Maja S K Ratkje: a unique voice

This year’s Composer in Residence at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje. Born in Trondheim, Norway in 1973, Ratkje is a composer whose work is inextricably linked to her own performance, and her hcmf// concerts celebrate the full range of her musical vision, from her vocals and electronics as one quarter of the long-running free improvisation group SPUNK, to works such as her Concerto for Voice, where composition and improvisation combine in new and powerful ways.

We talk to Maja about finding her voice, both as a performer and a composer, about the liberation that comes from improvisation and about how her music managed to upset the United Nations…

Interview made for Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2012

hcmf//: As a teenager, you weren’t headed for a career in music, but attending Toneheim folkehøgskole for a year after high school was pivotal in terms of turning you towards becoming a composer. What effect did this period have upon you?

Maja S K Ratkje: I chose to spend a year at this ‘folk high school’ as we call it, after the regular high school, to have a year enjoying my greatest hobby: music. I was already into science studies and wanted to continue with that after Toneheim. At Toneheim I was suddenly surrounded with music all day long, I played piano and sang, and I also started to write more music. I started to think the ‘unthinkable’: that it was music I should go for in my life.

I learned of the existence of the composers’ studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music. I immediately felt that this was something I would give a try, and I decided to catch up on music history, music theory and all I needed to make the entry exam. I sat listening to works by Stockhausen and his likes in the school’s library, and I was taken by the beauty and actuality of the work. I especially remember listening to Gesang der Jünglinge. I also heard music by Arne Nordheim and it struck me how beautiful it was. Was this the contemporary music that was supposed to be strange and awful? I almost felt cheated!

This was also the emerging period for Norwegian modern jazz musicians such as Christian Wallumrød, Veslefrekk and Trygve Seim, who were completely far-out at that time, musically. Spending my youth in Trondheim where these musicians studied, I was in close connection to this development.

When I eventually entered the Music Academy, having spent a year in Oslo in between, I chose jazz vocals as my main instrument. But I soon found out that the voice could be used in a more instrumental manner, when I teamed up with the three women in SPUNK a year after that again.

hcmf//: What were the early days of SPUNK like, when you were discovering new ways of making music together?

MSKR: We were all connected to the Music Academy, and this is where we met. We shared an urge to start on something which was, for us, yet unknown, and through improvising with our main instruments, trumpet, French horn, cello and voice, we soon got into exciting sound worlds, unrelated to any conventions. We started to develop our own language around our music, borrowing terms from composition and jazz. Our free improvisation is liberating and inclusive. At that time there was no one else around us doing this. There were a few from the jazz field, but not like this, in the early nineties.

We really felt that we were into something groundbreaking. We did all our work in our spare time, recording at nights, and performing gradually in clubs and theatres in Oslo. We also started to add electronics to our set-up. Then I got a call from a man named Rune Kristoffersen who was going to start a new record label releasing the electronic works of Arne Nordheim, and he was interested in hearing some music. Soon he was planning to release SPUNK’s first album on Rune Grammofon. We soon got invitations from international festivals, and the rest is history.

These days we play concerts, sometimes with visual artists, we make music for other arts such as dance and films, we make site-specific performances, and over the last few years we have had great joy in making art installations, such as NEST and LIGHT, the latter being a commission for the Henie-Onstad Art Museum’s 40th anniversary. This fall, we will make a full exhibition in the Bomuldsfabriken museum in southern Norway. This work will be exhibited at the same time as we perform in Huddersfield.

hcmf//: What relationship does your improvised music have to how you approach composition – do you feel that the two areas conflict with or complement each other?

MSKR: After doing my jazz vocals exam in 1997, with SPUNK as a backing band, I was not obliged to continue performing while studying composition. Some of my teachers even expressed an opinion that free improvised music was less valid than composed music. Nevertheless, the desire to perform grew larger. The first big thing I composed after finishing was the album Voice, where I invited the duo Jazzkammer (John Hegre and Lasse Marhaug) to be co-producers. This was an essential turning point in my career as a composer, eventually building a work around my voice as an instrument. The album is solely utilising voice recordings in various situations, which are then treated and composed with. For me it was a statement to manifest the importance of my performing activity in a combined role as a composer.

The next milestone in combining these worlds was the Voice Concerto, which was premiered in its original version for big orchestra and performed in Paris in 2004 by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra featuring me as a soloist, using the techniques I had been practising as a free improv vocal performer. I later made a sinfonietta version of the piece, which will be heard here in Huddersfield.

Of course there is a mutual relationship between the act of performing and composing. Musical decisions are taken from different levels, being outside or in the real-time domain, but the ideas are drawn from the same source, the same aesthetics, and the same personality. There are many advantages composing for other musicians who can contribute with their own skills and personalities, but there is something immediate in performing your own music, especially by improvising, where so much is on stake in the moment, that I will always be nourished by.

hcmf//: Your new work for Cikada which will be premiering at hcmf//, “And Sing While Thou on Pressed Flowers Dost Sleep”, is composed using notations of your voice: how did this develop?

MSKR: In this piece, I am zooming into some recorded voice sounds, multiphonics, with computer tools that allow me to see the tiniest details within the sound. If I was to use a straight sung pitch, the partials of the sound would fall into the pattern of a harmonic spectrum, but for these complex sounds, I get some really crazy chords, and it’s basically these that I stretch out and instrument out for the ensemble. Then I’ve added the initial voice recordings to the piece, but the reference may not be so clear when I have treated the material by stretching or pitching or octavating. But still, when voice samples are played simultaneously with instrumented parts, I hope to create some interesting relationships where a friction occurs between the voice recording and an impossible solution of the same sound for ensemble instruments.

hcmf//: By setting Cikada’s musicians this seemingly ‘impossible’ task of playing the music derived from your voice, are you trying to explore and identify limits of where ensemble instruments can go, sonically?

MSKR: The piece is not about exploring the limits of instruments, and the aim for “And Sing While Thou…” was never to have the instruments do sound exactly like the voice. But by using this technique for this piece, I could generate something new in my score writing. Writing this piece has many similarities to doing research work, going into details that no-one would hear, and testing a hypothesis as to see what happens if I write out these strange sounds for an ensemble. I chose to make this work completely without any known well-working substance, there’s no safety net, no well-known tricks to lean on.

hcmf//: In July of this year, a proposed performance of your work Ro – Uro by the Norwegian Girls’ Choir at the United Nations’ General Assembly Hall was cancelled at the last minute due to organisers’ discomfort with some of the lyrics. How do you feel about what happened?

MSKR: What happened at the UN this summer when the Norwegian Girls’ Choir was about to perform my piece Ro – Uro (Rest – Unrest) was simply a big surprise. It is a piece about chaos and order, and the essence is unequivocally the message of peace, and showing hope through playfulness and children’s’ songs. But that is of course a simplification of the contents. At one point I have instructed the girls to shout out, from their own free choices, names of dictators and power abusers. This happens near the end of the piece, and the girls are standing in darkness with their backs towards the audience, shouting out the names one by one, while the rest are sustaining a tone. It is a very strong moment.

When I got the news from their conductor that they were being denied the chance to perform my piece after officials had heard them practising in the main hall, I learned that the girls were all shocked and angry at the decision. I guess it showed them, and everyone else involved, how tense the situation in the UN is, but also that art can have such power that it is considered dangerous. They responded to the decision by standing in silence a long time before singing an alternative repertoire at their concert.

hcmf//: So what are your wider thoughts on how composers working in contemporary music can, or should, engage with political issues?

MSKR: I have made pieces where I deliberately seek to get attention to a case through public reaction, and Desibel is a very good example of that, being the world’s largest mobile horn speaker system, playing noise music outdoors as a rallying call for nature’s justice against catastrophic mining plans in the village Vevring on the West Coast. We managed to get attention to the case, which was the plan, and we made it to the national news headlines. The case is still not settled.

However, the main focus in my work is, boringly enough, the art itself, with all its paradoxes, contradictions and multi-layered ‘meanings’. Most of my work is a celebration of these aspects, and most of my work is without a concrete ‘agenda’. But as a whole I am very much concerned about political issues of today, especially Norwegian oil politics. I did a longer interview about this in Lasse Marhaug’s zine Personal Best #2, which came out this fall and is printed in English. I shared my thoughts behind denying the Statoil logo on my concert series in Bergen in May. By doing that, I got a lot of reactions, and a huge silence from the music world in Norway. It seems there are issues that are not supposed to be dealt with in Norway.

Here is a quote from the thoughts shared in Lasse’s zine: “We have reached an era with a general acceptance of ‘how things are’ and how that is the ‘best for the community’. Humans have an urge to live in balance with truth and reality, and we are able to construct and adjust the premises for that in order to live and feel as good citizens. Our consensus is that we trust in our democracy, and the fact that we live in the ‘most successful country in the world’. It seems to take a lot of effort to speak up against our shared reality, because that would be questioning the fundaments of our society – that profit is the basic, untouchable force for growth. How far are we willing to go? Norway is better equipped than all other oil countries to stop investing in tar sand and fishing territories. How can we expect other countries to take action if we, along with some dictatorships, are among the worst in the class?”

hcmf//: Finally, can you tell us about two other pieces that will be performed at hcmf//, Gagaku Variations and Crepuscular Hour?

MSKR: I wrote Gagaku Variations for Frode Haltli and the Vertavo string quartet in 2001, after I had made a month long trip to Japan, searching for its musical essence and interviewing people in the contemporary, noise and traditional music scenes. This piece is composed out of love for the Japanese ‘gagaku’ tradition, and it includes quotations from this ancient court music. The spirit is however modified into something much more energetic, but there are also peaceful contemplative parts where the origin of inspiration comes clearly through.

Crepuscular Hour was made on commission from the Ultima Festival two years ago. It was written for a large cathedral in Oslo, where the positioning of the musicians and singers is essential. I wanted the audience to be completely surrounded by sound and light and create a special atmosphere in the room. The piece lasts one hour, hence the title, and it is inspired by the phenomena ‘crepuscular rays’, which usually occurs in dusk or dawn, where sunlight is shaped into beams, sometimes due to obstacles like clouds, trees, windows. It is a quite meditative piece, but not at all quiet. I want the piece to be cathartic! Thanks to the team at hcmf//, we can make a crepuscular hour in Huddersfield, which is not to be missed.

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