Transforming Sounds: Singing of Fish, Growth of Trees and Blinking Fireflies
Kristine Tjøgersen & Carola Bauckholt
At the beginning of each composition is an appreciation of the world around us: The ear becomes the microscope. Kristine Tjøgersen and Carola Bauckholt listen to the world in search of new sounds. In an interview, the composers discuss their fascination with seemingly hidden sounds: the singing of fish, the flight formations of blinking fireflies, the growth of trees – and identify the joy that is to be expected from a bubble bursting or toast popping up.
Carola Bauckholt: It seems that you need a topic outside of music, something you are fascinated by, that lets your composing abilities flow. These starting points are always very interesting phenomena. For example in your first piece, Bubbles (2012), you started with the idea of something that grows from breath.
Kristine Tjøgersen: I was fascinated by the extremely short, beautiful moment when a soap bubble is blown. I wanted to expand this short moment to eight minutes, so I filmed it and used a very short video clip of a soap bubble being blown, so that we see it grow and grow. I had never thought that so little material could sustain the tension for so long. This video is used as a score that can be played by any wind instrument.
Kristine Tjøgersen, Bubbles, 2012, Martin Taxt (Microtonal tuba)
CB: I saw a great version with two videos and two tuba players.
KT: Yes, you can double it up as many times as you like. It would be amazing to have about ten musicians with ten videos in one big exhibition hall – I haven’t tried it yet.
CB: You should do it – such a good idea! Another early and very important piece is Travelling Light (2014) where you were fascinated by the rhythms and movements of lights.
KT: First I got a commission to make a video piece, and I filmed lights and passing cars from the window of a bus driving through a tunnel. Then I recorded instrument sounds and put them on film – at that time I was considering applying at the art academy to become a visual artist, not a composer. But then Ensemble neoN (which I co-founded as a clarinettist) asked me for a piece and I used the film; I wrote down the rhythm of the lights and correlated each individual light with a specific sound and instrument, which repeat according to their own rhythm.
CB: And what is left now is a brilliant ensemble piece without video – just the music (Travelling Light II, 2015). This is so interesting because you are a very experienced clarinet player in contemporary music, but you chose to follow the path of the visual, through film, to come to a score.
Kristine Tjøgersen, Travelling Light II, 2015, Ensemble neoN
KT: Yes, the visual – another piece called GLAM (2016) is about Glam Rock, and in this genre appearances are so important; clothes, hair, and everything made to look good on television. But in classical music the body of the musician has to disappear: to wear black clothes and have nothing visual to distract from the pure music. So I could not resist putting these two things together and making a big crash. I transcribed all the movements of an 80’s Glam Rock music video. I love to watch movies with the sound turned off, creating my own imaginary music to the film as I watch.
CB: And then you created sounds for the rhythms of the movements in the film for violin and cello …
KT: An interesting element in this film is that you see two floors: the Glam Rock band is playing on the upper floor and below there is a dinner party with very rich people. And in the original movie you are focused on the band, but I wanted to shift the focus to the people eating dinner at the party, where the band was just a disturbance. It was so much fun to change the meaning of the movie just by putting another type of music to it.
CB: Just through this, you created a very humorous and virtuosic piece. I ask myself why it is so interesting to combine synchronised sounds that don’t match what you see at all? Only the rhythm matches.
Kristine Tjøgersen, from the premiere of GLAM at Periferien/Sentralen, Oslo, 2016; Karin Hellqvist (violin) and Tanja Orning (cello)
KT: It is a trend on the Internet now, but I have been doing it for as long as I can remember. I played what a window blind or a doorframe looks like on my clarinet – it was so natural to me to play what things looked like. Visual impressions have stirred my musical imagination since I was a child.
CB: What is interesting for me in your piece is that I see a rock band and hear contemporary music techniques; I see a scream but hear a damped or suppressed noise, and this is so powerful because it describes something that is happening inside your head, something imagined in your brain, an inward power. Something that is muted in your body. It is like an explosion, but silent. If the music you wrote were loud, it would not be as interesting, I guess. Besides movements, a very important topic in your work is nature.
KT: As a child I did not spend a lot of time indoors, I mostly played in the woods or by the sea, watching birds, insects and shrimps and fishing with my father using a big net …
CB: … before the Internet. And movements taken from natural phenomena are in your pieces …
KT: Yes, in this orchestra piece – I watched a documentary about fireflies, which are decreasing in numbers because of human light pollution – it has become difficult for them to find each other to mate. I studied how they communicate and found that there are thousands of firefly species that all flash using different patterns. I also found drawings that show how they fly – so not just the flashing rhythm but also specific choreographies they use. When I found this it was easy to make a piece out of it.
CB: So the movements and rhythm patterns of the flashing of fireflies was transformed into an orchestra piece…
KT: … called Bioluminescence (2017) …
Kristine Tjøgersen, Bioluminescence, 2017 (excerpt), symphony orchestra Bruckneruniversität, Linz, conducted by Christoph Cech
CB: … and not just sound, you also added the element of light. The orchestra has small LED lamps that they play in rhythmic patterns in the dark at the beginning of the piece. And what about the ensemble piece Seafloor Dawn Chorus (2018)?
KT: Yes, it’s kind of the same thing. It is about the sounds of the marine life and singing fish at the Great Barrier Reef. They are decreasing in numbers too. I found hydrophone recordings of the reefs and documentation on how the sound has changed over the last few years – how they are dying out – you can hear it. It is getting quieter and quieter.
CB: And the corals, do they make noises?
KT: Yes, they make a popping sound when they are spawning.
CB: I didn’t know that fish could sing …
KT: I knew that they made noises but I did not know that some sing. The fish gather in choirs at dusk and dawn, just like birds, and find each other through singing.
CB: So you listened to these recordings and then imitated these songs on classical instruments?
KT: Yes, I spend a lot of time searching for sounds. And I worked a lot with Jennifer Torrence, the percussionist, and the musicians from Ensemble Recherche, for whom the piece was written. For me, this close connection to instrumentalists is really important.
CB: And I remember an amazing sound from the vibraphone where you use this air-spray to clean the computer against the vibrato motor. This ft ft ft ft ft sounds like soft beating on water …
KT: That is the batfish sound. I improvise a lot with instruments to find material. I created this special bow for strings, I put a flower stick in a ribbed plastic tube to get a soft, sparkling sound quality. That is what shrimps sound like.
CB: Nowadays, the topics of ecology and biology are popular in music, but they have always been there.
KT: Yes, some say that the first music was imitations of animals – birds, elks, etc.
Kristine Tjøgersen, Seafloor Dawn Chorus, 2018
KT: First, I recorded a spruce forest on the south coast of Norway, many times during the day and night in the early summer, to examine how the sound environments change. I played it in slow motion in order to write down all of the details and find the sounds we tend to overlook. The creaking of the trees, the wind, the birds, the insects, the presence of humans in the forest, walking, brushing against the trees with their clothes are all examples of the sounding material.
CB: And you built a forest inside a piano. Pianist Ellen Ugelvik planted model railway trees attached to the strings with magnets, which create beautiful sounds when they move slightly. And you worked with live video inside the piano, projected onto a huge screen, so that the inside of the piano turned into architecture. The strings looked like railways and this image was so appropriate for the performance hall at the Akademie.
Kristine Tjøgersen, Piano Concerto, 2019, Ellen Ugelvik and Bit20 Ensemble, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann
KT: The piano’s tuning pegs turned into the roots of trees, sucking up water. This piece started as Piano Concerto (2019) with ensemble and I did a solo piano piece with six-channel sound for the Akademie. I worked in close collaboration with light designer Ingunn Fjellang Sæther and pianist Ellen Ugelvik throughout the process. All the sound samples were created on the piano – without using a single key. Only the creaking of the trees at the end are original recordings from the forest. I made the loudspeaker parts in the great Studio für Elektroakustische Musik at the Akademie, which is a fantastic place to work!
CB: I think what is important in your work is that you enlarge your ears enormously – like a microscope to look for hidden sounds. And you do the same with the film inside the piano – you enlarge it, and everything seems to be very big but it is actually very small.
KT: I think the hidden sounds are so interesting.
Ellen Ugelvik performing Kristine Tjøgersen’s Piano Piece, premiere of the solo version / 1.2.2020, opening Where the Story Unfolds, work presentation JUNGE AKADEMIE 2020
CB: I ask myself a lot – how can we spend so much time writing music instead of being active and explicit?
KT: I feel that what we are doing is important because we can try to make something beautiful and give it to humanity. Art is very necessary in these times, getting the artist’s view on the matter, we can communicate on another level.
CB: Because everybody is speaking and screaming words words words, so what gets lost is vulnerable human personalities. When I need some sense in my life, I need contact with an individual mind with fantasy and imagination. This is so valuable, because nothing else can give you this – you can’t buy it, and a machine cannot make it.
KT: This vulnerable thing is very important in composition. The vulnerability of a person is their most beautiful aspect, and what you find when you seek this out is your strength … and I think it is very powerful to show it …
CB: … yes, not to hide it.
KT: I don’t mean using your vulnerability and exploiting it like some people do. But to share how you are trying to find your place in the world and to understand what is happening around you.
CB: Yeah, I am reminded of this work by Joseph Beuys: Show Your Wound (1977). I think it is very important for art to be what you are and not pretend anything. You don’t have to be perfect. There is a place for this kind of truth.
KT: But is imagination the truth?
CB: I really need personal statements to see, to read, to hear, to experience. In art it is there.
KT: I think it is important to “converse” with the art. The pieces you make can converse with other pieces, and you can converse with each other in a different way.
CB: I also gain inspiration from outside of music. When I started to compose, I observed everyday life and transformed it into music. For example in In gewohnter Umgebung (1991) [In familiar surroundings], I look at what happens with a toaster in the dark: the rhythm of a toaster – the crescendo of heat – and boom! An explosion – finished – and then the next slice of toast.
KT: Then you transform this into a musical gesture, a musical form with material and sound from the toaster.
CB: I think what we have in common is that we perceive normal things as musical experiences.
KT: I can get very excited about normal things. Other people have this urge to go to the other side of the world to see new things, but for me it is often enough to just go outside the door.
CB: Or stay home!
KT: Yes! Staying home is the best thing!
CB: It’s interesting that we get inspired by objects and not by ourselves. I’m not inspired by myself.
KT: I feel I’m really boring. Haha! I just want something else. And talk about new ideas.
CB: I love to be focused on things outside of me. So I’m not at all focused on my feelings.
When I focus on my feelings I get completely lost. It doesn’t help. So the act of composing is being focused on a thing, and I love to be focused on tiny things. You too – like Jean Paul, because the big things in the world are too pathetic and I think we both feel that. It is not real – we are ants.
KT: I read Thoughts by Blaise Pascal (1670) and he writes about this world, inside a world, inside a world, and so on. You know these tiniest mites that live inside our pillows have their own world, and a bigger thing has its own world. And we have our world. I remember when I was a little girl in the small town of Tvedestrand where I grew up, there was one kiosk, and on it there was an advertisement for an ice drink called Slush. It was a drawing of a puppy holding a cup of Slush, and on this cup was a picture of a puppy holding a Slush, and it just went on forever. I remember this disturbed me so much and I lay awake at night thinking about this never-endingness; a never-ending row of puppies holding a cup of Slush. And this is how the world works …
*1982 in Oslo, lebt in Oslo
Kristine Tjøgersen studied composition under prof. Carola Bauckholt at the Anton Bruckner Universität in Linz and clarinet under prof. Hans Christian Bræin at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo. Her works have been performed, among others, by Arditti Quartet, ensemble recherche, Ensemble Aventure, Mimitabu, BIT-20 and Bruckner Orchester Linz. She plays the clarinet in the award-winning ensembles asamisimasa and Ensemble neoN, and has performed at many major European new music festivals. Kristine Tjøgersen has a special interest in music that combines sound and visuals, and investigates and explores how they interact with each other.More about Kristine Tjøgersen
*1959 in Krefeld
After working at the Theater am Marienplatz (TAM), Krefeld for several years, Carola Bauckholt studied composition at the Musikhochschule Köln with Mauricio Kagel (1978–1984). She founded the Thürmchen Verlag (music publisher) along with Caspar Johannes Walter in 1985, and six years later they founded the Thürmchen Ensemble. She has received numerous residencies and prizes such as the Bernd Alois Zimmermann Scholarship from the city of Cologne (1986), a residency at the Villa Massimo in Rome (1997), in 1998 she was designated the Artist of the Year by the State of North Rhine Westphalia. In 2015, she was appointed as professor of composition with focus on contemporary musictheatre at the Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität in Linz, Austria. From London International Animation Festival 2019 she received the “Best Sound Design Award” for “The Flounder” in collaboration with Elizabeth Hobbs and Klangforum Wien. In 2020, she was elected as a member of the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts.