Interview by Franziska Baumann
with Kristin Norderval
Kristin Norderval, Vocalist, Composer, Performer
KRISTIN NORDERVAL is an Oslo based performer, composer and improviser whose career has been two-fold; split between vocal performance and composition. Her performance repertoire spans the renaissance to the avant-garde, and her credits as a soprano soloist include performances with the Oslo Sinfonietta, Philip Glass Ensemble, Pomerium, the Netherlands Dance Theater, and the San Francisco Symphony. She has improvised in a wide range of styles – from free improvisations with Pauline Oliveros to jazz improvisations with composer-vibraphonist Kevin Norton – and has recorded vocal works by numerous prominent American composers, among them Eve Beglarian, David Lang, Tania Leon and Annea Lockwood. Five chamber operas have been composed specifically for Norderval, including Pope Joan, a dance-opera by Anne LeBaron, recorded on New World Records, and She Lost Her Voice That’s How We Knew – a one-woman electro-acoustic opera by Frances White.
She plays with two wireless Wave Rings by Genki, i.e., rings that can be put on like jewellery. Her goal is to use the wireless sensor instruments so that she does not need visual feedback on the computer.
Zoom Interview in October 2020: Kristin Norderval in Oslo and Franziska Baumann in Bern
"FROM ME BUT NOT ME"
Franziska Baumann: Can you describe your vocal realm? What inspires you? What is your vocal approach in general?
Kristin Norderval: I think about my voice very much as a resonator. (She laughs) So I am feeling the resonation in my body, where it is vibrating in my head, in my bones, on my shoulders, in my skull; how it feels in my mouth.
I love having the background of a classically trained singer because I feel that the register it opens to me opens the biggest power.
I can explore resonance from lowest to highest and feel it with an open throat and use it as a way to explore to the acoustics of the spaces I am in. When I come into a space, I ask myself: Do I want to sing here? Is it a space I want to resonate? Whether it is outside in a place with interesting acoustics, like in an amphitheater, or inside, it has to be somewhere where there are resonating reflection surfaces.
KN: I feel like there is a lot of dependence now on the microphone, and from that, I feel a bit alienated. Because one of the things I love from my classical training is not having to be dependent on a microphone. When I do workshops I want to impart that freedom. Yes, you can choose to work with a microphone, and it´s fun and opens other things. But you don’t need to. You can just work with your voice and what a freedom is that to be able to go into any space! Wherever you are, you carry the voice with you.
On the other side, I am a bit alienated from the classical singer culture because that tradition doesn’t involve enough improvisation, or exploration of resonance, timbre and all the generative tools we have as singers. So I am somewhere in between singers exploring with microphones and singers with a classical background.
FB: What is the universe of the voice beyond classical singing?
KN: That is different with every singer. There are so many different traditions.
For me, usually, I perform in spaces where I can sing without amplification.
I perform in places where I can perform like a chamber ensemble, with the acoustic unamplified voice and the sampled voices blended together. The sampled voices become another instrument for my composer brain; a combination of another instrument and a co-collaborating improvisor.
The Embodied and The Mediated Voice
FB: How do you experience the mediated voice?
KN: “From me but not me”. “From me”, With the Embodied Voice, I know exactly what I can do and how I can control it.
Sometimes with the Mediated Voice, my composer brain decides what to do with the “From Me”. I can control and shape it directly within the structure of a frame of chosen tools. And other times that “From Me” is material that develops in a way that I cant predict because there are overlapping coincidences of folded time, and those coincidences become the collaborators. They are the parts that are exciting and fun. “Oh! I got that? Can I work with it?” You have to respond in the moment.
FB: Could you give some insight into your new piece Flying Blind? The composition starts with a kind of calling. Is there a text underlined? How did you develop your vocal vocabulary in this particular work?
KN: The word that is in my brain at the start of this piece is “listen”. First I listen, and explore acoustically. The audio input is off. My exploration in the space acoustically is to tune my and the audience’s ears to the space we are all inhabiting. What is this air we are in, and what is this building we are in?
There is a simple structure with three speaker positions, a stereo pair for the pitched notes, low drones and more melodic figurations with feedback. Two hemispherical speakers in the middle of the audience are for the sibilants, and little timbral, breath and textural sounds.
FB: How do you experience the mediated or disembodied voice in relation to your embodied voice?
KN: I experience the Mediated Voice as a collaborator, an improviser with whom I play, the “From Me but Not Me”. Sometimes I can control the “From Me” precisely what I want to do. It is entirely predictable. Especially if it is a piece, sometimes that “From Me” is material that I can’t predict. And those coincidences are the collaborator. “Oh”, I get that. Can I work with it?” It is like in improvisation, where you get unforeseen responses and impulses.
Designing Ritual Aspects
FB: Who are you on stage as a singer?
KN: There is always some connection to ritual in my work. I think a lot about our function as singers. You sing a lullaby, that´s a bedtime song. You sing for a wedding, for an opening, for a church service, for a sports event, that is something else. I feel like the ritual elements are very strong in our roles as singers. It is part of the magic which takes us out of our everyday experience. And there is a healing element. Sometimes I tell people “I am going to give you a sonic bath”. Stuart Dempster used that term a lot.
FB: Could you describe your technical setup? Phenomenologically, what is the relation between you and your computer?
KN: I have a main performing patch that I use. With the Wave Ring I am using only a portion of this main performance patch, at least in Flying Blind. I am using three different delay feedback lines. And each of those delay feedback lines has the ability to go from a very short delay to a very long delay, usually from about eighty milliseconds to a minute, but it could be even longer or shorter. On my left hand, the roll function of the gyroscope is mapped to delay. If I am in a palm-down position, it is the shortest delay, and if I am in a palm-up position, it is the most extended delay. Any slight motion gets a significant change. The delay changes are scaled to eighth notes within a tempo. So it might be jumping from 500 milliseconds to a thousand milleseconds, or a different amount, depending on the BPM. But still, slight movements have a big change. I scaled it logarithmically so that the first part of the roll takes more of a movement to make a modification because those changes between, let's say, 80 milliseconds and 200 ms are so audible. Once you get to the longer delays, we do not recognize the changes in delay length as much.
The interesting thing about the long delay is that I can start sampling a very long phrase and then choose to go to a very short delay, but the long delay is still there as long as the feedback is still up. That’s where I get the image of folded time. I can bring back some element of that long sampled phrase much later in the piece. And if I want to go back to the long delay, I can search it out, but of course, it has changed because my hand motions go all through these different delay times. That search of what I did in the past, getting changed when I am pulling up the memory, is interesting to me philosophically. That very, very simple mapping becomes much more complicated because the patch is listening all the time, and you get all these coincidental overlays and foldings.
The continuous controller is also mapped so that if I am at a hundred percent feedback, it does not take audio input, which is a safety bypass. If I find something that I like, that I want to have the possibility to do a solo over, then I can put the feedback at a hundred percent and do my solo without sampling that solo. I am in a soloist function. And I can even keep that on a hundred per cent and move to another feedback-delay channel.
The gyroscope‘s pitch function with my arm all the way up is feedback at a hundred per cent, and if I let my arm all the way down, I let go of the feedback.
FB: I saw this gesture also on your right hand.
KN: Yes, with this gesture in the right hand, I empty all the buffers. It is fun to play with two different ways of creating a structural pause: letting all the feedback down and clearing the buffers.
On the right hand, I can choose which delay line I am sending to, and those delay-lines are routed to particular speakers. The right hand functions are like a menu object. The only use of the continuous controllers on the right hand is the gesture to clear the buffers.
FB: The right hand is the rational sideKN: laughs...yes. The right hand is the functional and structural conductor. I never actually thought about that. Another interesting thing that was interesting in the development was that it really helped me to map the speakers according to the place where the buttons on the Wave Ring are arranged. So I have a physical relationship to the placement of the speakers in the room.
Composing an Instrument or an Instrumentation
FB: Do you compose the mapping of your controllers with the physical gesture in mind to get a meta-meaning? For example, your roll function becomes a caressing one when we watch you and listen to your music. Our brain starts to recognize your gestures, and they develop a meta-meaning within time. Are these meaning levels in your mind when you compose gestures, or is it about tying the music you want to make to gestures most simply?
KN: Well, I think it is a bit of both. When I was first exploring this dual control of feedback and delay, it was with the Hot Hand. With the Hot Hand, I had no Menu. It was just exploring which parameter I want to use for feedback and which one for the delay. The flat hand up like a cop in traffic was a “stop” for me. At this position, the feedback is going on a hundred per cent, but at the same time, it is stopping taking in my voice, the audio is stopped.
And letting the hand go down like throwing something away is “let it go”. That felt like a natural gesture to let the feedback go to zero.
On the Hot Hand, the first patch that I was working with had a different relationship to delay. It was not continuously changing. It was actually a timer: so when I put my hand up, it would start a timer, then I would decide ok that’s how much I want and close it with my hand palm down. Opening the hand was recording, and closing was stop recording. That created a certain length of the delay, and then I would loop over it without changing the delay time. With that design, I knew in my body exactly how long the delay I chose would be.
I don’t know precisely how long the recorded delay will be in this other concept of delay with the Genki rings. It is like engaging with a very long tape loop between two tape machines - where you can’t exactly say where the file starts and stops. It feels very physical. I have to search very carefully for the samples. I love the care and the presence that that creates.
FB: The Wave Ring is not visible. It is not like a prop that I have with the SensorGlove. Is the Wave Ring for you an object, an instrument or a body extension?
KN: It is a body extension because I am not thinking of it as an object. I don’t have to hold it. I mean, it is an object of course, but it feels like jewelry. I put in the program notes that I am controlling with the wireless mid-ring. So I am not trying to hide that from the audience, but I like the fact that it is not specific to anything in the high tech world.
FB: I feel that your voice, your body and your personality is there first.
KN: It feels very free.
Metaphorical Aspects of Gestures
FB: What are gestures doing with YOU when you play with the Wave Ring?
KN: laughs…Well, there are two things I notice in my gestural vocabulary. For certain gestures like “letting everything go” to take everything out of the buffer, I have to be very particular and very strong. Otherwise, the computer doesn’t recognize it. So it gives a certain force to that. You can hear and see that the sound is gone. These gestures feel a bit like a conductor.
And then the other gestures like the roll function, which defines the length of the delay, are very mediative in a way. I have to listen in that calm searching.
FB: Does the selected software have a pre-determined character on your musical output?
KN: It is in MAX MSP, and it is all built; it is not a commercial thing, even if I only use delay and feedback. One thing I have explored is the connection of different delay length ranges connected to particular speakers. That’s one example of pre-programming.
I can also shift between live processing and buffers to combine for instance live vocal processing with pre-recorded samples. I can also program the patch for different presets with either predetermined soundfiles or routing.
My main performance patch has stayed the same. So it is building each piece, not building the whole thing from scratch if I work with that particular patch. But if I work with something else, then I build that from scratch.
FB: Do you compose each time an instrument when you compose a piece?
KN: I compose each time an instrumentation, not necessarily an instrument. If I am working with the voice alone, then my instrumentation is that. When I play with real-time live vocal processing, the way I program the processing becomes the instrumentation. If I work with pre-recorded files, those become my instrumentation. The patch and the controllers as one unit are an instrument. If I use the WaveRing with another patch, it is a different instrument.
FB: Your specialty as a vocal performer playing with gestural live electronics aims to play with no visual feedback. It obviously needs practice to feel and to listen to what you are doing.
KN: It is not always so easy to feel the position of the buttons on the Genki Wave Ring without looking. So sometimes I have to check. And there is not a strong feeling on the click. It would be good to have a better haptic distinction between the three buttons.
With the left hand, I shape the sound, and with the right hand, I controls functional structures, rational decisions. I have chosen to use the roll function counterclockwise while searching – that is like going backwards in time.
FB: Your gestures do something with us in the sense that we try to perceive meaning. The roll function you describe transforms over time into a gesture of offering. In your piece “Flying Blind”, I experience this offering of something more and more as a ritual gesture. I perceive this gesture combined with a specific sound as a story of its own. You create, so to speak, genuine gestures that are unique to this piece.
Thank you very much for the insight into your inspiring work!
Flying Blind on vimeo