Review from Cleveland

MajaUlverston2Maja Ratkje looks harmless and demure, ambling slowly to the stage whistling a soft tune.

Then the effects start. The whistle becomes a sound loop entwined with bells. Layers of white noise and wow and flutter erupt. Suddenly there’s what sounds like a meteor shower slamming around in the speakers, and huge, snarling beasts lurking in the corners. The volume and pitch are terrifying.

When Ratkje starts to sing, so is the subject matter: A drowned girl floating down a river. Miners dying of black lung. Her soft voice makes their laments even more haunting.

All of which only begins to suggest the impact of seeing Ratkje perform live, especially in an intimate space like the Transformer Station. The third in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s avant-garde music series at the gallery offered the most compelling combination yet of sonic and visual art.

Ratkje, 39, is a Norwegian performance artist who essentially composes as she plays, manipulating and mixing her voice with electronics and simple instruments like bells, a harmonica and a tin music box. Her soundscapes range from industrial clanking to the gentle chatter of children’s voices, with no apparent boundaries; light turns dark, sounds melt into one another, a single note or phrase builds into a towering aural sculpture.

Though much of it seems chaotic, there is a strong internal structure that draws on a wide range of source material. The drowned girl is from a Brecht story. A series of vocal distortions turn out to be quotes from Duchamp. Even when the language is foreign, it packs a punch.

Ratkje’s persona is as fluid as her music. She can be a wide-eyed innocent one minute, and a screaming banshee the next. Not knowing what’s coming is part of the allure of her performance.

Rich in imagination, this is an evolving form at its most engaging. And in Rakje’s hands, a dramatic demonstration that even in noise there can be art.

Cultured Cleveland 2013
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