Maintenant #25: Jenny Hval
An interview with Jenny Hval by SJ Fowler.
The accidental collision of the avant garde field of sound poetry and the verbal experiments of sonic arts and experimental music can seem absurd – that two seemingly separate genealogies of art can produce ideas so similar and results equally engaging and yet have no real connection with each other, purely because of labelling, because of genrisation, is ridiculous. There are musicians and poets who are bridging that gap, and refusing to be drawn on such distinctions.
Another of the Norwegian poets / sound artists we are lucky enough to be bringing to London as part of the next Maintenant international reading series, Jenny Hval is one of the most exciting performers, poets and artists emerging in Europe. Rigorously intellectual, poised and determinately instinctual, she has developed a major reputation as a sonic artist and musician over the last five years in Europe and as her work has expanded and grown into fruition so she has enveloped poetry and verbal work into her repertoire. We are delighted to have her perform as a poet in London and for the Maintenant series she speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: I’d like to speak about the role of sound in your work, do you conceive of a instinctual utterance as a performative poetry because it evokes the limitations of linguistic understanding, cross languages, cross genres? Or are you pursuing something musical in the voice, that is the voice as an instrument?
Jenny Hval: Everything I do begins with a sound. Usually, I start by pronouncing a phrase or a word in a room, letting the sound of that determine what will happen next. I may or may not have something written down in advance, but I usually change what I have a lot based on the sound of the words. Based on this, I would say that I use voice and language as instruments.
I work spontaneously with words and languages (intonation, timbre, duration etc). These elements make language elastic. I don’t think of it as performative. To me, there is no divide between the system of language and the way I utter words – there is no performative “level” in my singing or speaking.
I used to work a lot with transcriptions of my sung lyrics – to write down what I was singing in recordings. But it didn’t express the recordings better than conventional song lyrics on a page did. What sounded natural and at the same time elastic and creative in a song, looked like a neatly arranged stutter on the page. Very mathematical, illegible, and conceptual. Which my songs are not – there is always a level in my work that is simple, accessible and direct.
3:AM: Are you creating sound poetry, as it is understood, or are you simply embracing the poetry that lies in your evolution as a musician, in the very act of using your voice?
JH: For me, any piece will have to work musically. Otherwise it’s not interesting to listen to. The words have to speak or sing for themselves, create a distinct sonic space. There also has to be something at stake, which is why I record my rehearsals and create projects that can be performed. I like the risk involved, the fact that everything can go wrong, or go in many different directions. In this way, I think like a musician. But at the same time, the way I work with words made me a musician. I started singing by thinking through words and wordlike sounds with my voice.
As I am writing this, I am playing a few concerts in the south of France. Here, most people in the audience don’t seem to listen to the lyrics. They compliment me on my singing voice after my performances, saying it sounds pure. At other concerts, people have been disgusted with my lyrics, because I use a lot of body imagery. They might think my music is nice, but the words are crazy, and find that the words disturb the music.
I don’t think that melodic music should have quiet lyrics – lyrics that don’t overpower the gentleness of a melody. I don’t think in these terms when I perform or write. I don’t try to sing beautiful notes, and I don’t try to create shocking lyrics to “disturb” or “undermine” the melodies, the way my voice sounds, or the pop music form. I try to convey the sounds of words, and the sounds of the body, as much as communicate semantic or musical content. I am fascinated by the workings of the body – obviously, because I sing and can feel the body reverberate when I use language. So this is what my expression is about – body language, body song.
3:AM: Do you consider yourself a poet, or a musician? Are these limitations valuable or unnecessary?
JH: I used to avoid both labels. Why? Recently I’ve realised that I do it mainly to escape certain criteria within the more mainstream pop music and literary circles. If I say I’m a “writer”, then perhaps a pop music audience will permit me to sing strange and unusual lyrics and melodies, and if I say I’m a “musician” or “singer” at a poetry reading, then my singing voice and melodic qualities of the songs might excuse lyrics that don’t work on the page.
But this is unnecessary. Do my lyrics and music need to be excused? I think not. I can’t identify with songwriters who writes at a piano, carefully plotting a musical structure. I usually start with recording words in a certain way, in a certain room, with a certain microphone and a certain resonance. In this way, I suppose I’m working more with words and voice than music, yet the words are not written for the page, but for my voice.
3:AM: What is your conception of the role of your gender in your work? How has your perception of others consideration, perhaps their limitations, in considering your gender infused itself in your philosophical and political approach to art?
JH: Sex is as important as gender in my work. I think it’s important that I have a female voice, physiologically. The singing voice conveys both sex and gender. A recurring theme for me is the female voice that doesn’t accept being a female voice, wanting to write herself (as) a man, but her voice is in the way. It’s a simple story with a complex background. I’ve tried to compose a piece about this for years, with and without vocal effects (a pitch shifter), but I never manage to make it work. Is my voice in the way? Is my gender in the way?
When I was a teenager, I was always angry – angry at Hamsun for idolizing women, angry at Tolstoj for killing Anna Karenina, angry at Strindberg in general, really angry with Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women, angry at Beach Boys (‘California Girls’), angry at heavy metal, rap and philosophy – everything that I found macho and exclusive. I was angry because I was implicated in the gaze of men on women, at the same time as being one. I didn’t want to be looked at. I wanted to write.
In the pop industry, the media never tires of writing about female artists in the most stereotypical fashion – and we always have to talk about what it’s like to be a female artist. For me, it feels like someone is pushing me into the pages of Victoria (Hamsun) – a “female” artist is something exclusive and at the same time limiting, which makes female artists seem like they have less personality than male artists. The result is that everybody hates talking about sex and gender, which really is a shame because it is a big part of what we do – the voice, words. But it’s a personal thing, and has to do with personal expression.
3:AM: What is your relationship with being a Norwegian, and a Norwegian poet? Do you consider it a unique circumstance, being Norwegian, with the unusually high opportunity for funding and press and coverage? Is it fundamentally beneficial, or or can it be a trap of some kind?
JH: I’ve never felt at home artistically in Norway. I like living here, and I think there is a lot of exciting stuff happening here (especially in the more experimental music scenes), but I have an unusual background (a Creative Arts degree from the University of Melbourne) and I’m not comfortable with using the Norwegian language in my work. I wrote a novel last year in Norwegian which I translated from English and worked into a novel form, but I didn’t feel like I could explore the language in the same way as the English language. Perhaps I know Norwegian too well, perhaps my singing body wasn’t built for it. I’m still trying to figure it out.
The funding opportunities in Norway makes it possible for artists to have creative control of what they are doing. It’s great for people like me, who want to reach an smaller, international audience. I can book a tour at small venues or festivals that have little money, and then apply for money from Norway for some of the expenses. It means that I can afford to be experimental without having a full-time job on the side. The system we have distribute money to a diverse and creative community of artists.
Of course, this also means that I can’t control whether I get money or not. And public funding means that people have to know how to promote themselves and their music. A select few people decide who get money and who don’t. I sometimes miss the creative vibe of Melbourne, where there wasn’t so much funding and everybody had a day job. In Norway, the funding can create a lot of debate and controversy. A lot of people think artists just sit back and cash in, creating nothing of value for society. Needless to say, I disagree with these people.
3:AM: How has the perception of you in Norway altered as you seem to have progressed as an artist? Is it distinct, could you outline your progression?
JH: From an outside point of view, I started out as a pop artist, which I find both strange and dreadful. I came home from Australia after four years of reading and writing poetry and playing in a folk pop band on the side. I released an album in 2006, and on the album was a single that became a minor radio hit. After that, I was invited to play a lot of big festivals the following year. I wasn’t ready for it, and my music certainly wasn’t. Big stages, interviews, too much travelling. I like to focus on writing and trying out different new things, taking risks with lyrics and music, but I didn’t dare to do this on the big stages. I felt like I forced myself to adapt to the mainstream thing – and had to choose between the quiet, fragile singer-songwriter or the lively, quirky pop act.
At the same time, I was writing essays and columns for journals and newspapers, but at first, this side of my work was kept very separate from my music and lyrics. But in 2008, I released another album (Medea), this time a much more personal project that I recorded myself. After that, things have been getting much more interesting – less publicity, but a lot of creative opportunities that overlap between literature and music. Last year, I was invited to the Audiatur festival in Bergen, which was fantastic – the first time I’d been allowed to perform with poets, as a poet, and still work within the context of my music.
3:AM: Can you discuss your influences, poetically? You mentioned the prominence of Christian Bok in your recent reading and work?
JH: My three favourites are Anne Carson, Aritha van Herk and Nicole Brossard. These are voices that I’ve been reading and re-reading for years, their words are in my head every day. I’m also a big fan of Rosmarie Waldrop. One of the first recordings I ever heard of a poetry reading, was Carl Sandburg reading his poem “Fog”. It was a sound clip on the Encarta 96 Encyclopedia. I’d never heard a recording of poetry before, and it made such a defining impression on me. I’m still trying to find a way to pronounce or sing “It sits looking /over harbour and city /on silent haunches /and then moves on”. I’ve never read more of his work, but that recording was still very important.
But because my work is with sound, I’m equally inspired by experts on diction and singers who dissolve and electrify language: Sidsel Endresen, Annette Peacock, Liz Fraser, Meredith Monk, Sheila Chandra, Kate Bush. Oh dear, all female singers. Let’s add Mark Hollis and David Sylvian…
I’ve actually just started exploring Bök’s work, but I find him extremely interesting. He is inspired by techno music and beatboxing as well as sound poetry (dada, Schwitters). When I first discovered The Cyborg Opera and Eunoia, I was looking, rather desperately, for a link between poetry and pop music that didn’t just look at song lyrics as conservative, old style poetry. I was (and still am) writing a thesis on Kate Bush’s voice, and because I’m convinced that the sound of her voice is such a poetic instrument, I needed to compare her voice work with some more experimental written poetry. Bök was an unlikely, and yet very fruitful, comparison.
3:AM: You’re collaborating with Agnes Lehoczky for the Norwegian Maintenant reading in London. Could you outline your work so far and how you have come to see any synthesis between her work and your own?
JH: Agnes’ work is very well (and magically) constructed, and yet it moves freely – I find this amazing, and it’s the same thing I try to accomplish with sound when I perform my lyrics. There are so many layers of music within the poems – they are perfect architectural constructions, and yet the phrases just sizzle in the mouth.
I started reading some favourite phrases from her poems out loud, and something happened, a different music than I find in my own words. They taught me some new sounds, and so I recorded a piece for her with both my words and some of hers. I think that’s perhaps a direction we both like, and something that could be extremely exciting for the poetry reading in London.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 29th, 2010.