“What could be more natural than kids making sounds as part of a composition that’s about our own future?”. By these words, the brilliant composer Maja S.K.Ratjke introduced the idea of giving voice to the inheritors of our world for the project “Vannstand” (Norwegian for ‘sea level’), a project commissioned by nyMusikk in 2015, followed by different sound installations in different cities on the Norwegian coastline, whose excerpts got poured into this album, recently deployed on Motvind Records catalog. Let’s get deeper into it by the words of Maja.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Maja! How are you?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: Great! I performed for a live audience yesterday in l, a small town in the inland mountain part of Norway. They allowed 100 people in the audience and it was full. Top atmosphere! I haven’t played in front of a live audience since October, so I really needed this in order to feel whole again.
With the trio POING, we have celebrated the 1st of May with a concert since 2000, and to break the tradition would be awful. Last year, we streamed, and it felt like a vacuum afterward. It’s usually a four-hour-long party concert where we mix revolutionary and working-class songs from all times and places, and people sing along to the Internationale in the end. From Brecht/Eisler/Weill to Lennon, Rage Against The Machine, Cindy Lauper, or the former national anthem om DDR. Mocking and loving the theme. As a performer and composer, I have a great variety in my main projects, it looks perhaps very diverse from the outside, but to me, it’s just one of many variations of the same; to question and explore reality, society, and the prevailing. And to have fun while doing it. And put my heart into it. I can be completely obsessed with my music projects.
Chain D.L.K.: I can surmise that many of our readers know your name and some of your projects, but just in case, how would you introduce yourself to anyone who knows almost nothing about you and what you do?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: I work with sounds and I compose music. I perform myself, but I also compose for others. What I create is not the stuff you will ever hear in mainstream media, but almost anything on the fringe of what normal people like my aunts and uncles would call music. I write for classical instruments as well as make music with people who improvise, so if you are familiar with modern jazz or any kind of world music, or contemporary music, or even extreme rock music, you can think a step further, and there you have me searching for something I dont’t know what is until I’ve tried it out. My last project Avant Joik is a meeting with a Spmi joik singer from Sweden. I have never heard joik and noise like that before. Avant Joik : Live in Bergen came out on Bandcamp this month too.
Chain D.L.K.: During my interview I generally like to focus on a specific recent release. Before speaking of “Vannstand”, can you suggest (maybe to the imaginary reader of the previous question) some releases by you or other artists that could work as possible appetizers before approaching “Vannstand”?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: I wish that question was easier! Vannstand is – again – so different than – everything I made before! I guess what we do with the group SPUNK is quite close when it comes to that specific aesthetics in Vannstand, how we approach the acoustic instruments, and the playing together more than sticking out as soloists, and perhaps with a similar playfulness, I hope so. Then of course, where Vannstand is composed of many small recordings I did with the performing kids in small groups or solo, SPUNK is performed live as a quartet. And sometimes includes electronics. Vannstand is all untreated acoustic and is including field recordings from the seashore. But I aimed to have it sound very organic and played, and that is clearly connected to my group SPUNK which I have played with since 1995. You can check out all our albums on streaming services and most of them are released by Rune Grammofon. Super confusing on Spotify that another group named Spunk is sharing the same artist profile. I remain ignorant to Spotify though. We decided that Vannstand and Avant Joik is yet now released as a physical album and on Bandcamp.
Chain D.L.K.: I guess “Vannstand” is not your first release under commission. Do you think that these kinds of releases can somehow limit the freedom of an artist?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: The album Vannstand is completely my own idea, as is the installation work Vannstand which the album is based upon, however, the installation was not commissioned (as they didn’t manage to get any money for that), but produced by Ny Musikk which is the organization for new music in Norway. It was an open commission, except that I could work with kids, so I made up the concept from my own wish.
If I get a commission from for example an orchestra, I need to see if it fits my own ideas and artistic visions, but it is a luxury situation to consider commissions when you are making a living as an artist, mostly you will feel extremely lucky to have anyone paying for your work. I have been lucky and hard-working enough to get where I want as an artist in order to choose what I want to do. My next work is a permanent sound installation in Bomuldsfabriken, Norway, and is called To the Surface, using recorded sounds from the location as a starting point and always changing according to weather parameters such as light and wind. Then I will work with a piece for Ensemble Modern, where I use AI to create new countries.
Chain D.L.K.: Speaking of “Vannstand”, can you explain the title and how it describes the project to a non-Norwegian audience?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: Vannstand means ‘sea level’, and what the children perform is graphical scores based on local sea level measurements. Easies way to imagine this is curves going up and down for ebb and flow, but also using different long term prognosis for sea-level changes due to climate change. In a workshop with the kids, we chose different parameters for the graphs, so they would be just laying up and down on the pitch, but other stuff as well. And we made open form pieces where I asked them to illustrate for example a storm in the middle of the ocean or a calm, sunny morning. The kids are also using their voices saying the word water in different languages. And sometimes even making small riddles. It just happened, and I have included a lot of extra stuff besides what was on the plan for the day. Giggles or unintended sounds on their instruments for example. But it all blends into the concept of Vannstand as one, fulfilled form.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides field recordings, the project features vocal recordings of children and instruments… How did you pile the different aural layers?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: As the work was originally made as a sound installation for a circle of 8 speakers, you can see what it looked like when it was set up here: Vannstand, and each version of the installation were about 20 minutes long, I knew I could use a lot of fragments and separate them into the different channels so that the detail level would be very high. In order to mix down parts for the album, and chose the parts of the music that I thought would work on an album, I carefully placed all the sound objects again, and even recomposed sections to make it work artistically in stereo format. I wasn’t really sure if it was a good idea, but then I contacted Motvind Records, and they were absolutely positive, so I decided to be as well. But I had fallen in love with the way the kids played already, so direct, unpolished, and unaffected by norms for how to play in this or that style or with what kind of skills. The playing level differences between the kids were enormous, as were their ages from maybe 8 to 17, but they were so playful, so great, and open for my ideas.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you train children?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: We started with their instruments in smaller groups of 3-7, and just played together, I asked if they could lay the ocean perhaps, on a calm and beautiful day, and then we took it from there. I gradually introduced changes in weather and the sea level measurements. And we ended with speaking about human impact on climate and the future. And also how to respond to that (mostly for the oldest) by playing. Along the way in the workshop process, I divided them into even smaller groups or had them record parts solo. It was also nice to have one and one of them play something on my request and the others listening to what they did and talking about it afterwards.
Chain D.L.K.: Regarding the instruments you used, are there any of them belonging to folk traditions?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: Some of them are playing fiddle tuned in a way they do in Norwegian folk music, and I guess many of the instruments are also found in various forms of folk music, but they are mainly pupils being taught in classical notation.
Chain D.L.K.: I would say that the main “guest artist” is Mr.Sea! Would you say the same?
What’s the role of the sea in this project?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: The different field recordings of the seashore are definitely the glue in Vannstand, and it’s in the “sea parts” that they also introduce their voices by saying water as if their voices enter through water. Then I play a lot with the transition between the sea sound and the sound of wind on and by the instruments. And that they speak through their instruments as well, using brass instruments as a filter!
Chain D.L.K.: I saw you titled recordings by the names of the cities where you supposedly grabbed sounds. How did you organize this itinerant work?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: As the idea for Vannstand was originally to make a sound installation in 8 channels with sea level measurements played by kids in one city at a time, I did four different versions of Vannstand, where the local kids in Oslo play the local water measurements from Oslo etc. As I explained earlier, this resulted in four different Vannstand installations, one for each city, all of them about 20 minutes long each, so I had a lot of material to chose from when making the album. When making the album, I didn’t want to mix between the cities. The titles indicate which city the music and the kids are from. The workshops and my stay was organized by Ny Musikk, so I had help with the logistics.
Chain D.L.K.: Any explanatory words about the nice covert art by Frida Helene Haltli?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: I asked Frida tonight what to say about the cover. She is my 13-year-old daughter, and she was very determined that I kept her own title on the picture in addition to ‘Vannstand’. The picture is a painting that is larger than the LP, and I asked if I could use it for Vannstand as I really thought it would fit well, and that it makes sense that the cover art is made by a kid as well when all the musicians on the album are kids. Then she added the Vannstand title, and which is photoshopped onto the vinyl cover, so the original painting stays untouched. The pictures show a human-like figure holding the earth and on the top of the small earth are two children. But the big figure is also the earth! You have to find your own interpretation, Frida says.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you want to share any anticipations on forthcoming projects or outputs by you?
Maja S.K.Ratkje: Absolutely. Avant Joik has, in addition to releasing a new album as mentioned above, also made a 30 minutes long video that will be streamed under AdK’s festival Memories in Music on May 7.