Wood or blood?

New scores and new sounds for voice and clarinet

Astrid Kvalbein and Gjertrud Pedersen

What is this thing called a score, and how do we relate to it as performers in order to realize a musical work? This – no less – is the fundamental question of this exposition. Our perspective is however subjective, specific and practice-based. As a duo we have related to scores in a variety of ways over the years: from the traditional reading and interpreting of scores of works by distant (some dead) composers, via learning new works in dialogue with living composers to taking part in the creative processes from the commissioning of a work to its premiere and beyond.

Reflecting on this practice has triggered many questions which we will unfold in this exposition by way of different metaphors. Could the score, for instance, be conceptualized as a contract, in which some elements are negotiable and others are not, and where two equal partners, the performer(s) and the composer, might have qualitatively different assignments on how to realize the music? And might reflecting on such questions influence our interpretative practices?

To shed light on issues such as these, we have consulted three composers with whom we have collaborated closely and will share – attempt to unfold – some of the experiences gained from this work. Taking a step back to observe from a certain distance, we shall also see how our attitudes as performers have developed over a longer span of time.

Duo Parula

Over the last 15 years, duo Parula (i.e. singer Astrid Kvalbein and clarinettist Gjertrud Pedersen) has built up a repertoire from the twentieth and twenty-first century. The ensemble of (soprano) voice and clarinet is relatively rare, and the references in historical repertoire are scarce, compared to song and piano or string quartet, for instance. We can trace a lineage back to works by Mozart and Schubert,[1] which draw upon the similarities between the instruments and have ourselves performed Anton Webern’s songs for soprano with small chamber ensembles in which the clarinet has a prominent role (op. 16-18). Our repertoire from more recent decades spans from Vaughan Williams’ Three Vocalises (1958) to Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Deowa (1983), both works for soprano and clarinet, and Pascal Dusapin’s So full of shape is fancy (1990) for soprano and bass clarinet.

Over the last years, we have commissioned and premiered an increasing amount of new works, primarily by Norwegian composers[2], and we have adapted music with slightly different scorings, such as Karin Rehnquist’s Rädda mig ur dyn (1994) for soprano and alto saxophone, adjusted by us in agreement with the composer. We are also developing a “Bird catalogue” by commissioning short works inspired by birds.

We have found that the duo format has opened up possibilities for an unexpected variety of possible soundscapes, polyphonies, voicing and musical role-taking. In particular, our close collaborations with living composers, creating and performing (including revising and re-performing) new music constitutes an everlasting loop of dialogue and musical practice. To a greater extent over recent years, we have also used our collaboration in duo Parula as a place from where we reflect on creative and performative labour, and on topics such as the work concept and the authority and function of the score.[3]

This exposition is based on a presentation held at the Unfolding the process symposium in November 2016. It took as a starting point the concept of the score as a kind of “contract” between composer and performer, and went on to discuss the practices that might evolve from engaging with this contract – not only in order to “realize” the work (or, more problematically, the composer’s intention), but also to negotiate with the written text, and in some cases be part of the process of creating and notating the music. We revisited three recent works from our repertoire, which we have performed twice or more, either in parts or whole: Ragnhild Berstad’s Vevtråd (Weaving thread, 2010) and Jan Martin Smørdal’s The Lesser Nighthawk (2012), which were both commissioned by us, and Lene Grenager’s Tre eller blod (Wood or blood, 2005), initially written for two other performers.

All three works are by composers we know well and who, like us, are based in Oslo.[4] This has provided us with opportunities to be in close dialogue about the processes of realizing, interpreting and co-creating the music. Since the symposium, we have also conducted interviews – or, more precisely, conversations – with the composers, in order to explore some issues more thoroughly and enrich this text. We prepared specific themes and certain questions in advance, but the talks progressed as free conversations.[5]

In the conversations with the composers, as well as in our on-going duo work, we have explored a range of other metaphors than our initial ‘contract’ – metaphors that, in a less juridical sense, may serve as tools for understanding the processes engaged in by performers and creative artists. A striking amount of these refer to nature, to organic growth or to the cultivation of plants by, for instance, gardening. Metaphors referring to construction work and traditional handicraft also appear frequently. In the following sections, we will unfold some of this variety of ways to put into words the efforts of giving form, and making patterns of sound, voice and text in music.

Lene Grenager: Tre eller blod

I really liked the decay, the scent, which is so sensuous in many ways. (…) Tre eller blod is like a meditation on this poem (Grenager).

Lene Grenager’s Tre eller blod (Wood or blood) was written in 2005 and we included the piece in our repertoire in 2016.[6] The title of the work is a line from a poem by the Norwegian author Markus Midré. We have chosen to use this as the title of this exposition, too, because it points towards a concrete materiality resembling what we deal with as a duo: the wood of the instruments represents solid material, the blood represents pulse, flow and personal temperament. We could, of course, have added breath in this context, given that it is vital to bringing the work alive through our instruments – from the score, written on paper made from wood.

Dismantling and reconstructing Pinocchio

Markus Midré’s poem is prominent in Grenager’s Tre eller blod:

pinocchios hjerte
av tre eller blod
fornemmer den søte lukta
fra epletrærne om høsten
et snev av råte
lukker jeg øynene[7]

pinocchio’s heart
of wood or blood
sensing the sweet scent
from the apple trees in autumn
a hint of decay
my eyes closing
(our translation)

Tre eller blod consists of two particularly distinctive features; word-like fragments and short, song-like melodic lines. Grenager has, to some extent, deconstructed the poem into single sounds. She has also added air-sounds, whispering and percussive sounds with a “wooden” character. The opening starts with just the vowels, e, o and a.

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), excerpt from the score bar 1-8.

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), excerpt from our performance June 11th 2016 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

After some bars, the singer adds tr and bl, slowly forming the words tre (wood)[8] and blod (blood). In this manner, the composer laboriously builds up the poem from isolated vowels, or nonsense words, into complete words and meaningful sentences. The singer does not perform the whole poem until halfway into the piece, before it ends with a distinct, rather mechanical repetition of the stanza “lukker jeg øynene” (my eyes closing). In this way, fragments from the poem frame the composition, like pieces from a bigger picture or, perhaps, traces of forgotten memories.

In Tre eller blod, two melodic lines are prevalent. One occurs three times during the first half of the piece, and although this line consists of counter movements, we chose to call it a “unison”. The voices dwell upon certain pitches, either in different octaves or in unison. When we perform such unisons, our voices, one resounding in the wood of the clarinet, one in the singer’s body, have the capacity to melt together. This corresponds somehow with the poem’s main character, Pinocchio and his inherent duality as a living boy and a puppet made of wood.

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), excerpt from the score bar 30-31 (the same figure also occurs in bar 18-19).

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), excerpt from our performance June 11th 2016 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

Grenager elaborates on this investigation into sounds:

I was interested in timbre and sound colours, which is why I chose unison elements. I wanted the voice and bass clarinet to colour each other. There is a constant duality in this composition, not just between wood and blood, but also in the timbre; not voice and bass clarinet next to each other – but one sound consisting of two elements.

The second melodic line, which occurs in the second part of the piece, is first performed by the bass clarinet and thereafter by the soprano when she eventually performs the whole poem. The excerpts from the score below show the beginning of the melody in the bass clarinet part (bar 46 and further) and in the voice part (bar 57 and further).

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), example of the melody that corresponds with the whole poem, starting at bar 46 and further in the clarinet part.

Lene Grenager Tre eller blod (2005), example of the melody that corresponds with the whole poem, bar 57 and further in the voice part.

The composer remembers the making of the melody like this:

I made this melody, which appears quite late in the score, early in the composition process. It nevertheless constitutes a basis for the material that is presented in the opening of the piece.

Grenager describes Midré’s six-line poem as “very strong and multifaceted”. She has investigated the poem in fragments, variations and repetitions, and she tells us that it instigated a flow from which she created her piece, a kind of flow that is rare in her working processes.

The text provides a condensed basis for the composition. The mood of the poem colours the whole piece, and the voice and bass clarinet have interchangeable roles (…) The ‘wood and blood’-elements were clear for me from the beginning.

The relationship(s) between nature – animals, humans, trees, flowers – on the one hand and human-made artefacts – from rock carvings to spinning machines – on the other, is prominent in many of Grenager’s works.[9] The story of Pinocchio opens up multiple ways to relate to, and perhaps erase, the dividing line between nature and artefact, reality and mystery. Besides Carlo Collodi’s version of the tale, the composer has engaged with the book Pinocchio-papirene (Pinocchio Papers) by the author Tor Åge Bringsværd.[10] Here the Pinocchio-figure is rather intangible, and the reader is never sure whether he speaks the truth or not. Thus, Bringsværd thematises the different varieties of truth that surround us. Grenager finds some of the same duality in the way Midré gives words to the complexity in the Pinocchio figure in his poem.

Negotiating the contract, clarifying the text

For us, knowing Grenager’s preoccupation with Pinocchio was inspiring when we were to perform the piece. At an early stage of rehearsing it, however, our attention was directed more strongly towards other issues such as tempo, vocal registers, dynamics, and so on. We also faced a musical score made for two other performers. Metaphorically speaking, we might call it an existing contract, which we studied and renegotiated in collaboration with the composer.

Our first reaction to the score was that the tempo indication in the opening, which said 52 beats per minute, was incredibly slow. Being classically-trained musicians, we are used to keeping a forward-moving musical development in mind. Grenager’s opening seemed too static somehow, so one idea at an early stage was simply to perform the music a bit faster than suggested in the score.

At our first rehearsal with the composer, however, she told us that she found our opening tempo to be too fast, underlining that it was meant to be slow, nearly static or stiff. This feedback made sense for our further interpretation: the tempo 52 bpm helped us to associate the opening with the kinds of movements and utterances made by a creature fashioned out of wood, like Pinocchio.

In the rehearsal process, we did, however, want to re-negotiate some other elements. The soprano part is written in a quite high tessitura, so we asked for permission to change the registers to make the articulation less tense. Accordingly, we transposed sections of the soprano part to a lower register (an octave, sometimes a fourth or fifth, sometimes replacing only individual notes in a figure). We also wanted a more breathy sound quality in some of the parts that we transposed down, to make the voice more similar to the sound of the bass clarinet, which also allowed for the text to come forward more clearly and more like speech than in higher registers. The composer readily approved of these adjustments.[11] Only one suggestion was rejected: to change the contour of the “unison” line by transposing the top tone in the vocal part down, so as to avoid the most uncomfortable register.

Such processes of altering and adapting a score might be considered a form of renegotiation of a contract. Grenager, who also works as a cellist and often operates in the span between composing and improvising,[12] however not subscribe to this metaphor without reservations. But the concept of negotiation resembles what she prefers to speak of in terms of conversation or dialogue, practically and philosophically speaking, between the musicians and between her and the performer(s).

If a kind of negotiation is going on, I imagine that it takes place both between the two of you, and between you and me. (…) It does not really suit me to think of my works of music as static phenomena. I want people to interpret them in different ways.

Tre eller blod is thus laid open to different practical interpretations and, in line with this, to multiple layers of meaning. In Mindré’s poem, one interesting ambiguity is apparent. It does not really make clear who speaks while seeing, or being, Pinocchio – with a heart made from wood or blood. Who is sensing the sweet scent from the apple trees, and closing their eyes at the end? Is this someone just disappearing?[13] Grenager says:

I think we might see wood or blood as potential. When the narrator’s eyes close, it bears a potential. Perhaps the narrator becomes a tree? A tree that bears fruit, decay, the leaves falling. You might interpret this as “death”, but I also think other interpretations are possible.

These different creative processes and ways to work, with and without text, fascinate us. As a contemporary music duo, we have become acquainted with a wide range of ways to write for voice(s), as our two next examples will illustrate. The first omits semantic text altogether, the other includes poetry, playing with single words and fragments.

Jan Martin Smørdal: The Lesser Nighthawk

A commission can be a blessing or a straitjacket, or both. This one was a blessing, a delightful one (Smørdal).

Jan Martin Smørdal’s piece The Lesser Nighthawk was commissioned for duo Parula’s “Bird Catalogue”. Sharing a fascination for birds – and having named our duo after one – we have started building up a catalogue of short pieces by different composers, each based on a specific bird, either from nature or from fiction. The term “catalogue” is borrowed from Olivier Messiaen, but the concept is otherwise very different. In our catalogue it is up to each individual composer to decide how they want to relate to the bird of their choosing – whether they want to imitate its song or other sounds, describe its patterns of behaviour or evoke other qualities of its biotopes or life.[14]

Smørdal’s choices of relating his work to the lesser nighthawk, and how to develop his material, was entirely his own. Nevertheless, the commission had laid down some premises: the work should fit into our concept as well as the time frame and the ensemble type. We had, one might say, pre-defined the content of the contract between us, as performers, and him, as a composer; this put us in a quite different position from when we pick up the score of a piece that is already written.

In our conversations, Smørdal characterized commissions in general as “blessings or straitjackets”, or sometimes both, depending on the ensemble types, instruments and time frames. Our bird concept was, however, “delightful”, he says:

I have been preoccupied with birds myself, and this time I took the opportunity to find one I didn’t know already, and went for a non-European bird. It took me some days to browse through huge libraries of field recordings on the Internet – there is an impressive amount to listen to at ornithological sites as well as on Soundcloud. There is a serious amount of bird nerds out there, I must say. Which is great!

After the broad research, Smørdal decided to explore the Lesser Nighthawk, an American Nightjar. (More about this bird, including its sound, here.)

Its sound was the most beautiful I had heard for a long time, it was just mesmerizing and made me think – like when I heard the snipe for the first time – “what on earth is this?” Its circle breath-like expression is unique.

Soft tones produced by constant whirring (like a rolling “r” in both voice and clarinet) make up a substantial part of Smørdal’s work.

Jan Martin Smørdal The Lesser Nighthawk (2013/15), excerpt from the score, bar 1-5.

The contrasting elements are more abrupt: “extrovert” trillos in a high register (on one note, described by the composer as"Monteverdi- like" in the vocal part and unison trills with microtonal variations in the clarinet part) and “introvert” melodic lines without trills or flutter-tonguing. These introvert lines are produced in a “closed” sound with few overtones. All of the elements in the composition – although expanded and adjusted to be performed by us – are closely related to the sound of the nightjar.

Jan Martin Smørdal The Lesser Nighthawk (2013/15), excerpt from our performance June 11th 2016 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

The decision of focusing on this specific bird and its call was made after Smørdal had rejected a few other, initial ideas. He thought about writing a work based on the gizzard, the gastric mill in the stomach with which birds, in the absence of teeth, “chew” their food. Smørdal imagined, with Iannis Xenakis’ electronic piece La Légende D’Eer at the back of his head, that the sound of grinding produced by the gizzard could inspire new sound constellations between voice and clarinet. At an initial stage, he also considered writing a text for the singer to perform, but discarded this.

When getting to know about these ideas, we asked whether our characteristic features as a duo influenced Smørdal’s decisions. Given that we both breathe to produce sound, might the concept of bird song be closer at hand than if, for instance, we were a percussion duo, which could more easily produce sounds resembling grinding? The composer answered:

In the first place, breath is something very corporeal, something you feel, recognize and mirror. If you for instance hear an artificially long exhaling, you miss the inhaling, and so on. But on the other hand, breath is fiction somehow, fiction that one recognizes, but potentially in a subtler way. So yes, I could have written the same piece for a different ensemble. It would have become a different piece, of course, but nevertheless…

Although concretizing what these unwritten pieces might have been like is impossible, it has been thought-provoking for us to take part in this imagining of what the work could have become. This is particularly intriguing given that we commissioned the piece ourselves, and defined the conceptual framework of the bird catalogue. Getting to know that we could have ended up imitating the sound of the gizzard instead of the bird’s call, or interpreting a semantic text about the nightjar, reminded us that, although we made the commission – laid the ground for the contract – the composer’s realisation of the assignment he was given was both unpredictable and, in the greatest part, down to him.

Smørdal compares his creative processes with natural growth, and finds the growth of the unicellular slime moulds (physarum polycephalum) illustrative:

They grow arms in many directions, like a tree, until one hits upon one gram of sugar, for instance. Then they just pull all the other arms in to gather itself where the food is, to consume it. And that is in many ways similar to how creative labour works, or conversation. You have to allow yourself the possibility of ending up somewhere else, at all times.

In this case, Smørdal’s “gram of sugar” ended up being the sound of the seeming circular breathing of the Lesser Nighthawk, and the whole piece developed from this phenomenon. Smørdal calls allowing this work to be based on the bird’s sound an “old fashioned” approach. He also tested possible ways of realising the sound in workshops with us during the composition process. Nevertheless, how to read or produce the notated sounds was not a straightforward process for us.

Jan Martin Smørdal The Lesser Nighthawk (2013/15), excerpt from the score, bar 42-50.

Negotiating and performing stasis and motion

To fulfil the “contract”, we had to deal with some challenges. To imitate the constant sound of the lesser nighthawk, apparently without breaths or stops, was demanding. How could we distinguish between the parts that were to “stand still” – referring to the bird lying still making one type of trill for a long time – and the more forward-moving parts?

Although, or perhaps because, the score looked quite simple, we needed supplementary input from the composer. In rehearsals, Smørdal helped us in defining and shaping the “static” parts as well as the more dynamic and flexible melodic lines. To obtain the right sounds in singing with few overtones – an unusual preference in a vocal part – and in the flutter-tongue sounds on the clarinet, we also needed inputs and adjustments. The dialogues with Smørdal were thus crucial for our interpretation of The Lesser Nighthawk.

Jan Martin Smørdal The Lesser Nighthawk (2013/15), excerpt from our performance June 11th 2016 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

Interpreting new scores often raises questions about how detailed and instructive the musical notation could or should be. Smørdal tells us that he is reluctant to provide the performers with too much information, details that might make them what he calls “rigified”. He also stresses that not everything can be written down on “this memo pad” called a score.

But of course, the problem is that I can’t trust that the performer has the same set of references as I have myself. It is not like in Rossini’s days when he could write fairly rough opera scores because he knew that the musicians in orchestra would know the styles and codes of the genre anyway.

Smørdal somewhat ironically describes his attitude as a “jazz-mentality” or perhaps “jazz-malady”. He has worked as an improvising musician within pop, rock and avant-garde, he has been – and occasionally still is – a studio producer. In sum, he is used to working hands-on with the music he makes, and to knowing and interacting with the musicians.[15]

In conversation with us, Smørdal asks whether he perhaps ought to have written more into the score of The Lesser Nighthawk, such as verbal explanations to clarify his conceptual thinking.[16] He also speculates whether, for instance, the “static” parts could have been notated by using a sort of fermata to indicate standstill instead of regular beat measures.

Studying our copies of The Lesser Nighthawk, decorated with pencil scribbling and coloured markings, Smørdal even asks, although teasingly, whether he ought to publish his scores in colours. But we always add our own notes in the scores, markings that communicate differently from the composer’s writing. Astrid says:

Making such notes is part of my job. And my notes are different from yours, as they are meant to communicate with me only. You have to write in a way that, in principle, could communicate with anyone, whereas I do not have to take into consideration whether everybody else feels that red can mean calm and orange slightly faster, or whatever…

Gjertrud also stresses that taking notes is just a natural component in the process of internalising the work:

I don’t think I have a single sheet of music that I have not notated a lot in. I write fingerings, things I have to remember, “stasis” in one place and “progression” in one, and I scribble in cues like “here Astrid starts on the first beat” or “Astrid breathes”. The same thing works vice versa; Astrid makes notes about where I have to turn pages and so on.

In this sense, the notation in fact continues after a performer takes over a score. This does not suggest that the composer’s notation is insufficient. It is rather about a division of labour, and about the process in which the musician makes the work his or her “own”.

Reflecting on our practices in relation to specific works and composers concretizes our overall awareness of what the written score can and cannot – maybe should and should not – convey. It also raises intriguing questions about the contract as a metaphor for the musical score. Are the performers’ notes somehow parallel to what a carpenter might do after signing a contract for a certain assignment, specifying in her own copy what the work implies, in terms of, for instance, the technical equipment needed – notes that are instructive to her but not necessarily to the one giving her the assignment? And if the contract gives her a certain freedom in how to interpret the framework that is drawn up, how far can she go before the contract is actually broken, before it is has become something else than what is prescribed?

Excerpts, revisions and new versions

In The Lesser Nighthawk, unlike in Grenager’s Tre eller blod, we made virtually no adjustments of the elements in the score. Therefore, the question of negotiating with the composer to alter a piece is not as pertinent. But we have performed excerpts of The Lesser Nighthawk in presentations and lectures, which also invites some intriguing questions. Smørdal elaborates:

If you play an excerpt from B to C, it will never sound the same as if you had played the whole piece from the beginning and the B to C part somewhere in the middle of it. The tones might be the same, but it just would not sound the same. So what is B to C then, it is not even a quote from the work, it is something else – I don’t know exactly what, but it is beyond a quote. (…) It is comparable to when a jazz musician builds up an improvisation. Everything that precedes three minutes into it will define how those minutes and onward will sound. It is impossible to start at that point.

This performative aspect of music is crucial. A live excerpt of music will be qualitatively different when it starts and ends at a different place than the whole work. Our bodies will execute it differently, if perhaps only slightly in the case of a small work, but clearly in music that unfolds in a larger format and time span. The difference is important anyway, Smørdal says. And law might prove him right: one paragraph of a contract is not the whole agreement, and, as such, insufficient. Playing parts of the work is – in metaphorical terms – thus not covered by the same contract as the assignment of doing the whole piece.

Smørdal’s considerations about excerpts derives from practical music-making, and not from abstract ideas of autonomous works being finished once and for all. On the contrary, for him a work is, in principle, never finished. It is always malleable and re-formable. If he picks up an old work, he often feels the urge to revise or even re-write it, he tells us.

A few years after we premiered The Lesser Nighthawk, Smørdal needed a small piece for a concert programme and made a shorter version for two other performers.[17] Here he chose to let the “static” trill-like elements prevail even more strongly, to the detriment of melodic lines. In the years between the versions, he had been preoccupied with the phenomenon of swarms, which perhaps influenced the way he approached the piece the second time. In the first round, our commission provided him with motivation, in the second round, something else did. And this is the way it works, he says:

I had one motivation to write the piece in the first place, the commission, but that motivation is gone now. This is almost like smoking a cigarette. Once it is consumed, it is gone, up in smoke. And when I pick up a work again, it is influenced by something else, by what I am doing in that moment, or am concerned with.

With the remaking and new performance of The Lesser Nighthawk the work made a transition from being “duo Parula’s piece” – given that we commissioned it and until then were the only musicians performing it – to a piece for other voices and other clarinets, too.

Ragnhild Berstad’s Vevtråd has yet to be performed by anyone but duo Parula. As the next paragraphs will demonstrate, it was composed in intimate collaboration with us, and for us, to the extent that the composer herself had not imagined performances by other musicians until we brought up the question. Here we will shed light and reflect on how the creation of Vevtråd unfolded, from experimenting with our instruments through composing, notating, rehearsing and performing the work.

Ragnhild Berstad: Vevtråd

In the work Vevtråd, the musicians are the main theme. The strong sonorous relationship between the clarinet and the voice is an important basis – but equally important are Gjertrud and Astrid’s characteristics as individual performers and in musical interaction. From this basis I have attempted to make a duo Parula biotope – a musical landscape where the musicians act as much as possible as themselves in their natural element (Berstad).[18]

As stated earlier, duo Parula is familiar with a range of approaches to new works. We are used to learning music from written scores only; to rehearsing, and negotiating about, existing works with the composer; and to collaborating more closely during the creative processes. One of the most extensive collaborations until now has been on Ragnhild Berstad’s Vevtråd for soprano, clarinet and pre-recorded text readings.

Berstad has a substantial output of works for chamber ensembles and orchestras.[19] Commissions for ensembles of this kind often imply that the composer hands in a complete score with no workshops with the ensemble or individual musicians taking place beforehand. Although Berstad has also worked closely with individual musicians on more soloistic pieces,[20] the process has never been as comprehensive as when creating Vevtråd for duo Parula, she says.

Voices, words and fragments

When we commissioned the work, we were enthusiastic about exploring new soundscapes for voice and clarinet together. We had several workshops with the composer, both as a duo and as individual musicians, and we took part in making notes, sketching and eventually in revising the score slightly, after the first performance. This process spanned several years: we commissioned the work back in 2006, the bulk of the workshops with the composer took place during 2009, we gave the first performance in 2010 and have since performed the work on two occasions, in 2015 and 2017.[21] In a sense, Vevtråd has been woven into our lives – and our interpretation of it seems to be ongoing, depending on new contexts for performances and dialogues between us, including our most recent, recorded conversation.

Quite early on, Berstad decided to take some of our individual characteristics, not only us as musicians, but also as persons, as starting points for the creative process. This surfaced both in her way of utilizing the sounds of our instruments and in the text.

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15) excerpt from the score, page 1.

In Vevtråd, poetry appears in bits and pieces, read by us, live and recorded. Berstad combines excerpts from Linnea-pasjonen (the Linnea passion) by Gro Dahle,[22] haiku poems translated into Norwegian by Paal Helge Haugen,[23] Japanese words more or less transformed into sound elements as well as vocalises, trills and other ornamental figures. The whole piece starts with Gjertrud reading “også for loppene må natta falle lang og einsam” (even for the fleas, the night must feel long and lonely).

Berstad reflects on the appropriation of text:

When I write commissioned works, I often do not know the performers from before, but I felt I had a vivid impression of you both. I really wanted the work to be tailored for you, for your sounds, your sound worlds. (…) One aspect is what you do with your instruments, but considering the text too, I wanted to find excerpts that suited you. The poem about the fleas, I thought fitted you, Gjertrud, you often come up with this sort of funny, surprising statements. Then there was the soft, something about you, Astrid, and the phrase “håndens stilling på lakenet, armens bue” (the posture of the hand on the sheet, the curve of the arm) that I found suited you well. So, I thought of you when I lay the text out. It had to be right, the right person reading the different excerpts.

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15) excerpt from the score, page 2

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15) excerpt from our performance December 1st 2017 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

In the process, Berstad also related to Gjertrud’s PhD-thesis on the interpretation of music for soprano and clarinet, where the intimate relation and the similarities between the two “voices” is a main topic.[24] Berstad tells us that she asked herself:

When are you close, really close to each other? How can I for instance make clarinet-like sounds for Astrid? Your kind of ensemble is inspiring, and listening very closely to the voices I have at hand often makes me find new and fresh approaches.

Although Berstad was fascinated by in the similarities in sound between soprano and clarinet, she worked with us separately at first, listening to our individual voices before weaving the parts together. The most comprehensive part of this investigation was the exploration of the so-called “half clarinet”.

"Half clarinet" – discovering and inventing a mutual language

Gjertrud’s “half clarinet” was a new discovery for me. She removes the mid-part of the clarinet – and a charming little instrument comes out, with its own temperament and tonality.[25]

The so-called “half clarinet” simply refers to an instrument where the mouthpiece is connected directly to the lower part of the instrument (leaving the upper part out). This altered instrument has a very different tonal spectrum from an “ordinary” clarinet, and Gjertrud was curious to explore its potential. She had previously discovered the instrument through Jonathan Harvey’s Be(com)ing for clarinet and piano, and also worked a bit on improvising with microtonal and multiphonic sounds. Now she wanted to work with Berstad on the instrument, curious to see and hear what they could make out of it together.

The collaborative process went through several loops of improvisation, audio recording and conversation, developing sketches and fingering charts, as well as trying out different preparations (tape on keys) and using one hand as a mute. When “muting” the bell, a spectrum of overtones appeared, that could be produced both on the “half clarinet” and the regular Bb-clarinet. In the finished work, Gjertrud handles this effect during the parts for “half clarinet”, but at the end of the work Astrid mutes the bell while Gjertrud plays on the Bb-clarinet. By letting the singer take part in the production of the last series of overtones, the composer visualizes the close collaboration within the duo in a tangible sense.

Astrid muting the clarinet.

Despite the fact that Gjertrud and the composer both lived in Oslo when they did the workshops, they corresponded by hand-written letters, sent by regular mail. All in all, this makes up a quite comprehensive correspondence about investigating and creating a common language for “half clarinet” and its possible combinations of sounds, functional fingerings and methods of preparation.

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15), Gjertrud playing "half clarinet", excerpt from our performance December 1st 2017 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

The challenge of finding suitable ways to write the new knowledge down in a score ended up with notating parts of Vevtråd in three systems. The upper system shows the soprano part, the middle the “half clarinet” written as it sounds, which is useful for the singer, and the lower system shows the fingerings. The composer invented a way of notating with a mix of fingerings and traditional notation.

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15) example of notation “half clarinet”, excerpt from the score, page 10.

Since Berstad had not previously encountered the “half clarinet”, all her aural images of this instrument emerged from Gjertrud’s playing. Astrid’s voice, on the other hand, was more familiar from the beginning. Berstad told us that she was particularly interested in her high flute register and the deeper chest voice. In addition, she recorded Astrid singing richly ornamented Norwegian folk tunes and added parts with overtone singing.

When working with this material in her study, the composer engaged her own voice, too. She explains:

Writing for someone like Astrid, I think of her and the vocal material she possesses. But when I investigate different musical elements as I compose, I activate my own body, my own voice. I sing to myself, quietly. When composing a motive, this helps me in developing a feeling of how long it should be and how it should be shaped. For the motive to function well in Astrid’s voice and body, however, she might have to shape it a bit differently. Particularly with singers it is crucial to take into account that the sound and the body are inseparable. So, when Astrid sings a motif I have sung to myself, it might be altered slightly – into something shorter, longer or otherwise different.

Berstad’s ways of notating music are quite detailed and accurate. Nevertheless, she stresses that the score, no matter how meticulously it is written, will never be an exact representation of the sounds, shapes and lines she is imagining.

The score is a kind of transcription of what I hear in my mind and “inner ear” in the creative process. But the material must come alive, and the person performing it, is of course crucial for how the work is realized.

While the corporeal efforts of performers are evident in music-making, composition is also a physical process. Berstad often develops new ideas during walks in the forest; she sings and plays to herself, and after the initial listening, sketching and scribbling she writes her full scores by hand, pencil on paper. Studying these, one can find traces of notes that she has erased with rubber. Unlike scores produced on a computer, it is therefore possible to trace layers of her composition process on paper, almost like a palimpsest. Her working processes thus highlight the aspects of handicraft in composition.

Ragnhild Berstad Vevtråd (2010/15), example of prerecorded audio, excerpt from our performance December 1st 2017 at Bidrobon, Biermannsgården, Oslo.

Imagining, listening, weaving

In Vevtråd threads of music are plaited around a warp of recited text. Texts from two different sources are cut and interwoven. Clarinet and soprano play out their curling lines, at times intimately united, at times in separate directions.[26]

In the case of Vevtråd, it is, of course, tempting to elaborate on the very metaphor of weaving when trying to unfold the compositional process. After bringing “raw material” into her study, it is as if Berstad has cut and pulled bits and threads out of it – of a folk song by Astrid, a phrase on Gjertrud’s half-clarinet and a multiphonic chord – only to weave and braid everything into new contexts. Adding poetry, melodic ornaments and colouring, she makes an original piece of tapestry. Some leftover material exists, too – not thread and textile, but notes and scribblings in a cardboard box labelled “Astrid & Gjertrud, maybe for later?”

The drawback of the weaving metaphor is, of course, that it refers primarily to tactile and visual experience, and to a materially solid result, unlike music, that unfolds in time. The metaphor of the tapestry does thus not capture the temporality of the (live) performance or its existence as sound. It does also not take into account the crucial role of the ear in the processes of composing and performing.

Berstad calls the act of listening the most significant part of her creative process – she composes from what she has heard, and this aural material is the “knowledge base” from which she develops new ideas. The act of listening is also a crucial part of her motivation to make music at all:

I strive at listening and listening again, feeling, hearing and trying to be in a mode where I eventually can imagine longer time spans, up to four to five minutes, involving complex structures, if not exact pitches, then timing, sounds and instruments. For me, being in such a mode is like meditating, dwelling in an inner sound landscape. This way of being in the world can be fantastic.

To transfer the product of these imaginative processes to a sheet of paper calls for a kind of translation, or transcription, Berstad says:

What I imagine is music, not visual signs. It is sound. (…) I write detailed scores because I want to match what I heard. It is not because I love making things complicated, I just try to write down as much as possible. Of course, I might make barriers for the musicians to overcome, in that they get so many parameters to relate to, simultaneously. But I want to get closer and closer to a level of precision that matches what I have heard.

When encountering Berstad’s score for the first time, we found it challenging to decipher the small motifs while making sense of both the longer phrases and the overall structure of the piece. Astrid recalls:

When we rehearsed with you before the premiere, I was very concerned with understanding what you had written. I felt that your instructions asked me to perform what was on that paper, not to reproduce what you had heard. Honestly, I felt that you were being a bit pedantic about the fine nuances, rhythms and ornaments. But before the second and third performance, it was as if I heard and read your instructions differently. I felt that you were asking for a certain character, rather than a meticulous reading.

Being given the opportunity to change one’s attitude in such a process is one of the privileges of performing a contemporary work of music several times, and of being in dialogue with the composer. Berstad stresses that, although her notation is very specific, her intention is not to control all the parameters of the sounding work. Ideally, the elements of the music should sound as meaningful statements within an organic whole, and different musicians bring different ways of realizing the nuances of her works, she says.

Our relationship with Vevtråd has developed and deepened between the performances in 2010, 2015 and 2017. We have also matured as musicians while working with other scores, concepts and concert situations and by reflecting more consciously about the processes that unfold as we read, learn and perform new music for voice and clarinet.

Scores, contracts, metaphors

Astrid: Today, we sooner reach a point when we feel free in relation to the score.

What is this thing we call a score, then? After having asked Lene Grenager, Jan Martin Smørdal and Ragnhild Berstad this question, we see that all three regard it as something fundamentally different from the sounding work. Through our collaborations and conversations with the three composers, we see how they all basically conceive of the score as a starting point from where we can experiment with the sounding realization of the work.

Smørdal and Grenager are versatile practitioners and improvising musicians, which sometimes comes forward in the way they write and speak of their scores. Grenager lets us adapt her scores to a specific setting and revise elements to give interpretations we feel comfortable with. In this way, her scores are laid particularly open for discussions and suggestions. Smørdal, for his part, stresses that a work is, in principle, never finished. When he re-encounters his scores, they are open for revisions and further development. Berstad notates on paper as an attempt to describe what she hears in her inner ear as much as with the aim of making an instruction manual for the performers. She also emphasizes that the score will always be an insufficient transcription of an imagined, audible work.

All three composers hesitate when encountering the metaphor of the “contract”, finding it too juridical and, not least, fixed. A contract might be re-negotiated and revised many times. But it would usually aim at an unambiguous language, leaving little space for interpretation. If conceived of as an instruction sheet, the score should preferably not be too ambiguous either. A score that fixes certain elements on a piece of paper is, however, also a meant to realize a multidimensional musical work. As such, it is a representation of a living piece of art, unfolding in time. The works also live on in the composers’ minds – and bodies – and eventually in ours, after their fixation on paper. These aspects of the work as an ongoing process call for other metaphors than that of the contract.

In conversation with the composers, we observe that they all refer to metaphors related to organic growth and handicraft. Grenager is concerned with the relations between nature and the human made, Smørdal elaborates on the nature of the slime mould and Berstad presents her creative processes in terms of sowing and harvesting. All point toward elements of unpredictability in composition: a seed might not grow, or the sprout might take a different direction or take on a different form than expected. To open up for this kind of development, to make space for natural transitions, is an ideal that Berstad stresses which also resonates in her works. For us, this implies that we have to listen for the imagined natural qualities in the way we interpret her complex, multi-layered scores. But, as stated earlier, this does not imply that we have to reproduce a certain figure exactly the way she imagined. It has to emerge naturally from our voices, from our flesh, blood, wood, and breath.

By learning new works, we gain intellectual, technical, emotional and embodied knowledge about the composers’ unique musical languages. Letting us know about the ideas they develop, the ones they discard and the abundant material they may save for later, the composers also unfold their creative processes for us.

From Webern to waste

Looking back on our work as a duo, we see around 15 years of rehearsing and discussing scores – with each other and with the composers – of listening, struggling and performing. In the process of devising an exposition like this, we also see more clearly that a certain amount of experience and some temporal distance is helpful for developing new ideas. Since we began as a duo, our attitude towards the score has gradually opened up. We have acquired a wide range of ways to approach it, which might even affect the way we approach older music.

Our very first collaboration was on Webern’s Three Songs (op. 18, 1925) for high voice, Eb clarinet and guitar.[27] Learning Webern’s music demanded meticulous studies of subtle details and practising in accurate interplay with one another while, at the same time, attending to our own melodic spans. Our most recently commissioned work, Ewa Jacobson’s Articulations of Waste (2016), requires something quite different. In this piece, the composer, who is also a visual artist, includes waste that she has picked up in the streets: metal screws, potsherds, bits of plastic, half a pair of headphones and so on. The objects serve as templates for figures in the score. In this way, what was rubbish for those who had thrown it away becomes part of a new piece of art. At the end of the work, we lay the waste objects out on a table, as if putting the score on display. For us, this was a new way of performing, and interpreting Articulations of Waste demanded a new kind of flexibility and openness.

What we see now is that a more confident ‘we’ has emerged. While we previously aimed at “realizing a score”, we now focus on how we can make musical works come alive in our interpretation: through our musicality, our ideas, our breath, and through revisions made after suggestions from us. We would probably never have gained this confidence if we had not collaborated over such a long time, and reflected upon our working processes with the composers, too. Our collaboration as a duo traces a diverse path through a range of works, from Webern’s condensed poetry to collecting waste with Jacobson – a path we could not have foreseen 15 years ago. We cannot foresee where it might lead either. Our hope, however, is that, by reflecting on our practice as it unfolds, and by creating this exposition, we have opened up toward a landscape in which there is space for new ideas and musical work(s) to live and sound.

  1. Such as “Parto, parto” from W. A. Mozart’s La Clemenza de Tito and Franz Schubert’s Der Hirt auf den Felsen. ↩︎

  2. E.g. Bjørn Kruse, Magnar Åm, Risto Holopainen, Christian Jaksjø, Benedicte Torget, Synne Skouen and Ewa Jacobsson, as well as German Sven-Ingo Koch. ↩︎

  3. In this work, we draw upon our research experience. We completed our PhDs in 2009 (Gjertrud) and 2013 (Astrid) respectively and our dissertations include performance of the music we studied. Today we both work at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, as teachers and researchers in music history. ↩︎

  4. Lene Grenager is Gjertrud’s spouse. ↩︎

  5. The conversations took place on the following dates: Grenager 18.12.2017, 21.12.2017 and 16.01.2018, Smørdal 22.02.2018 and Berstad 02.03.2018. All were audio recorded and transcribed into written text by us. Grenager, Smørdal and Berstad have approved the quotes used in this text. ↩︎

  6. It was part of the project Songbook 2000 at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH), and first performed in 2007 by Silje Aker Johnsen (soprano) and Petter Langfeldt Carlsen (bass clarinet). ↩︎

  7. Markus Midré (1995). Teori om tusen skygger. Oslo: Tiden Norsk Forlag. ↩︎

  8. The Norwegian word “tre” refers to both “wood” and “tree”. ↩︎

  9. In several of her works she investigates the duality human/machine, for instance in the piece Østfolds tapte lydbilder (Lost soundtracks from Østfold) where she uses audio recordings of different spinning machines as a basis for a video work for solo cello. In this composition, she analyzed the rhythmical patterns from the spinning machines and transferred the sounds to the cello. ↩︎

  10. Tor Åge Bringsværd (1978). Pinocchio-papirene. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. ↩︎

  11. This came as no surprise to us. We had already been allowed to cut her 13-minute long piece Garden Works (2003) down to versions lasting 7, 5 and 3 minutes for it to fit into certain concert programmes and presentations. ↩︎

  12. As a composer, Grenager has had commissions from, among others, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Trondheim Philharmonic Orchestra, Det Norske Blåseensemble, Marianne B. Lie, Rolf Borch, Elisabeth Holmertz and Kenneth Karlsson. As a cellist, she is member of the improvisation quartets SPUNK and Lemur, she works in duo with the singer Sofia Jernberg and performs as a soloist. See www.lenegrenager.com for more. ↩︎

  13. The last line “lukker jeg øynene” could be interpreted both as a question and a statement. ↩︎

  14. In addition to Smørdal’s we have received works by Benedicte Torget (The Owl’s Call on a poem by William Blake, relating to the eagle owl), Christian Jaksjø (Ardenna Grisea, generated from the migratory routes of the sooty shearwater), Lene Grenager (Four birdsongs on the chiffchaff, the reed warbler, the mallard and the Eurasian oystercatcher) and Synne Skouen (Fru Gud og herr Skjære, a dialogue between Mrs. God and Mr. Magpie over a suet cake), and we are now working on a new commission by Jon Øivind Ness (on the sounds of the great snipe). ↩︎

  15. For more on Smørdal, see http://smordal.no/ ↩︎

  16. In some later works, Smørdal has provided instructive sound clips for the performers in addition to the score, which is an increasingly convenient possibility in our time; but this was not in question with The Lesser Nighthawk and is out of the scope of this text, in which we relate to written scores only. ↩︎

  17. Silje Aker Johnsen (soprano) and Kristine Tjøgersen (clarinet) in Ensemble neoN. ↩︎

  18. “Vevtråd er et verk der musikerne er hovedtema. Det sterke slektskapet mellom klarinettklangen og sangstemmen er et viktig utgangspunkt – men like viktig er Gjertruds og Astrids særpreg som enkeltmusikere og som musiske mennesker i samspill. Derfra har jeg prøvd å skape en duo Parula biotop – et musikalsk landskap der musikerne beveger seg mest mulig som seg selv i sitt naturlige element.” (Ragnhild Berstad, programme note 16.03.15) ↩︎

  19. Among them are Klangforum Wien, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Det Norske Solistkor. See ragnhildberstad.org for more. ↩︎

  20. For instance, Berit Opheim (voice) and Hans Josef Groth (cello). ↩︎

  21. The video examples are from the recent performance, at Biermannsgården in Oslo, 1. Dec. 2017. ↩︎

  22. Gro Dahle (1992). Linneapasjonen. Oslo: Cappelen. ↩︎

  23. Paal-Helge Haugen (1992). Haiku: 200 norske versjonar. Stabekk: Bokklubbens lyrikkvenner. ↩︎

  24. Pedersen, Gjertrud (2009): “Spill og refleksjon”, Oslo, Norges musikkhøgskole. The thesis illuminates processes of musical interpretation and provides analyses of selected compositions for soprano and clarinet with Sir Harrison Birtwisle’s Deowa as a core. ↩︎

  25. “Gjertruds lille klarinett var en helt ny oppdagelse for meg. Hun fjerner den midterste delen av klarinetten – og fram kommer det et sjarmerende lite instrument med et eget temperament og tonalitet.” (Ragnhild Berstad, programme note 16.03.15) ↩︎

  26. “I Vevtråd flettes tråder av musikk rundt en renning av resitert tekst. Tekster fra to ulike kilder klippes opp og veves sammen. Klarinett og sopran spiller ut sine buktende linjer, snart tett sammenføyet, snart i hver sin retning.” (Ragnhild Berstad, programme note 16.03.15) ↩︎

  27. With guitarist Anders Førisdal in 2003. ↩︎