Cara Tolmie and Stine Janvin have been commissioned to create a new collaborative performance for the Fourth Edition Festival in Stockholm, Borealis Festival for Experimental Music, Bergen and Äänen Lumo in Helsinki.
This conversation took place in November 2018 in Oslo during their initial meeting to begin work on the project.
CARA TOLMIE There is something that I inherently seem to rebel against the minute I enter the realm of “extended vocal technique”. Even that term I really grapple with, I don’t totally understand what it means or how the formal education of this “technique” works.
STINE JANVIN What is the un-extended technique?
CT There is some friction I feel against it at the same time as being very drawn to what that kind of singing, call it what you will, can teach me. For a long time I’ve been searching for the language to articulate this feeling.
I’m am also still struggling to understand in what ways it is about being a woman who sings. If it is specific to being female and how this relates to something you said earlier about not wanting to go off into a kind of expressive, improvised place.
SJ For me it has more to do with that because I’ve definitely heard male singers doing the same thing.
When doing interviews, I usually get questions like “Why are you so strict and minimal in the way you choose your material” and comments like “You stick to one thing”. I think i’m interested in the physical effect of repetition, both for me and the audience, and i also don’t like getting lost in technique or technology. I feel ambivalent towards technology. I like using it for certain things, but I’m not curious about technology or technique in itself. It’s what you do with the material that you choose and how you compose with it that’s interesting. It otherwise becomes a bit like a circus if you’re just showing off all your different techniques.
CT Do you think it’s not rigorous enough?
SJ Yes, and sometimes it doesn’t even sound like music anymore. It just sounds like a catalogue of sounds — like a circus act.
That’s what I’ve found really cool about your way of using textured sounds and noise sounds. You do it in such a minimal way that it doesn’t tip over to the awkward side… and that’s really hard to do because when it becomes associative or you get too emotional or expressive then that is where you are on the borderline of losing something interesting to me. It becomes more about the performer and not what the performer is channelling.
CT Would you be worried about it becoming more about an “expression” of yourself somehow if you were to fall into that category? If you were to do something less structured or less “limited” as someone might put it. That then it gets seen as an outpouring of your own emotions?
SJ It can maybe come across that way. It’s also a need of being in control. I don’t like being out of control.
CT Me either.
SJ When I find myself fumbling around and not knowing where I’m going that is pretty uncomfortable and I don’t like that and I don’t like to listen to that when it’s clear that the performer is not heading in a specific direction. It’s really not interesting and it makes me feel uncomfortable.
CT This feeling of being in control reminds me of a collaborative performance I did with a friend of mine— an artist. The performance had a pretty solid conceptual framework. We were using the byproducts of our practice, material that you would end up making by mistake but you’d never do anything with and we used this material in different ways to make a score for this improvised performance. The audience were meant to come in and out over the duration, but they didn’t. They just sat and watched the whole thing from start to finish. A whole hour of us wrapping clothes around ourselves and trying to do these dance manoeuvres and I remember I was thinking “God, I don’t know what I’m doing and this is really difficult”. There were way too many variants: a little bit of making sound, but not really… a bit of dancing, but I don’t really know how to dance…
I remember that he had all these scratches on his feet and he was really sweating. I hadn’t even broken a sweat. It was obvious that he’d really got into it in a way I hadn’t managed. I then got a bit fixated on this idea of being able to “sweat” in what I do. Not necessarily physically, but in the sense that you’ve exercised yourself so fully that it starts coming back out of you again. I think in that instance the limitations weren’t tight enough, so I was just feeling around and I couldn’t do anything properly because I was just flapping and wrapping my t-shirt around my head… For me, I just can’t deal with very much. I need it to be super-tight in order to do something in a meaningful way. Otherwise I feel like I don’t believe it, so why should anyone else.
I also think that a lot of the work that I’m making is in response to the first time that I ever used my voice in a performance. Afterwards everyone was saying “Oh, you just have such a beautiful voice” which was totally not the point for the work for me. It seemed like this impulse people had to beautify my singing voice completely overtook all other critical readings of the work. I felt as if a huge part of the work just disappeared in the face of this which deeply troubled me for a long time afterwards.
SJ It’s not interesting. To a certain degree its cool to watch a really technically skilled person doing well on stage… but it’s not what it’s about to me. You might as well watch TV or a talent show and get excited about that.
To me there is this trick about being able to show a certain level of competence, using your talent to project an idea and not the opposite. It’s also not so satisfying to watch really untalented people, right? It needs to be this balance of the technical and something else’— a message or method or a clear idea behind it otherwise it just becomes a blur.
CT It doesn’t seem to me like your work is just a technical exercise. I’m not sure what the right word is, it’s not expression… but I feel like it couldn’t be anyone that is doing what you’re doing. It’s not like you are just writing a score. How do you feel about that?
SJ Someone just asked me if there is a common element to all of my different projects, because I do many different things and I think maybe it has to do with improvisation. Even if I have a really strict frame or structure that I work within I approach it with this open form idea that I can extend or shorten parts so the timing is a bit free. I still PLAY with the material. It’s not rigid and that I have to do the exact same thing every time.
CT Does that help you to be able to do it over and over again?
SJ Yes. exactly and when I feel like a performance was successful it’s really about being able to be free within the structure and to “sweat in it”, even if the material is super minimal.
CT I think that was what I was trying to get at. A balance between wanting to be tighter and more specific about something so it’s not just loose and open, it doesn’t just fall into that “expressive” category, but at the same time I don’t want to just be doing a technical exercise that I don’t feel anything about.
SJ I think it makes me more free when I have a clear frame to work inside of. It makes me more comfortable to play around with whatever is in that frame.
CT I can totally relate to that.
SJ Otherwise it’s just too diffuse. You can’t grasp it and it becomes uncomfortable to both perform and to watch.
CT Is there still much room to improvise in what you are making now?
SJ Yes. The material itself is set before, so I know what I’m going to do, but I just don’t know exactly how. It’s a little bit loose in that sense, and maybe that is where if I do it well it doesn’t come across as stiff or an exercise and becomes something more than that hopefully.
CT I think I work in that way a lot. Maybe it’s something we have in common. I know what form a piece is going to take and I know what the material is but there is always room for some change or some form of improvisation within it. This is useful for me because I find it really weird repeating performances. It’s something I’m trying to get used to now. The performances I make are really specific to the energy I had at the time I made them, the way my body was at that time, I didn’t like to think about it like that in the past, but I’m understanding it more and more in that way now. I think probably because my health has been a bit up and down over the last year. There was one performance that was really energetic that I had to do in the middle of not feeling very energetic and I felt like — this doesn’t make any sense to my body to be de-doing this performance now.
SJ Do you feel vulnerable a lot when you perform?
CT I think about this quite a lot. I was speaking to Lyra Pramuk when she was in Stockholm. I was attempting to write a PhD application at the time, so I was trying to put my finger on this thing about singing in front of people. I feel like there is something really specific about it — or that it does something very particular, but I’ve struggled to find the language for it for a really long time. She was talking about it in terms of a feeling of power and vulnerability at the same time and I think I can relate to that. Although that word vulnerability is also tricky – I have an idea about being vulnerable when I perform but I’m also not sure that what I’m feeling is actually vulnerability. I think I feel exposed in a way — raw, maybe — but I also feel quite powerful. How do you feel?
SJ I just get annoyed when people tell me that I’m brave.
CT Yes. Totally.
SJ I don’t think that I feel vulnerable. I think I agree with you that I can probably feel a bit naked sometimes but especially when I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. That’s when it’s the worst.
CT That’s the only time I feel vulnerable. When I don’t have that control.
SJ If I know what I’m doing and I think I’m in control then its fine and I feel strong and that I’m convincing (in a way). It’s horrible when you feel that you are not convincing and you’re fumbling. I think singing makes it even worse because you have nothing to hide behind. No drumsticks, drums, piano or any instrument to cover up your mistakes or the sound of your voice. And it’s also personal and especially for Lyra because she’s been through transition and she also made a choice to change her singing voice. It must be such a powerful and heavy and tough process that I obviously cannot imagine how it feels. To project your voice — I think there is something there and I think it relates to something we talked about where it becomes too much about the performer and it becomes about this private, emotional expression. I have never seen that done well. I think it’s possible, but it’s a tough thing to pull off.
But maybe the feedback, people saying that we’re brave, etc — I think it’s got to do with them not being able to imagine doing the same thing because it feels so private. The voice is such a personal, human, emotional instrument —if you even think about it as an instrument which I don’t think many people do.
CT When a person says something like that to me I try to explain that this is just what I spend my time doing. It’s a language that I’ve come to understand through practice. Someone came up to me after a performance once and said “How did you come up with that?” She was a journalist or writer and I thought “You spend all your time writing. It’s not remarkable that you know how to put words together” It’s just what you spend your time with and learn how to do. It’s what you develop a confidence in. Maybe there is something specific about using the voice however because there’s a feeling that everyone ‘could’ do it but they don’t do it.
SJ I think so. I think there is something about people feeling that they have an ownership to the voice. I think that is why singing contests are so popular because you relate so much to the person singing. This also works in contexts where there is a vocalist in a band or on stage. If you hear a voice singing you know immediately and direct your attention towards that person or towards that sound.
CT Why do you think that is?
SJ Something instinctive. I think there is something biological. Babies can hear their mother’s voice and vice versa. I can recognise my son’s voice from all the other babies.
You associate the voice more with all these emotions. We use the voice when we laugh. These really weird sounds that are completely natural. Laughing, crying. These quite extreme sounds actually. Extended techniques in everyday life. But once you do it on stage it becomes weird. I think it’s got to do with this — the social aspect to it. If someone screams you are alerted to think something is wrong.
CT Do you think that can be confusing for people when you put it on a stage?
SJ I don’t get it so much now, but before when I was doing more free improvised music I got feedback about how they were feeling. “I felt like you were screaming for help.” Those kind of associations to the sounds. Now it’s less like that because I’ve changed the way I sing and its much more — not necessarily musical — but maybe more familiar or more like musical sounds and it doesn’t have these emotional elements to it to the same degree. Though when I performed one of the first rounds of the Fake Synthetic Music a kind of raw version without lights — only me and the echo effect. One guy — a field worker for doctors without borders — came up and said it reminded him of the alarm and he got really bad associations with the sounds. That didn’t feel so cool…
CT How did you feel about making that move? Was it in reaction to people having these more emotional responses?
SJ Away from emotional elements? I have been constantly trying to get away from this or at least reduce that aspect of the sound making. But I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just a taste thing or what I prefer myself when I listen to singers. I don’t like too much when I’m told what to feel from their sounds. When it’s too obvious and becomes almost like acting. But I understand it’s also part of a tradition and it’s connected to sound poetry and all that. I just prefer ambiguity.
CT I feel the same way. I try and think a lot about why I have a problem with people having these “emotional” reactions or putting their responses into an emotional language. It’s not that I don’t want people to feel something or that I’m against feeling when I perform, quite the opposite. But I can also sense that the audience are putting something on me which is not so much about me or them but more about the way we are taught to relate to singers in general. I feel like I’m not really being listened to. It’s just triggering this history of a way that we have learnt how to listen and react to someone who sings.
Cara Tolmie & Stine Janvin perform at Stockholm’s Stadsbiblioteket on Saturday 9 February 2019 at 4pm. Entry is free.
This conversation is also included in Notes on Other Music — an A5 perfect-bound print book available at the festival and to order online here.