She might at times sound like a “raging woman from Uzbekistan,” but Sidsel Endresen is chiefly concerned with velocity and densification, and with development within the boundaries set by her own “fields of resistance.” In this interview with Ballade’s Ida Habbestad the singer tells us more about her new solo album “One."
By Ida Habbestad / Translation Christian Lysvåg
In his recent review of her new album critic Arild R. Andersen writes: “Saying that Sidsel Endresen is a distinctive artist is an understatement. “One” contains something as rare as true originality. “
After a long career, and numerous record releases –spanning albums hugely dissimilar, such as “So I write”, “Exile”, “Undertow” and Merriwinkle - “One” is Endresen’s first effort which is unaided by other musicians or auxiliary factors.
The title is simply “One”: This solitary exploration of sound hits the listener; a voice utterly naked and exposed.
And from this lonesome point of departure –restrained and minimal- Endresen creates an overwhelming register; an expression awesome and strong.
Velocity and densification
What is it like to work with an expression seemingly so revealing?
-I guess the human voice is the most direct, intimate and recognizable instrument there is, says Endresen. Everyone can sing; our voice is our chief means of communication and expression. Thus it is the instrument least in need of “translation.” Our voice is an unhindered frequency, with all the pros and cons entailed by this, and all pure vocal-work is almost automatically associated with emotions and literal, linguistic meaning.
-I get hugely varying responses at my solo concerts. –People wondering what it all means, or conveying what they feel themselves. I am happy of course if what I do evokes emotions with the listener. But I don’t think the music should be emotional about itself. I experience it as extremely counterproductive if one gets caught up with oneself on stage. My belief is that the more focused and precise one is able to be in conveying purely musical factors, the more powerful does the expression become and hence the greater is the chance of emotionally arresting others.
So the emotions that are unearthed are more a result of the purely technical undertaking, rather than the album’s pre-conceived theme?
-Of course it is an objective to awaken emotional reactions with the listener, but my driving force is not emotions, nor psychological or literary sub-scripture. My art is music, not theatre. Let’s say I’m working with an abstracted, phonetic linguistic field –as is the case on this album’s tenth track- my emphasis will then be on energy, densification, percussiveness, velocity etc., yet the result can probably be experienced as very expressive and perhaps sound like a “raging Uzbek woman.” People are naturally free to interpret what I do any way they like, I’m fine with that.
What resides in a voice?
-The album’s primary concern is with different fields of energy, says Endresen, and especially elements of movement, pulse and propulsion.
How did you conceive of its make-up?
-I felt the need to record an album on which I could cultivate my sonic, instrumental vocal work. And, selfishly enough, the underlying issue was to document a body of work which I have busied myself with over many years, and presented at innumerable solo concerts, says Endresen.
-I started this work many years ago. -First out of a need to find an improvisational language that would work within the parameters of the kind of music I was occupied with, and later as an independent musical expression. I was searching for a ways of using my voice other than carrying a melody, also in order to be able to fill different vocal roles when playing with others. I work mostly with improvised music –my background is in jazz and jazz improvisation- but I’ve never liked or taken interest in vocal jazz improvisation, i.e. “scat-singing.” So I’ve been looking elsewhere, in the realms of “new” music, and ethnic music, and there I found a starting point for exploration of my own voice and its potentials.
-For several years I worked alone in my studio –recording tape-miles of rehearsals- before I eventually brought this material with me out of seclusion and incorporated it in my duo-work with Bugge Wesseltoft, as well as in disparate stage-productions such as dance, theatre and performance.
-It took some time before I felt that the endeavour ascended from mere gymnastic exercises into music. The fact that one can do spectacular things with the human voice is not in itself interesting, there must be musical content in place, and what you do has to mean something beyond the mere exercise.
The constraints of planning
Endresen describes this exploration as a process in which one turns from the cerebral to the muscular, so that the signifying content and the make-up no longer passes through the intellect, perhaps, but where increasing emphasis is put on exploring the pure energy of the voice.
-Beyond the framework and limits I utilize when working in these specific sonic spaces, there are also purely muscular and voice-physiological constraints. I work with “fields of resistance”, which are entities I strive for. I consciously try to make it difficult for myself by inducing musical happenings that are not familiar and appropriated.
I always work improvisedly, albeit within a very tight framework, with a few select parameters. My approach to these cells of sound is very “muscular” which means that I try to let the musculature; the physiology, potential and limitations of my voice determine the progression.
-I think that the fields of resistance hold a lot of “alien” material. When I try to steer the process too much, and plan excessively, I lose contact with my voice’s own will and self-determination, and then I will more often end up with familiar formulas and solutions.
-As mentioned, I prefer working as “muscularly” as possible because I experience that this “release” into materiality creates its own logic and has its own will and direction.
It sounds like you are touching on a body-soul conflict?
-This division between head and body is typical of our culture: The notion of “either or;” the elevated in contrast to the animalistic. My view is that we operate on both planes –the cerebral and the muscular- simultaneously and continuously.
-When you improvise, and at times let the subject matter steal you away, that does not mean a lapse of reason; that you’ve become an incoherent fool in the heat of the moment. It means simply that you allow temporary primacy to a different aspect of the musical performance. Everything is of course anchored in your musical insights and experience. You do not lose the ability to “escape time” even while composing in real time. I contend that you operate on two planes simultaneously: You continuously move between the real-time situation and a meta- perspective on that situation. I don’t conceive of these as opposites; rather, it is how we are constituted: Intelligent musculature, or muscular intellect, if you like. And everything that is risky and hazardous about working improvised is balanced by these moments of release; moments of surprise, when everything seems novel and fresh and you are fully present.
Apprehension of time and strict boundaries
To return to the record and its context, how would you compare solitary improvisation work with working with others?
-I found the recording situation lonely, and difficult at times. In the studio I collaborated with a technician of course – Kai Andersen (Athletic Sound in Halden) - and he is such a darling. But musically it’s still like playing ball with oneself. The conception of time was also strange; at times I lost all sense of duration. One thinks: “Wasn’t this part awfully long? -Or much too short?” One becomes very inquisitive. I’ve had the same feeling at solo-concerts. But there I at least have the audience to play ball with. Perhaps one’s apprehension of time is clarified by certain structures that only appear in relation to other people?
-Making the selection among the recordings was also difficult. I chose the stretches with the best structural development and form. But even though you work confined to a strict framework in terms of a formal blueprint, you can still end up with four or five versions of the same stretch, each with its own distinct qualities. Regarding this Helge Sten was of immense help while we mixed and mastered the record.
The delimitations are rigid. In early improvisations Endresen would often make rhythmic or tonal parameters her starting point. But over time familiar formal solutions have been substituted by a probing emphasis on the sound itself, and the objective is always to discard elements and to “tighten” the output.
-I normally start with submissive musical “cells”, consisting of only a very few elements. If I bring in too many parts, my experience is that I obscure the interesting ones: the one sound, or the one constituent part. The real points of interest are hidden in the constraints. The narrower the delimitations are the more creative one gets.
One is continuously being educated
Endresen also relates about collaborating with other musicians, which is what she mostly does:
-As a background to the work with “One” I would like to point to my collaboration with Rolf Wallin (“LautLeben”), and with Christian Wallumrød and Helge Sten (“Merriwinkle”). Both these projects have been enormously important to me; in terms of the development of the sonic vocal work and regarding my development as an improvisational musician.
-So much of my own musical evolution lies with those I work with. The mutual exchange is comprehensive, and deep confidence is required for this to work. These are experiences one brings along, and builds on further. Even when working with improvised music one accumulates a kind of repertoire; a set of solutions, for good and for bad. One is in possession of a “bank” of musical assets which are stewarded over time. And over time one’s comprehension deepens, and in collaboration with other musicians one receives the impulses and aid to move on.
-No matter what, I strive for the situation where I am surprised by myself and others: where things take you along and everything seems new and outside any repertoire. One is continuously in the process of being educated.