"By the River"

"The Inn"




The title of this essay is lifted from a Diesel-ad I found on the matted, creamy back-page of Smug, one of Norway’s hipster lifestyle-magazines.[15] In green on black, large typeset at the top: “SMART CRITIQUES. STUPID CREATES”. And at the bottom of the page, just next to the brand logo, the all-important punch line goes: “BE STUPID”. I’m not sure if I get the meta-irony (or is it pure old irony? or no irony at all, is it actually earnest?) but as a matter of fact the imperative resonates strangely with my urge to re-render the Schubert-songs. To give in to that element of stupidity, or mindlessness, or stubborn blindness, of art. In Helmut Lachenmann’s words, to succumb to the need zu lassen sich kommen at a point in the process. To act on the desire. To de-sublimate theory and discursivity to a very basic drive of creation. Or to cite Lachenmann on a more elegant phrase: “Analysis or intellectual pondering do not always offer solutions to everything and everyone and, by the same token, cannot replace the act of leaping into insecure territories.”[16]

So there is leaping involved, to some degree a non-analytic leap of faith, even. But this does not necessarily mean recourse to naivety. To me, the element of laissez-faire is a rupture, even rapture, rather than a turn. A letting-go of something, a giving-in to certain energies that may cause a temporary turbulence. What lies behind is the emphasis on and renewed interest in what I have discussed earlier: The need to formulate the critique/question in the sensuous apparatus of music as art form. And also an acknowledgement of the fact that critical potential – or the mind-bending question, or the crucial openings that suddenly show a different path – does not always emerge where you would expect, and maybe not at all in the commonplaces of a particular discourse.

Going all-in, performatively, into the real-time apparatus of music production opens up ‘insecure territories’, new fields of possible energies. It also poses some interesting questions in the friction between working within the musically ubiquitous notion of skill and the artistic and discursive formation of discipline. The epigraph of one of my essays is Peter Eisenman’s statement that “the difference between self-expression and the critical concerns the idea of skill versus discipline”.[17] This delineation between skill and discipline might present to us that uneasy feeling that neo-amateurism in some respects seems to bite reality with sharper teeth than the skilfully rounded expression of self. But isn’t the amateur just that: pure expression of self, however unskilled? Not necessarily. I think we should consider a difference between amateurism and ‘neo-amateurism’, a label that has emerged at least in contemporary music in Oslo the latter years, though I am not confident about its origins.[18] This is amateurism without naivety, without illusion. Let us call it a self-conscious amateurism, an amateurism that is acutely familiar with the professional standards of its field, but which nevertheless challenges these, or rather, the discursive powers for which they stand in a kind of ‘attack from below’. Or let us, more eloquently formulated, call it an attempt of “enlightened anti-scholastic correction.” (Lachenmann, again.[19])

Now, when I look at the trajectory of my work over the last three years, I didn’t quite end up where I imagined. I planned on ending in the private chambers of Schubert, but not with a Rhodes in my own living room. I did imagine some performative action, but I didn’t know it was going to involve myself singing and playing Schubert-songs. I have, however, followed my original plan, working in concentric circles from the site of the symphony orchestra via the chamber music situation towards a personal and intimate staging of music. And in this movement I arrive at a point where the traditional role of the composer and the labour-division between composer and musician just isn’t efficient anymore.[20]

This could be regarded as a problem, but it could also be something else: An example of a local solution to a local complex of questions that has emerged in a specific time and place within the field of arts. This idea of prying open cracks and crevices at the places they appear in the monolithic facades of classical musical culture might be liberating when pitched against the all-encompassing idea of ‘critical thought’. If we take cue from Rancière, then we might ask if a critique of the orchestra is only strengthening it, showing its capacity of absorbing these dialectics into itself. Would the right response be to turn away, to not give it the credit of critical artistic scrutiny? Is a critical paradigm one that mocks the illusions but reproduces the logic of economic-cultural domination? And is it possible to make spectacular exhibitions critiquing the exhibitions and consumption of sound-images? Et cetera. So there is a need for alternatives to the collapsed dialectic where we live, as artists and as citizens, under “the law of domination as a force seizing on anything that claims to challenge it. It makes any protest a spectacle and any spectacle a commodity.”[21]

I believe there are ways, however shaky and precarious, out of these impasses. Not describable (for me, at least) in terms of theories or overarching principles, but as local acts of, how to say it, resistance. One alternative to the traditional topos of critique is to call for a destabilization of orders (composer/performer, work/situation, etc.) from within, in line with what I just said about cracks and crevices. This is utilizing the advantage of working inside the institutional framework, as opposed to from the outside. In an aside on a discussion on Kristeva and the abject, Hal Foster proposes a similar position with regard to attacks on the Lacanean ‘image screen’ between the gaze of the subject and the gaze of the world. In his view the valence of abject art depends on the relation to the image screen: If it is deemed intact, abject art might retain transgressive value. If it is already torn, such transgression might be beside the point. This thinking is along the lines of a traditional view of avant-garde as a heroic attempt to break the symbolic order from the outside. Foster poses another possibility, which is transgression as a “fracture traced by a strategic avant-garde within the order”.[22] In other words, destabilizing the order from within, as opposed to negatively confirming it by counter-posing avant-garde figures against it. The ambition here is to dispel the old dream of breaking the order, instead the challenge is to expose the crisis of the order, to register the points of breakthrough of this crisis, and the new possibilities the crisis opens up for. It is along these lines I have tried to develop a criticality with regards to the symphony orchestra: It is not an order to break, but something to destabilize from within, tracing the fractures. The same might be said of Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio: It is not an intervention from the outside, but from within the music, both in its written and staged form, within its own possible trajectories, tracing the possibility of the unexpected.

I have tried to seize a given material and use it for my own purposes; to confront the given historical and social situation as reflected in dominant cultural practices; I have tried to project a conceptual and aural reality that goes against the grain of the given situation in question. To find a place for propositions through musical form.[23] This might be in line with Rancière concept of dissensus, which might be as good a term as anything. To Rancière, dissensus means


that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification. To reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities.[24]


Yes, it is beautiful. Naïve in a powerful way, prompting intellectual and artistic endeavour without promising one-size-fits-all solutions. No wonder artists of all ilk flock to a thinker who proposes a “Sketch for a new topography of the possible”. Rancière also projects an image of the collective efforts invested in these scenes of dissensus. Music is almost always a collective effort, but the degree of brazen spectatorship that the music industry has imposed on most listening audiences, along with the romantic idea of the solitary performer-genius and not least the solitary, lofty mind of the composer, points to a very different perception. This perspective of political subjectivation presents a much wider possibility than a reconfiguration of the musical institution or musical topoi. This is the utopian perspective that by altering our perception, our modes of seeing and listening, we can also alter the world. As Rancière concedes, these are unreasonable hypotheses. But it is a more empowering approach than the endless task of critical unmasking.

So this is one way to end, with the ideal of letting dissensus surface, going against the grain, in place of a petrified stance of ‘critical’ thinking that has become one with the object of its critique. Another way (equally fashionable, I’m afraid), would be to end with Agamben’s notion of history: not as in Walter Benjamin, where the angel of history looks back at a path where “he sees one single catastrophe which keep piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”.[25] No, Agamben’s view of history is Kafkaesque, it is a state where “the fundamental event of the human condition is perpetually taking place”.[26] The ideas of places of dissensus, of events taking place, points towards a topography, to social situations, instead of the often limiting notion of material. Or the other way around: The notion radically widens the scope of what we should regard material for musical composition. It aligns with my view of material not only as pitches and time structures and such, but also the materiality of the places and practices of production, the discourses of power, and the processes of commodification of the musical work. It would be bold, but tempting to state that musical material in a traditional sense has been rendered incapable of dissensus in the entropy of the post-everything following the frenzy of musical procedures exhausted over the last 65 years. In other words, to say that in music, dissensus must be acted out on other levels than that of pitches, timbres and durations. But of course, this is a totally futile claim. What we know is that artists and musicians will come along and offer yet another turn of the screw of auditive imagination, a sudden, new perspective, a whiff of fresh air or maybe just some comic relief by tilting our perspectives a little.



Let me try to elaborate on the voice as cultural artefact by looking back at a performance that took place in Oslo in may 2010, during Grønland Kammermusikkfestival. The program was a combination/collision of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe[10] written in 1840, and Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano, a work-in-progress for recorded sound and piano.[11] So on one hand, romantic songs from the core of the German lied-tradition; on the other, a work leaning heavily on the conceptual where the composer, via computer analyses of human voices, tries to make the piano speak. Ablinger relates to the human voice as historical documents – most of the voices in Voices and Piano belong to dead people. Schumann’s song cycle is written on Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, published as part of das Buch der Lieder in 1827.[12] In our time Schumann’s work has itself become a historical document, upheld by an unbroken tradition of ‘interpretation’. And this tradition has created the lied-voice, which is my point in this digression, a mode of singing that has become the style of this interpretational work. Interpretation is also crucial in Ablinger’s piece, but at a different level: In his works computer analyses of recordings from reality (or rather ‘reality’, understood as a roster of more or less well known historical persons talking in a given context) is interpreted through his techno-musical filters.

Ablinger’s method is to transcribe these acts of speech; that is to transfer the rhythmical, melodic and harmonic structures to notes. These notes are played by a pianist while the original recording is simultaneously played from loudspeakers, creating a situation of negotiation between ‘reality’ and modes of perception. The negotiation between reality and utopia is also present in Heine, in many ways an early post-romantic and pioneer for literary realism. (I’m way out of line with my initial argument here, but bear with me – it is not completely beside the point if we consider Ablinger’s work as a representation of the reality-turn which also has set its mark on music the last ten or so years.)

Anyway, the core of both Dichterliebe and Voices and Piano is the human voice, and that is what interests me at this point, as I return to my original digression. In a lied performance, the context is obvious for the listener (to such an extent that it becomes invisible, as I expand on in “Delirious Brahms” with regards to the chamber music situation.) It is the form and structure of the music that sets the perimeter for the vocal actions. Where the voice in Schumann is the idealized, refined lied-voice, the voices in Ablinger represent speech-actions whose original contexts are hidden from the listener. It is the individual characteristics and actions of the different voices that give the music form, the music has no other structure than what is already present in the recordings: Bertolt Brecht giving his personalia in English. The Greenlander Amaunalik telling an Inuit legend on the origin of the white man. Gjendine Slaalien talking about God knows what, Billie Holiday talking in a studio-session. The semantic content is not important.

Dictherliebe is a story about the young poet’s stormy relation to love – performed (or rather conveyed) by the lied singer with accompaniment of a piano, maybe also some theatrical mimicry, but it is mainly the naked, acoustic voice that creates the images and the narrative of the songs. And the ideal of this performance is the natural voice. In classical music the idea of the natural voice is a crucial part of the illusion. But the paradigm for telling these stories is strictly controlled. The performance is reserved for those who through minute physiognomic and aesthetical training have developed mastery of the finely tuned apparatus that this voice-tradition demands. And I postulate that it is not the music that demands it, it is the performance-tradition. The lied-singer is not unlike a shaman, in the privileged position to keep us in contact with the spirits of the dead and to create connections between spirit (the music) and matter (our bodies).

This leads to a possibility of viewing the voice as something verbal (in the grammatical sense of the word): The voice is not something you have; it is something you do. Through training, the classical singer has shaped himself into an artefact, a tool for conveying the inheritance of classical music. Most vocal cultures share this quality, that the voice has been redefined, recreated or even alienated to be part of a very specific cultural context. The decoding, i.e. the listening and appreciation of different vocal expressions depend on our affinity and knowledge of the given rendition of the voice. The incessant growling of death-metal does not make sense to an Anglican chorister. If you don’t know the codes, the voices appear meaningless, except in very basic human terms (aggression, sweetness etc.) Often they come across with a vaguely formulated idea of some sort of exotism.

The last instalment of Ablinger’s ongoing Voices and Piano points directly to the voice as cultural artefact: Gjendine Slaalien was one of those Norwegian peasants who sang traditional songs for Edvard Grieg, songs that he transcribed and used as material for his piano pieces.[13] When Ablinger transcribes Gjendine it is evidently a direct analysis of the recorded voice, without Grieg’s detour into the late romantic style he had studied in Leipzig. But this is an illusion: Ablinger’s conceptual negotiation in the area between reality and construction is as stylized as anything. And the style can be heard in the music as well as it can be read out of the basic idea, for instance in how textual and timbral variation between the different pieces is achieved by subtle choices of pianistic techniques, choices that can not be attributed to ‘reality’ or ‘transcription’ but simply to Ablinger’s style. So it would be safe to assume that the future will assess Ablinger’s transcriptions as no less informed by the zeitgeist and musical culture within which he is embedded, than we now regard Grieg’s transcriptions as utterly typical of a specific time and place.

Both Grieg and Ablinger try to capture an essence of the voice, and in the effort they reveal as much about the paradigms governing their efforts as they do about the object of their scrutiny. Of course, Ablinger’s attempt to analyse reality through music – which is a stated objective of his[14] – is bound to fail. And in a beautiful way. The piano will never become the voice, and that is the basic tension that opens for both the energy and the poetry of this music. The piano also (literally) plays an important part in Schumann’s Dichterliebe. It opens up another space for displacement and negotiation, the space between the singer and the accompanist. Ablinger is trying to fuse voice and accompaniment, or maybe to make music where the voice, forever frozen in a recording of a particular time-space, is the accompaniment to the living ‘voice’ of the piano. In the attempt to render these voices we hear the remarkably distinct qualities of difference, and the inherent musicality of the human voice – from Billie Holidays slurred rapping to Brecht’s staccato and heavily accented speech. In this way Voices and Piano paradoxically shows us the individual and irreducible in our human voices. The verfremdung via the piano is only a diversion to show us the uniqueness of every single voice – and, by proxy, the voice’s possibility to emerge in a vast array of situations and contexts.

I am using a whole lot of words here to highlight a very simple point: The voice is not nature, it is a cultural artefact. The classical voice is, within the context of art music never the less treated as if it were nature, and the classical techniques have total hegemony in governing, for instance, the lied-tradition. I rather like to see the voice as a topos that can be animated in a variety of ways, also within the revered tradition of the German lied. So in Schubert Lounge I use the topos of the voice to modulate from one musical culture (the early romantic music of Schubert) to another (the slightly retro singer/songwriter-tradition). One reason is the above-mentioned love/ownership-desire. But it is also about the curiosity of how this might open up to a different perception of the lieds, and the attempt to steal them back from an inflated and petrified mode of interpretation. At this point my motivation hopefully has become clearer, as to why I, as composer and non-singer, want to sing songs all of a sudden. Simply that it seems much more efficient to present the ideas I have discussed above in form of a performance than elaborated in a composition. Naturally all these considerations resonate in how I work with the Schubert songs. But I do not limit myself to transposing the vocal expression from one tradition to another, to only sing the songs ‘as is’. I take the liberty to rephrase Schubert’s vocal lines, to re-harmonize, to repeat or delete sections and to insert new material where I see it fit. In short: To take off the sharp edges of ‘classical’ phrasing and harmony in order to transpose them in time and context by imposing the stylistic qualities of the singer songwriter-era as I described above. I think the recording will show quite clearly what has been going on.

But okay, let us take time to consider a different motivation behind Schubert Lounge. What I want to show is also this: The skilled person who is in the midst of something he doesn’t quite master, in spite of going all-in; I want to show the effort of putting heart and soul into it, that kind of heartbreaking quality of imperfection combined with ambition, however personal and un-pretentious, still, the ambition of trying to present something beautiful to Other People, even an Audience, to the degree of pitiful humanity when this imperfect something is displayed on a stage, the person who, for some reason or other enjoys a certain respect, even dignity, for some kind of artistic product (or other), this person being way, way out of his depth but still wanting so badly to do whatever it is he is trying to do, wanting to even touch someone with this thing that he in no way masters like how he masters the games of communicating and touching with what are his true skills. Like the singer wanting to be an actor. Like the actor wanting to be a composer. Like the composer wanting to be a singer. Like whoever who, like most of us, deep down wants to be someone else.

“Smart critiques. Stupid creates.”

Three entries from a project log



So yes, again, I return to the question of critique, this time at a point where I’m supposed to wrap up my project nice and neatly. But the itch I have tried to rid myself of is still there, manifest in an uneasiness about trying to be both inside and outside – inside the music while looking at it with an outsider’s gaze. The need is still there, to look for alternative ways to come to grips with the ambition to ‘use the language in which I write to critique the language with which I write’. And again, I’m looking for an alternative to the topos of critique; for words that are less harsh, with fewer, let’s call it discursive, connotations, but perhaps more true to something that is, after all, not an academic task but a reflection on the making of artworks. And in the process of making, the c-word might become limiting, narrowing the scope instead of opening it up.

One reason for this notion could be that I’m in the middle of the last piece in my project, a work I call Schubert Lounge. And it is a work that, at least for me, calls for opening up rather than narrowing in. Because, after investigations on the site of the symphony orchestra and the situation of the chamber music performance, it is necessary to investigate a locus even closer to home, namely the withdrawn, Godlike position of the capital-c Composer. And, with it, the grail-like status of the score, which I have already questioned in Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio. As Composer, armed with the score, I am in a privileged position to manipulate other people’s bodies, to dictate the working schedule of a hundred people at the time with Prussian rigour, to utilize hierarchies almost unaltered since the French revolution and to inflict my own emotional extravaganzas on musicians that have no option but to consent. This omnipotence is of course effectively restrained by the counter-forces of tradition and the inner operations of the machines of the musical institutions. But even so, the insulated and withdrawn position is one that is increasingly problematized. Not only by musicians, who engage in improvisation and start composing themselves, but also by composers. There might be many reasons for this movement that we have seen in recent years[1] – on one hand you find a resurgence of composers writing scores for themselves to play; on the other hand you have the laptop-performer emerging from EA-, DJ- or improvisation cultures who take the stage as musicians. You also have the theatrical or conceptual arenas where composers take part in a wide array of activities related to stagings of musical performances, including composers being part of ensembles or writing roles for themselves alongside ensembles of classical music. There is probably a wide range of motivations behind this tendency, not least in economical and practical terms. In a culture that is more about the visual and spectacular, performance has a supremacy over creation, not least in the new technological arenas of social media. Or to put it differently: If you want to create, and also communicate what you create, this communication needs to be performative. These are some of the motivators, I believe. But more philosophically, I think people also are interested in questioning the ontological status of the composer, and that the composers themselves, many of them really want to investigate the performative aspect of musical creation and communication. Not least is the desire to work in real-time, to sense the acute flow of time in musical performance, something that motivates to leave the desk every once in a while – or on a permanent basis, for some.

So what I do in Schubert Lounge is basically to sing and play Schubert-songs. Being neither a pianist nor a singer, I am nevertheless looking for a way of articulating these songs that somehow resonates with musical practices of our time. And I don’t mean practices of ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ music here, but practices emerging from and embedded in popular culture. The singing of songs.

The singer/songwriter is a posture belonging to the sixties and seventies, but the posture is ubiquitous also in post-millennial popular music. And what I want to do is to remould Schubert’s songs into the posture of the singer/songwriter. It really shouldn’t be that hard, since in reality, good old Franz himself was exactly that: A man who could play and sing his songs, among an inner circle of friends in homely circumstances. The first context of these songs was not gilded concert halls and shining Steinways, but Schubert’s get-togethers and the tinkling sound of his hammerklavier. What did Schubert’s voice sound like? Was it strong, weak, balmy, harsh? We have no exact idea, of course. We can assume that it was pretty high-pitched, since many of his songs originally are written in a high register. It’s an interesting question, but not crucial to my take on these songs. I am not aiming for neither werktreue in the sense discussed by Lydia Goehr, nor a correct rendition of Schubert’s voice.[2] The important aspect for me is the do-it-yourself quality of the first performances of the songs. In Schubert Lounge I will regard this element as one of the important parameters of composition; I will transpose the music ‘back’ from the spectacle of the concert hall to an intimate performance in my own home in Oslo, thus utilizing the topos of the Hauskonzert. I am going to use my own voice, untrained in a classical sense; what little singing experience I have (outside the compulsory choir-singing through the academy) comes from early musical experiences basically in the style (or rather affectation and vocal posture) of Anglo- or Afro-American popular music.[3]

Yes, it is a critique of the classical lied-tradition, with its serious audiences listening to grave men singing Schubert’s simple songs with near-operatic pathos. Or let me borrow the words of composer Anders Hultqvist, who put it more elegantly in a text written in connection with Hultqvist’s own recomposition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in November 2011:


As for the social construction around the making of an artwork, in the 1960s Pierre Bourdieu asked “who creates the creator?” […] Which leads me to ask: in whose interest is the present interpretational tradition upheld? Is it for the sake of the art object or just for upholding the business around virtuosity and genius? Is it that concert halls thrive on this elevated sense of ‘going to church’ to meet the icons of classical music and thereby fear the liberation of the musical artwork?[4]


The liberation of the musical artwork, no less. But Schubert Lounge is also a labour of love. Not that of professional skill, but of the amateur, the liebhaber, of stubborn desire, of will to devour these songs and make them my own. It’s very human, to want to own what you love. As is the urge to share it. So, in keeping with my idea of context, I will share these reshaped songs with my friends in house concerts in the loft of my own house. And in keeping with tradition, both that of Schubert and that of the singer/songwriter, I will accompany myself on a Rhodes electric piano – the standard keyboard-instrument of the 1970s, the decade in which the singer/songwriter arrived at the prominence of musical culture. And to add to this temporal ambiguity I will record the material and release it in the semi-obsolete format of Vinyl EP. The vinyl-record was the dominant distribution media of the singer/songwriter. But recording is also an important vessel of the classical music industry. The intimate situation of listening to a recorded voice not only reflects the intimacy of the house concert, but also surpasses it and creates the opportunity of a totally personal, private musical space. It’s you and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau then, in your own dim-lit living room, a glass of wine, maybe, flickers from the fireplace, and Svjatoslav Richter at the piano.[5]

Of course, popularized versions of classical music may not be a very original idea. The composer/performer Chris Newman has since the early eighties been singing his own songs in almost brutally ‘popular’ renditions, songs written for and performed within the institutions of new music. Songs like “Good day after good orgasm” have made a lasting impression on Yours Truly after first hearing it some time in the nineties.[6] Within popular culture proper, singers like Josephine Foster have made their own renderings of Schubert-songs.[7] And I do think that the process lends itself to a wide array of idiosyncratic expression. It is not merely a concept or an idea, the actual musical performance and ‘personalization’ of the songs are crucial elements, whichever musical domain you work inside. Again, the sensuous experience of music, the skin of time, is the vehicle for formulating the idea and proposing a different view on the songs and their performance-tradition.

This approach is closer to the composed interpretations of Hans Zender than the earlier works in my project. Zender’s intention is not to remould the music; He doesn’t want to tell a completely new story. It is more a case of telling the underlying story to today’s audience by changing some of the musical architecture in comparison with the original material. But I think my transformation of the vocal expression, not only in stylistic terms, but also by transforming the shape of the songs, sets it apart in some crucial ways from Zender’s approach. In his version of Schubert’s Winterreise,[8] Zender reformulates and orchestrates the music in order to ‘actualize’ and renew our experience of the effective apparatus of the music. The vocal style is however basically untouched, still lingering in the pathos of the ‘classical’ voice. I’m not saying that my Schubert Lounge is without pathos. But it is a different kind of pathos. As contemporary observers it is difficult to uncover the network of material practice in which our own endeavours are embedded. I am trying to unmask some of these practices classical singing is embedded in, by filtering the material through the radical other (i.e. the untrained voice.) So Schubert Lounge is not about the songs that are sung, it is about the singing of the songs.[9] This is similar to how Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio is not about Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Trio but about the chamber music situation.

In my work, the crucial point is the voice, which, to many modern-day listeners is where the whole iconic identity of the lied lies. In popular lingo, the lied voice is ‘opera’, at least where I come from. You play a Wagner-aria for someone not-at-all-interested-in-classical-music, they say, ‘Oh, it’s opera.’ you play Brahms Requiem, they say ‘Oh, it’s opera’. You play a recording of Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert, same thing. This is a bit far fetched, I know, but it says something about how iconic the human voice is to us. We identify style, pathos and posture long before we identify what we would call musical content. And the voice, we all have one, is a primary tool of communication and identification. The sound of the voice is not reducible to its morphology of pitch, timbre and time; the way we perceive it is very much as an artefact of culture.




The Academy of Opera, Oslo. A seminar room. A handful of students and a professor, a mild man from Trøndelag with a grey mane of hair and dark eyes, sitting in a semicircle on plastic chairs. A large, black grand piano in the background, a few music stands spread around the room.



Schubert’s songs are like miniature operas, right? One dramatic event or emotion compressed into one song with piano accompaniment.


Fair enough. But the key word is miniature. Schubert’s songs are for intimate circumstances and small rooms. They aren’t for grand musical gestures; you can save those for Verdi and Puccini.


About to say something, Ivan raises his voice.


The same goes for the accompaniment – it’s the light, delicate sound of a fortepiano that dictates how Schubert should be sung. It’s impossible to achieve a stylistically accurate interpretation if the school doesn’t acquire a fortepiano for the accompaniment!

Gesticulates at the grand piano

It simply isn’t possible to strike a good dynamic balance with this monster.


Thank you, Ivan. You have already conveyed these views before – loud and clear.


And what happens? Not a damn thing, as far as I can tell. What happened to the harpsichord we were meant to have had for the baroque interpretation? How are we meant to work seriously with Handel’s recitatives without a proper harpsichord? There’s nothing but Steinways and Yamahas and Bösendorfers throughout the entire building!


Ok, but now we’re talking about Schubert. He had a fortepiano – that much we do know. It was the coolest instrument that you could get hold of in his day. But don’t you think he would have loved to get his Viennese mitts on a modern Steinway, if he’d had the chance?


But that’s exactly the point! He never had the chance. He wrote for the instrument that he did have, period. The way that he writes for the left hand, for example, the bass register on a modern piano just messes up his line. The same with Beethoven, look at the chords in the opening of the C minor sonata, they sound completely awful on a grand piano. And that’s not Beethoven’s fault.


That’s a very poor example, Marie. Beethoven was chronically dissatisfied with his instruments – he was always complaining. He pestered the piano makers and looked forward to the day when his music could be played on better instruments.


So what? Beethoven hated his piano, but that was what he played on, that was what he composed on. It was the fortepiano that was his – what should we call it – sonorous reality, right?


This is why you have to form the sound and phrasing in a way that actually works on the instruments that you have access to instead of dreaming that the world stopped in 1830!

Reaches out a hand and thumps it against the Steinway a couple of times.

Beethoven was a modernist! He would have loved this monster and it is our goddamn duty to adapt his music so that it works in our time.


That’s exactly the point, Jonas. Even so-called great artists modify the usual Schubert performance according to the weak romanticised attitude that has lain like a clammy hand across his music for more than a hundred years. Schubert is sung as if the definitive interpretation of his songs was made in 1910! It has nothing to do with our time, it’s about laziness that is completely ahistorical, do you know what I mean?


Does not answer. Holds Ivan’s gaze.


Well, maybe some of the others have views on –


Let me just finish my line of thought – what I mean is that it is impossible to bring out the full potential of these songs without a proper frame, and for that we have to look at the original context, right? Schubert sang his songs for a small circle, a handpicked audience more or less. I can’t imagine that more than thirty people heard the world premiere of An die Musik.


Come on Ivan. Put your hobbyhorse back into the stable for a moment and lower your shoulders. You always have to making things so bloody difficult, but it’s really very simple: you take a score, you make it to your own and you present it to an audience in a way that feels right for you. End of story. That’s the only way if you want to establish a connection with the audience. Don’t interrupt me! The University provides plenty of courses for those who want to immerse themselves in music history and theoretical subjects, but the goal at the Academy of Opera is actually to become an opera singer.


Isn’t it possible to have two thoughts at once? Firstly, we’re talking about German lied right now – not opera. And we’re talking about stylistic interpretation, and it’s completely amateurish to think that it is enough to create a beautiful pianissimo without vibrato in order to interpret Schubert in convincingly. You talk about building a connection, but it borders on fraud to persuade people that etc. etc.





December darkness and icy pavements in Oslo. Fog glimmers in the neon light and car headlights down on Bogstadveien. It is just after closing time at the Valkyrie, Ivan squeezes up to Marie and Jonas on the narrow pavement, their faces warm from drink and loud discussion. Oda and the others have gone ahead and have already passed the crossroad at Valkyrie Plass.



That’s just mumbo-jumbo, Jonas. There’s no such thing as the natural singing voice.


Is that right?


You know quite well what I mean. The human voice is culture, not nature. The idea of naturalness, the natural voice, is just part of an illusion – part of the fiction. Especially the classical singing voice.


You always have to make things so difficult, Ivan! Can’t you just agree that there are more and less natural ways of performing an aria? That human physiognomy imposes certain constraints on how we best produce a beautiful sound?


But what is a “beautiful sound”? It’s completely dependent on which context the voice is performing in. When you sing in an opera, the laws of opera apply – what you call naturalness is simply the most effective way of implementing these laws. Opera is just one of many ways to use the voice. And it sounds very unnatural to a lot people, to say the least! It’s a use of the voice that comes to be in a certain time and place, with a very special purpose. We use the cavities in our heads to enhance the timbre of the voice – to be heard over the symphony orchestra. The more empty space there is in the head, the greater the voice, right?


The world’s oldest singer joke. Don’t laugh Marie! You’ve heard it a hundred times before.


Other cultures have other ways of dealing with the voice. But all use of the voice is rooted in context, that’s my point. If the context changes, the meaning of the voice changes. And the view on what is natural changes. The voice of classical music is grounded in the narratives of classical music – a song cycle is a story, isn’t it? For example, take Schumann’s Dichterliebe: The singing voice tells the story of Heinrich Heine’s text, a story about harrowing love. It’s a song cycle where the different songs together form a sequence of events, using the simplest means. Almost dogma-like, don’t you think? A piano. A text. Possibly some facial expressions and gestures. So it should be performed in the most natural way possible.


Nodding lethargically, pats himself on an emerging potbelly under his winter coat.

Yes, that was what I was thinking about. The natural voice comes from down here.


But here’s my point: the management of these stories, the great classic song narratives, is subject to the very strictest controls. Schubert, Schumann, Wolf – they are reserved voices that through physical and aesthetic training have learned to master the instrument that this music requires.


Of course professor! You know what you’re talking about…


Continues as if he hasn’t heard.

The singer is a shaman, right. He’s in the privileged position of keeping alive the legacy of the past, creating links between matter in the present and spirit of the past. It’s about giving life to the past. In this respect, song performance is shamanism, opera is shamanism – let’s call it voice shamanism, a ritual where the voice becomes an action. Right, Jonas?

Jonas doesn’t answer; he has joined the group in front. Ivan shakes his head and turns to Marie.


It’s all a little too cerebral for me. The voice isn’t something you do; it’s something you are.


Pauses and looks at her.

That’s a bit simplistic, isn’t it Marie? A bit new age? A little non-committal? What does it mean – to be your own voice? You are a body – that’s obvious. But the sound that the body produces isn’t formed in a vacuum, is it? It’s formed in very clearly defined contexts. Opera is just an example. But it goes without saying that these contexts I am talking about – the external forces – that they are involved in influencing the complex action that is singing.


It’s not something you can understand Ivan. Not something you can contemplate or study. We’re talking about a purely bodily experience. You have to let your body teach you. Get it?


Of course I get it! The phenomenology of the body and the Feldenkreis method and all that. But you can’t deny that singing is an action – that the discipline of singing is a performing art?

Marie doesn’t answer, looks towards the others further down Bogstadveien. Ivan grabs her hand.

Let me explain my reasoning. The classic singer has shaped their voice into a tool in order to manage the material – the matter, as it were – of the classical music legacy. And most song cultures share this trait, that the voice is transformed, or disengaged even, to be included in specific cultural contexts. The decoding, the experience of different vocal expressions, it is entirely dependent on you knowing the codes for the given representation of the voice…

Marie starts walking again. They cross Schultz Gate.

…and the framework for this decoding is the ritual of the concert, right, not exactly ancient, but anyway … pretty old. And if you don’t know the codes then the voices are meaningless, at best loosely rooted in some figure of thought. The idea of the “classic” or the “ancient” or something…

Jonas and the others have stopped at the corner of Industrigata and have begun to make plans for the rest of the evening.

…that’s why for most Norwegians “opera” is synonymous with the soprano who’s singing. And “joik” is synonymous with the voice of the joiker. There’s no such thing as a true voice, all uses of the voice are in context. That’s what I mean when I say that the “natural” voice is an illusion. 


Pulls him close. They have almost reached the group waiting by the taxi stand at the crossroads.


Has put an arm around Oda.

So professor, are you coming with us?

Ivan meets his gaze.





Brief  note on Hacktivism

A slim, self-published pamphlet on fashion-research prompted me to reflect on my two last pieces in this project as forms of hacktivism – a fundamental term in Otto von Busch’s FASHION-able, a PhD project in design. Not that I’m all that interested in or much impressed by latter day activists like say the Anonymous movement; what von Busch is talking about is a ‘soft’ approach to hacking – not acts of violence and destruction but strategies of intervention, disruption and offerings of new possibilities. The pamphlet in question is the methodology-appendix to his PhD thesis, and it is entitled Post-script to Fashion-able, or a methodological appendix to activist design research.[i]

Von Busch’s methodological point of departure is a perceived lack of methods that emphasise action and engagement. The detached criticality and objectivity-through-disengagement of traditional academia is not sufficient in his view, and he suggests different approaches informed by artistic research, social science, pedagogy, philosophy etc. The methodological post-script does not explicitly discuss hacktivism – that is the subject of the thesis – and since I am more interested in the methods than in the ideology of hacktivism, I will let it suffice with a short definition: “Hacking is a matter of dedicated and systematic curiosity, of understanding a system, reverse engineering it, finding a suitable place for intervention, plugging in and keeping the power on. Hacking is to modify and advance a system because you love it, not because you hate it.”[ii]

Amid the pamphlet’s wealth of Deleuze-and-Guattarrian talk of rhizomes and flight lines and nomads, succinct points like this one is a valuable tool for reflection (or, in von Busch’s Haraway-inspired term, diffraction) on my strategies for Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio. There is no need to connect the dots here; the parallels with the processes I describe in Delirious Brahms should be obvious. So I will rather use a couple of pages to refer and discuss aspects of von Busch’s methodology that apply to my own project.

While von Busch envisages the hacktivist approach as a central theme of his whole research methodology, I would maintain that it can be viewed as principles of actions embedded in a strategy that is less afraid to combine the creative bottom-up approach with the reflective top-down stance of traditional strategies. Personally, I prefer this double approach, believing that ‘answers’, ‘art’, or ‘results’ of my ongoing processes might be found somewhere in this continuum (or, to adopt another of von Busch’s metaphors, where these diverging lines intersect.)

Von Busch maintains that the hacktivist approach provides a different perspective on the critic’s role, and cites Bruno Latour on a new form of critique: “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.”[iii] Latour continues with describing how critique can be a form of devotion to and care for fragile constructions, and it is safe to call it a non-revolutionary (if not outright conservative) approach. But the quality that von Busch lifts from this is the idea of affirmation, of creating alternatives, of change through participation. Of making new machines that render the old ones obsolete.

At some points, von Busch’s post-critical approach can seem irresponsible and somewhat escapist: “There is no strict question and no proven answer.”[iv] “We must avoid points or positions, and we must look for the lines.”[v] But his interventionist approach and emphasis on action nevertheless points to a certain degree of risk-taking. And I find this position of Getting Your Hands Dirty useful, even though I do not pursue the interest in social situations and immanent impact on society that permeates von Busch’s project.

Modelled on Deleuze and Guattaris idea about the rhizome, Von Busch suggests a variety of independent, yet intersecting methods he calls process lines for a nomadic practice.[vi] He describes this as an affirmative research method, where the aim is to ride upon the emerging forces of projects and to use the immanent energy and intensity (as opposed to a structured system of theory and examples.) I imagine that this emphasis on affirmation can be utilized in different phases of research. Rather than subscribing to an overarching ‘non-systematical system’, I believe that in the Doing, in certain areas and temporalities of artistic research, the need for an affirmative approach is fundamental. But I don’t see why this should rule out other approaches in other parts of the project – even ‘sequential reasoning’ and ‘logical deductive argumentation’ and other species of thinking that von Busch looks upon with suspicion. These operations could very well inform parts of rhizomatic structures that “connects multiplicities of becoming, rather than structuring countable elements, strict cause and effect and ordered relations.”[vii]

Of the process lines that von Busch suggests, the lines of action, intervention and interrogation seem closely linked. The first of these, originating with social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1946, aims at going into the system or situation researched, in collaboration with the members of the system – as opposed to the ‘neutrality’ of the observer. (This is different from Latour’s approach in that it presupposes we know how the system works.) Mapped onto musical rather than social situations, it is easy to see how this method may apply in working with chamber music, for instance. It requires an engagement of the musicians into collective and critical reflection, in a process where the participants become co-subjects and co-researchers. This method has grown out of situations of oppression and inequalities, not least in the pedagogic research of people like Freire, where action research is a central tool for liberation of the oppressed. What is interesting about that, and can be useful in a musical context, is the idea that the student is encouraged to talk back and act upon reality, not only to repeat the lessons of the teacher.

The hacking stance is more pronounced in the interventionist line of research. It has a more elaborate experimental attitude, with emphasis on direct action. One of these actions is the gesture of questioning, the ‘pointing finger’ of art. This is an artistic gesture of interrupting a discourse, directing the spotlight to an issue in a practical rather than theoretical way. Von Busch calls this the ‘classic’ way for art to engage in the world, while the new methods of intervention intensifies the ‘showing’ or ‘pointing’ by active engagement by way of workshops, happenings, actions etc. An important point is that intervention does not have to aim for upheaval or utopian change: ‘Modest contributions’ are viable possible outcomes of interventionism (and of course the most likely outcome for most projects). The Austrian artist group WochenKlausur touches upon something that I find important with regards to intervention, and that is that the social circumstances can be as valid a subject matter for art as the traditional materials – it can be material in its own respect. And again: A social situation, to me, is not necessary an out-there situation. It could just as well be situations of the in-here of music that needs some kind of intervention. I could also add that borders between areas of sociality, between ‘art’ and ‘reality’ are blurred, and that every little gesture of art could be the “molecular revolution” that Von Busch quotes from Gerald Raunig.[viii] 


The last line that I’ll point to in this brief note is the interrogation line. The method of this line is to add a critical questioning to prevailing practices, and, in von Busch’s design cases, to “disrupt and reveal the underlying inequalities that design usually tries to hide.”[ix] It is a way of working in the world, not about or upon it. Though I’m not sure whether or not this line can be re-mapped onto the specialized sites and situations of music without becoming void of its meaning (or converging with the action- and intervention lines already referred to), von Busch also discusses explicitly social design-projects that in fact are presented in museums and not in the context of the homeless for whom the objects are designed. One of the artists, Krysztof Wodiczko, stresses that “The appearance of interrogative design should ‘attract while scandalizing’ – it must attract attention in order to scandalize the conditions of which it is born.”[x] With such an explicit aim for the scandalous, strategies of the spectacular are never far away, and this is but one of several dilemmas that arise from these practices. In von Busch’s reading, the interrogative line aims to pose questions rather than provide answers, but at the same time he envisions it as “not so much a way of resisting or opposing a situation as of building complementary systems or new functions.”[xi] It seems to me a contradiction not wanting to provide answers and at the same time proposing new systems, but I choose to see it as one of the paradoxes one gets tangled up in while trying to sort out the contingencies of affirmation-critique-as-practice. 




He has placed the notes for Winterreise in between the stacks of photo albums and loose sheets of paper. Franz Schubert’s opus 89. Not that Sondre Sæter can read music, but he likes to sit and look at the mystical symbols while the music plays in his head. Graphic structures, esoteric, full of incomprehensible meaning. He has refreshed his schoolboy German in order to learn the text; a German-Norwegian dictionary lies beside the notes on the kitchen table. It says “Poems by Wilhelm Müller at the top of the first sheet of music. Originally published in 1823 as “Gedichte aus den hiterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten”. But for Sondre Sæter, these poems are nothing but Schubert’s Winterreise, the story of a man wandering aimlessly through snow and ice while stumbling over half forgotten memories and suppressed desires. Even the first verse in the first song sums it all up, he thinks. Fremd bin ich eingezogen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.



Sondre Sæter stares at the notes and tries to put them into context using the music in his ears. Sometimes he fancies he can do it. He can hear the piano becoming the wind in the linden tree and the murmuring of the brook. He can hear the tears of ice, the post horn’s signal and the mournful strumming of the barrel organ. But it isn’t the words that touch him, nor the harmonic twists and turns or the flowing melodies. It’s the voice. The round, warm, male voice that has followed him and will follow him every day, until he knows every breath, every nuance in diction, every single phrasing. It is Franz Schubert who is singing, thinks Sondre Sæter. Schubert has invited him to his home in Tuchlauben, on the outskirts of Vienna, the house he shares with his friend Franz von Schober. They are sitting in the music room - Sondre Sæter is sitting in a soft armchair with a glass of wine in his hand and Schubert is at the piano singing his most recent songs for him. He doesn’t have more than a year left to live, but they don’t care about that. The afternoon light slants through the latticed windows. Soon, Schober will be home and then they are all going to Zum Grünen Anker to celebrate that Schubert’s election to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, aged just thirty years. But, right now, it is just the two of them, Schubert singing, now and then looking across to Sondre, his eyes asking whether he likes it, if he thinks it’s any good, and Sondre nods, giving him a thumbs up. Yes, he whispers. Sing for me, Franz.


[19] Helmut Lachenmann: “Composing in the Shadow of Darmstadt”, trans. Richard Toop, in Contemporary Music Review vol.23, 3/4 p.44.


 [18] Some attribute the term to Lars Petter Hagen, coined as a feature of his festival Happy Days (2006-2009).


[12] Heinrich Heine, Buch der Lieder (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1827).

[16] Helmut Lachenmann: “Four Questions Regarding New Music”, trans. Oliver Schneller, in Contemporary Music Review vol. 23 3/4 p.56. This statement resonates strangely with Kierkegaard: “every moment leaping into the infinite and every moment falling surely back into the finite” – a confirmation of Lachenmanns firm foundation in the material world of sound.

[17] Peter Eisenman, Anywise, ed. Cynthia Davidson (Cambridge, Massachusets/London: MIT Press, 1996) p.52. 


[22] Hal Foster, Return of the Real (Cambridge, Massachusets/London: MIT press, 1996) p.152.


[23] In the words of architect Robert Somol: “we would want to maintain some degree of differentiation between a ‘critical’ project and a ‘projective’ one”.(quoted in Steele (ed.): Supercritical (London: Architects association, 2010) p.52).



[1] I have discussed the resurrection of the composer/performer in a Norwegian context in the publication Underskog (Oslo: Frekk Forlag, 2010).



[6] Chris Newman, New songs of social consciense/Six sick songs/London (Review Records, 1998).


[11] Peter Ablinger, Voices and Piano (manuscript, in progress since 1998).


[21] Jaques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London, NY: Verso, 2009) p.33.

[i] Presented for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Design at the School of Design and Crafts, University of Gothenburg, in 2008.



[ii] Otto von Busch, Post-script to Fashion-able, p.19.

[iii] Quoted from Bruno Latour, “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern” in Critical inquiry vol 30. no.2 (2004)


[iv] von Busch, op. cit. p.13.


[v] von Busch, op. cit. p.33.


[vi] von Busch, op. cit. p.27.


[x] Wodiczko quoted in Post-script to Fashion-able, p.45.


[10] Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe 

(Leipzig: Peters, 1844).


[20] And an inevitable but discomforting question arises: Where do I go from here, after having liquidated my own posture as ‘composer’?


[24] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator p.48-49.


[25] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator p.48-49.



[viii] Gerald Raunig, Art

and Revolution (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2007).


[ix] von Busch, op. cit. p.44.


[xi] von Busch, op. cit. p.45



[2] See Lydia Goehr, Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).


[5] Dietrich Fischer-DieskauFranz Schubert Lieder (Deutsche Grammophon, 1994).

[7] Josephine Foster, A Woolf in Sheeps Clothing (Locust media, 2006).


 [14] See for instance Anny Ballardini, Interview with

Peter Ablinger/Voices and Piano (www.ablinger.mur.



[vii] von Busch, op. cit. p.31.


[9] A quick aside into literature: David Foster Wallace does something of the same in his collections of short stories (Girl with Curious HairBrief Interviews with Hideous MenOblivion): More often than not, what he stages are not the stories themselves, but the narration of the stories. (See for instance Clare Hayes-Brady in “The Book, the Broom and the Ladder: Philosophical Groundings in the Work of David Foster Wallace”. In David Hering (ed.) Concider David Foster Wallace (Austin/London: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010).


[15] Smug no.2/2010.


[26] Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, trans G. Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) p.114.

[8] Hans Zender, Schubert's 'Winterreise': Eine Komponierte Interpretation (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1993).


[3] I might add that popular music was all I knew about, in terms of music, up to the age of sixteen. Not much Brahms or Beethoven in my childhood. So in a way, this is also a repetition of (or regression to) important stages in my personal development.



[4] Anders Hultqvist, “Who creates the Creator” in Journal for Artistic Research no.1 (www.jar-online.net).