Contemporary Perspectives

Avstandsriss: Multivoicedness

The Norwegian Collection of Folk Music was founded in 1971 on the basis of the audio tape collection of the Norwegian Folk Music Institute, which had been founded in 1951 with the intention to collect, archive and explore Norwegian folk music. Since 2014 the Norwegian Collection of Folk Music has been part of the National Library. The sound collection includes approximately 47,000 individual recordings, or approximately 2,000 hours of archived sound, collected through field recording.  

A common interest in old archive recordings was the starting point for the project Avstandsriss, in which Erik Dæhlin and I collaborated with the Norwegian Collection of Folk Music. Avstandsriss was chosen to be part of a project initiated by the Norwegian Culture Council called What is it about archive? (Kulturrådet, 2015), concerning collaborations between artists and archives.

We dived into this enormous sound archive. The differences between the knowledge Erik and I had about the material became evident when we searched through the large numbers of recordings, and as we chose our different recordings to take us further in the project. Erik had a particular interest in the oldest recordings, where the sound is so blurred or twisted because of the relatively primitive recording gear that the access to the music is partly erased. On my part, I was searching for specific performers or slåtter that I liked and which I was curious to explore. I also searched in other material and noticed that I chose recordings where there was something about the performer or the performance that attracted me. A lot of this material was vocal folk music. Elements from these performances kept resonating in me: the voice of the performer, its timbre, expression or attitude, or details in the phrasings. 


After some time in close listening, we planned workshops where we would test out the first musical sketches, as well as an idea of a spatial solution, where the piano was in the middle of the room, surrounded by eight speakers.



Erik prepared adaptions based on some of the recordings we had chosen. The sound of the archive material was processed in different ways, for example being used as material for composition or reduced, with accompanying suggestions for piano reactions or parallell voicings. Many of the notations were sketches, a basis for further work, or were to be understood as a basis or framework for improvisation. As an example of this process, we can follow a brureslått from Hardanger played by Halldor Meland, recorded in 1910. 


From this slått, Erik made analysis and reductions, in which the source material remained as sinus-like timbres. 


Then the source and these timbres were laid together, and Erik made a quite transparent sketch that could be played together with this. The video below is from one of these tests. 









Something essential for the project occured in this test: 


Namely the simple idea, that to play is to listen, and vice versa. This partly came from this test, and not the least from you, from your way of playing and your attitude to the material. This had implications for how I experienced that we could think and work further with the project as a whole; what attitude I should have to my part of the project and in collaboration with you and what you could add. At the same time, this gave a pointer to the density of the musical material of the piano; the playing and texture of it should be kept open and simple - in a listening form, emphasizing doubling contours, as in highlighted points and lines, and suggestive gestures and harmonies (Erik Dæhlin in our summarizing conversations).


After we had noticed how music performed in the workshop room, and in the meeting with my playing, Erik planned a new form for this brureslått. Different analyzes of the source were put together and spread out in eight channels. The original source is still present, at a very low volume. The piano subtly suggests points and lines. 



Initially, I was prepared for a relatively hierarchical composer-performer process, with the composer generating material and making decisions, as I have been mostly used to. Therefore, I didn’t speak up about that I spent quite a lot of time experimenting myself with adaptations from the archive material. I was uncertain what my tests would lead to musically, and I didn’t feel confident about it as I didn’t have much compositional experience then. But during the discussions and workshops, and through the parallell work I was doing with other music in the project on improvisatory and compositional etudes, there was a shift in my view of my role and my possibilities. Through dialogue with the composers in the project, I had become more conscious of the importance of my knowledge and experience beyond the piano and interpretation, about folk music and art music and their connections. Also, I clearly experienced that I have a greater creative space with possibilities, and that ideas of what the classical or contemporary performer ‘is’, do not have to constrain me. I agree with Barbara Lüeneburg on the importance of balance in autonomy and authority between composer and performer: 

In the relation between composer and performer unquestioned, traditional hierarchical role models and task areas determine the position of power in the relationship and the kind and level of criticism that is considered appropriate. To enable equal participation in any collaboration, performer and composer should have comparable skill levels in their domain to feel safe, and in autonomy and authority (Lüeneburg, 2013, p. 27).


With the Avstandsriss process, I understood that it was possibility for me to take more space, as in a dialogue, rather than a hierarchical process, and that in this work I could participate actively in creation. That Erik’s material in the workshops was transparent and partly improvisatory showed me that this compositional process was not a closed entity. So, I took my own experiments into the workshops too. Both Erik and I experienced this as a significant turn in the Avstandsriss process, as it became obvious that this piece in an even greter extent had to be characterized by both voices.  

How do we listen to other people performing? What happens to me bodily in that experience as a performer? How can I play out again what I have heard? Stig Sæterbakken beautifully describes the position of listening: 


It is as though what happens when we listen to song is that something in us begins to sing. Something that is otherwise dumb. We don’t just listen, we sing, we too. To listen is to sing along. As if the song (singer) evokes another voice within us, that is otherwise not available to us, that we don’t have access to, that we otherwise don’t manage to make use of. As if the song creates, or evokes, a doppelgänger, our singing alter ego, so to speak. Within each song there is a song. Within each human being listening to music, there is a singer, singing along. And that must be, according to my unchristian concepts, the closest we human beings can get a kind of mercy (Sæterbakken, 2011, p. 89, my translation).

How could I transfer the expression that I heard to my own playing? I tried to imitate the singing on the piano. Then I tried to play what remained in me, as a memory of what I had heard, as a memory of how I reacted when listening. I pulled out layers from what remained in me, tested out transferring it to the piano, and improvised with this reduction of memories of sound.

In the old recordings, it is as if the dry and close is especially present, both through the way the folk musicians play and sing, through the limitations of the recording equipment and also through the situations in which the recordings were made, often at home in the folk musicians’ living rooms, close to everyday farming life. I listened closely to the way they played and sang, and tried to transfer details to the grand piano. I wanted to amplify the the experience of the small sounds and of proximity. We put contact microphones in between the keys of the piano to pick up and come closer to sounds from the piano mechanics. 







Photo: Filipe Ferraria

I had found a recording of my own grandmother in the archive, from which I had sketched possibilities. ‘A sorrowful song’ tells the story of Lars Danielsen Hille, who was killed by Jockum Bukkvoll in 1878. 



We did a test in a workshop where I listen to the recording while playing. I do not hear exactly what I am playing, but the body reacts spontaneously to the listening.  







We listened to the results of tests like this and discussed them; I reduced my sketch until what I played was only hints, like shadows, shadows of a memory of sound. I also processed the sound recording of my grandmother’s singing, repeating and moving small sounds and breaths. The processed sound is played out in exciter speakers into the soundboard of the grand piano.











Avstandsriss became a three hour long performance of a kind of ‘live archive’. We opened the grand piano and removed the original lid because we had made a new grand piano lid, to hang from the ceiling. From this new lid were draped tapes that I gradually pulled down and into the grand piano during the performance. 

Photo: Filipe Ferraria

We had gathered quite a large collection of musical material to choose from, material that we had reduced and adapted collectively as sketches for improvisation or composed, together with processed sound from the archive. The material we chose lasted an hour, and was repeated three times with small variations. 

As we tested different orders of material and different expression and focus in the various parts, the shorter bits and pieces we had made floated together into a unified whole. My experience when playing Avstandsriss was of it being one work as a whole. Gorton and Östersjö discuss the emergence of a ‘discursive voice’, when the composer’s and the performer’s voices develop to become one shared voice, in a joint work like this. 


The discursive voice can be conceived not simply as a combination of the composer’s and performer’s voices. In almost any performance one may discern an engangement between the voices of composer and performer. Rather, the discursive voice emerges from the process of collaboration.  ... What emerges is a negotiation; a coming together of two voices through the exploration of a situation in the present (Gorton og Östersjö, 2016, s. 593).


This was the nature of the discursive voice that emerged in Avstandsriss, through the responsive collaboration, and it also related to all the other voices sounding towards us in the archive. The meeting with all these voices was overwhelming. We heard individuals that spoke, sang and played; with their faces hidden to us, in the recording, they stepped forward through the sound. One may feel small when history materializes in front of you, in hours of recording, voice after voice. Together these individuals create a history, create the tradition. The question of how to name each of our roles and contributions to the work, whether as composer or performer, felt less important when the naming was seen in relation to all these other human beings, who have their voices inside the music. 


In a performance of a transferred piece of music, there are shadows of all the voices that came before us, that have sung or played variants of the same, carried or driven it through time. In all musical traditions, previous performances will resonate in the performer, in the playing out a new performance. All the voices exist in a dialogic connection, as Mikhail Bakhtin discribes, in a heteroglossia, a multivoicedness. ‘The life of the word is contained in its transfer from one mouth to another, from one context to another context, from one social collective to another, from generation to another generation’ (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 202).