Exploring the single voices of the singers, and their voices together in different combinations and spatial arrangements were further areas that we aimed to explore. The tasks to help us with this investigation varied from sharing strange sounds each singer could make with their voice, interpreting paintings in vocal groups, improvising around different consonants, breath-battles and sound-ball games. In addition, we brought two collaborative compositions in progress: a choral that falls apart in time and space towards the end (Against all odds), and a choreographed Sprechgesang (Time is Money). Both pieces were tried out in different spaces and with different distributions of the singers. We recorded all our work in sound and often in video, and left Iceland with a rich amount of material, new ideas and advanced knowledge on the dialogue between voice and space. And we knew what space we would create Voiceland for: the old herring factory Verksmidjan á Hjalteyri. With the possibility to explore several areas and levels of the space through placement and movement of sound, Verksmidjan á Hjalteyri seemed most suitable for our endeavour of creating a spatial vocal performance for a free-moving audience. 


VOICELAND - a country of voice (2016, Akureyri, Iceland)
Discovering voice & Exploring sound choreography with choir

In 2016, I expanded my exploration of voices in spaces. Following the work with four opera singers and four instrumentalists in a building with four levels with
Schnitzler’s Dreams, I was now curious about what hidden potential there was for a spatial work with choir. I was curious what possibilities the collaboration with a choir, as an ensemble of individual voices, could reveal for spatial musical performance. I asked composer Gísli Jóhann Grétarsson (who had composed the musical journey of Arthur in Schnitzler’s Dreams) to join me in the development of a spatial choir piece from scratch. For the lyrics I used onomatopoeia as an initial starting point for the exploration of vocal expressions. Then we looked at traditional choral music and evaluated which qualities of those forms would be useful for our investigation, and which elements we would like to change, in order to get most out of it regarding our questions.

Areas of investigation were:

  • Sounding possibilities of a free voice
  • Possibilities for the spatial distribution of the choir (placement)
  • Possibilities for the choreography of the singers (movement)
  • Movement of sound without the movement of singers (directional expression)
  • How the sound and the meaning of the text could inform new vocal expressions and musical forms
  • How words could turn into abstract sounds, and how sounds could develop into a variety of words over time
  • Possibilities to create different sound atmospheres (abstract and concrete)
  • Possibilities of altering the perception of the space through spatial distribution of voices
  • How to change aural attention and to alternate between different modes of listening
  • How to enhance the experience of the site’s architecture through interaction with voice


In order to move from a theoretical approach into practical try-outs, we prepared a one-week workshop with the Icelandic choir Hymnodia in the autumn of 2016. During the workshop we worked in a church, a rehearsal space, two museum spaces and one former herring factory. The differences in acoustics were immense. We mapped our field for vocal exploration in a strong relation to architecture. Each new space asked us to adjust, and led us to discover new possibilities.


The next phase consisted of me writing the libretto and Gisli further developing the compositions. This process was dialogic. I would sing parts of the libretto to Gisli and he would make a musical draft based upon it, or he would send a draft for a musical structure that would inspire me to write the lyrics in a certain way. It was a balanced circular action-reaction process. We met frequently in order to discuss our concerns and bring out the qualities that we were concerned with. Each piece had at least one question to answer. For example: How can the music alter the experience of the dimensions of the space? (Against all odds) Can we make the space move like a rocking boat? (The future) Can a Sprechgesang choreographed in a space create the impression of a busy community? (Time is Money) The experience created for the audience had priority in our spatial musical thinking. In order to test the composed musical pieces, we sent them to the choir when we felt the pieces were in a state that could be meaningful to utter. It was important to me to make clear that the scores served as a point of departure and that we would further develop the pieces in our preparations for the premiere. Looking back, I realise that this approach may have inhibited the musical rehearsals for the choir. Since they are used to rehearsing what is written on the page, the idea that we would change the scores as we go along may have been intimidating rather than encouraging. When we arrived in Iceland one month before the premiere, only a fraction of the pieces had been rehearsed, most had been put aside out of an uncertainty about how to approach them. I see now that I should have been more aware of the fact that the written compositions we had sent were challenging in form, and that the message that we would change these systems again made it difficult for the choir to prepare.

In consequence, we spent the first rehearsals talking through the compositions as they were written, trying them out, giving space for questions and explanations. Still, during the musical rehearsals Gisli and I were able to make changes according to what we desired in each composition and how it developed with the voices of the choir.


One thing I already knew from Schnitzler´s Dreams is that one should let singers first learn the music, then they are ready to work on the performance. In Voiceland there are parts that are more improvisational. For these parts we could start moving around early in the rehearsal process and test choreography sketches that I prepared beforehand, and to develop them further together. Other parts had to be learned musically first, to make room for more information. For me music and movement in the space are so connected that I have to remind myself that this is not the case for everyone. In the music that was improvised in the space together, this intrinsic approach was, however, as familiar for the singers as it was for me.

Finally, two weeks before the premiere, we started to be able to rehearse in the performance space. 


One intention in this performance was that the conductor Eyþór Ingi Jónsson would be visually a part of the group. The idea was to let the people of Voiceland represent a free community. Rather than be ruled, the idea was to let them be self-organised. We developed different ways to guide the choir, using the relational aspects in the music and the choreography as aides to their self-organisation and orientation, along with light cues in the scenography, and the tuning of glass bottles that were also used as instruments during the performance.

The improvisational tasks we had done together earlier, and the games we played daily to warm up, helped to keep a playful attitude during the rehearsal process. Hymnodia is formed of skilled and motivated singers, so discipline was never a problem. In the last week before the premiere, I noticed that the singers were making mistakes they hadn’t made a week earlier. Based on these observations, I thought that there was maybe an insecurity that the piece was too complex to be performed to their usual standards. I decided to remind ourselves of the motivation to make this piece. I talked in more depth about the language of the piece to make them aware of the generosity in the sharing of their voice, and the creation of a sonic place with a vocal story and an atmosphere for the audience to experience. It was important for me that they understood that the main strength in this piece is the inter-human relation and that if they make a mistake, they should not try to hide it. I am convinced that the person next to them will enjoy this ‘human error’ more than a perfect performance. Empathy brings us closer together.



After the performance many aspects became clearer for the singers. My spatial musical performances are made with the audience in mind as part of the experience to the extent that they only work fully with the audience present to share the space. The deeper understanding of this interdependence led to an introduction of a new method into my workshops: that the performers are separated into groups of ‘performers’ and ‘audience members’ in order to learn more about the interrelation between the two. The possibility to investigate and experience affect and correlation as an individual and in a group strongly influenced the confidence and sensibility of the performers in the second version of Voiceland and subsequently in Musica Mundana.

Photos by Mareike Dobewall if not mentioned otherwise


Images of the process with the recorded files in the studio with eight speakers that we placed in different parts of the space, at a human height.


Following this workshop, Gisli and I were granted a two-week residency at BEK (Bergen Centre for Electronic Arts, Norway). Equipped with a sound system with 8 speakers distributed in the main project space, we could spatially arrange the sounds that we had recorded during the workshop. This process was very helpful for the composer and me because we could edit sounds musically then distribute them spatially, listen to our musical sketch, walk between the loudspeakers and make adjustments without exhausting the voices of singers in the process. In this way we could play around for hours, change between compositions, try them in different combinations, etc. All material we worked with here, without exception, came from the singers. Therefore, we knew that they were able to produce these sounds. During this phase, we also developed a map for vocal landscapes which drafted the areas we wanted to explore in this country of voice.

This way of working was specific for the Voiceland project. The composer and I had the aim of working in an interdisciplinary manner. Working with the loudspeakers in the space enabled us to teach each other about our practice through the means of composing together in the space. This created an understanding of how the choices on each side affect the other side. The form of spatial composition became the zone where our respective expertises were overlapping. Another factor that made this approach essential was the fact that we did not have the possibility to compose the one-hour performance on site with the choir. We had to find a way to stay true to our values despite working remotely from the performers, without the environment of the workshop process.

Upon your arrival to the former herring factory Hjalteyri in the North of Iceland which is now an art gallery, you are greeted by a woman in a green costume, who explains:

“You will soon be entering Voiceland.
It is a free country.
There are two levels.
You can walk around on both levels and rest when and where desired.

Voiceland is a country of voice.
Your listening will guide your experience.
For yourself and for a better experience for all other visitors we ask you to turn off your mobile phones. We recommend to be here in the moment instead of trying to capture it on your devices.

Please follow me.”

The woman turns on a flashlight and leads the way through the factory. You follow her steps on a concrete floor, along concrete walls and past barely visible art works. Your group is led to a semi-transparent grey curtain that is held open
by another woman, this time in a grey-green costume. She says “Welcome to Voiceland” to each person as your group enters one by one.

The space you enter is empty. It seems very different from the space you just walked through. A droning sound is audible. The atmosphere is heavy and light at the same time. Single light sources illuminate parts of the space and visually elevate the ceiling. You notice two openings in a wall where the sound seems to come from. The openings are covered by the same semi-transparent fabric as the curtain that you entered through. You see the outlines of people behind it. A sound like wind seems to come from above. A call, like a strange bird sound, cuts through the vibrating air. It comes from behind the wall. A man looks out from the curtain and calls again “Kulusuk”. He is left without a reply. The space replies instead with a long reverberation of his own call. He retreats behind the curtain. The late reply “Dröymer” comes from somewhere above. The way in which the space lets the calls linger reveals its vastness, beyond what the eye can see. The sound of wind washes over the lost calls. When you look up to the second level you can see singers coming down a staircase from the third floor. Their lips confirm that the wind sounds come from them. One of them calls “Dröymer” and thereby reveals himself as the source of the earlier call.

The small curtains on the ground floor are opened, and one by one the ‘drone’ singers come from the openings and surround you and the other audience members with their physical presence and their voice. More singers exit the openings, creating microcosmic sounds that travel with them up the staircase to the second floor and around you. A wind sound passes from one singer to another and flies through the space like a leaf riding a wind wave until it lands in silence.
The sudden absence of sound production lingers in the space. Your ears are alert. From a distance a call, resembling a whalesong, is sent into the space. Another singer echoes it. Individual echoes are passed on in a path through the space until the last singer sends her call out into the distance.

You look around and realise that the singers are by now all around you, and simultaneously among you. Their costumes and make-up have a ceremonial quality. Their presence is confident and kind. One whispers “we trees hide”, and another continues to speak in a dramatic tone, saying “in the woodland”. One by one they tell the legend of their country; sometimes spoken, stuttered, proclaimed or whispered. The words form into meaning through these expressions, while the individual character of the singers shines through.

Suddenly a machine-like sound is initiated by a singer. Instantly every singer starts moving in a different way. Other strange sounds join in and the singers move with their sounds through the space. Suddenly all sounds stop. Then the first singer starts again, just as before, and a composition of mechanical sounds sung by people unfolds in the space like a living organism. One by one the sounds come to an end as one twirling sound spirals out towards the ceiling.

All singers come to a hold. Gently a polyphony grows out of the silent bodies and the magnitude of many voices sounding together reaches you unguarded. 15 minutes into the performance this classical form of choral music comes as a surprise. Sadness and hope are shared in it. The music shifts in the space, the timing changes, everything slows down, the undertow of the music has caught you while the sound of the voices grows and contracts. “Against all odds will you search in the dark within yourself…”

You stand close to a bass singer. The vibration of his voice seems to continue in your body. Inspired by this experience you decide to move in between the standing singers. Like in trees, the sound of the voices grows in all directions, travels around you, touches you. You look at the singers, they are concentrated and open. Their voices start to feel like an embrace. The music seems endless, escaping ideas of time. You let go of your expectations. Some audience members have sat down, some lean against a wall, others explore the music while walking between the singers, listening into individual voices.

When the choral has ebbed, individual singers actively cut the air with sharp sounds, moving quickly around in the space. The sounds are like a dialogue with the space, like an activation of different parts of the space with diverse sounds. The randomness of the sounds turns into a composition. The bodies slow down and come to a halt, almost like they were controlled from outside. A deep out-breath sets them free into physically active randomness again, activating the space and all that is in it, including you. This dissolves into a ticking sound of “kkkkkk”.

All singers have now moved onto the ground floor. They create four separate groups in the space. The “kkkkkk” turns into a “Kommkommkomm” and the singers move clockwise in the outer frame of the space. A choreographed Sprechgesang in a mix of sounds and German and English words unfolds, disperses and recollects through physical and musical movement in the space. This energetic and critical part ends with the return from words to the abstract vocal expression of “kkkkk”.

Some singers disappear into the openings in the wall and return with glowing glass bottles. Breath sounds surrounds you from all directions. Some singers blow with a straw into the bottles and create bubble sounds. A feeling of being under water, in a different atmosphere, surfaces. The breath sounds become narrative. The base for human existence is expressed through a musical form of breath. Inside this underwater atmosphere a singular sound is thrown playfully from one singer to another, transforming on its journey. As if from far away in the distance you can hear voices singing. When you move closer to a singer with a bottle you realise that she is singing into the bottle while continuing to create bubbles. When all singers join in, it sounds like a huge choir singing in a place far far away. A single voice emerges and utters a bubble solo which then expands from singer to singer into a polyphonic recapitulation.

Gradually the singers carry their bottles to the spaces behind the wall while a faint “oooh” is audible. As they return
from behind the curtains into the visible performance area they create a spooky yearning call. These sounds move insistently through the space. A feeling of desperation spreads. Breathing sounds reappear. There is an unexpected sweetness in some of the calls from individual singers. The word “monster” is audible. The piece develops into a strange love song. Some singers move, some stand still. There is simultaneously a pulling, a letting go, a resistance - musically and physically. And then silence.

Gently, the singers walk through the space, whispering a personal story to architectural elements. A singer stops next to you and whispers a childhood story up towards the ceiling. The secrecy, the intimacy and a feeling of play connect you to the singers and the other audience members while you watch how their faces light up as they understand a part of a story. Some audience members have taken a position close to a singer, following them as they change positions in the space, taking in the whole story. Others stand with their eyes closed and listen to the quiet collective whispering. There is a tenderness in the room, comforting, and allowing space for contemplation.

From one tone, a polyphony arises. The words that are sung by the ensemble are not recognisable. It sounds like a mysterious language with a hidden meaning.

While they sing, the performers form a circle around you and the other audience members. With a collective stomp they initiate a rhythm. Reminiscent of old Viking songs like the wikivaki, the singers move around you singing an energetic, ritualistic song. The vibrations of the ground and the rhythmic singing quickens your heartbeat, and you feel stimulated as this part comes to an end.

Collecting themselves again, the singers walk slowing to one side of the space, facing one direction. For the first time in the performance they create something similar to a frontal performance, as a choir would in a concert hall. You and other audience members move to the other side in order to see better. A sound wave rocks through the space, back and forth like a cradle. A lullaby prepares you to leave Voiceland. “The moon will guide you home”. Contemplating the future, they sing “the future comes day by day”.
Each singer exits into the openings in the wall saying “day”, or what sounds like “day”, until they have all disappeared behind the curtain.

For the applause the singers come out and bow and then return into their hide-out. The woman who led you into Voiceland asks you to follow her. One by one the audience exits through the curtain and walks through the invisible exhibition. Voiceland stays behind, hidden like a parallel world, but still resonating in your body.

sketch mapping the country Voiceland


A unique form of Voiceland was created for the audience in Reykjavik at Gömlu Kartöflugeymslurnar, Ártúnsbrekku during the Opera Days Reykjavik 2018.


This creation is an example for how to work site-sensitively with a piece that was initially created for another site. A big advantage here was that all singers had been in a workshop with me and most of them had performed in Hjalteyri in the year before. This way we could make adjustments to the performance in ways that allowed for a dialogue with the space to unfold. Most changes were to do with positioning and movement. There were only a few sonic expressions that had to be adjusted in form. Many adjustments in vocal expression, especially in volume, had to be made in order create again a ‘Voiceland-atmosphere’ in this narrow long space with a round metal ceiling.



Audio documentation of full performance in Reykjavik

Duration: 55 minutes


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Impressions from the first workshop in Akureyri, Spaces (left to right): Akureyrarkirkja, Akureyri Art Museum, Verksmidjan á Hjalteyri


Iceland, Akureyri 2017 and Reykjavik 2018

Visual impressions from Hjalteyri 2017

Visiting a country called Voiceland

Reykjavik 2018


I suggest that the reader looks through the images while listening to the audio documentation

Click on the image and the PDF of the libretto will open in a seperate window

Images from the artist talk that Gisli Johann Gretarsson and I gave at the end of our residency at BEK.

The scenography  and costumes were created together with my colleague Ylva OIwren

360 ° image from rehearsals in Hjalteyri. Image by Juan Pedro Bolanos

Choreography sketches

Visual Impressions from the rehearsals in Hjalteyri

Image by Eyþór Ingi Jónsson

Images by Marieke Verbiesen


Verksmidjan á Hjalteyri