Composer and multi-instrumentalist Kristina Wolfe spent her formative years wandering the forests of Denmark, listening and cultivating her love of the soundscapes of space and place. This environment focused her imagination and creativity on spirits of the past and continues to inspire her work to the present day. I talked to her about European bells, the concept of medieval time, and glorious catastrophes.
VAN: You describe yourself as a composer, a sound artist and a wanderer. What interests you the most about capturing the sounds of certain spaces and places, as in your field recordings?
Kristina Wolfe: What I love most about searching for sounds is the uneasy sense of presences, like in ghost stories. Or spaces that resonate in particular ways that are really fantastic or unusual. For example, I was in Catalonia and there was this wine cellar that echoed back a slightly unusual form of the harmonic series. And so everything you said came back almost exactly but slightly weird.
In your written material as well it seems like you lean towards mysticism and the occult. What draws you to things that are unsettling or unnerving?
I think it’s liminality, the idea of something in the space seeming, like usually it’s incongruous sounds. It’s something that doesn’t seem right. Sometimes we intuit what we hear in peculiar ways, which then, depending where you are at the moment, could be mystical or you could just be scared.
If you walk around a dark space and somebody tells you that in the middle of it there is a hole, everywhere you go you’ll wonder if you’ll fall in. So it’s kind of the same thing if someone said there is a ghost, and if you believe in ghosts then you will find them. It’s a sense of presence caused by the peculiarities of the space and I like to think about that and work with it. But, given that it’s a very personal, intuitive thing, it’s hard to work with.
When you were seeking sounds in Catalonia, did you have a personal connection with that region as well?
I walked on the Catalan Camino twice. The bells of that area are ever-present and every single bell in every single little town that you walk through has its own unique bell. Usually it’s a very old bell and it’s kind of raunchy, sometimes it’s a very mournful bell, sometimes it has a weird crack in it.
When you are walking you hear them from very far away and then you approach them and then you get them from all angles. There is a sense of time that you get from hearing them on approach and departure, but also, each place is so unique—this one place has this sound and nowhere else.
Why did you choose to record the bell tolls of Sankt Lukas Kirke in Aarhus?
That church is near where my grandmother and my mother grew up. My family has been there nearly 70 years. I grew up hearing this bell, which used to be a lot more annoying than it is because they used to do all the hours. 3 to 4 a.m., bang bang bang! It gets seared in your memory after a while.
My parents were married in the same church. Services, births, deaths, everything is going through that one area. I wanted to record how I heard it, so I did a binaural recording to mimic my ears. I wanted to take time to commemorate that sound as I heard it at that time. I wanted to gather, in some sense, what I found interesting about it. I went to a spot that was always amazing to me, where you stand facing away and then the bells ring off the windows of the apartment across the street. And then they bounce off the other apartment. And then that all comes back to you. It happens for like three to five minutes at a time at 6 p.m., you really get washed.
It was good for me to record that sound because I honored it and it also, I get to like listen to that whenever I want and I can maybe analyze it and try to write a piece about it one day.
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All of these church bells have extensive histories of their own. And I really enjoyed reading about how you explained medieval time and it’s much more amorphous nature, how it’s more relative and not as exact as the concept of time is now. What’s the relationship between these medieval bells and your studies into medieval time?
The bells actually are time. But in terms of how they relate to my interest medieval time, I think it’s their sense of history, they tend to be in Romanesque chapels, and ringing in mountains, in high up places where they echoed everywhere. And a lot of these landscapes have changed, but they haven’t changed so much.
What I like about medieval time is I am sure it was fairly regular to them but it’s irregular to me—how we perceive the world around us, how we date things, how we count time. In general I am interested in any sorts of concepts that help me see the world as a less fixed place. Medieval time helps me think about the world in a different way, think about my life, think about musical time that way, think of things as events.
A musical event is the beginning to end of something. However long or short it is, is irrelevant, right? That’s kind of a musical time. Musical time is built like medieval time where it’s based on events and time changes according to the length of those events. For example, your sense of time in a pop song is no longer than three minutes long. But your sense of time in a drone is infinite.
How closely is your study in medieval mysticism related to your music and the rest of your works in general?
They are very related. I tend to focus on a lot of writings of saints, especially those who worshipped nature. Saints who spent a lot of time outside and who wrote about the elements. For many of them, there is this idea that nature was inherently trying to draw you in. That would change how you listen to where you are in the world, if you felt that things could possibly be malevolent. If there was a spirit, if there was danger, it would change how you listen. I like to read how they interpreted things like wind or echoes or the outside in general. What they thought about night.
That fits into my work because it’s the idea of the primed ear, like thinking something might happen. You do that in music all the time, we put a little drum if you think somebody is going to come, or other aural cues, or even something like a program note. This is how priming works. This is what I am going for. The way medieval mystics heard the world interests me. If I could ever have that level of imagination… wow.
What kind of stuff are you working on right now? Could you talk a bit about your MATA commission?
The piece is called “Record of Ancient Mirrors.” It’s for viola da gamba solo and ensemble. And there is a very mournful gong. And so this piece is about a Zen concept of a reflection on water. Like reflections of moon on water, like the Shobogenzo, the idea that the moon is perfect and beautiful and it’s sitting in the water but it’s not wet. It’s this concept that you would be above the world and the elements, slightly affected by it but you are a projection.
Do you have any other irons in the fire?
In October I am going to England to research ancient space at some World Heritage sites. That is a two year fellowship I’m doing at the University of Huddersfield, through what’s called a Marie Curie action.
Then I get to write a piece using some aspect of these ancient spaces—certain Paleolithic caves, Neolithic sites—and my research of going there and listening and doing acoustic analysis and modeling of this and then trying to compose with it. That’s also very much up my alley.
Have you done anything like that before? Have you gone to places that are extremely rich with human presence through the ages?
I have been to some. I don’t normally get the chance go to them alone with equipment. Sometimes I bring my binaural microphone and I go into these spaces and sit as unmovingly as possible to get the sense of space and presence and try to capture it just by being there. But I haven’t had the ability or the permission to go into these like world heritage and English heritage sites and to access the archaeological models of it and working with archaeologists and historians to inform me how this might have sounded.
And part of the benefit of that, the reason anybody would talk to me in the archaeological field about it, is that when people hear these models of spaces, they get a much better sense of the space—the history, whether it felt claustrophobic or open—things you wouldn’t know just by staring at the model. So we are going to try to present them together in virtual reality. I haven’t had a chance to do that before.
I was looking at the Illuminations Codex that you made with all of these glorious catastrophes. Did any of those mistakes find their way back into your intended work, and also how you feel about the relationship between intent and outcome in these Codex works?
I set up systems that may epically fail, sometimes I like what they did better than what I was going for and I just go with that. I go with a certain idea but the result tends to be only tangentially related to what I started with.
So I’ll intend for there to be dancing bears, you know, and then at the end it will be an organ recital. It will have all been part of the same process, but then somewhere along the road some sort of catastrophe happened and then I just abandon my original idea. That generally is what happens in 100 percent of my pieces. Every piece has a catastrophe hiding in there somewhere.
Are you ever disappointed if it comes out exactly as you intended?
I don’t know that that’s ever happened. If I ever end up doing exactly what it was that I set out to do and I knew where it was from start to finish, that would be the first time. ¶
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