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Unromantic – Improvisation as Interpretation

Live Maria Roggen sings in front of a microphone and Ingfrid Breie Nyhus plays the piano.

"Unromantic. Improvisation as interpretation" is an exploration of interpretation and style-transposition, with improvisation as the main strategy. The project is based on a duo collaboration between two performers from different genre backgrounds and focuses on (late) romantic songs. The songs are ‘de-romanticised’ and become the subject of improvising processes as a means of interpretation. What processes, (im)possibilities and insights emerge during this process? What does ‘romantic’ mean in performance and in what ways can 'style' be moved and changed?

, Audio: Ulf Holand

The «Unromantic» project came to life in 2016, when improvising singer Live Maria Roggen and pianist Ingfrid Breie Nyhus found each other in the idea to perform Sibelius’ beautiful songs with a more serene and slim voice, in a drier and closer sound world; to perhaps reveal more of the song and its poetry. This initial start opened up a lot of questions, ideas and problems in terms of strategies and sound, that they found intriguing and important to pursue. The aim of this artistic research project is to explore these ideas, strategies, processes and challenges in late romantic material.

Songs composed in the romantic period are most often performed with a classically-trained voice, often involving extensive vibrato, traits of the passionate and dramatic. Such aesthetics are experienced as distant from those with which these two musicians usually work. What would the song be like within another aesthetic world?

Video: Based on «Jubal» by Jean Sibelius, formed by Live Maria Roggen and Ingfrid Breie Nyhus.

In Roggen's case, the voice does not have the trained projection of classical singing technique. Being amplified and using proximity effects, it communicates the lyrics more like natural speech. Because of this change of voice situation; dynamics, passages and forms in the romantic works must necessarily be adjusted, for the sake of musical meaning, expression and form – not only for the voice but for the piano, too.

This leads into a ‘de-romanticisation’ process: Can the music be 'undressed' from its style, in a movement into another aesthetic space? What strategies does each 'undressed' song then ask for? What parts and levels of the work appear important to keep and preserve - or to modify? How can the material evolve improvisationally?

The combination of amplified voice and acoustic piano leads to a parallel investigation of solutions for sound-in-room. How can such a duo play in the same sound space? Possibilities in combining acoustic and amplified sound are explored with sound designer Asle Karstad.

The project is a study of experimental strategies in relation to tradition (‘traditioning’), where known material interacts with the unknown. The inherited material meets a ‘here and now’. It is an exploration within an extended framework of interpretation, with improvisation as its main method.

Live Maria Roggen stands upright in front of a microphone and points toward sheet music. Ingfrid Breie Nyhus is sitting behind a grand piano while looking at Live.

Text-fidelity and an understanding of style are key principles in classical interpretation practice today. Yet, throughout the history of Western music, improvisation, paraphrasing and re-composition have been part of the practice. In the 20th century, many composers made modern works and re-compositions based on canonized works. "Unromantic" focuses on the performer’s perspective: improvisation was strong in Western art music until the idea of the work and the composer as a unique genius became prevalent, during and after the Romantic period. This period highlighted intuition and emotion; musical compositions were inventive, expressive, dramatic and virtuosic. Some argue that the romantic performance practice of today differs from the original practice's freer approach to pitch, rhythm, timing, and less vibrato and volume. The HIP movement re-emphasized the historical significance of improvisation. Another, more experimental approach to classical interpretation has since emerged among certain musicians, whose projects include methods parallel to interpretational strategies in theatre, where inherited material explicitly encounters contemporaneity and the performers’ own artistic ideas.

An album of improvisations based on Sibelius songs is to be released in 2021. The project continues by exploring works from other composers.

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