Where is the Story? 

On processing romantic poems in lieder - a text related to the project "(un)Romantic - Improvising Interpretation"



That high-resolution enlightened razor-sharp drawing with five six seven sins that we circle around, but cannot see.
Imagine that. We're already there. We might poke it carefully, sense it, then we blink it away.

At first it was just the mere singing of these Sibelius songs. The melodies, moving up and down with a scope well outside my register, I had to cheat with octave jumps and other tricks to make them work with my voice and my interpretation. And the lyrics were in Swedish. I wanted to do this properly, I took private lessons in Swedish pronunciation with Barbro*, this time I wanted to get the different ö's and u's right.
  Does the key to the Story lie in mastering the traditional?

  Is the key to the Story to be found in the original texts?
Gradually, chords, melodies and durations began to change. But the lyrics, the poems, still remained as they were written 150 years ago. Trying to shift something in them, dissolve something in them, felt physically impossible. The lines of the poems felt sacred. Even with the piano part on its way into full dissolution and transformation, I kept clinging to the sacred texts that I had been put in charge of. Repeating them again and again, for them to make sense.

After a while, we started trying out translating some of the poems into Norwegian, word by word. It felt like illegal appropriation, a crime. This is not poetry, these are platitudes! An øyenstikker (dragonfly in Norwegian) is not a slända (dragonfly in Swedish). A slända is beautiful and graceful, in both sound and image! But we repeated the exercise, and gradually the øyenstikker became a thing of beauty, too. And above all, something familiar – something I could retell in my own words. 
  Does the key to telling the Story lie in the personal language?

Then Marius* visited the project room, and suggested we do an exercise with blacking out words in the text. Only what felt most important should remain. Which story could come out of that? Did the original story reside in these remaining words, and did it matter? How much of the melody, if anything, stuck to these disintegrated, clipped text phrases? From that point we started a work of opening up, setting the words and melodies free - showing them the trust to be told in new ways, and new, and yet again new.
  Does the key to the Story's survival lie in opening it up to infinite possibilities? Or is that when it dies?


The classical singing technique has developed from a necessity to project the sound of the voice into large halls - in harmony and balance with powerful, overtone-rich orchestras and grand pianos. Modern microphone singing projects the closer, lighter vocal sound and articulation into a tiny membrane in front of the singer's mouth (almost like an ear drum), and from there lift it through cables into a sound amplifying system, which mixes and projects all the sounds out to the listener, wherever they may be. The romantic song compositions are composed with the classical singing technique in mind. My use of voice and diction has developed in an intimate collaboration with microphones.

Sound-in-room experiment, preliminary project, May 2019:
Ingfrid* and I are performing in a chamber hall. Asle* has set up one speaker, at a carefully measured distance right behind me. That's all, the grand piano is not amplified. The goal today is to create the illusion that my voice, like the grand piano, sounds "naturally acoustic" in the room. I therefore place the microphone far enough away from my mouth for the close sounds not to sound "unnaturally" loud. I struggle to find the balance. My usual ways of pronouncing or projecting sound don't suffice, and I don't want to shout, or to spit consonants. The result is a kind of in-between, poor, little, girlish sound, which only reaches halfway out into the room, and in no way matches the richness of the grand piano. The audience cannot hear the lyrics properly. A woman stands up and asks me to turn up the volume.

Sound-in-room experiment, April 2022:
Ingfrid and I are rehearsing in a black box theatre. The dogma of illusory acoustic sound has been abandoned, in favor of an amplified setup: my singing microphone is at a normal distance, and several stereo pairs on the grand piano. Asle has set up a rig of four speakers – two behind us and two above us – and he has delayed the sound in two of them to compensate for physical distance. Not the usual PA set-up with separate stage and hall, but a holistic space, with sliding transitions where "everything" sounds equally "near" for "everyone". The setup gives my voice a new kind of presence in the room, an expanded scope. Carefully adjusted compression of the various piano microphones brings Ingfrid's small, artful nuances on the piano forward and convey them to the centre of the black box. I feel that our actual playing, what we shape in our own close sound world, is equally distributed around the room.

Sound-in-room experiment, August 2022:
Ingfrid and I are on stage in a large, empty hall. Asle adjusts his way into extracting the essence of our sound. The same thing happens as in the black box theatre, but in a larger format: something physical builds up, a connection between the sound formation in my voice and the room. Ingfrids and my sounds lie floating in the middle of the huge hall. I feel in control, my smallest s can be modulated, any adjustment of the larynx, any slight shift in overtones, is conveyed right out to the hall, while I am in the middle of my own sound. Asle has conjured: the room feels like an extension of mine and our impulses. One word can suddenly contain a story, in high-resolution, lifted out of its linear form and into a three-dimensional space.

Klang. Klang? Klang. Klaaang-ng-ng-ng.

More and more often a Norwegian dragonfly comes dancing through the air to remind me which "song is on my tongue".

You take me down. You taught me how to play.
String to string to strrrrngh.


I didn't know that nothing goes away. For a very long time I thought that everything was temporary. But the freedom of being invisible and not leaving marks, was not real. Neither was the loneliness of not getting marks. Everything leaves an imprint. History settles in us and around us, it's gravity's fault.

Certain connections completely escape me, and always have: place names, chronological events, set lists, scale names, right vs. left, time, numbers. Broad daylight and leading questions just swirl up dust before my eyes, the images flow together and I find it difficult to answer. The rational world is a place where I stay afloat by organizing tasks in lists and boxes and folders and drawers. It works, most of the time.
But I also have a superpower: I have access to the chaos beneath the surface, a web of details and knowledge and experience, tied together with wordless sensory connections, without a shelving system. Down there is everything my body has processed of memories, hits, misses, melodies, structures – rhythmic, harmonic, logical – it resides there as threads of pure sound, as lines in images, as kinetics, dynamics and movement. This is knowledge and material that, if trusted, can become available to me in a fraction of a second when needed. In interplay it's only available if there is a shared musical flow. I was a bit apprehensive before our project, I felt insecure of whether my qualities would serve as strengths in our setting, or not - I feared that I would disappoint, and be disappointed.

And then you approach me. Not sure if I want to. But when in doubt, I'm inclined to stay and see. Where there is doubt, there is hope.

First we wrote the project plan together, juggling visions and ideas, together. Formulating a joint text about possible investigations, processes and outcomes was an important clarification of expectations, and while writing we distilled some important questions. But thinking and doing is not the same. What could these words mean in our practice, a practice that did not yet exist?

We investigated the musical matter from many different angles, initially in line with the project plan, but quite quickly we began to pursue side tracks that we found interesting. Onwards, onwards. New keywords on the white board in our project room. Onwards. Miles long threads of text messages with links to articles, links to music. Sharing funny coincidences, touching coincidences, thought-provoking coincidences we had come across, lists of possible things to investigate. At times we talked and communicated and listened more than we played. I found it immensely fun to map and develop ideas like that, but it didn't completely reassure me, I who was used to find my wordless, embodied answers through playing.

What is thought, in relation to sound? In retrospect, it turns out that all this kneading and x-raying and scrutiny of words and context, was food for more than just thought - it led to playful musical investigations. New associations around sounding examples made us imitate or combine or reverse them in different ways. Our mind play crept into the sound, into bodily experience, into our catalogue of possible sound. And since the investigations were based on interest and impulse, they connected to a spontaneous language, to the chaos beneath the surface.

Everything can manifest itself in sound: Emphasizing words in different ways. Looking at etymology. The potential subtext. The possible translations. The relocation of content - altering the framework of the story: Saint Ursula, in our retelling, regains the Latin meaning of her name: "Little bear" - and Mahler's phrase becomes even more peaceful, almost like a lullaby. Our talk about Vinje's poem Våren, suddenly opens a gate to contemporary eco-sorrow - and as a concequence our version of the song turns into world longing, a space odyssey, where Grieg's chords dissolve in a weightlessness. One of Wagner's melodies is torn out of the embrace with his lovely muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, and instead given a thought provoking meeting with Emily Dickinson, Wesendonck's contemporary. After reading about the author Ernst Josephson's sufferings, his lines about the jagged rose tree take on new colours, and suddenly the story takes in my solar plexus and Ingfrid's neck. 

The tons of sounding experience, a web of sound, stored within us and between us, baked into the duo's shared memory. Countless musical progressions, glimpses of sound from rehearsal processes; elements and lines that have been imitated, repeated, distorted, forgotten, revisited, imitated and repeated – with both planned and unintended results – which in turn have turned into new forms for us to repeat, forget and remember. With the body. The body remembers all these ringing undercurrents and overtones and movements with no names, that we both can recognize in the fraction of a second, and reply to, without quite knowing what we just said.

I do not notice which sound escapes me
only where it comes from
My thought forms a sound,
it shoots out and meets your sound
I hear our harmonic meeting
or colliding or adjustment
or our parallel tracks
My thought forms a sound,
it shoots out and meets our previous sound
and your next thought

 * people in this text:      
Barbro Marklund, colleague, emerita, singing professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music     
Marius Kolbenstvedt, performing artist, dialogue partner in the project     
Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, my close working partner in the duo Roggen/Nyhus and co-leader of the project     
Asle Karstad, sound designer with unique expertise in amplifying acoustic sound,
 partner thoughout the project