Voice – Sculpting Sound with Maja S. K. Ratkje is a feature documentary by IJ. Biermann and Kai Miedendorp, which tracks the life of Maja S. K. Ratkje—improvisational vocalist, sound artist and composer—between 2010 and 2014.
The makers’ approach is not straightforwardly documentary, rather a thoughtful blend of intimate, occasionally domestic performances and their wider context, including beautifully-shot landscape footage that mirrors Ratkje’s itinerary as she travels abroad, realising project after project. Thankfully, there are no talking heads. Ratkje herself provides an revealing voiceover in English, and the film sometimes, lightly, touches on the artist’s socio-political and environmental concerns.
It begins with a ‘chapter’ focusing on a solo performance in Prague in 2011, but after only a few minutes of that we’re spirited away to Ratkje’s home and family life in Oslo. There’s a great scene here of POING (Ratkje’s group with her husband, Frode Haltli on accordion) playing tangos in the snow-laden woods, played straight to camera with breakdowns uncut.
The whole thing’s remarkably confidential and naturalistic. We see the electro-acoustic quartet SPUNK rehearsing, but also experimenting more playfully. The next chapter, on a trip to Trondheim to record a piece for radio with members of Trondheim Sinfonietta, shows how the same sort of open-minded approach can inform a more formal session.
The gentle pace of the film belies how much finessing has gone into its making. Although the scene is constantly shifting the focus often lingers on telling visual details, longer on extracts where specific projects are finally realised. Ratkje’s voiceover threads it all together.
There’s a lovely duet with Joëlle Léandre, performed only after technical problems are resolved. As Ratkje weaves a web of hardware outputs and inputs, a mystified techie complains: “I don’t know what she’s up to”. And Ratkje seems rather impatient with her non-artistic associates, including the Aldeburgh schoolkids she tells firmly should leave if they can’t apply themselves to a singing lesson.
There can be no doubting Ratkje’s seriousness. She’s in Aldeburgh for an ecology-themed project, which blends her whistling and Kathy Hinde’s music box with those childrens’ voices and locally-sourced birdsong. In a more tender and lighthearted moment, a familial breakout session, one of Ratkje’s own children, an infant, plays a precocious harmonica solo.
Among plenty of other candid moments, onlookers at an outdoor performance in Finland seem, at best, utterly bemused by a skirl of four Stroh violins accompanied by Ratkje on megaphone. Perhaps they would’ve preferred Ratkje, back in Norway now, singing Kurt Weill with POING, or maybe the more elegant quartet with Frode Haltli, Garth Knox (viola) and Arve Henriksen (trumpet).
Ratkje then travels to Sardinia for an international collaborative project, a more heavily mediated recording session involving Ikue Mori and Sylvie Courvoisier. Again we get up close-up to the session. but the filmmakers’ focus remains very much its place in the integration of the artist’s life and work, with all the perks and strains of disparate collaborations and the attendant international travel.
Back in Norway, there’s more fabulous landscape cinematography, the realisation of a powerful orchestral work that pushes Ratkje’s voice to extremes (see also Crepuscular Hour, Ratkje’s new album/DVD of a performance/installation piece for three choirs, six noise musicians and church organ), and then ‘home’, where the artist explores “ways to recreate (my) methods” in a more domestic setting. Even here, Ratkje’s engagement seems serious, her life and work indivisible.
Voice gifts us an honest, thoroughly engrossing and inspirational insight into a fully engaged artistic life. Anyone who already knows Ratkje’s work will come to know and appreciate it a whole lot better for watching, but no particular interest or appreciation is necessary to enjoy the film, which is beautifully shot and thoughtfully constructed.
Although it has been produced professionally—the digipack presentation is excellent—Voice has no commercial distribution. Director IJ. Biermann sells both DVD and Blu-Ray formats (the latter produced on demand, “with the 5.1 mix and the various sound options”) on request to his email address (see below).
Buy Voice on request from IJ. Biermann, email ijb at illogical.de