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Interview with Grit Ruhland and Walburga Walde (Singing Länsiväylä)
21 September 2016
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The Singing Länsiväylä activity at the festival this weekend promises to be an immersive, participatory experience that incorpoates listening with physical expression and awareness of the environment. We asked workshop facilitators Grit Ruhland and Walburga Walde a few questions about their practice. 

Reminder: there are still places available in the workshop - register here!

Pixelache: You both come from backgrounds in sound and music, although taking very different approaches. Is it challenging to work in an unconventional format like this, a mobile workshop, as opposed to a concert/performance or recording?

Grit: Well, my background is Visual Arts - I studied "Sculptural and spatial concepts". I became interested in the acoustic dimension of space in my first years of studies. So, originally I traveled from the tangible spheres to Sound Art. Before studying I worked as a stone mason. 

Compared to an exhibition, there is the advantage of not to be concerned with a lot of matter - meaning weight, material, stuff. Which is a true relief! Look at the storages of sculptors - matter can be a ballast. On the other hand you can look on object as "the other" distant to yourself. The artwork as an object is there through a long duration of time - even without the artist being present. A workshop or improvisation is most different to that. Only few things are fixed. Most of the things are a process - a dynamic relation between people, place and objects. Of course it needs confidence because openness can be quite challenging - but I guess it is a skill which can be trained (and should be trained). 

I don't think one format (exhibition, concert or workshop) is better than the other. It depends what you are interested in. I guess "workshop" is a format that you choose when you are interested in exchange, collective knowledge, low hierarchies, soft boundaries, openness and freedom. Especially singing is a skill that allows surprisingly easy formats of spontaneous organization. 

What are your feelings about the use of scores, texts or pre-conceived materials to guide group improvisation? Grit, I see you have worked a bit with these in previous group improsiations.... are we likely to encounter any such material in Singing Länsiväylä?

Our material in this case will be found in sound-walks and through discussions. Graphical scores were just one form of communicating ways of building an organism. In the end it is all about organising a group of people. The papers recently used should inform and facilitate "self-organisation". In Singing Länsiväylä we will have more time and a smaller group people that we can discuss and work without papers.

Do you feel that there is a boundary between participation and performance that should be respected? If I understand correctly, Singing Länsiväylä does not conclude with a concert or any sort of presentation, which is great - but does this possibly create challenges in communicating or dissemintating your ideas to the greater public?

In this case the artwork and the production of the artwork are the same. I don't know, if I got your question right, but to me any kind of participatory artwork is also a training in democracy. It has political aspects - in a broader sense: within the arts we do not only expand the view on reality, but through our physical embodied practises we actually learn and improve our variety of organising and hopefully understand more, what it is all about - which would be a rather philosophical question. In German we have an expression for participatory artworks, that do not really want an honest exchange but use people for a background job - we call it "Mitmachkunst" (something like: "Follow-me-art"). This is not what we want.

Of course, we live in a society which is about selling products. The arts and artists are not excluded from this process. The more an artwork is designed as a product, the better it fits in promoting mechanisms and the more likely it will receive attention. While my art school education was telling me to work only on a conclusive concept of an artwork - to be almost 100% consequent. So, I guess it is good to accept this setup as a challenge not without frustration, but to be aware of it and look for those people who are interested in such open formats. What seems inevitable today can be gone tomorrow. We live in disturbed times - Walburga and I were born in a state that has disappeared from all maps - though Finnish people may still be familiar with it. This experience of transition has stroked my life and I don't take things for granted anymore.

Walburga, you are a trained vocalist. But this workshop is very much open to people who are not traditional singers. What do you like most about working with non-musicians (or at least non-traditional musicians), and in what ways have your own approaches shifted from these inputs?

Walburga: Our voice is an natural instrument, we are born with it - for comunication.... in my work as voice teacher and also through experiences with my own voice, I know that the first step to open the voice is often to remove obstacles, which we learned somehow on our way because of different reasons  - to allow free expression, to use the voice how it is naturally meant. From there, it's possible to open more and more through a growing, sensitive awareness of one's own voice. As much as we develop this awareness, to really feel what's going on - as sooner there are some changes.  

So actually, my work is based on the idea of "back to the roots" -- or, every voice is able to produce sound in its individual colour. To start from this colour is an interesting journey - its very personal. There can never be an "wrong sound" - its just an expression of that what is in the moment and musically seen sound is sound in its special characteristics. The possibilities of how voice can be used are so big; what we learn is to trust them and to use them also consciouosly to create music.
There's so many ways to approach sound and environment, yet it's crazy (or sad) how little this infiltrates our everyday lives. Some of (for example) John Cage's ideas are now 70 years old, but can still feel radically transformative when applied - like we go through our sound-lives asleep, only remembering to turn on a switch during the occasional artistic experience. When facilitating something like Singing Länsiväylä, is there a goal to make an impact that continues after the workshop is over? Or is this just a personal choice of the participants and not something you can influence?

Grit: I agree with your observation. I often think about how things can be changed. Sometimes it feels like nothing changes and all ideas and efforts are useless - clearly this is a feeling of impotence: one of the most challenging feelings. I guess the political struggles across Europe comes from this feeling of impotence on many levels. But since it sounds uncool, people in Germany speak about anger and fear. Fear and anger are feelings that can be expressed more easily than impotence. So speaking about feelings seems to be important after or within the era of enlightenment - a blind spot. Science and engineering rules our world - with its concept of objectivity it suppressed and excluded feelings. But of course feelings belong to us - it is ridiculous to deny them. The arts never had these troubles with emotions. But sciences slowly opens up - for the arts and the subjectivity. But this is a long process ...

To say it in a positive way: John Cage's ideas are rich and strong enough that they are alive for 70 years now. Not as a major part of life and/or society - but as a minor one. Singing Länsiväylä is like sowing. It, of course, depends on various conditions what will grow and survive. I gues we need patience and a view that looks at a larger time-span.

And, of course, empathy. Is this a concept that's infused into your regular work? And how do you feel this workshop will explore the theme? 

Grit: My main project is a practise-based PhD at Bauhaus University Weimar about the impacts of (Soviet) uranium mining to the landscape in the area where I live - East Germany. What I mainly do (except for making field recordings, photos and writing my thesis), is to make observations at locations randomly chosen through the Monte-Carlo-Method - which is an artistic-scientific part. In cooperation with Quantum physicist Dr. Stefanos Kourtis, I developed a program to convert Geiger counter data into random locations, times, dates - then I go there for 1 - 6 hours making observations, portraying the relation of the landscape and me. I expose my body to this often still-disturbed landscape. I listen what the waters, woods and soils tell me. Often they tell as much as the people living there. I moved to this area three years ago - into the house of my great-grand-parents. My daily work is all about letting this place influence me - to sense what has happened to this landscape.

As for Singing Länsiväylä: Opening the ears to hear the (unintended) sounds of technologies that accompany our everyday lives and even reproducing them with our voices, in my point of view, can be called empathy. Empathy, to me, means sensing what another person feels, and temporally (!) giving up your own position. This soul-gym only works if you find your way back to what could be called "your" position afterwards - but it may have changed after the experience of sensing the other. 

Usually singing is something "nice" and innocent - I find this unexpected break interesting to combine it with technology. And from the U-Bahn-Choir I ran in Berlin some years ago, I know that especially in a choir is capable to represent the sounds of transportation in a very rich and entertaining way. I hope we can make that happen for Singing Länsiväylä, too.

Singing Länsiväylä takes place from 13:00 - 16:00 on Friday and you can register for it here.