Sidsel Endresen is one of those rare artists who, after covering a vast musical territoryin her case reaching across from the Nordic folk songs to the rich cultural heritage of Arabic, Chinese and the Japanese traditional singinghave created their own form of expression, and gradually perfected it into a new musical language. She uses her voice to process the immediate sonic environment into a musical presence that emerges like a new energy, both suave and highly technical, to meet and round its digital pendant right in front of the audience. Ha!
(Rune Grammofon, 2011), her recently released collaboration with Humcrush
, reveals one of the many facets of an artist who is exploring the hidden potential of her own voice to address our sensitiveness in a most direct way. Together with the musicians belonging to the Nordic jazz tradition, Endresen has been engaged, for more than three decades, in the interactive pursuit of new channels destined to transform an ethereal form of artistic expression into pure emotion. All About Jazz:
What is your voice made of? Sidsel Endresen:
I think that a voice is more like a channel. This is what I feel after working with it for so many years. It is the muscle that connects me with the world; an instrument I can use for that purpose. The other thing is that, being part of the body, it is very connected to my thought processes. There's no filtering between, which is a good thing but, on the other hand, it can become very private, and I don't want that to happen. I want to be personal but not private. There's a fine line there. I also want to be able to move my perspective; to be able to move and look at my voice from a meta perspective in order to see how close I am to fulfilling a musical idea. It is like an instrument but without the material filter all other instruments have. There is nothing in-between. For me, the voice is like having a very happy marriage between your intuitive musical self and your intellect. They don't function well separately, and merging them takes a lot of time. Whenever I research something new I am more cerebral than intuitive, but then when I spend enough time working on these new parameters, it kind of clicks in where it belongs. In other words, being spontaneous requires a lot of pre-work. AAJ:
Was it a focused kind of effort? SE:
Not really, now that I look back at it. When I was a younger musician I worked within very different musical genres, and with different parameters and structures without having any kind of pre-conceived concept. Later on as I started working more methodically, particularly with the sound modules, the basis was already there, through my continuous work with more straight material. So I had a deeply grounded departure point in straight, pre-organized material. This has proven to be all-important for me in my current work with free-improvisation. AAJ:
Did you decide, early on, that you were going to become a singer, or was it rather an accidental course of events? SE:
There was always a lot of music in my home. My father was a classical violin player and my mother an amateur opera singer. I was around 14 when my father gave me a guitar and I started learning to play it, and started making songs. Probably around that time, I recognized that I could carry a song. I don't think I ever decided to become a singer; it was rather coincidental. It happened through people I met when I was very young, who were working with music. And it just grew from there, slowly. I didn't really consider my singing as a possible career until I was about 24 or 25. Before that I was into many things and possibilities. I studied social anthropology and English literature. I actually never studied music formally. I was involved, as a side-project, in a couple of bandsand we started doing some gigs in Oslo, and soon I found myself a part of the music scene in Oslo. No strategy here and, thus, a true surprise that so much happened from these local gigs. AAJ:
When did you start writing music? Was it the result of a maturing process or just pure inspiration? SE:
It was definitely the result of a maturing process. At first I was making very sentimental songs with the few basic chord sequences I knew, and then, when I started working with professional musicians, my level of ambition grew and, although I continued making music, I realized how much I didn't know, so I didn't want to show my writing anymore. There were many years when I only wrote the poetry, the lyrics, because I had been doing that since I was very young, I felt I had a strong voice there. In fact I stopped making music for many years because the musicians I collaborated with at that time wrote better music for my lyrics than I did. AAJ:
Did it have an inhibiting effect on you? SE:
Not really. It was rather more like facing reality. In the mid-eighties I started making music again. More based on my own musical ideas. In the meantime I had been gradually moving towards improvised music. So, you see, all my musical processes have been just that: process-driven and very gradual. Even now, as we speak, I find myself right in the middle of another learning process. It is a continuous challengeand, therefore, a good place to be. 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
who were coming from the American folk tradition, and not from the Nordic onebut 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 genreand 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 handleso 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 researchand 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 musicin 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 themselvesand 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 perfumeswill ultimately drop you into a very porridge-like landscape, and will become a swamp that sucks you in and strangles youand the music. AAJ:
Your voice covers a very wide range of expression, from songs of sheer lyricism to the most daring experimental endeavors. Is there a sonic environment you can identify with the most right now? SE:
It is a matter of affinity and stage development that help you synergize with the others. That's what attracts me: when you don't know what is going to come out of any collaboration. It is not connected to any particular instrument, it is mainly connected to the way people play and the sounds they produce. For example, I love the incredible roughness and wonderful and intuitive timing of [guitarist] Stian Westerhus. That is where we meet. I also love the tenderness and total clarity of [live sampler] Jan Bang
and the way he organizes his sounds together with his live samples along the way. He is so quickand such a strong improviser. And then my collaboration with [percussionist] Thomas Strønen
and Ståle Storløkken, in Humcrush, is wonderful and totally challenging. Our improvised trio can express a whole range of things: it can go from very sweet to very hysterical and then, again, to very monumental.