often have very strong reactions to what I do, many get provoked, some have really strong inner visual experiences, some people are even bored. All this interests me and fascinates me. Human nature is so different, and it’s not up to me to try to make people react in any specific way, I have to give something that can be perceived in may ways, avoiding to become too private. Private is not interesting, personal however, is another issue.

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

I am now in San Francisco working on a new release with Fe-mail. Then I’ll go to Zagreb and to China to do solo concerts. Besides that we are working on a new record with SPUNK, and I am doing touring most of the summer with various things. I don’t know yet what my next big composition project will be, but I have some ideas…

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