“It Is Not Like I Need To Be New” | Latedjou In Conversation With Sofia Jernberg

Artist Latedjou in conversation with Ethiopian-born Swedish experimental vocalist, composer and performer Sofia Jernberg ahead of her upcoming performance at Rome’s Short Theater Festival.

by GRIOT - Published on 01/09/2021
Latedjou (left) Sofia Jernberg (right). Photos: Kyamelo, Jon Edergren. COURTESY

Sofia Jernberg‘s voice is fascinating. Encountering a vocalist that seriously nurtures their voice as an instrument is always a reason for observation in quietude. The first notes emerging from her core summon silence; one listens, but also watches as she works through a wide range of seemingly detached atmospheres and places that are ultimately connected through one body. It is music, but also an all-encompassing performance. Whether premeditated or improvised, it always takes self-knowledge, generosity and sincerity to draw from one’s inner-happenings and share them with others.

The sounds are various. Several are an amalgamation of imagined sonic realities; others may already exist. One sometimes recognizes sounds that could have been produced by an animal or an electronic device. To imitate something that is in a language that is not ours, one has to be a very good listener. Among many other things, Sofia Jernberg is an excellent listener who generously transforms living information into pure sound. In this conversation, we dive into how  she relates to her sound and voice, and the paths that forged these relationships.

Latedjou: Sofia, how did you find your voice: your sound?

Sofia Jernberg: When I was younger, I lived in Ethiopia and Vietnam, where my mother was working. Those years really shaped me and my music influences because I did not listen to any Western music. We were staying at the embassy and there was no radio or TV, so I listened to the traditional music that was around.

I  sang a lot. When we were about to go back to Sweden, my mother thought that I would maybe like to go to choir school. I applied and was accepted, and that changed everything. I was very alone until age 10; just singing by myself and loving music. I don’t come from a musical family, so I was the odd one out, also amongst my friends. However, in choir school, I connected with other people and we sung almost daily. That’s where I learned to read music and got Western training. I mean, it wasn’t like a higher education institution, but it gave you input on how to sing. We sung contemporary music, Swedish folk songs, and also the average choir stuff. Through the school, I was  introduced to classical music and I really wanted to sing that. That was my mission in life. So I was always listening to operas and instrumental classical music. After that, I continued training through high school.

There, my focus changed, because I didn’t feel comfortable in the classical music frame at the time. Obviously, I was the only Black person I knew who did that. And there were not many Black people in the choir. It is a very conservative place. At least it was then. I wanted something else, so my teacher introduced me to improvised music. That was a major change because I didn’t know that you could just make things up, or improvise and be free.

You said “I didn’t know”. I am wondering if you had it in you, but maybe thought that you weren’t allowed to? 

I didn’t think that it was something that you could present to an audience and that it was a whole genre. Sometimes, I like to say that I didn’t know, because education is very important and it changes a lot of things for people. I mean, I wouldn’t have made it up myself.

So then I started to improvise. I remember calling record stores and asking them for records with voices and people who were experimenting with the voice. And that’s where my journey started at age 16, and  it’s what I’ve been doing since.

Who were you listening to at the time? 

I was listening to this singer called Phil Minton and to Diamanda Galás, who doesn’t really improvise, but I was listening to her a lot then. She does a lot of stuff with the voice in some of her work. I was also listening to Meredith Monk.

Meredith Monk! I was going to ask you about her actually. I found out about her work not so long ago, through some improvisers I met in Munich. They were a trio. They use the voice a lot, and a lot of their work is inspired by Monk. I also saw a film about her and was really fascinated! What else did you listen to?

A lot of vocal music from around the world, from Africa and Asia. I think this influenced me more than the ones I just told you about. It was nice to listen to what they were doing, but it’s not like I wanted to do that. And traditional vocals from around the world are an inspirational source that I return to, even to this day.

Perhaps that feeling occurs because of the connections that we have with the people who came before us on the continent, or because of how we understand being from, or having ties to a place. I think that it is maybe linked to historical reasons as well, also because, in general, we tend to be proud about the things that come from where we are from. When we travel or become diasporic beings, we like to leave imprints of the influences that have to do with us. When it comes to artistic productions from the West, even if some things really inspire us in the sense of structure or with regards to how it is presented, there is some division that happens in our head or a clear idea that that says “I’m interested in that to some extent, but then I also need that substance. And I consciously take from where I know and where I want.”

Yeah, I understand. I haven’t thought about that. Maybe. I mean, I consider myself European, also because I am adopted, so that changes a lot of things. I did not grow up in a Black environment. Maybe that explains why I have gone for these global voices. Because, when you are adopted, you look so different than you are. I mean, I am very Swedish and of course, I know a lot about Ethiopia as well. My adoptive mother speaks Amharic; I don’t, but I still have a strong connection with Ethiopia. The thing is, I wanted to be more than a country, in a way. I wanted to be like… where we all unite. And that’s also why I like it when it’s no language, because then, a lot of people can access what I’m doing, and I really like to sing! I’ve done solo in Greenland, for example, and they really connected with the material.

That’s super cool! You also speak of “non-verbal vocalisation”, and it is something that I resonate with through instrumental music. I am very attached to the idea of removing words that are tainted or soiled historically from a language. So, for example, words that refer to our skin tones, hair textures, body types and things like that, that are heavy and painful. I like the idea of turning  language into a much easier place to breathe in and to vocalise. So, I was wondering about the significance of sound just for itself. And if it is also something that you intentionally foreground in your practice. 

Yes, it is very intentional! And it also has to do with levitating the material to something higher than just a narrative, a dramaturgy or all the “what-is-this-about” questions, in order to make it really pure music. Then there is also the need for accessibility and for me to be able to communicate with people if they do not speak the language that I am singing.

So what happened after music in high school?

I continued to another school. I never studied at university level, which is very rare in what I do. Most people end up going to university. I had a band and I wanted to do that. The university in Stockholm, where I lived, was also very conservative. I didn’t want to move. So I just decided to take a side job while playing with the band.

I’ve learned a lot and developed my practice by making music with experienced improvisers. My focus now is voice experimentation. I’ve always liked to be equal with the instruments and to be in an instrumental setting without subscribing to a narrative and having to tell a story or be the focus. I’ve always sought to make sounds on equal terms.

I also sing songs with lyrics sometimes, but I think that my main genres are contemporary jazz and contemporary classical. For the solo that I will be doing in Rome, my focus is to have the voice as a sound source, where one cannot really tell whether it is a voice, an electronic device, an animal, or whatever. And so, there are no words, no consonants; nothing reminiscent of language. Just sustained sound that transforms and changes.

You collaborated with improvisers at some point. Who are they? I was also wondering if the way that they used their craft to improvise changed your view on improvisation. What did collaborations bring you specifically?

It takes many, many years to become a master in improvisation. It has a lot to do with presence and swift decision making. You need to have a lot of material in your backpack and also be able to hear all the instruments at the same time. For example, if in a group of five or ten people, you need to make sure that you hear everybody and listen to what is needed for the music at every moment. Some of the people I’ve learnt from are Swedish. There is for example Sten Sandell, Raymond Strid and Mats Gustafsson, whom I still work with. All three are well known in the european improvised music scene. Playing with them taught me without having lessons, just by listening and noticing what they were doing, and attending their concerts.

What does experimentation mean to you: what place does it occupy, and do you feel that it gives you a certain freedom?

For me, it is more for others to understand what to expect, because, I also sing other people’s works, and, when I am hired, they need to know that I am not a trained opera singer, for example. So that is why I use “experimental vocalist”. Apart from that, I consider myself experimental because a lot of my work does not lean on tradition. The tradition is there, of course, but it is a development of it. It is not like I need to be new or something that you have never heard of before. It is just a more contemporary approach than trying to sound like something that is very fixed and has become a norm.

You spoke about “making sounds on equal terms”. What do you mean by that?

Normally, the instruments are in the background and the vocals assist in the foreground. That’s the traditional concept. I want to step back and become one with the instruments. A lot of things appealed to me in instrumental music; that  place where language is no longer important and it is just pure music, when you cannot say that it is an abstraction of things. I do not go in the foreground all the time. The clarinet is in the foreground sometimes, or the piano, or whatever instruments are there. This approach has been a very important vein in my work: to be able to have that role as a singer, also because that is not always expected.

Is this something that you’ve managed to do easily when collaborating with other musicians, or have you faced resistance?

Not with musicians. Musicians are really happy to work with vocalists in that way. I feel that I have several strong bonds with musicians that I worked with for several years. However, I also do contemporary opera and sometimes, one does hear “But please, you have to go in the front and you have to have this dress on or whatever.”, but when you discuss things in the process, they always turn out good in the end.

How many languages do you speak?

Two, and I understand a little bit of French and German.

As someone who is obsessed with language, I think that the ones that we understand are important as well because they expand our understanding of things. Do you understand French and German because of opera?

I actually studied French, but then, I also picked up both because of all the travelling that I have been doing for work for the past ten years. Now, the place where there is a relationship between language and music for me is that, if I have a text that I have to deliver, I need to sing it in a certain way. There are things that need to be adapted around me for the text to be able to project. Otherwise, the audience won’t hear it. If I am only singing a vowel, there is not much change needed from the instruments, but if it is a text, they might have to play a bit softer. I can sing in Italian, German, Russian but that does not mean that I speak those languages. I learn them and practice a lot to have a good pronunciation.

I was watching one of your performances earlier, simply staying with the sound, while doing something else on screen. Suddenly, I heard an electronic, vibrating sound. I had put my earring on my laptop, so I thought that was it. But the sound continued when I took it away. I went back to your video and noticed that your face did not look like it was making the sound that your mouth was producing.

I worked a lot with not showing it so much on my face. So you cannot really see what sound I will sing.

You do that intentionally? 

Yes.

How? and why is this so important for you?

I don’t know. All the theatre and mimic that singers do sometimes that is not necessary for the technical aspect tends to bother me. I like to be neutral so that the sound is in focus, not my facial expression.

I think that intentionality is powerful, it frees the sound to be whatever it could be, because mimic invites the audience’s interpretation. I suppose keeping something neutral can give more range, not only for the nature of the sound, but also for the reaction or the feeling that the audience gets when they hear the sound.

Yes, it makes sense.

You are performing Chasing the Phantoms at WEGIL, a former fascist building in Rome this September. How does it feel for you to be playing in that specific place, where things were uttered in a specific context, decades ago, and having that juxtaposed with you using your voice as freely as you do?

It is something that I only tend to feel when I get to the place. It is difficult, even just by looking at pictures, to know what impact a space will have. I adapt when I am on site. Italy also has a connection with Africa: it colonised Somalia and also fought wars against Ethiopia, so there is that, too. I am happy to go there and sing, and I have sung in fascist buildings before; there are many around.

This conversation was shortened for brevity and clarity.

Maria-Gracia Latedjou is an Angolan-Beninese singer, composer, violinist and visual artist. Her artistic practice swings between experimentation and improvisation.

SOFIA JERNBERG
Chasing The Phantoms (15′)

September 3 | 6:00 pm
WEGIL – Piazzetta
free entry

September 4 | 7:00 – 8:45 pm
within CRATERE
WEGIL – Hall
vocal performance
national premiere

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