Embodied experience: An interview with Lisa Stenberg
Lisa Stenberg is a composer from Luleå in the north of Sweden, based in Stockholm. Her music oscillates in the realm of instrumental and electroacoustic music; often slow, characterised by gradually evolving sustained and layered sound of extended durations creating an immersive and intimate presence and tension of coexisting contrasting elements. Interested in perception and initiating intensified listening situations, her work is often site-specific and presented in unusual buildings and spaces with specific acoustic properties and settings.
How have you been and what have you been up to lately?
I have been spending a lot of time outdoors in the mountains, never wanting to leave. It’s such an extremely embodied experience. I have had time to reflect upon time, space and music in relation to that environment. At the moment I’m preparing a concert for the Sofia Church in Stockholm. I’m also looking for a new work space. Where I’m at now there have literally been rats and mice running in the corridor or found dead.
What is your background and what led you to music as such?
I grew up in Luleå, a small city by the coast in the north of Sweden about two hours from the Arctic Circle, which means vast polarity between light and darkness during winter and summer; long, dark, cold winters, and on the other side short, intense summers where the sun barely sets at night, and you never want to go to sleep. It’s in the zone of midnight sun and polar nights. Historically, the river, sea, forest and the mining industry have shaped the city. When I was growing up, Luleå was dominated by the steel industry as a metallurgical centre with a technical oriented university with extensive research and masters program in Materials Engineering or Space Science and Technology. Sports was a big thing as well. But I got absorbed by music: started to play the piano and make music at an early age, and thanks to the strong social democratic labor movement, I was provided the opportunity to study the instrument for free throughout my schooling. I was also fortunate to enter a class where music was more of an integral part of daily education rather than a subject once a week on the curriculum.
Those first years were definitely formative and defining as I created a very personal, intimate and deep relationship with music that I continued to explore further. As a kid, working as a composer was not something I knew you could do, it didn’t exist anywhere around me or in my horizon, I just made music, it was kind of a natural attraction, and somehow I was drawn to otherness within music. I remember finding a vinyl at the city library with music by John Cage and the prepared piano – that kind of stuff drew my attention. I was also curious about religion and at some point as a kid I even fantasised about becoming a nun even though I didn’t know what it meant. I think what it came to symbolise was a curiosity to explore a kind of state of completeness, total presence and harmony that I had experienced within music.
Later on I came to study composition at the School of Music in Piteå at Luleå University of Technology, one of the four institutions for higher music education in Sweden aimed at composition, and everything fell into place. In parallel to my education at the Composition program I started projects on my own and with friends at the Sound Engineering program, and I borrowed Nagra recorders and different microphones which I used to record my own material. I had already started to listen to music, sounds and my surroundings in a detailed and reduced way, and was exploring extended playing techniques as I was interested in all the detailed ways of producing a specific sound with a certain timbre on acoustic instruments, the physicalities of it. When I employed close miking of a sound source while listening on headphones, the microscopic perspective revealed a universe of sounds within sounds that endlessly unfolded one after the other. The experience of entering music by its tiniest elements led me to experiment with and incorporate electroacoustic parts in my instrumental pieces and to compose electroacoustic music.
Can you talk about your site-specific works? How do you choose the environments and spaces you work with? What are the most memorable locations and site-specific works you’ve done?
Music always takes place in some kind of space, whether it is out in the open or in an acoustically designed concert hall, your living room, or through the echoing space of a cathedral. Throughout history music and architecture have influenced, evolved and informed each other. Composers have created music to fit a certain physical space, in that sense music has always been site-specific.
Music, like architecture, is this immersive experience to me, it surrounds us, and our perception is shaped by the information we collect from that surrounding. Different rooms may shape our perception of sound differently. Spaces and their specific acoustic features can play a fundamental part in shaping the listeners’ perception, but also the characteristics of the performance. The space itself becomes part of the listening space when the sound source and its surroundings unite. It’s this dual experience of shaping a space and being shaped by it that I find especially interesting. The embodied experience.
I’m thinking of the site-specific properties as superimposed spaces, rooms to charge and activate.
The concert space affects the listening experience beyond contributing purely to acoustic qualities. The history and context of a site is an element involved in the site-specific situation as well. When traces of the history are still present within the buildings themselves or their surroundings, that history and memories inherent at the site, add layers of information, depth or complexity to the listening experience and the work presented. While the music might be performed in another venue with other properties, the listening experience will always be linked to a specific situation and context.
The former mine Ställbergs Gruva in Bergslagen in Sweden is a site with all of those qualities and beyond. From the middle ages until late 1900’s the mining industry of copper iron and silver was blooming in the region of Bergslagen, and Ställbergs gruva was in its time the deepest iron ore mine in Europe. But in the 70’s it was shut down and after being unused for more than 35 years the buildings of the mining area were brought back to life in 2012 by the the self-organized art group The non existent Center (TNEC). They run a platform for contemporary art and critical thinking with a focus on participatory and current societal issues with a starting point in the mine and its surroundings. It’s an extremely interesting context to work in with the most brilliant people involved.
The last time I had the pleasure to work at Ställbergs gruva was upon invitation to a residency and a commission of a long durational piece as part of a six-hour-long collective and all-encompassing work that we performed in the machine hall. During a two part residency, we (Lisa Stenberg, Daniel M Karlsson, Mats Erlandsson, Maria W Horn and David Granström) worked on site with our pieces. The machine hall with its specific timbre, and the relationship between the hall and the music performed in that space, through that space, was at the center of my work. I used the Synthi 100 bass material recorded in Belgrade, and when played through the machine hall, the bass waves and the space merged, became vibrant as if the deep bass needed that large reverberant room and that length of the hall. The use of reamplification merged the music with the architectural space, the music created the space, and entering the hall became like entering the piece.
You’ve worked at the esteemed CMRC-KSYME studio with the EMS Synthi 100 instrument, with which you also worked at Radio Belgrade Electronic Studio. How was it to work with these institutions and what is your relationship to the Synthi 100?
It’s a love story. The EMS Synthi 100 is forever a very dear and entrancing instrument to me. Working with the Synthi 100 is such a deep experience.
Upon invitation by the renowned art festival documenta14, I was commissioned to compose a piece specific for the EMS Synthi 100 belonging to The Contemporary Music Research Center CMRC-KSYME studio, referred to as KSYME. The KSYME studio was founded in 1979 in Athens by Iannis Xenakis, Giannis G. Papaioannou, and Stephanos Vassiliadis, with the ambition of developing electroacoustic music in Greece. In 1975 the Synthi 100 was bought by the Hellenic Contemporary Music Association, an organization that has conducted research, educational programs, concerts as well as festivals and institutional collaborations bridging the Greek musical heritage and the pioneering musical archives and instruments it holds. They also had an open studio with the Synthi 100. But it seems that the synthesizer was not used to any large extent by the local composers in Greece. I’m not sure exactly what happened but at some point it was put in storage and left to its own destiny and it decayed over the years.
After it being out of function for about 20 years, the KSYME studio started a restoration project with documenta14, Fylkingen and Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) in Stockholm to reactivate the beautiful Synthi 100. Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen brought it to life with their expertise in handling these historical instruments with great care and sensitivity to give them a second life adapted for usage rather than restoring instruments to be placed in museums and never used for music.
The EMS Synthi 100 is an analogue/digital hybrid synthesizer, built in a limited edition by the Electronic Music Studios, London in 1971. It was originally created on a commission by the Radio Belgrade Electronic Studio based on the ideas and sketches of Paul Pignon, composer, musician and co-founder of the studio in the 60’s. I’m very attracted to the physical interaction with the Synthi 100. It’s so tactile. This magnificent instrument is huge with 12 oscillators and a patchbay solution of 3600 patch points, still so delicate, sensitive and vulnerable. The tiniest movement of a knob can shift everything around completely. It’s obvious that this is an instrument built for studio environments and institutions, especially given its immovability, still documenta14 brought it to the stage at the Megaron concert hall in Athens for the world premiere and live performance of the commissioned piece, which was sort of historically rare. It’s a project in itself only to move the instrument and therefore the live situation with the instrument has taken place only a few times throughout its history.
The exchange of knowledge between the people involved in these institutions have paved the way for several similar restoration projects. Leslie Craythorn restored one in Melbourne in 2016, while Daniel Araya and Jari Suominen brought new life to the Synthi 100 in Belgrade as an example. Working with these institutions is dreamy, everyone is so generous and kind and we all have this mutual confidence and trust around the Synthi 100. That’s beautiful. The process of composing the commissioned piece Monument for documenta14 resulted in several other pieces, most of them still in my drawer, but a few of them came together on the album Monument released on cassette by Ambitious Tapes and will be released on vinyl by renowned Fylkingen Records. I’ve since performed the drone suite in different contexts and venues as solo performance, diffused in speaker acousmonium and as audiovisual piece performed together with visuals.
You’ve also worked with the Swedish folk instrument cittra combined with electronics and feedback. What approach did you use when working with a traditional instrument in an electronic music setting?
Yes, many years ago I bought a black seven chord cittra. I have had several different approaches to playing it or using it as a sound source since then, mostly explorative. The utilisation of feedback was at the forefront in the last project. The cittra was the sound source in a signal chain creating a feedback loop turning the reverb into an instrument rather than treating it as an effect. Feedback is incredibly dynamic, nuanced and sensitive and has the quality of being unpredictable until you get to know the specific parameters affecting the feedback at a certain occasion. In another piece I collaborated with Daniel M Karlsson and used ebows, which in themselves are based on feedback techniques, paired with one or two cittras. We also made use of feedback in the room which created the possibility to play the harmonics of the feedback as a second voice.
Where do you see music developing and its future trajectory?
Well, I’m no oracle, I guess music will continue to be a fundamental part of our lives and we will always make music. Music is in continuous transformation; new music will emerge, continue to branch out, find new paths, and reconnect with the forgotten or lost music.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova