Interviews: Olof Dreijer (The Knife), Mt. Sims and Planningtorock On “Tomorrow, In A Year”
Olof Dreijer of The Knife, Matthew Sims aka Mt. Sims and Janine Rostron aka Planningtorock have worked together on the soundtrack of “Tomorrow, In A Year”, an opera about Charles Darwin and his evolution theory which was brought on stage by the Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma (I already posted a clip of the piece here). As far as I know the soundtrack is going to be released tomorrow and can be prelistened to on The Knife’s webpage.
You wanted all journalists that are going to interview today to read the transcript of your roundtable conversation about the way this whole project started and on what ideas your soundtrack to Hotel Pro Forma’s Darwin opera is based. But something that still isn’t really clear to me is how you actually interacted with the other ones involved in the project. For example: At what stage was the stage performance when they asked you to make the music?
Olof Dreijer: It started the same for all people involved in the project. In the beginning Hotel Pro Forma gave us a loose framework for the piece. It was a long list of literature and they also told us that the play was supposed to feature three singers, six dancers and that it should focuse on biology and geology. We also did some research by going to museums wit them, we went to the Nature history museum and the geology museum for example.
So you went to the museum with a whole group of dancers?
O: The core of Hotel Pro Forma is basically just one woman, Kirsten Dehlholm, who’s been doing these kinds of performances since the seventies. She invited Ralf Richardt Strøbech to direct to play, so the two of them were the artistic leaders. They were the ones who gave the musicians, choreographers, costume designers and light designer this framework. All people worked with it about a year and then three months before the premiere, everything was brought together.
Three months before the premiere?
Janine Rostron: Yes. It was a very separate kind of work.
But how did the people who were doing on the stage performance know what would await them? Did they have an idea of what you were planning to do musically?
O: No, this was done completely separately. There were two workshops were we could jam a bit with the dancers, but this was also a very abstract. But I think that this is a very interesting way of working. I see it as some kind of huge improv session in which the musicians don’t listen to each other and everything takes place in parallel events. And this is something you can see on stage, there are a couple of shows going on at the same time.
J: The parts were not always communicating, definitely. I mean actually it was quite hard because when it all finally came together we started to realise that there are pluses and minuses of that working process. And we even thought it would have been better to bring all pieces together sooner. But at the same time I really enjoyed this independence to just focus on the music and not have these other elements influence it. The freedom of that was excellent.
Matthew Sims: The directors were the mediators. So it was really us giving the trust to these people. And you really need a lot of trust when a project like this is collecting people from a lot of different categories – weather it is choreography or music – that haven’t actually worked on this particular kind of piece before.
What was it that made Hotel Pro Forma decide to bring an opera about Charles Darwin and his evolution theory on stage? I mean what attracted them so much to this topic?
O: I think the reason was the 150th anniversary of his book “Origins of the species”, because it was an opportunity to get fundings. Also, Hotel Pro Forma have always been interested in this really big themes, they’ve always done pieces about subjects like China or the Islam.
Was there also political background? I mean I was thinking that today, in a time in which a lot of people question evolution theory again a Darwin opera could be meant to fight fundamentalism. And you could even make the term “social darwinism” a subject of the whole project.
J: Yeah, it’s a massiv topic and we were all interested in the political aspect of Darwin. We would have liked to have more of it in the play but Hotel Pro Forma weren’t so interested in that.
O: They had a clear focus on biology and science, whereas I personally was only interested in the aspect of social Darwinism, but that’s not what we were commissioned for.
How did the four of you work together? I read that you worked at different places in the world, in Iceland and at the Amazon for example.
J: We worked in different kinds of groupings, sometimes together, sometimes seperate. Olof and I went to Iceland together and Olof and Matt to the Amazon. We also worked together in Berlin where most of us live as well as in Copenhagen where Karen lives. So it was really depending on what we were working on at the time I guess.
O: When the whole thing started we were commissioned only as The Knife and we had the first meetings as a duo. But as soon as we had understood the nature of the project we invited Janine and Mathew, on the one hand because I’ve always wanted to collaborate with them and because I felt that it would be really fun to work with four people. On the other hand: Darwin’s life, his evolution theory – these are huge themes and I thought that it is strange to portrait that musically just from one or two brains. We wanted to have different focuses for the soundtrack and an extreme diversity. So as Janine said we worked together in groupings, Karen and I for example worked more song-based and Janine and I worked on the more abstract stuff. And we also gave ourselves exercises, like we’ve been reading Darwins theory loudly and then thought about how we could illustrate that musically.
You have both perspectives both in the play as well as in the music: There’s a scientific perspective and there’s Darwin’s personal live. I know that you read his “Origins of the Species” and a book with letters by him and his wife. What else did you read to try to understand what kind of person he was like?
M: There are many biographies written about him and a lot of them are available at the moment. Especially because of the anniversary of the release of the book many things were reprinted and published. There is also a database online with most of Darwin’s work.
O: Maybe you want to say something about what you focused on when you wrote the lyrics. What you found interesting.
M: Well, Darwin is one of the people that after his death was put as above human, you know, as a hero. For me it was interesting to deal with him as human being, as a vulnerable person in some of the lyrics. Other lyrics dealt with the actual, the subject of the matter that was like geology and, or things that were in their minute forms that led up to Darwin’s revelation about his theory of decent and things like this. I also think that Darwin was a person that was full of self contradiction and self critique. For me the embodiment of his personality was more of a question than an answer. He raised the question, but he didn’t give an answer, he didn’t say I, I don’t know how this happens.
J: I think one interesting thing about this project was also to discover that this guy wasn’t an isolated figure, he became isolated because of his discoveries and the consequencies of that, but he did live with very important people which lived through that with him as well. And at the same time he also feared the consequences of being so extreme blasphemous in the society of that time. He was very godfearing.
Is that why the music has some very alienated moments? I mean you used mainly electronical devices even when you tried to imitate the sounds of animals. There are only a few sounds in the music that I would perceive as “organic” or something like that.
O: I would say it’s a very equal mix between electronic and acoustic, there are for example real animal sounds and fake animal sounds. It was our goal to have this diversity.
J: There was also this interesting applying to try to put all these evolutionary theories into the musical process. And using electronics is an excellent way to do that, because it’s got its own nature and its own free-form. And we definitely didn’t always want to be so immediately influential to how things sounded, we wanted to let things develop and even decide themselves. We didn’t want to just use the recordings of real birds for example but instead tried to imagine what certain animals would sound like that don’t even exist any more.
A fter they saw the piece a lot of journalists wrote that they had the feeling that it could disappoint especially fans of The Knife because of its abstractness. Is this something that happens to you a lot, that people ask you “what’s going on here”? I mean especially because I think a lot of The Knife fans don’t usually go to dance performances and stuff like that.
O: There’s clearly a shift of audience here. But I think so little about the consumer and I work very little with communication so I can’t really answer that question.
J: We definitely had to deal with expectation, expectations of a certain consistency – whatever that is. I think this is a strange experience for all artists .
O: What some people may not really understand is that most of the musical choices on the record are motivated according to the stuff we have been reading. And for me personally it is way more interesting to illustrate and to work on this conceptual level with music than to just express my own ego like it happens most of the time in pop music. I think it is very interesting to destroy this believe in the idea of a “popular culture genius” that expresses itself, to get rid of that and instead deal with a topic like this one. I mean what does self-expression mean anyway, isn’t it all just performance?
P.S.: I must admit that for me as a non-native speaker it was quite hard to transcribe the conversation and edit the text because I usually translate interviews straight away so nobody notices when I didn’t understand certain words. So please be generous when you find mistakes in the text and let me know if there’s something horribly wrong.