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Interviews

Sidsel Endresen: The Place to Be

By Published: July 3, 2012
AAJ: The thread leading to the Nordic line of heritage in your music is quite visible.

From left: Stian Westerhus, Sidsel Endresen

SE: Strangely enough my main inspiration when I started writing music was with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
b.1943
vocalist
—who were coming from the American folk tradition, and not from the Nordic one—but I think if you live in Norway, you are exposed to folk music all the time. It is one of the countries where traditional folk music is highly regarded and you hear it all the time on the radio. I grew up with my father listening to folk music and, in particular, fiddle music on the radio. It was always there. So I think that it is, indeed, a bit of my heritage.

AAJ: What's striking is the cohabitation of the Nordic tradition with the most experimental musical approaches and techniques. Where do they meet? What is the point of disjunction?

SE: As I said, my main influences were Anglo-American and, as I grew up in England (I lived there for eight years), I was very much into this genre—and it is still a point of departure for me in all I do. But when it came to exploring the voice, my main motive was the wish to do other things with it than simply carrying a song. I wanted to work improvisationally, and more instrumentally with the voice, so that I could be a true force in the way the music evolved. I wanted to be a real part of defining the form, texture and total sound. I wanted to have the freedom to move in and out of foreground/background. I have always been very frustrated with the role of vocal improvisation within mainstream jazz. Sonically it is always a copy of the sound of the trumpet or the sax, and thus automatically adopting the phrasings of these instruments. But, importantly, many of my greatest musical heroes and heroines are mainstream jazz singers and instrumentalists.

AAJ: Why was that? Was it the technique?

SE: I think it was the mannerisms of jazz vocals, which I found a bit too night-clubby, too smoky, too languid. It is wonderful when it is genuine but for me to even contemplate emulating this was a no. Felt like acting. I've been through the Real Book and standards, and done my time studying jazz harmonies and more, but I never found myself there. I think I rather have a stronger affinity for pop, country and folksingers. So, from an improvisational point of view, I looked elsewhere. I got into ethnic music forms from all around the world, from which I found a great source of inspiration because of the great variety of uses and functions of the voice. But this as a source of inspiration only. These traditional forms would take a lifetime to fully understand or handle—so you let it stream, you let it go through you. There is something with these textures, and the way these voices move, which attracts me enormously.

So that was the first kind of research I had done, if you can call it that. I was spending 12 hours a day, for long periods of time, working with the voice, recording it, working down to phonetics, to sound cells, and trying to turn them into musical objects, something that could communicate with other musicians and other people as well. It is a long process. But I find that even my most experimental, more sonic voice work is based on my work with songs. The work I was doing for the first ten years was mainly pre-organized melodic material. So it is not like becoming, all of a sudden, a completely different person. It is all very connected, through time and experience.

AAJ: Nevertheless, your voice has a suave quality. Do you see yourself as a lyrical singer?

SE: I really try to achieve a happy marriage between my technical/cerebral musical self and my intuitive musical self. I always work very concretely when I rehearse or research—and when performing, I never focus on the "personal," or on my feelings. On the contrary, I think one's own feelings can be a real quagmire; it is not interesting. What is interesting is the music—in which I am just a channel. Ever since I started singing, I have been very aware that my focus has always been on things like rhythmic parameters, phonetics, phrasing and form. Like how you shape a vowel or how you make a marriage of words and music. My focus was always more on all things musical than on the psychological content or the literary content of the text. I believe that the basic material (words and music) take care of themselves—and that if you overestimate your role as interpreter, you will kill it. And the same now, when I work more sonically and improvised, my focus is on fields of energy, timing, beauty, harshness, speed and density, and so my technique is all about feeding the basic idea. Any catering to the wish to fill the music with "personal touches" or any other such strategic perfumes—will ultimately drop you into a very porridge-like landscape, and will become a swamp that sucks you in and strangles you—and the music.


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