A Meaningful Meaninglessness. An Interview with Maja Jantar

Side 1: About the Technique

a. Which voice-techniques do you use in your performances? Do you have different modes of reading/ interaction/ improvisation?

mj_2I think the base is not to get hurt, I’ve found that you can do just about anything with your voice as long as you don’t force anything. Of course for some sounds you do use pressure, but the trick is to apply the right amount, and never more than necessary. The core of this comes from classical singing technique, where it is all about the resonances and the support. Both my parents are opera singers and I’ve been bathed in that world since my early childhood. Even though I did decide not to do conservatory I would be signing Mozart aria’s at home (when nobody would be listening) trying to figure out how to make the voice do the things I wanted it to do. I was lucky, and equipped with good genes and good ears, because my voice could really have gotten hurt by the things I did, I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits in the process. It took me years to figure out vocal support, and in fact what helped me most were not the few vocal lessons I got, but a week-long workshop with a French tai-chi master and choreographer, Thierry Bae. It’s there that I understood that support basically is breath, and not something like a muscle that one has to keep tensed in order to make sound. It happens organically.

All the extended vocal techniques I use, come down to the same principles, of using the right amount of pressure, and I’m still learning, and exploring. I recently described myself as a river, just picking up and integrating all these different sounds and techniques I encounter, it possibly comes from my nomadic background, some techniques just ‘come to me’ while I improvise, a certain state brings out a specific sound, and sometimes it takes me by surprise.

There are many modes of reading / interaction / improvisation very much dependent on the subject and context of the performance. Reading modes can vary from plain reading, reading and acting, to ‘shadow reading’ (derived from a term used by John Cage: ‘shadow playing’ where you read the score and move your fingers over the instrument as you would if you were playing it, but your touch is so soft that sound is produced only occasionally) to braking up the text into sound, extending, shortening, morphing vowels or consonants, to singing the text. What mode is used depends on the piece. On the aesthetics chosen for it. Interaction can be with a collaborator, with a medium, with the audience – I love interaction, love the risk it entails,  I’m drawn to it for it takes the performer out of ‘herself’ it opens up for the encounter, for communication, and I’m not talking about communication with words only, we communicate unworded content continuously, how our bodies are, the sound we produce all of that is read, all of that can be form to interaction.

Improvisation is the water I swim in, much of my work stems from, or builds on, improvisation. I guess one day I just realised how much easier things become when I DO them rather than plan them out, write them out, script them. It doesn’t mean I don’t do the latter at all, but I do allow various form of improvisation to enter the various realms. And not only do they become easier, they also, at their best, can carry with them an element of freshness. The trick is to stay open to your surroundings, and not only to delve into what you have done before.

I basically use two forms of improvisation, one is totally free, the other improvises from material – a score, tarot cards, organic material, the body, all kinds of things can become alternative scores.

b. At what level is the technology intertwined with the word? What is the relation between the voice and the machine?

It depends from project to project. It can be very closely intertwined, as in my collaborations with Kristof Lauwers, a Belgian composer, music maker and photographer. In Glaer for instance the idea was to transform a theremin and apply it’s signals to voice effects – making it possible for me to transform the vocal effect that was sent through the theremin live. For instance, let’s say the x axis of the theremin would be used for pitch, making my voice higher or lower, and the y axis for volume, making it quieter and louder, I could play with those parameters live by ‘playing the theremin’. But of course during the performance many different effects would be used, and Kristof would alter the parameters of the effects live as well. Another collaboration with Kristof was at Logos Foundation, with the Robots of Godfried Willem Raes, there the voice would be read by a program Kristof wrote to react on specific vowels or consonants I would produce – so a kind of dialogue could take place between the voice and the machines.

In solo work things evolve – there used to be a time where I would use many gadgets – a sampler, a vocorder, pre-recorded tracks, objects, contact mics…, then I evolved away from it, to voice solo, then to using more video, then using video live, then only voice again, and back to layers of voice, contact mic and feedback (one of my current interests).

c. Which technology/ software do you use?

The most basic possible. I’ve worked with a variety of software over the last years: samplitude, cubase, the open source audacity. For more complex tech I’ll reach out to a collaborator. I’m very pragmatic, I’ll basically use what I need, and learn to work with that – project to project. Currently I’ve been experimenting with contact mics, and specifically with the feedback that can be created when placing them on old cookie tins – the idea for this came from me singing in my kitchen and realising that certain objects would reverberate with my voice on one or two notes. From there I wanted to work with glass domes that would split up the voice into singular notes in the space – a project that is still on hold, due to funding – but when playing around with boxes and contact mic for a project with Vincent Tholomé a Walloon poet and writer – all of the sudden one of the boxes started to sing on its own, a magical feedback moment. This must have been 4 years ago, and I still love playing with this concept.

d. Do you keep recordings of your performances? Do you intend to launch/ edit them in a standard format – like cds –, and make them public?

I used to archive meticulously, but mainly as documentation and tool for learning and advancing in my craft. Recently so much ends up online, that I’ve become less systematic. I wouldn’t use the live performances as base for publication, the live for me is too much rooted in the moment, in what is created between audience and performer. But I am currently working on a solo album, aided by sound producer and technician Brecht Beuselinck, and beside that there are a few collaborations that will see the light in various forms of publications in the future. I’ve contributed to the new album by Phil Maggi, Animalwrath, that is just nearing the end of its mastering phase. Cavalcade, a sound poetic version of the same called book by Vincent Tholomé in duo with Vincent has been finished for a year or so, and we’re currently looking for a label for it. Also a few of the Lunalia collaborations, amongst others the one with Simon Pomery and Xavier Dubois, carry the seed of possible cd’s, vinyls, download links.


Side 2: About the Poetic of the Act

e. How do you define your act? Is it sound poetry? Sound art? All of them or none of them? Are these definitions important to your work?

Definitions can be tricky because they exclude. When I’m asked what I do, I usually freeze, and stare blankly at the questioner, this really happens to me, then I make an attempt to define. Last time I was asked, something like this came out: “I’m a voice artist, voice is my main expression, but I spill over into performance art, into poetry, into opera and directing, into composition, into visual arts”. So I guess my ‘act’ is multiform, though a certain poetic characteristic is consistent. If you dare to define poetry as not only words, without going to the specific term ‘sound poetry’ that has historical connotations, I would define all my acts as poetic.

f. How does your voice relate to music, to chant and to word? Which (concept of) sound do you aim to achieve?

It relates well and gladly, but seriously, for me music, chant, word are all possible expressions of the voice – they are all colours I can use, or not use, when creating a piece, a vocal landscape or vocal-scape, if you want. I use them as composition elements, as balance and counterbalance, shaping sound so the audience can enter and create their own image of the piece. I remember when in one of my very early text monologues I used one sung line, how the audience instantly shifted their attention, same when changing language, the perceptional shift that happens, however tiny, makes it possible to re-engage with what you’re listening to from a (slightly) different perspective. I’m aware of this principle, and have integrated it in my practice.

If talking about the concept of sound that I’m striving for, I realise that the image that pops up in my head is of a certain density, a certain layeredness, a complexity, a meaningful meaninglessness.

I think that is why I ‘spill’ into music so easily because it just jumps that hurdle of meaning, it communicates directly, on an almost visceral level. That is the communication I’m longing for. That also explains why I’m drawn to phenomena like oscillation, a concept I initially explored with Canadian artist and poet Angela Rawlings when collaborating with her on her Ecolology, and basically have forced onto every vocal collaborator I’ve worked with since. My last vocal piece  created for ‘The Sound of Consciousness’, one of 3 evenings curated by Steven J Fowler in the context of the exhibit ‘States of Mind, Tracing the edges of consciousness’ at the Wellcom Collection in London,was based on that. Layering my voice on top of a tape of layered voice, creating those oscillations, creating that sound that enters your brain directly, enters your body without using thought. Words then become islands in the stream, where a sense of direct meaning can be created, only to be left behind when the stream moves you on. Chant is entering a state of rhythm, of repetition, a dam in the river, something that will lead you to fall down the cascade, or drift further on calmer waters.

g. You also draw. Is there a relation between your drawings and your vocal performances? Are they readable (voiceable) or are they created just as visual objects? Could one take them as a notation system and read it again? Could any of your performances be repeated, by you or by someone else, in exactly the same way?

They lead multiple lives, as visual objects, visual books, parts of installations, scores. I believe you can use just about anything as an alternative score, and I have used the red line drawings as such. It’s simply a matter of defining and redefining your parameters. One of my big books, created last year out of cut up action paintings I created some 15 years ago, I used in a performance at Logos Foundation in Ghent, where I would interpret, vocally, the paint marks. These kind of soundings are not repeatable, I’m basically using the drawings or books as aids for improvisation. Some of my performances are repeatable – I do though rely on my memory a lot, so small changes can occur, but especially when using tape or electronics, I will script the piece more and it will sound more or less the same each time. For instance Paralipomena, or Deep Red, a collaboration with Esther Venrooy and certain works with Angela Rawlings and Vincent Tholomé are perfectly repeatable.

Of course it gets more interesting if we allow the moment to interfere with our interpretation, when the sense of the audience agitates or energises the piece, this is so for any live art, if it were completely ‘exactly’ repeatable, it would seem dead to me. For someone else to repeat one of my performances I would need to take the time to note them down better, there has not yet been an opportunity for that, though i’m open to the experiment. I do prefer to create new stuff as much as I can, and try to take every opportunity to do so. When alone on stage I seem to take more freedom and risks, I don’t mind feeling vulnerable, open, I don’t mind taking the risk of the fall – because only in the fall we can be truly free, for a brief moment.

h. What is the (flowing) red line?

fragment2-its-only-a-paper-moon2The flowing red line is what binds it all, what tries to string it all together. It’s the stream I’ve described here above, it’s the red ink in the drawings, it’s my voice, it’s keeping it all moving, it’s the red string I use in installations, or use to bind things with, it’s the red line of my life, it’s the safety cord, it’s the stream of blood in our veins, it’s the alarm signal, it’s the taboo, it’s the ritual, it’s the chant, it’s the word, it’s the song.



Interview by: Nuno Miguel Neves and Tiago Schwäbl

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