Maja S. K. Ratkje @ MADEIRADiG

The Girl in the Lab

Maja came from Norway to play at MADEIRADiG. She’s a great composer and contemporary singer who has worked with names like Zeena Parkins (who’ve played in the last edition) or Ikue Mori. Besides looking very focused on her musical lab, Maja has lots of fun doing her concerts, jumping between different states and connotations. Emotionally she’s not changing from state to state, she’s just focusing on making sounds and every concert is unique.

Elsa Garcia – Someone told me that you were very nervous before playing.

Maja Ratkje – Because it’s the most important thing to me, as an artist, to have my work exposed to an audience… and it’s my wish to share this thing that I can do at my very best. It get us to go further as human beings, if we explore our good art. I demand so much from myself, so to be in a situation like that made me really nervous because there is so much at stake. And I think that’s why I want to be a musician, because I want to be there. And there’s no return: you have to deliver. I know this also because I was trained as a classical composer, so I’ve written pieces for orchestras and strings. I know how comfortable it is to write music apart from “now”. But still I need to be in the now to feel that tension that I feel at the concert, because that gives me impulses and it gives me energy also to make music when I’m sitting in my studio, all the time that I need to finish something. I think also maybe the fact that I’m performing live makes me more experienced as a composer. It’s a really huge advantage because it gives me a new angle back to composing. When I write to other musicians, I’m giving that responsibility to them. And it’s a really different feeling performing music that is being played at real time compared to what it is when you’re at your desk at home, and you can take a lunch break. I’m struggling a lot because I’m making it a lot harder to myself. I do different things everyday and I see what happens.

EG – When you are on stage we feel that you are having a great joy …

MR – You think I look like I’m enjoying? Because people always point me that I look so serious, but I’m concentrated because it’s very difficult.

EG – I saw that you look like you were in a lab, doing your own thing with great joy and very focused at the same time.

MR – Good observation… because you can tell that I’m enjoying. And the thing is I love this music, I love the challenge, and I love when everything is at stake. So when I play solo I’m completely free, I improvise, I don’t have any plan at all, and I play from scratch…

EG – Everything is improvised. So all of your concerts are unique?

MR – Yes, totally. But the frame is the choice of instrumentation, so if you put me in a solo concert you’ll never get of the same, because I’m using the voice and some other gear.

EG – You are really focused… like a crazy scientist creating something big.

MR – It’s a focus thing because it’s super demanding and I’m multitasking. Thank you for noticing that. People are not used to this music.

António Néu – I think it looks chaotic but at the same time emotional and it makes total sense… the sounds make sense.

EG – There are oscillations between an aggressive sound and a lullaby.

MR – But that’s because I want music to reflect the whole aspect of being human… and you shouldn’t only punch people in the face, but you can’t always sooth and please people all the time. I want to use the whole register of expressions. I have lots of fun doing it, jumping between different states and connotations because emotionally I’m not changing from state to state I’m just focusing on making the sound. I’m not going from angry to sad, or pleased. I’m totally focused on the sound. And because I’m using my voice the emotion is co-heard, it’s imminent. I use the expression of the voice to move people, but it’s not like an actor that is emotionally controlling. The sound comes first and then the emotion.

EG – It was overwhelming, in terms of image and sound, what you did with the plastic thing, the cellophane. A mixing between sound and visuals.

MR – I use that all the time. It has a great sound and I was working the light in that cellophane. Sometimes I collaborate with visual artists of top level that are able to communicate in a certain way. I do that with several artists.

EG – You were telling me that your daughter is eight years old and that she had already played with you?

MR – Yes! She had played with me already two times. The first time it was in London, in the Roundhouse. It was a huge festival created by Imogen Heap, the avant-garde pop singer and electronics player, and there was a huge crowd. I was there with my oldest daughter, and she was only six then. She was hiding under my table, and she was fine, playing with my phone and with huge ear protection. It was amazing to watch the audience. When I play I’m normally really concentrated and especially on my gear… but that day I looked up and only saw hundreds of telephones because she was playing with some things that create noise, (things that are really in the system) and the thing is she really plays music. We played again in May in a huge festival in China, in Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. Most people don’t know the existence of this city but there are millions of people there, and they invite international names. The thing is, it doesn’t take much to break the convention of the scene. Just being a female is already a way of breaking it… now bringing children on stage? It’s really disturbing people’s minds because you expect these things to be very serious, and dark, and man are dressed in black…. and then you come as a woman, which is already far off, and then you even bring your child! How far can you go? It’s fun to break conventions. I love doing that since I started to make music.

EG – And how is your work process?

MR – It is always a work in progress. Since I started making avant-garde music, I just figured out that I couldn’t live my life like a normal commercial artist in music. And I never compromise what is my form of art… I think that curiosity is my driving force first of all, curiosity and the challenge that I put on myself above all. I want to go on a tour that is demanding. I need the challenge in order to grow as an artist. So I don’t want to be too comfortable. My process is about finding out new ways, like taking something that is very familiar, a toy instrument, the use of the voice or the harmonica, and I put all that in a new context and see what happens. That can be new. You never know what’s going to happen when you put things together.

EG – Do you read a lot, do you go to exhibitions often? I’m asking you this because of the result of what you’re doing.

MR – I think you process everything that you are exposed to as human being. And sometimes I deliberately go to research something, and sometimes I see things by chance, or through people that you meet along the way if you are open to listening to things for example. I love the randomness of life.

EG – And I can see that you’ve really enjoyed playing in MADEIRADiG.

MR – Oh yeah. Absolutely. If you are treated nicely at the festival by the people that organise it, and respect you, and do the things correctly to bring you to play to their venue, then you play so much better. If you want the artist to provide good gigs at your festival, treat them nicely, be friendly. Ask what they are doing. Care for them. It’s so easy. Artists are overall good people, and they deserve to be treated nicely. And they will do their best. It’s all about the vibe at the festival. That’s why is terrifying to play at this festival. Because every single one is super nice and then you really want to perform the best gig possible. And then you get even more nervous.

See also: MADEIRADig 2017

Elsa studied journalism and over the years has taken several contemporary art courses, including Themes in the History of 20th Century Art (Fundação Serralves), a Curatorial workshop at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon, Aesthetics (Ar.Co) and History of Photography at the same Institution and a Postgraduate Degree in Curating at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She is a founding member and director of Umbigo magazine, created in 2002, with which she developed several curatorial projects, including the exhibition "Entre Limite e a Audácia" by Miguel Palma at the Fábulas gallery, "The Difference" by Andrea Splisgar at the Palácio de Santa Catarina, the exhibition "Pieces and Parts" at Plataforma Revólver, Lisbon, "Pierre Barbrel – Dissociation" at Espaço Camões da Sá da Costa, "Robe de contact (lys)" by artist Jean François-Krebs at Galeria Sá da Costa. In 2023 she curated the exhibitions "Unwinding" by Theodore Ereira-Guyer and Sam Llewellyn-Jones at Galeria Sá da Costa and "A Face is a Mask..." by Pedro Valdez Cardoso at Brotéria. She was jury and curator of the Contemporary Jewelry Exhibition "On the Other Hand", commemorating the 5th anniversary of PIN (Portuguese Association of Contemporary Jewelry), at Galeria Reverso (Lisbon), Galeria Adorna Corações (Porto) and at the Gray Area Symposium at Galeria Medellein ( Mexico City). In 2018 she was a jury for the ENSA Arte award in Luanda. Also for Umbigo magazine, she coordinated the edition of the book "Coordenadas do Corpo na Arte Contemporânea", a collection that brings together an essay by Bárbara Coutinho and several artistic works, many of them developed specifically for the book, in a set of works that represent a small sample of the concerns philosophical and aesthetic ideas of a group of artists. In 2018, together with António Néu (art director of Umbigo magazine), she created the UmbigoLAB Platform, a networking network for artists that promotes synergy between them and agents in the field (curators, museum directors, gallerists, collectors and institutions).

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