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Not so long ago, if you googled SØS Gunver Ryberg one of the first results was her IMDB profile. As it turns out, before playing Atonal festival, before appearing on Boiler Room, even before making music, the Copenhagen artist was a stunt woman. "I grew up being extremely wild and I've always loved fighting," she tells me. "Not like with fists and stuff. Wrestling. For fun." Not that you'd think that to look at her. Blond hair past her shoulders, petit and amicable—I just couldn't picture it. "People are very surprised when they get to know me. From my physical appearance I look quite innocent, but you shouldn't be fooled by that," she laughs.
There's not an aggressive bone in Ryberg's body, but her music is some of the most powerful stuff out there. So far there's been just one release under her own name, AFTRYK, on Contort Records, a heady concoction of field recordings, fiery rhythms and immersive timbres. It's instantly arresting and bursting with savage yet carefully controlled energy. It's music that's best experienced live.
It wasn't until recently that I experienced the intensity of Ryberg's performances first hand. It was at a Sonic Acts night in Amsterdam, and she was easily one of the highlights. She worked up swirling vistas of sound, steadily building tension before unleashing a cataclysmic torrent of beats—distinct staccato drums, sounding like a stallion galloping across a foggy moor. It was an unbridled set but also intricately composed. Raw noise meets techno. At the start, the room was gawping and motionless; by the close we'd all been swept up into a furore. She had played us like puppets, and we were under her spell.
Ryberg is a performer in the truest sense. She's also a composer, sound artist, acoustics fanatic and one of the loveliest people you could meet. It's only in the last couple of years that she's stepped out of the arts world, although her work with sound goes back to 2005. Around this time, she was focusing on performance-art training—acting, dancing, martial arts, stunts. She began experimenting with digital music production after a push from a vocal teacher, Annette Berg. Her first piece, "Das Himmelhund," a sound installation, was shown at the prestigious Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in Denmark in 2005. Out of 3,000 applicants, only 165 works were accepted. Following the exhibition she spent two years fervently researching equipment and teaching herself software. It was a turning point.
"I didn't have any friends who were making music on the computer," she says. "I remember going to the music store in Copenhagen, trying to understand what the hell they were talking about. I ended up buying an RME: Fireface 800 interface, which was totally nuts compared to my skills at that time."
Ryberg takes self-improvement very seriously. As she goes through her early biography—study at The Danish National Academy Of Music in Denmark (SDMK) interspersed with self-initiated trips to places like Svalbard, a remote Norwegian archipelago 950km from the North Pole, along with countless art and theatre commissions—I realise she's one of those people who gets little sleep and has at least five projects going at once. "I'm good when I'm working on a project and I can do that dedicated for a long time, but I don't really see myself as working at one thing," she says. "I like to change. I'm a very curious person and I like to be challenged, so I often throw myself into something I've not tried before."
Like when she graduated from SDMK in 2010 and accepted a composition and sound design position at Playdead, an independent games developer in Copenhagen, with no prior experience in the industry. Or the time she decided to try out Kyma (supposedly one of the toughest hardware/software systems to master) unrehearsed at her debut gig at Tresor. That was February last year, and she now plays at Kyma conferences and increasingly uses it for her live shows.
Cristian Vogel introduced her to Kyma, and he's been advising her on it ever since. The pair met at STRØM Festival in Copenhagen in 2013, when they both played an event on a raft out in the harbour. It was here their SGR^CAV collaboration, Moved By Magnets, was conceived, which came out on the cassette label The Tapeworm in June 2014. It's an example of the weird and experimental music Ryberg was preoccupied with at the time. Being introduced to Vogel was like a cosmic (and very nerdy) meeting of minds. "We have this very special universe and understanding of sound—the transformational power of sound. Also this more philosophical way of thinking about sounds having their own entity," she says.
That's the thing about Ryberg: she's serious and particular about how people engage with her music. Before every gig she painstakingly scopes out the acoustics of a venue. To Ryberg, who's spent a great deal of time developing site-specific works and sound installations, space is its own performer with the power to influence an audience. It's a theme at the heart of much of her work, like her 2010 graduation piece, Lost In Mapping. She built a polar hut construction, and then burnt it. Inside, she projected video and sound compositions over a quadraphonic setup. This was based on a trip to Svalbard a year prior. (She actually went there to create another installation and to gather field recordings of the extreme natural landscape.)
"It's also an island where there was a lot of mining activity," she says of Svalbard. "So I went into a coal mine, inside a mountain many, many kilometres. I went there because someone told me on the flight over (I was sitting next to a guy who was working in the mine) that when they drill into the mountain it collapses, and this collapse creates a very special sound. So that was something I wanted to record." It's the same material that can be heard on her EP for Contort: "'Pantodont' is inspired by field recordings from me being in there. The machinery and also the silence of the mountain—from inside. The last five or seven seconds on that track is the silence of the mountain."
Ryberg has always been fascinated with recording. As a child she yearned for a microphone, but with no encouragement or technical support from family or teachers she eventually shelved the idea for a career in theatre. She still has bags of taped conversations, diary entries and other sound bites form her youth—"a project for the future," she says. "I grew up with an extremely detuned piano. I called it the 'cowboy piano.' I love how it sounds, it's also something I have sampled."
Over the last two years, Ryberg has had some notable performances—a Boiler Room that Objekt curated, Sample & Hold at [ipsə], Berlin Atonal, Norberg festival in Sweden—although it took a long time for this side of her work to reach the public. She had been focusing on theatre and art commissions while keeping her vigorous and rhythmically-driven style of music to herself. It was during a fact-finding trip to South Korea in 2012 when the seeds of her sound took root. She went there to study Korean shamanic music. "I was at that time listening to gamelan music, and when I heard the Korean high-energy music I really felt connected and drawn into it—its polyrhythms, texture density, high intensity and timbres," she says. "In Korea I met and saw performances from a shamanistic family from the east coast. The music varies a lot depending on which areas and families perform it. This family is one of the very few real shamans left. I learned about their instruments and their symbolism and connection to nature. I also watched and recorded a shamanistic ritual performed by a new school shaman for more than nine hours."
She was toying with these concepts in private until a friend showed Hayley Walker Kerridge and Samuel Kerridge her music. "It was a revelation," Samuel tells me over email. "We immediately realised we were dealing with a very talented individual. There's still astonishment in the ranks as to how SØS hadn't come our attention before." The husband and wife team's Contort, their strictly "NOT just "another" techno/house party," has become a haven for gothy, experimental and industrial tastes in Berlin.
On May 1st, 2014, Contort threw their first open-air event, at Urban Spree. It was also Ryberg's first show with them, and for her it was a game-changer. "The vibe of the people attending, the concentration and how dedicated people are—I mean, purely interested in and getting deep into the music—that's something I had never experienced in the same way before," she says fondly. "The whole audience had a collective appreciation for what we were witnessing," says Walker Kerridge. "Her music yearns to be heard live. How could we not invite her back?"
Ryberg retuned to Berlin for Contort's Atonal showcase at Kraftwerk. As someone as conscious about space as Ryberg, the imposing architecture of the building was inspiring. "That was my best feeling from a performance," she says. Again, the audience was riveted. The openness and receptiveness of the city, she says, has encouraged her to step out of her arts-based comfort zone.
Ryberg admits to not knowing Objekt or even what Boiler Room was when she was asked to perform, and she actually turned it down at first, until she was convinced otherwise. Even then, she nearly missed the gig. "I had been performing in Germany, in Bremen. On the way back, I was just so extremely exhausted. My bag—not my gear—was stolen, the money from that gig. And of course all my cards, my keys. I had to get a locksmith in that night to change the locks because I was going to Berlin in the morning and I didn't want any unexpected visitors. Then the next thing I realised my passport was also missing."
She made it in the end. The Boiler Room gig gave her music vital exposure, seeing as so little of it exists online. That, however, is about to change. After years of creating performance-based pieces and commissions, she's ready to record. "It's so important for me to experience the music spreading out in this way," she says. "It's interesting to see how people are reacting to it, to see DJs using it and what they are mixing it up with."
It seems like Ryberg is beginning to feel comfortable with her craft. She's trying to bring all she's learnt from her extensive experience composing for video games, film, theatre, sound installations and dance into a new sonic flow. Is she ready to settle into a single rhythm or become a more traditional electronic music artist? Of course not. She's still bursting with the same kind of wild energy that made her want to fight for fun as a kid.