Name: Ellen Arkbro
Current events and releases: Recently, Ellen Arkbro has worked with trio Zinc & Copper, for, among others, the Tectonics festival. If you can't catch her music live: Her first two albums, For Organ and Brass (2017) and Chords (2019) are still available digitally via her bandcamp store.
Recommendations: The album Comicopera by Robert Wyatt.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ellen Arkbro, visit her website. Or check out her profiles on twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started writing pop songs around 2001, when I was 11.
I had a band with my best friends Emelie and Paula. I had been listening to the records that my dad had been playing for me growing up, mostly British pop music. I was about as serious as I am now with music. I forced the other girls to rehearse twice a week and I was disappointed when they weren’t willing to put in more time.
I’ve always written songs and still write songs but I guess I started experimenting more when I was in my twenties and needed to find a different kind of expression. I felt the need to create a world for myself to exist in, so this was my most important inspiration, and early on I was guided by an abstract idea of making slowed down pop music.
I also remember some very important moments that sort of led the way. One was hearing Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie De La Mort played on the radio in my dad’s kitchen in Stockholm. I was so fascinated by it. I sat down listening to the whole thing, completely stunned. It resonated within me.
Eventually, and over time, I found all the music that I had been dreaming of hearing but didn’t know was out there … Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage and so on.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I like to think that your expression is a consequence of everything you’ve absorbed yourself in, and dreaming of hybrids of other people’s work is an important way of imagining new sounds.
But then there is this magic to not understanding and not knowing the process of how something has been created, when there is still a mystery to it. For me that feeling of wonder is so essential for being inspired that I tend to be a bit too cautious with learning and studying and spending time refining my craft. I have become a bit comfortable with not really having the tools to do my work, if that makes sense. I mostly rely on my intuition, which can be extremely frustrating while I am in the process of working on something because I feel like such a fake, like I am not a real musician or a real artist. I don’t know how to do things, but I do them anyway.
And then of course there are artists that has directly influenced my work and shaped the architecture of my world and for me that was the work of La Monte Young, Arthur Russell and Catherine Christer Hennix, to name a few.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
I would say to trust my instincts and to know or believe that my work carries a certain weight – a trust that I guess is essential to continue to make art and to write music. I don’t know if I’ll ever call my work important but more and more I feel that that there is a certain sound and expression that comes with the work that I do, and it’s nothing I need to spend time dwelling on or think through but it arises when I play music. This trust has led me to improvise more.
Other challenges includes getting lost in concepts and ideas about my work and forgetting about the direct experience, or overcomplicating things and spending too much time thinking and getting further and further away from the essence of something. This is something I still tend to do.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I never had a proper work space or a studio. I’ve always been longing to have a studio where everything is set up and where I could develop a routine of working but I have absolutely no routines or structure in my life and every time I start arranging a desk and build a more permanent work station somewhere I find myself by the kitchen table instead.
I’ve also moved about 24 times in the 31 years that I have been alive, so I guess I have the soul of a nomad.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I love slow mornings, I tend to linger on the mornings because I love the feeling of a blank day when all possibilities are still there. This is the time when I listen to music and discover new music.
I spend a long time eating breakfast. After that I get to work on whatever it is that I am working on. I tend to work on one thing at a time, and sort of intensely. I can’t switch between different things and I need to absorb myself in the one thing that I am working on, and then that becomes my universe while I am working on it. It can be intense and frustrating to be in it and then such a relief to leave that universe and to understand that the world is bigger than your current creative adventure. Sometimes you of course need the distance that time away from something will give you. It’s easy to get lost.
I guess I feel, like most creative people, that my work is my way of life and that there is not really a way to separate the two. I try this sometimes but it never ends well … But it’s very important to get a distance to yourself and what you are doing in all the ways that you can. There has to be some balance in how much you identify with your work and how close you keep it to yourself.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t really know. I guess to be attentive and sensitive. That’s the space I need to get into. Sometimes when I am around people who don’t share that sensibility or who don’t tune into it, it can be confusing and then it becomes impossible to do genuine work.
Composing music for me is meditating, so it’s being totally absorbed in what you are doing. There can’t be any other distractions. When it works I sort of just turn that on. But I always need to be alone, and sometimes I can’t seem to find the on-switch, usually because my head is elsewhere and I am not really present.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I always compose pieces from beginning to end, and there is not so much changing things in the process. It’s essential to set a framework from the beginning, and create limitations. For me, those limitations are usually instrumentation, a harmonic framework and knowledge of the context in which the work will be presented. I often have a vague idea of a sound and a harmonic modulation, and I can hear the outlines of the piece in my head. So that’s the first thing, to sort of imagine the music.
When I sit down to compose I always start working on the harmonies and I write the harmonic form from beginning to end. This is a super slow process. I sit by the keyboard and I write the first chord and then I listen to that for a long time until I hear the second chord in my head, and then I listen to those two chords and I wait … I guess it’s kind of the stereotypic image of a composer deep in thought. (laughs)
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me, working with generative music in Supercollider has been an important tool to create this kind of creative feedback loop. That can be really helpful when I need new input because I can be surprised and hear sounds and harmonies and patterns that I could never have imagined. So, that has been important for me in building a world of possibilities in music.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
Well, I am sad to say that I feel quite lonely when working on my music. I would love for it to be a more collaborative thing, a way to spend time with people that I love and get inspired by, but it’s mostly a lonely practice.
This last year, however, I collaborated with many of my friends in Stockholm, most of them are jazz musicians. We wrote songs together, and wrote arrangements for low wind instruments, piano, bass and drums. I loved working so closely with my friends. The tricky thing for me is that I often have such clear ideas that it becomes difficult to give room for a genuine collaboration, because for a genuine collaboration to happen you need to give as much room for other people’s ideas. This time, we all gave room for that true collaboration to happen. I am really grateful for that experience because it deepened our friendships, but it was also a draining process so I’ll most likely wait a bit until I enter into another collaboration of that kind.
When it comes to the musicians performing my work it differs a lot, it’s such a lovely experience when someone is feeling the music and really playing with their soul. But sometimes, it’s more about executing an idea that I have and I don’t know if I would call that a collaboration. The musician becomes more of a tool in that situation, which is fine. I respect that approach as well, but it’s helpful to be open about it. Usually it becomes pretty clear when you start working together and I like to believe that I am good at adapting to different situations that arise.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Recently I started to improvise more when I play concerts, and the composition is more an idea of a form and a sound. When I write for others, it is a very different situation and I learn a lot about the music when I meet with the musicians and hear it being played in the room. But it’s also such a tender moment. I feel very vulnerable in that situation because most of the music I write is very soulful to me and sometimes I can find it difficult to handle the musicians not understanding or appreciating my intentions.
I also tend to want to adapt all of my pieces for any new situation, so that’s something that I have to balance a bit: to both tune into the particularities of the given situation but also understand when I need to let go.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
It’s tricky. Our consciousness and our ways of experiencing the world are so intertwined with our concept of time, so where would you start? I don’t want to try to say something profound about time, but I guess I could associate freely for a little bit. I would say that one characteristic of my music is that it is slow, meaning slower than another music. Unlike others who work with sustained sound, I don’t want time to evaporate, I want to highlight it.
Listening to time passing is an aesthetic experience for me, it is the stage for the music. I want the music to be perceived as slow, and so every piece I write is slower than the last one, since my concept of what slow music is is constantly shifting.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
There’s no way to separate the two. I come to think of the Heart Sutra: form is emptiness, emptiness if form. Sound is form, sound is emptiness. In my work, sound is everything, form is everything.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
In some of the concerts I play, when I focus on psycho-acoustics and I work with sustained complex chords which interact with the space in complex ways, the embodied experience is everything. Our sense of spatiality, and moving our body within a space, within a sound - that’s the whole experience. It’s more about experiencing space, being aware of your body, of your movements, like a meditation on our mode of existence.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
For me, the most fascinating art is art that transcends the kind of worldliness that most art is intertwined with. I am interested in the more abstract, and in things that are simple and as close to non-referential as possible. So simple that it can be viewed and perceived in many different ways. So for me, political or social commentary becomes less interesting.
Of course, everything is created within a context, but sometimes there can be parts of the work that transcends that and those moments really fascinate me.
I didn’t think about what it meant to become an artist when I was younger. It was the only way that I could imagine living, but as I am getting older, I more and more realise how much of it is swimming in the opposite direction as everyone else. You feel lonely and vulnerable and outside the world. So, in a way, and maybe especially today, it feels like just being an artist (depending on how you are an artist of course) can be some sort of statement I guess.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
No, I have a very limited fantasy. (laughs)