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Cross-art

Composer and director Erik Dæhlin is using his artistic research project to try to develop an innovative and intermedial composition technique. The goal? Better and wiser art.

Erik Dæhlin greets us as he unwinds his scarf and orders a coffee in the café at the Oslo Opera House. The composer and performance artist has only just managed to digest yesterday’s premiere of Her at the opera house, and there are just a few hours to go until the next performance. The show was conceived in collaboration with singer and dancer Silje Aker Johnsen and was first staged at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts a year ago. It worked better this time round, according to Dæhlin.

“When we staged Her last year it was a bit too self-centred, I thought. It’s important that the members of the audience feel there is room for them, that they’re being accommodated. The relevance that can be generated in the meeting between performers and audience worked better this time around, and I’m very happy about that.”

Her, staged in the opera house on 14 and 15 February 2018, is part of Dæhlin’s artistic research project at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH). He took up his fellowship in autumn 2016. The research is a continuation of Dæhlin’s past work on instrumental music and music theatre, which saw him produce hybrid works of art involving audio, visuals and text. Entitled Shared Space – Composing in the Field of a Relational, Processual and Intermedial Practice, Dæhlin’s project seeks to define and explore his role as a composer in collaboration with different performers. Using the premises of ownership, investment, searching and risk, he will investigate how the performer can influence the artistic process. The term shared space refers to the development, but also the performance, of the artistic outcome.

“Shared spaces are incredibly important. There is a risk, at least in contemporary music, that we forget about these common spaces.”

The main objective of his research is to “create better and wiser art”.

“What are the important components, and how should they be structured? That’s what I’m working on now. I’m curious about whether the role of composer and director works for me. In Her I control the sound from the side of the auditorium, so I can’t always see what’s happening on stage. When preparing for the performance I’ve been thinking a lot about how a performer or director relies heavily on one particular sense: vision. When you don’t see, you use other senses. What impact does that have on the choices you make, the language you use and how you respond to each other? It’s hugely interesting.”

Creative roles

Dæhlin trained as a percussionist at the conservatory in Tromsø and has studied composition at the NMH under teachers such as Henrik Hellstenius, Asbjørn Schaathun and Olav Anton Thommessen. He has been composing since 1997 and has written both solo and chamber music as well as electro-acoustic music for performers including Håkon Stene, Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Ensemble neoN and Oslo Sinfonietta. After founding the NING ensemble in the 1990s he felt the need for a more innovative approach to composition.

“NING played a lot of contemporary music, and I quickly began to grow tired of what this music has to tell us and how little room there is for it in society. Much of it is if not exclusive, then at least isolated. I’ve also found – and this is partly a criticism of the genre – that working with performers is extremely important for a composer. What does collaboration actually mean? The role of the composer is a prominent one: it’s your work, your opera. However, many works would never have existed had it not been for a particular singer, for instance. I’m trying to take it seriously. I’m trying to look at what we can create together.

He laughs and says that as an only child, he is probably not used to being corrected. The part of him that wants to lead and take control is challenged when the close collaboration with the performer gradually begins to erase the creative roles.

“But I’d rather get up in the morning and work with someone than sit there all by myself.”

“I’d rather get up in the morning and work with someone than sit there all by myself.”

Erik Dæhlin Composer

A collective memory

Her is the first of three main projects that Dæhlin will be working on during his fellowship tenure. The performance straddles both contemporary opera and dance theatre, and Aker Johnsen uses her body and voice to explore her own memories on stage and in front of an audience. Childlike sounds and movements morph into operatic singing and pirouettes, bringing past memories into the present. Dæhlin controls the sound and tech from the far end of the third row. Sonic impulses trickle into the room from a speaker attached to a long cord suspended from the ceiling on one side of the stage. Aker Johnsen occasionally prods it and lets it revolve around its own axis. This lets the sound reach the audience from different angles, underpinning Aker Johnsen’s storytelling as something organic and moveable.

Behind the production lie hours of conversations and improvisations involving Aker Johnsen and Dæhlin. Together they have tested innumerable variations and repetitions of the same material. The performance is also part of Aker Johnsen’s performance research into body and voice at the Academy of Opera.

“The idea of working on memory came from me and is being interpreted by her. Perhaps she interprets it as being about something difficult, a trauma. That’s when we start discussing what it’s about. Language plays a major part in how we talk about what we do. We have tried to identify both the inside and outside perspectives. What is her perception of timing versus my perception when viewing it from the outside, for instance? How can we talk about that knowledge, and which knowledge should we trust when making a decision?”

It is an unavoidable fact that personality becomes part of an artistic work, but Dæhlin is not trying to create self-revelatory art. On the contrary. To him, a good collaboration is about the ability to create something that is greater than the parties involved, something that goes beyond themselves.

“There is always an element of doubt before a premiere; is this any good, how does it look? The egocentric aspect of me comes out. But if we can get over that and instead think about what we are giving and sharing with the audience, then I’d say it’s a good collaboration. That ringmaster syndrome that many composers have, me included, does not work in a process like this. I also find that there is a weariness amongst many musicians when it comes to spending weeks rehearsing a work that will only be performed once. I’m aware of the feeling of meaninglessness that it can create, and I hope that processes such as these can have a different effect – that they can be used to create something important. And perhaps also important to those we perform it for.”

Sounds and language

Dæhlin attributes much of the decision to explore memory in the Her project to his mother, who was diagnosed with degenerative dementia. Identity and recognition are strongly linked to memory, and observing someone gradually disappear is difficult, yet it is meaningful to explore it through art, says Dæhlin. Memory is a recurring theme in many of his projects, including Absence is the Only Real, conceived in partnership with percussionist Håkon Stene in 2014. For the performance, which examines absent fathers, they each created a playlist of music that they remembered their fathers used tolisten to.

“A lot of popular music crops up when you work on projects like this, but I wanted to steer clear of that with Her. I reflected on what memory means in sound, and I began to think about resonance, attack, vibration and the technicalities of sound production. I moved to a different place musically. I have to work on talking about the sounds, about what I’m actually doing. I’ve always tried to avoid that. It’s a bit boring and difficult, and I was wary of talking things to death. When a poet describes his poem he’s no longer a poet. That’s a big challenge with artistic research: how to express yourself semantically.”

How does your research influence the art?

“The question is, where do the words fit in? Every day I try to remember that what we’re doing and the knowledge we’re generating will not disappear. They will remain within us. I’d go so far as to say that they become part of your genes. The mantra is that if you don’t write a thesis, the knowledge will be lost. I’d say on the contrary, if you’ve written a thesis, nobody wants to read it. But I wonder whether there is a simple way of saying something about my sound work. Resonance is memory in many ways. If there is no space, a decay, something that happens after the act itself, then you won’t perceive it as sound; you won’t understand the identity of the sound. This is a parallel to how I perceive art. There is often a resonance after you’ve watched a film or read a book. Maybe even before, like a pre-resonance before the event. That has been my main perspective on the sound process in Her.”

Intermedial risks

As part of his research, Dæhlin has launched a collaboration with singer and composer Frank Havrøy. Using Havrøy’s working-class upbringing in Øraker as a starting point, the ambition is to look more closely at identity. During his tenure Dæhlin will also be completing a project based on Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata – an endeavour he hopes to realise in collaboration with NMH students in an attempt to increase contact between students and researchers at the Academy.

“The aim is for the projects to build on each other, for there to be some common features, some sort of progression.”

"I’m curious about what the risks might be when performing together with an audience."

Erik Dæhlin Composer

You are working across different art forms, and in your project description you say that there is an element of risk in the intermedial approach to composition. What do you mean by that?

“There could be a personal risk to my own production. I don’t always write notes any more, for instance. Notes are a certainty for a composer; they show that you’ve done your homework. But constantly being the subject of someone else’s gaze, someone else’s opinions, that’s being vulnerable. I’m also curious about what the risks might be when performing together with an audience. In traditional operatic formats, the risk involved in exploring new things is small. You have a score that you follow. On that particular point I think some stage art has come much further. It’s not necessarily about not knowing what to do, but daring to not know entirely how to do it. It’s about daring to explore something while performing.”

Lack of knowledge

Inside the opera’s studio theatre, a pile of vinyl records without sleeves lies in a corner of the stage. Later in the evening, Aker Johnsen puts one of them on the record player before rolling her body across the remainder of the records. The records – representing all genres – grind and scratch against each other, perhaps not unlike the compositional process that Dæhlin is researching in which the artistic outcomes are produced through different personalities and perspectives being thrown back and forth in a close collaboration where things are often put to the test and a lot is at stake, Dæhlin explains.

“Many composers work intermedially, taking in elements from other art forms. But I find that there is a lack of knowledge of what it actually means – artistically but also relationally – when you walk away from your culture and into another and share methodologies in a different way than when working with the traditional methods that we might be used to. This knowledge has to be generated and put into words. It’s also about finding opportunities for working in such processes. I definitely think there is a need for that. If you look beyond Norway, there are so many composers who are experts in technology, computers, robots, whatever it may be. But on a more human and relational level – understanding what it takes to work together – there is something missing.”