|Playing favourites: The Knife, Mt. Sims, Planningtorock
In advance of the London premiere of The Knife's "electronic opera," RA's Lee Smith met up with the Swedish duo, plus collaborators Mt. Sims and Planningtorock, to listen through a selection of music that influenced the project.
So, you form a quasi-gothic electro act that takes the world by storm, create an ultra-limited live show that goes down in history as one of the most memorably bizarre performances the electronic music scene has ever witnessed, then take an extended break during which both your individual side projects achieve similar levels of acclaim. What's next? For The Knife, the answer was typically unexpected; you agree to work alongside widely internationally renowned Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma on an experimental opera based on the life and theories of Charles Darwin. And you do it with a little help from a pair of talented friends, in the form of wayward folk-tronicist Planningtorock, AKA Janine Rostron, and former electroclasher turned intellectual post-rocker Matthew "Mt." Sims.
"As much as I love playing records that our music references, I find it quite important to say that this is very much part of the research we've been doing for this project," explains The Knife's Olof Dreijer when I meet the quartet at a London hotel. "The things we've been reading, all these very specific descriptions on gene development of different species, how they correlate in the ecosystem or whatever—the music in the opera is very much motivated by Darwin's theories, rather than any other musical reference. But at the same time, while we have been doing musical exercises based on these theories, we've also been doing musical exercises on music history."
The resulting album—Tomorrow in a Year—has baffled and beguiled in fairly equal measure, if its critical reception is anything to go by. At points almost unbearably dissonant, at others immaculately pop-inflected, the score and "libretto" (essentially, the vocal parts) are, in fact, less wildly freeform than they might sound; the Hotel Pro Forma group both guided the group through the opera world, while also imposing numerous compositional restraints that, as we discover, proved challenging for a group of musicians more used to following their own paths.
As part of their painstakingly thorough background research, Dreijer and Rostron were sent on an extended trip to South America to collect field recordings in the manner of Darwin himself, while the whole group learned to write the libretto for three disparate vocalists—a mezzo-soprano, a pop singer and an actress. It's an ambiguous, cryptic and thought-provoking project that poses just as many questions as it resolves. With this in mind, we hooked up the laptop and played the group some music that we hoped might give us a few answers.
Pelléas et Mélisande
So opera was new to all of you before you started work on Tomorrow?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: This was actually one of the operas given to us by Hotel Pro Forma—not for the music references, more the dramaturgical way of building an opera.
Did you find opera to be an elusive, ambiguous form of music? Debussy was certainly considered so by his peers at the time.
Olof Dreijer: Well, I thought it was just nice. I really hadn't listened to anything but this—but I liked that it was the first opera that didn't have this division of the music for the plot, and the music for the theme. This was more like the non-hierarchical composition style, with new melodies all the time, a constant flow of melodies. I liked that.
Janine Rostron: Because we didn't have much knowledge about opera, and its strong history, we decided not to think about it too much and try and create our own approach, using the guidelines we'd been given and trying not to get too lost in making an opera—whatever that may be.
Olof Dreijer: But I also think it was good to have this reference to work against. It was like OK, so they sing up and down all the time—well, I can do that with my mixer. It can create random melodies, so I would rather let some random set of electronics do this up and down thing. I thought that was much more fun, and much more like evolution.
Matthew Sims: We were listening to it in reference to the actual singing—the voice as an instrument, being that we were working with an opera singer, how she related it to her own voice, and how we could break that relationship.
Janine Rostron: I think there were elements that, like when they have two or three voices at the same time and it's difficult to hear—they're interwoven with each other. So there are different lyrics, different melodies, different harmonies—but within those layers there were certain things that were quite inspirational. They're like leads I guess.
A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida
This particular piece famously made a political comment on the Vietnam War. I'm interested in the way you went about dealing with the vast political implications of Darwinian theory in the context of an avant-garde electronic opera.
Janine Rostron: Personally I'm more interested in Nono from a compositional perspective. I like how he uses vocals—there's another piece of his that we couldn't find online that's a really intense vocal piece. Obviously the political side is important too—but it's his use of the voice that's interesting.
Olof Dreijer: Throughout the process of making the opera there was a constant conflict of the political and the scientific. My interest in the subject was from the political side: and Hotel Pro Forma was the scientific. I think that sometimes science can appear so apolitical, and that's really problematic when you have this political content, but we were asked to focus on the biology and the geology, not the political aspect. That was frustrating sometimes, but at the end of the day, it was really fun, because I would never have chosen to focus on the biology and geology, so we learned a lot. And that was pretty good to use as musical composition—to use a bird learning its melody, to think about that development as composition. But with Nono—it's really the strength that he managed to do extreme compositions with very instant political content.
To the casual listener Nono's work can be atonal, dissonant even—much like certain sections of Tomorrow. How does that dissonance and apparent chaos bear relation to the very direct, scientific principles of Darwinism?
Matthew Sims: I think the fact that there can be interpretations, rather than a direct message, was something quite prevalent in the way [Tomorrow] was going to be made and perceived. Of course, there are more abstracted parts of the album, and I think the more abstract parts can have an interpretation that will be different for different people, whether it's something people find disturbing or dissonant or relative—something they can relate the subject matter to. The subject matter itself—if one were to take a timed reference—is the way that Darwin was seeing time.
It's kind of like the beginnings of time—they're more questionable, they're not solid. And they're frightful. They were frightful for him. If you look at his life in general, he was going to be exploring these theories—it challenged his life, his history. So it was pretty much a disturbing place. I think that has a parallel to some tones being a bit more dissonant. In this way, I can relate this with Luigi Nono going out of the 12 tone scale, and making microtonal music to create a feeling of suspense. And I think that I like suspense—and question, and questioning of the hierarchy.
Opera, and classical music more widely, are often considered elitist forms—and therefore very much hierarchical.
Matthew Sims: Very much hierarchical in comparison to what?
I think it's seen as a form of music that's traditionally been designed for the pleasure of the establishment, of the aristocracy, a music that's about privilege, and so forth. Historically and now, it represents the culture of a particular social hierarchy.
Janine Rostron: Matt used this word nostalgia, and I think if you're in a territory that's not used that often, or new, or unfamiliar you assume that it deals with nostalgia—but it actually deals with the opposite of that. It might seem like a rejection, or that it disallows a certain access, but actually that's not the intent. Maybe that's what makes people think it's elitist—because it somehow must be immediately accessible. But for other people, that might be what makes it interesting. And that was what made it interesting for us—stretching into ideas we didn't know, that were very new.
Olof Dreijer: I find it very like really problematic that classical opera keeps getting a lot of government money for preserving old culture when money could be spent on avant-garde, or any culture, which is more progressive. That for me is really problematic. But for me Luigi Nono is a really good example of how you can do really avant-garde music that some people would find elitist, but for the workers at the factory in Italy, it's very utilitarian in a way.
These two ideas are inspired, and I think it's a political strength that it's open to interpretation. Hotel Pro Forma is really good at having their pieces open for interpretation... it's very much a political strength to inspire people to think for themselves rather than saying "the package is here."
Janine Rostron: The Hotel bring different people together that normally wouldn't be together—they already start from a place of displacement. I think that's pretty cool. I think it's interesting when approaching just the process of valuing a question rather than an answer. The difference between Nono and some of the other composers—even Debussy, whose questions would be resolved in this lush way—is that Nono would use suspense. One is a question, and one is an answer. I think it's a very good thing that people who are listening can make their own opinion to the question that's been asked.
Janine Rostron: Have you ever seen her play? She's really intense, I was really young... I was a bit too young to take it in. She has these long plaits, she's slightly cross-eyed, the way she moves... she's amazing.
Olof Dreijer: I think it's really cool how she does her choreography too.
Matthew Sims: I think they need to do that to keep time.
It's impressive time-keeping, for sure. The use of the human voice is fascinating, too.
Janine Rostron: It was interesting to think about this other approach to the voice—we all had experience of using the voice more like an instrument.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: We were given these three different singers, and especially with the opera singer, we didn't know how to treat her—we never worked with one before. So that was something we discussed a lot—how to use these three vocals. We looked at Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas and Klaus Nomi. The actress had never sung before, so for her we could say anything—and she was like "oh really, I'm going to do this, OK, fine"—a lot of practising but it was fine. But the other singers, and especially the opera singer, who has been trained in a special way to use her voice, it was much more work in trying to be more free, in comparison to what she had been doing before.
Matthew Sims: I think that's working on a collaborative process in general. I think that's the first time I actually worked on a project process in a long time—and a real one, in the sense that you go far away from one's own voice, not just one's physical voice, but how you express it as a mood.
Olof Dreijer: We chose to study different tunes that were good music by themselves, [so that we could] forget about our own expression. Like the feedback thing. I felt the feedback way of working made music from nothing, and for me, if you want to look at it very nerdy, that was how the evolution was made in the first place. For me feedback is a lot like energy, and electricity is like energy, and so... we let that decide how we composed. And the recordings of animals—we would let a couple of recordings of animals play alongside each other, and see how they disturb one another. We tried to portray a part of evolution with no humans around.
"Adult Cheetah / Male Capercallie Display"
The process of field recording can create a structure on otherwise random natural sounds. In these examples, the purring of the creatures becomes hypnotic, almost quantised. Were you conscious of trying to create structure within natural sound?
Janine Rostron: I think it's interesting, what you just said about structure. I think a lot of the field recording we did were like that—it sort of alleviated you from responsibility. Things would have their own timing.
Olof Dreijer: I thought it was the opposite of that actually—letting the animals or sounds create their own structure, with no human element.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: That is the ideal situation—that you can stay away from your own recordings. But still it is a lot about collecting sounds in the beginning and finding, listening to the structure or patterns—but then it is always a lot of organising. Hotel Pro Forma, in the beginning, wanted us to work like Charles Darwin. Like, collecting. Looking at things. In the end, it is a lot about organising, and we have to relate all that research and field recordings into the 100 minutes of music, and that makes it a really important frame to put everything into.
Janine Rostron: With the field material, you would still make decisions, I think. I find it interesting working on parts that came almost like an intuitiveness, that was fascinating—it wasn't always what you'd expect.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I think it's a very interesting thing to do when you work with more pop music—if you send a track to radio, it can't be more than 3:30. That is the limit—it's so weird. Wagner, he can make his pop songs for seven hours! I think that's a very big difference. We have to relate it in 90 minutes—I wonder what would have happened if were allowed to do a seven hour piece.
Olof Dreijer: One exciting exercise was to make as slow progress as possible. Evolution is so slow—so we thought, how can we do that with music? In the beginning what we delivered to Hotel Pro Forma was a lot slower—they tightened it up, but I wanted the piece to be slow so that it became almost disturbingly slow. That is how evolution is.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: If you count from year zero to now, what this amount of time is supposed to mean—if you count how many times faster it is to put into 100 minutes—it's interesting to realise what you have, what you think is disturbingly slow. I don't think I would have gone to a seven hour performance of opera, I don't think I would have made it through it. And they think 100 minutes should be tightened down to 90! It's an interesting way of thinking of time.
Olof Dreijer: I have heard that opera connoisseurs think that a good way to experience opera is to sleep.
Matthew Sims: During the opera?
Olof Dreijer: Yes! [laughter]
Karin Dreijer Andersson: You sleep in those horrible seats...then wake up.
Matthew Sims: Snoring becomes part of the opera.
You haven't seen that happen in any of your performances?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I have slept during shows—not operatic ones, though. And that actually is quite nice.
Olof, your love of techno is well documented. But are you all fans?
Matthew Sims: I love Jeff Mills.
Olof, you described yourself as a "boring minimal techno DJ" a few years back. How do you feel techno has developed since that time?
Olof Dreijer: Well, over the years, things like Minus are not so interesting. But Jeff Mills has a great combination of dance music and conceptual music. He works on many levels—that's a strength that has been lost in techno.
How did techno feed into this project?
Olof Dreijer: We had been doing the opera piece and it was almost done, but we had not done the last track, and "The Seeds" track. At that stage it was more abstract than the final product. Then, we were asked to end with the actress singing. So we made the last track, the more poppy one—"The Height of Summer." The intention was to make a song like you hear during the credits—in a way, the piece is finished before that. "Seeds" was a reaction towards the abstract music that you could expect to hear in a performance music context, so we thought it would be fun to throw in a 909-techno track in there. So we just worked a lot around that, different reactions against work we had already done.
You often hear broken orchestral sounds in Jeff Mills' work. It's that combination of organic and industrial—his energy is chaotic, yet structured and harnessed too. Did you feel that you were somehow creating structure from chaos?
Matthew Sims: Because of the context, it's not placing structure on chaos—it's placing chaos into the structure, the structure of an opera. Contextually it works in two different ways.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: Yeah... [pauses] All this—it can all be so... complex [laughs]. When we talk about this now, it reminds me of the time we were talking about this project at the start, and everything was so abstract. It became hard to understand where to stop with it.
Rebekah Del Rio
I chose this because, at the point it occurs in Mulholland Drive, it seems to represent a point between dream and waking—it's a song that most people know very well but it's transformed by this searing, almost operatic interpretation. It's an uncannily emotive rework.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: That scene from Mulholland Drive was something that we discussed a lot when planning for the Silent Shout tour. The performance aspect of it was an influence—like somebody is singing apparently, but she falls and she's apparently not doing it—it brings up the question of authenticity. If it's real or if it's not. But we didn't work on the visual performance of this project so it was not so much of an influence here.
Olof Dreijer: Well, actually we do have moments in the opera similar to what happens here—although they never become so clear—but there are moments when the singers do arpeggios, and they stop singing, but the arpeggio continues. So there are elements of this clip.
Karin Dreijer Andersson: We work with a lot of effects on the singers, as you normally don't do—normally you don't have amplified vocals in an opera, they told us. So we worked with effects, but they are not used to that. But I think that that clip is about something else.
Olof Dreijer: We tried—but it was difficult to come across clearly.
Matthew Sims: Do you think it would have been so effective if they had of been another song? If it wasn't "Crying," but "Yellow Submarine"—do you think it would be as effective?
Karin Dreijer Andersson: I didn't know what the original track was when I first saw it. I thought it was a Spanish thing—I didn't have the connection. Of course it was very emotional and passionate so it couldn't have been "Yellow Submarine"—but I didn't know what it was first time.
There's a dreamlike surrealism to the scene, and despite the plot not making complete narrative sense at that point, it manages to signify that something deeply emotional and important is happening in the film. In an opera that is in many ways highly abstract, how did you go about conveying important narrative or emotional messages?
Janine Rostron: In the narrative of the opera, there are these moments of occurrence, moments of intensity, but they're quite uncontrolled. A film scene is very calculated, but there was never a point when we calculated an intense moment. When they happen and who they happen for is quite open to interpretation.
Olof Dreijer: But coming back to this thing of playing around with emotional response—I thought it was interesting to present a recording of an animal or a stone in a way that made it the protagonist of that scene. I felt emotionally moved by the sound of that stone—I might be crazy but...
Janine Rostron: I like the sound of the bird, and it's just moving around but you feel like it's trapped, and you can project a lot on to it. These sounds are very evocative and you can make them loaded with meaning. But it's for a different reason than an emotional response.
Matthew Sims: The fact that this particular song is sung in Spanish, even though its most popular version is sung in English, means that purely because of its pop essence, people can relate to the words of it, and through the visuals they can sense what's going on. It's because it's a grain in pop culture, and a challenge for us doing this was to create another language. Like writing a libretto about Charles Darwin, writing a libretto about scientific theory, recording and sculpting sounds that could have differing emotional impacts. How could you look at a dictionary and then cry over something you couldn't read?
Would you like Tomorrow to make your regular listeners engage with opera in a way they perhaps haven't before?
Janine Rostron: Personally it was an aim to make something new, but having those people follow it would be a huge bonus. But you just can't think about the audience in this... if the audience find a way in, then great. There's plenty of potential ways for it to be accessed.
You never know, maybe traditional opera connoisseurs will hear Tomorrow and go and check out some electronic music as a result.
Olof Dreijer: Well, that would be great, too.
Published / Friday, 23 July 2010