Summary: A research project by Hilde Sveen and Torleif Torgersen

This project investigated the “Goethe Songs” Op. 6 and Op. 7 by Fartein Valen (1887-1952). Initially, the singer used intuition, sensitivity, and artistic experience as a methodological approach to technical and aesthetic issues of vocal timbre in atonal music.


The more traditional song cycle “Japanischer Fruhling” by Ludvig Irgens-Jensen (1894-1969) offered a contrast to the Valen songs and was included in her research. The recording producer Jørn Pedersen was engaged to aid in scrutinizing uses of timbre, intonation, and phrasing to enhance communication with audiences. The aim was to emancipate the performer’s mindset from traditional art song in order to make individual choices of new expressive means.


Relating to the polyphonic complexity of the piano in Valen’s atonal songs can be challenging for a singer. While Sveen was searching for suitable vocal timbres for the Valen songs, she experienced physical resistance with an urge to compensate for this with boosted vocal energy and pressure to sing intervals correctly. In places where legato and linearity, cantabile flowing, sensitive and vulnerable expressions were required, the singer’s intense concentration on reaching specific intervals seemed to result in vocal rigidity.


Sveen decided to interpolate the familiar late-romantic songs of Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951) as a catalyst for creating similarly-nuanced expression in Valen’s music. The desire for greater nuances in volume (softer dynamics) and a reduction of vibrato led to unclear intonation (wrong pitches), which in turn increased the need for precise muscular control. This altered her focus toward the physiological aspects of singing.


Members of the staff at Haukeland University Hospital were invited to participate, and a laryngoscope was used to observe the vocal cords. Their lab and her vocal cords became a new “site”. The laryngoscope gave Sveen a new tool for tackling the vocal challenges in Valen’s songs.


The singer decided to perform Valen’s and Irgens-Jensen’s songs for an audience with footage from a laryngoscope projected onto a screen next to her. This addressed one of the initial intentions of the project: to enhance communication with the audience. At the same time, laryngoscope images provided the audience with a “deep dive” into the normally unseen aspects of vocal production in real time. 


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Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås