The Knife and friends interviewed ahead of the UK opening of their opera, Tomorrow, In A Year.
The Knife are one of the most interesting bands in the world, and after the success of their third record, ‘Silent Shout’, the Knife went on that most noughties of gap years, the “project break”. Karin made a life, and a record about it, under the name Fever Ray (read Fever Ray: ‘I work with raw feelings and emotions.’) – our favourite of last year, for what it’s worth. (Read David Macfarlane’s explanation of why under Fever Ray Is The Best ).
Her brother, Olof, moved to Berlin, and worked a on a variety of things, some known, some not, but sometime in 2008 Karin and Olof were asked by the Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma to write the music for an opera about the ideas of Charles Darwin. Though the Knife were a great choice to make a opera about such an interesting and tough concept, Olof recruited two Berlin friends, both equally interested in the theatrical and theoretical avant garde of electronic Pop music, Mt Sims and Planningtorock.
The music that they gleefully composed used found sound, Electro-Pop and compositional music to confront the issues of geology, pelicans, lava and love. The music was released by Brille Records earlier in the year, and is a tremendously bracing, inhuman take on geology, time and humanity, and is well worth getting hold of. Of course, as a piece of performance, it demands to be experienced and seen as well as heard, so for people from Dummy’s home town, it’s brilliant news, as Tomorrow, In A Year, an opera written by the Knife, in collaboration with Mt Sims and Planningtorock, opens in London tonight. Read this short “round-table” discussion we had with Janine of Planningtorock, Matt of Mt Sims and Karin and Olof of the Knife.
So, you must have been through this a hundred times before, but if you could just run through it again – could you tell me about how you got involved with Hotel Pro Forma?
We were commissioned to write the music to Hotel Pro Forma’s performance piece, consisting of one pop singer, one opera singer and one actress who sing about Charles Darwin from a scientific and a geological approach. It had to be 100 minutes. That was the only brief. We realised very early on that we needed to bring more people on board – because I knew Janine and Matt from early on that this was the perfect opportunity to try to work together, and work in several different ways get the huge feeling of diversity of expression you get when you read Darwin, and because I wanted a combination of Victorian English and modern speech, we felt that we needed someone with a really different poetical approach to Karin, and also Janine has great experience from the theatrical approach to music and recording orchestral instrumentals, and try a different collaborative project. That’s the short story.
Janine, as Olof said, you’re famous for the theatricality of your shows. I’m curious about how planning this differed to your Planningtorock performances.
Janine: Well, we weren’t involved at all in the performance; it was strictly the music only.
So were you writing with an awareness of the performance at all?
Janine: No, they were really quite strict about that, that we would know nothing about the set design, say, that we would think only about the music.
Karin: We weren’t allowed to even look at the costumes until right before the performance.
Was that a challenge for you?
Janine: It was a nice change! I got really into the composition – where do you begin? What’s your starting point? I hadn’t collaborated before, and because everything I’ve done before had been solo, I got really into the composition, and also the all the different possibilities of vocalists… It was actually quite nice to just to really concentrate. I mean we got pretty in depth. We got to travel and everything!
“Hotel Pro Forma kept us separate from the performance to reflect the diversity of the work of Darwin” – Olof
Olof: That was actually their idea, to have us kept separate to reflect the diversity of the work of Darwin and to capture all the different subjective readings of Darwin.
Was it hard to have cut through everything that’s been written about Darwin?
Olof: Well, we were tasked to take a very scientific approach. We were given ‘The Origin of the Species’ and his notes and dived into it. My interest originally was the political side of this, and the how at the beginning of the last century, Darwin became Darwinism, how anti-hierarchy became hierarchy and that was not what Hotel Pro Forma wanted, they wanted the theories of Darwin himself, rather than his interpretations. And it is much more difficult to write lyrics about that than it is to write lyrics about biology and geology, we discovered. [laughs]
Janine: We all discovered the subject. I certainly had quite a warped knowledge of Darwin, and it was good to steer it away from the consequences of his work and look at his work itself.
How do you make music about geology?
Olof: Really easily. [laughs] You take stones …
Janine: We did have to think about where to start with that. I wanted to not use any electronic instruments and use natural sounds – not in the literal sense of recording animals, though Olof did do that, but in the sense of working out how to make those sounds themselves and create an archive of sounds, and that took us all over the place, took us into the Amazon, Iceland, to accumulate a wealth of sounds that we sculpted the opera.
“How do I make music out of geology? Really easily” – Olof
Olof: That was something we took on. Because the lyrics were very literal in a way, the music could be more abstract – instead of “playing lava”, “how does lava sound to me?” and thinking about tectonics – it would ruin it to talk about it.
Karin: It was much more about the experience. How does it feel like for me? Not trying to make it sound like what it sounds like.
Olof: But for me it was quite apparent that every sound was motivated by an idea that we were reading about. For example, how a bird learnt a melody from its parent, we used that to mirror the development of a synthesiser – inspired, but in a very loose way.
Karin: We used theories as little exercises in music.
Last time we spoke, Karin, about this idea of time, and how that worked. Could you explain about he importance of that? [read Fever Ray: ‘I work with raw feelings and emotions.’
Karin: We talked about that Hotel Pro Forma, the idea of three independent ideas of time, the parallel ways of telling time – personal, biological and geological – and the three ways of working with time, and they wanted the three characters to represent this, and this was a way for us to build these three characters, and that was a way to illustrate that.
Matt: I wanted to make a big deal out of that actually. This idea of a timespan beyond the human imagination was fascinating.
Was it a big jump from thinking in terms of the perfect Pop song to thinking in these more … like, compositional terms? Was it a big jump to working an ‘opera’?
Olof: We didn’t think in terms of an opera because we didn’t know anything about opera. It was a new experience in ever way! I think that the main difference is to limit ourselves so strictly to a concept – every sound is motivated by a text or a theory, or a text or a gene – it’s not about myself, it’s about how history sounds.
Janine: It was great to work with a totally different subject matter from yourself. Again with the time thing, you’re thinking in completely different terms. You’re not thinking in terms of songs, you’re thinking in terms of how far you can push certain things.
Do you mean how far in terms of an audience?
Janine: Yeah, it’s a completely different world, with completely different rules, and breaking those rules.
“That was definitely part of our brief – to explore the enormity of nature and Darwin’s ideas, outside of a musical language we encounter day-to-day.” – Karin
Because that’s something that was brought up in a few reviews – the very affirmatively un-human sound of the opera. I mean, it’s not a particularly nice soundscape. [ Rob Heppell wrote here that the opera revolves around Darwin’s central, terrifying idea, that “we are alone and the system is much, much bigger than us.” ]
Matt: That depends what you mean by ‘nice’. Does it conform to our idea of a “pretty song”? No, it doesn’t.
Karin: But that was definitely part of our brief, to explore the enormity of nature and Darwin’s ideas, outside of a musical language we might encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Olof, you went to the Amazon to make some field recordings. What was the most amazing thing you saw?
Oh … the most amazing?
Olof: We were there at night, and it is really quite terrifying, the sheer alien sound of the place. But the most awesome thing …
Matt: Tell him about the frog!
Olof: Oh yes! There was a tremendous frog. It more roared than ribbit’d.