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The Knife interview: “Yes!” Olof Dreijer talks about ‘Tomorrow In A Year,’ the new Knife opera about Charles Darwin.
THE KNIFE are one of the best bands on the planet, and on the 1st March, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer will release a CD of their recent Darwin-themed opera, ‘Tomorrow In A Year.’ Just ten days ago, David Mcfarlane talked about Karin’s astonishing ability to construct her own, bracingly unique reality with her Fever Ray project. Much of that is also true of the Knife.
Darwin and opera seems at first like an ill fit for the Knife – their music glitters with complexity, but is fundamentally pop. Lyrically, while hardly prosaic, are rooted the personal, even the everyday – falling in love, one-night-stands, taxes, cracked smiles, silent shouts.
Of course, that’s meaningless.
The Knife are not only one of the best bands on the planet, they are one of the most fearless. Across their three albums, the Knife’s music has always treaded a fine line between the stylistic pretensions of performance art and the structures of pop-dance. They do things like dress up in bird masks and perform behind screens of mist. Texture, myth and narrative is far more important for them than any other crap that might go along with being one of the best bands on the planet.
Of course, that’s also meaningless.
What isn’t meaningless is that ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ is an astounding, astounding, astounding CD with a fascinating story. It’s furiously heterogeneous, taking in found music, soundscape, opera and electro. It’s about geology, humanism, evolutionary theory and biological time, and it’s actually really profoundly moving. Plus, the lyrics mention Jacobins and ostriches, so it gets an A+ on that count.
On with the show.
In the weeks leading up to the release, there will be more Knife-related reflection (and a fair amount of sycophantic garbling) on this site. In the meantime, I’m pleased to share an interview Olof gave over the weekend.
Hi Olof. How are things?
Could you tell me a bit about the CD?
Well, it contains the music The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims , Planningtorock have made for the opera Tomorrow, in a Year , commissioned by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma. The work is based off of Charles Darwin’s ‘On The Origin Of The Species’, his notebooks and other randomly selected Darwin related literature and articles. It’s a studio version of the piece with slight differences and variations from the performed opera. In the current performed version all vocals are sung by an opera singer, a pop singer and an actress. But on the studio version there are vocal performances from us collaborators. We wanted to make the record slightly different from the performed version to make more personal from our side, but also show that his piece can be sung by anyone. Originally The Knife were commissioned to make the music, but to try out a more collaborative way of working we invited Mt. Sims and Planningtorock. Not only to have a more fun and interesting process but also to capture the huge width of the theme.
You moved to Berlin, right? Do you still live there?
I’m based in both Berlin and Stockholm
Mt Sims and Planningtorock are both Berliners too, right? Did you meet them there?
Did you come into contact with them before or after you started work on Tomorrow In A Year?
We know each other since a couple of years and I knew their music before I got to know them personally.
Could you just explain the roles that you all play in the recording?
It was really a collaboration where everyone had an influence on everything, even though some tracks where written by certain people. With Planningtorock, we made more instrumental music based on field recording and on imaginative performed animal-like sounds. With Matt (Mt Sims) we made more song-based tracks. And I guess I had an overall responsibility for the production. The libretto is entirely written by Mt Sims and Karin.
They are listed as musical collaborators in the programme – did you work closely with them, and how did you find the process?
Yes, we worked very close together. We really had a great collaboration. I think the most interesting stuff in the piece is a direct cause of the collaboration. I really wanto continue working in this way. I think that an interesting process really can affect the result in an interesting way.
The album is not a pop record based on the opera– it sounds pretty close to the experience of seeing it live. Was this also a deliberate decision?
Why would/should it be a pop version?
How closely were you working with the other musicians?
Very close. Working with musicians and recording acoustic instruments was quite new to me and really exciting. Before I’ve been a dogmatic drum machine and synthesizer user. But I think was interesting to bring that sequencer way of thinking into the acoustic instrument. Also we had this idea of recording classic orchestral instruments and then sample and create the sound of an orchestra going crazy. Me and Ptr went to Iceland to record with a great percussionist Hjörleifur Jonsson, who had a really nice collection of percussion instruments with interesting character. We recorded in huge space to catch this majestic reverb and these instruments are heard on every track.
And how about in the case of the opera? I read from Karin that there was actually very little interaction and collaboration with Hotel Pro Forma.
We were given clear directions from Hotel pro forma. The theme was Darwin and evolution theory – with a focus on biology and geology, with a very scientific approach. The framework for the piece was; a literature list with Darwin’s ”On the origin of the species” as core – together with contemporary readings of Darwin, a time-line consisting of a drawn line that looked like a mountain – where the piece was going to be 100 minutes, be written for 3 singers; an opera singer, a pop singer and an actress. And we were supposed to write the libretto in both a Victorian 1800’s language but at the same time in a contemporary way. Also we thought all the time about the music was going to work well for the 6 dancers on stage. However we and the rest of the people working with the piece; scenographer, choreographer, costume designer and light designer, where all put together only 3 months before premiere, having working with the music 1 year before. So this process of people coming together at a very late stage I find very interesting.
How did the relationship work?
Good I think. We didn’t have to compromise that much on the music except from a few places where the music cut down in time to fit their dramaturgy.
What grabbed you about it? Why did you decide to do it?
I had been working with music for music for feature film and modern dance before and this was something I really wanted to do more. But u had never worked on this scale. I found HPF interesting because I didn’t understand what they were doing. It felt like an interesting challenge.
Were you working with synths mainly or programmes?
We’ve tried to capture this huge diversity you fell when reading Darwin. So we’ve used everything from field recordings from the Amazon and also our own environment – also fake field record like our own suggested animal alike synthetic sounds. Feedback sounds from different analog effects – orchestral percussion and string instruments – tried to make exciting vocal sounds
Which musicians or composers were you listening to while writing and recording this record?
As much as I don’t like namedropping – as it normally comes off as the musician/composer wanting to put her/his work in context of other musicians/composers or the journalist who show her/his lack of imagination by not being able to use descriptive words instead of names – I think it does make sense to mention a couple of names here. Mainly because I see what we have done as musical exercises on the work of these people – a way of studying their work. Just as we’ve been reading Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins and done musical exercises on their theories. We have been listening to the music of Meredith Monk, Luigi Nono, Diamanda Galas, Joan la Barbara, Klaus Nomi, Krzysztof Penderecki and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
It sounds even more “organic” (not just the actually organic sounds) than Silent Shout. Was that your intention?
We wanted to capture the feeling of diversity you get when reading Darwin. So we tried to use as many different forms of expression and sounds as possible. Analog feedback, field recording from different environments, acoustic instruments, different vocal techniques etc.
Having your words sung by someone else must be strange after so long in a duo where you have such control. Was it scary watching it the first time?
I think its super interesting what happens with what you’ve written how it’s being interpreted by another singer and how it changes and gets a new life
The Knife are famously reluctant to show their faces in press photos or play live. So was it nice having other people dress up and perform the music for you?
Yes. I always like the role of being behind stage, rather than on stage.
How did you find the experience of getting into opera?
At first it was very difficult as I really didn’t know anything about opera. I’d never been to one. I didn’t even know what the word libretto meant. To me, opera stood for the form of culture in society that takes the funding from, to me, more interesting kontra [counter] culture. Its very few other culture forms where so much money is being spent on preserving old culture. But after some studying, and just getting used to opera’s essence of pretentious and dramatic gestures, I found that there is a lot to learn and play with. In fact, our ignorance gave us a positive, respect-less approach to making opera. It took me about a year to become emotionally moved by an opera singer and now I really do. I really like the basic theatrical values of opera and the way it brings forward a narrative.
As a complete opera dunce, how close is ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ in form to traditional opera?
I really don’t know – I think the only things in our piece that reminds me of a classical opera is that we use one opera singer and the what we’ve done is “a work” – which is the original meaning of an opera. Which basically means it can be anything. There is no clear plot in the piece – more a general feel of change and variation, in I guess a more emotional way than scientific, or perhaps bringing forward the emotional content of science.
There’s so many interesting things you could pull out of Darwin and his theories –what did you focus on, and how did you go about choosing this?
My initial interest was the political and social side of the theme, as this is normally the angle that interests me most. I really wanted to research more what actually happened in the beginning of the last century, how Darwin’s thoughts were transformed into fascism. But the directions from HPF were more scientific, focusing on biology and geology. After a while digging into that, that became really interesting as well. And I think in the end of the day it was a good move, as writing music and lyrics on the political theme is a lot more difficult. Also, living in a secular country like Sweden, one easily forgets how controversial Darwin’s secular message still is, but just going over to the UK (or US for that matter), it’s a completely different issue. Lots of people believe in the creation as written in the bible and that earth is 6,000 years old.
It must have been awesome to get to go through his papers. Did you feel like a librarian or some such doing this research?
How did Darwin and his ideas feed into the music? Intellectually, artistically, and so on?
Before when I heard Darwin’s name, I thought about Social Darwinism and all the bad things that has been made in his name. Like racial biology, which actually Sweden was really early on practicing, Nazi Germany and this general, very hierarchical time of the early 1900s. But reading Darwin really made me understand how that is a big misunderstanding. He gave the opposite feeling I would say. He proclaims diversity, non-hierarchical change and variation without even using the word evolution.