Sissel Lillebostad: In conversation with Nicholas Møllerhaug and Espen Sommer Eide
Nicholas H. Møllerhaug and Espen Sommer Eide have worked together on a number of projects in fields ranging from music and language to art and philosophy. From 2001 to 2006, they arranged Trollofonen, an annual music festival held in a Skoda 9TR electric trolleybus. The vehicle’s electric motors provided power not just for the bus itself but also for the musicians. Rural Readers consists of a growing archive of texts, images, sounds, and other approaches to documenting and reading a location or landscape. Arkivsirkus (Archive Circus) is an ongoing project that crosses an archive with live performance. All are organised under the umbrella of Pilota.fm.
«Sputnik» - Trollofon 2005 Foto: Espen S. Eide
Nicholas Møllerhaug (NM) – Our projects, whether it’s Arkivsirkus or Trollofonen we’re talking about, started out from the pleasure we get from creating texts or processes. Rather than offer a text to be read, we translate it into an event or a happening.
Espen Sommer Eide (ESE) – Lately I’ve been reading Raymond Roussel, a French writer who describes imaginary contraptions that produce sound. In a sense, all sound art is initially contained in a text, or rather it takes place inside the mind of the reader.
Sissel Lillebostad (SL) – So imagination is important?
ESE – Yes, very important. The fact is that maybe only one percent of the things we discuss actually get turned into reality. So much of what we do is a matter of working with the imagination – the literary, or narrative aspects, the effort of picturing situations and characters. And then when we meet people, they tend to get dragged into this universe. Take for example the case of Trollofonen. Initially all we intended to do was take pictures of trolleybuses that we could use on our website as a logo.
NM – To us, the working environment in the bus depot was a very closed world. Having contacted them, we found ourselves entering this exclusively male domain. We recognised they would probably be wary of any kind of intrusion. At that time there were fears that the entire trolleybus network would be shut down, so in a way these men were on tenterhooks. Even so, we soon found a common language, and we shared our pictures with them. We felt we were on the same wavelength.
SL – You hitched your sound systems up to the same power source as the trolleybus. Your concerts needed electricity, but when you were driving around, there was a link between the music and the bus’s speed and its ability to tackle slopes. I’ve heard tales about the bus making stops with smoke pouring out of it.
ESE – That wouldn’t have happened with a newer bus, but since this was an old-timer it used more power to get uphill, at which times there was less power for the music, so we had to play quieter.
NM – Right, so as not to short-circuit the entire grid and all the buses.
ESE – It almost always went wrong.
NM – It was a fiasco.
ESE – Half of the trips ended at the halfway point, but in a sense that was part of the work; it was something we had to expect. I think the audiences loved it when things went wrong; they almost started cheering when they saw smoke coming out the back. As a rule something always went wrong, because everything was so old and temperamental and always on the verge of breaking down.
Salmonsen Arkivsirkus m. Jaap Blonk. Foto: Kris Delacourt
Social and melancholy monuments
SL – In your projects, you show a certain interest in what you call melancholy monuments. In this context, a trolleybus laboriously struggling up a hill with a concert on board that causes it to break down could perhaps be seen as a kind of melancholy monument?
ESE – Yes, but it’s important not to abandon oneself to melancholy, or to nostalgia.
NM – Or monuments. But there’s something about the social aspect of our projects that’s particularly important, the fact that we actually visit places. And perhaps the sense of melancholy has more to do with the way other people – the people we talk to – remember things. There’s so much energy there when people get the urge to share their stories, when they open up to us, just hoping we won’t abuse their trust. It’s probably one of the most powerful things we’ve worked with in these projects. For example, the project Espen did at Tippen (an area of waste heaps from the mining industry near Kirkenes), or together with the mosquito researcher at the University of Bergen. One thing is that such people have a lot of expertise and knowledge – which brings in the time factor; they’ve invested so much time. And there’s something melancholy about all that time they’ve used. We’ve had a lot of fun together, really shared their enthusiasm, but we don’t deal with people according to some scheme.
SL – Melancholy monuments is not just about what’s been lost, but also about something that’s accumulated, which we benefit from now. A kind of stored-up time. Several of our sound-art projects make high demands on time; we reduce the tempo until the audience comes to a stop.
ESE – Obviously that’s the effect our works are meant to have. But I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. The point is, we haven’t really thought much in terms of sound-art when working on our projects. Our starting point has generally been other genres, literature and so on. The acoustic element is either something that gets added to a location, as in the case of the trolleybus, or in Lokofonen, the version with a train in Kirkenes.
NM – I think our way of working is relevant insofar as the sound element is often a consequence of what we do, which comes in at the end. I’ve worked a lot with art music and the starting point for the entire Trollofonen project was that I had been asked to do something on communicating contemporary music. We were short of ideas, but eventually we stumbled on this and it became a very different thing. As soon as we had decided to bring in outside artists and to download sound material and all that, effectively we had defined the sound aspect; it was implicit in the project description. When developing our ideas, the sound element doesn’t come in until the very end. It’s like a mini score that works by describing a potential sound. It was characteristic practice in the 20th century to combine conventional notation with more and more graphic features and lots of text. The text has implications for the sound because it’s the musicians who read and interpret it. This synesthesia of word, image and sound is also something we have worked with a lot.
ESE – More in fact than with refining the acoustic format.
Myggbase for Finnmark og Kalkutta (NHM og ESE)
NM – Our collaboration is closely linked to the fact that we write together. I play the cello and sing; I have one background, and Espen has another.
ESE – In Lokofonen we created a kind of link between Kirkenes and Kolkata. The basic idea was fairly simple; one branch of my family comes from Kirkenes, so that’s part of my background, whereas Nicholas spent a fairly long period in Kolkata when he was young.
NM – We had a vision of extending the train route, so that you could go all the way from Kirkenes to Kolkata. But I dare say that’s something we haven’t pursued.
ESE – Well, it might happen. If nothing else maybe to Beijing.
NM – It was a project we started talking about almost in parallel with Trollofonen, as a concept. Espen took his studies further than I did. I never finished anything at all, and I was always meeting people who were very successful academics. A German professor of literature once asked me what I did, and I thought – what the hell can I say? Then I suddenly thought, well, I’m a «rural reader». I remember that, when we met, it was a concept we started discussing very early on, as an idea. So right from the start we were working with Rural Readers, a project that has spawned a lot of sub-categories.
SL – But what is meant by Rural Readers?
NM – Sometime in the late nineties I read a book by a guy called Alberto Manguel, which was all about reading. It’s a book that discusses landscape as something that can be read and remembered in much the same way as text. I grew up in the country near Haugesund, and have spent a lot of time trekking in the mountains. So I thought about this idea of reading and remembering nature. We’ve brain-stormed all sorts of ideas on this subject and Espen’s notion of landscape as ruin fitted so well to Kolkata, where I lived for a lengthy period in 1993 and 94.
ESE – In this sense, we were reading the landscapes we passed through, and we were on the same wavelength with regard to this definition.
NM – Could you say something about the book, Ruinlandskap (Ruin Landscapes)?[i]
ESE – Of course, Viggo Rossvær did a study at Sørvær, in Southern Finnmark, about the landscape as ruin and modernity. It’s an anthropological study, for which he moved to the place and lived there for a while, researching and collecting empirical information, but approaching it all as a kind of philosopher. The idea of a philosopher studying a place in this way is very inspiring. What does it mean to read a place philosophically? How can one combine theoretical reflection, which is usually entirely independent of any particular location, and empirical considerations, with specific events and real experiences? I often prefer to view things from this perspective rather than from the perspective of art; the idea that I’m doing a kind of practical philosophy or philosophy of space.
NM – I think what has inspired us most is folk memory. Just think of all the material you collected in Finnmark, and all those meetings on remote hills deep in the woods.
ESE – Speaking of which: one of the people we interviewed on that trip was Abraham Randa, in Pasvik. We recorded many hours of audio, in which he told me about life in the woods. A long time afterwards we got a call from his family, because he had passed away and they wanted to get hold of the recordings. His wife, Agnes, was still alive, but she had somehow lost interest in life. What they wanted to do was play her the recordings we had done with him. It was quite amazing really.
NM – When did they contact you?
ESE – Maybe it was half a year ago. It was sad, but at the same time an interesting use for our archived material – a use we couldn’t have imagined when we did the recordings. We had simply been pursuing our own interests.
NM – Right at the beginning of our work with Rural Readers, I remember Espen had just seen a David Hockney exhibition, with some of his early Grand Canyon pictures. At the time he found it very inspiring, because Hockney used Mozart as a way to build a relationship to the landscape. He drove through the landscape listening to Mozart at full blast so that the landscape became imbued with Mozart and vice versa. That too was definitely a rural reading.
Eide og Møllerhaug med månefisk Foto: Espen S. Eide
SL – What happened after Trollofonen? A number of processes were set in motion, which you have continued to develop and work with, right?
ESE – Right. You could say that, for a while, we worked on things independently, because Nicholas was getting involved with other organisations like Borealis, the Bergen International Festival, and the like. And I had started devoting more time to my career as a solo musician. So there was a period after Trollofonen when we didn’t have a major project.
NM – We had the Myggbasen (Mosquito Base), and we began working with the concept that we called Arkivsirkus, which we tested out in 2006.
ESE – You could certainly say that Arkivsirkus is our main project at the moment. Again this involves visiting archives, but the result is rather different, partly because here we convert the archives into sound. We invited Jaap Blonk to improvise, and the first thing he did was a set of improvisations inspired by various stuffed animals.
NM – We took them from the tower of the Natural History Museum in Bergen. The tower has received quite a boost in recent years. They intend to renovate it as a new centre. But when we were there, the animals had been locked away for ninety years.
ESE – It was a storeroom for things they couldn’t incorporate into their now rather fusty exhibition.
NM – Jaap Blonk, one of the few people in the world who can really perform Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate to perfection, sang each animal’s song as we held it up. He’s a phonetic genius and an incredible musician. He provided a commentary on the life of each animal when we did it the first time. Later, we wanted to do another version of Arkivsirkus to mark the tenth anniversary of the Landmark café. At the time I was staying in an incredible private library at Paradis in Bergen. One thing it contained was a large encyclopedia. Espen and I spent a day of retreat there. The idea was just to sit in this library and see if we could find something new to work with, and then we came across this encyclopedia called Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon (Salmonsens Conversation Encyclopedia), a remarkable Danish-Norwegian production with pretty extreme texts. Our idea was to use the entire encyclopedia – which is big and heavy, the whole thing is almost as big as a horse with its immense amounts of learning. It contains the entire calendar of the Bergen nobility together with strange texts on the most unlikely subjects. With fantastic illustrations and an amazing number of portraits of men who are now completely forgotten, but who were evidently very important in their day.
What’s been exciting about working with Espen is that he has such fantastic technical skills. Our distribution of labour has basically consisted of me starting with the images, which Espen converts into a flourishing, organic digital universe. And Espen had an idea when it came to the encyclopedia. The question was, how could we enhance it and turn it into a live presentation? Then Espen came across these hand scanners, which are essentially just a simple device for scanning bills and things, a kind of stick you swipe over the thing you want to scan. So we bought two of them. A few months after our first meeting at the villa, we sat down with these devices and started playing around with them. Eventually we came up with completely new ways of manipulating them, which resulted in almost macabre pictures. And this was something we found we could use live, together with Jaap. We read from the encyclopedia live, in crazy ways, scanning articles, while Jaap performed commentaries on them.
Salmonsen Arkivsirkus m. Jaap Blonk. Photo: Kris Delacourt
ESE – It’s on Youtube, I think, so you can get an impression of it there.[i] We’re now developing the project further, as «live archiving», together with Jaap. Digitisation is the in-thing at present; all the texts will be digitised. So that’s really something. On the Internet you can find huge databases of extinct languages and collections of language samples. Since it’s indigenous societies that tend to lose their languages first, vast databases have been amassed that are now just lying there. They give the impression of something dead. In its form, an archive is always in some respects a huge, ponderous accretion of material, until someone comes along and does something with it. What I do is select sound samples of different languages and transform them into short pieces of music – to put it briefly.
NM – In the days when we were mixing classical and serious new music with noise and electronica in clubs and at Pilota, we were the only people doing that kind of stuff. One way or another we managed to arrange a fairly long series, also under the concept of Trollofonen and the trolleybus universe.
ESE – It’s only now, much later that our activities are being assimilated into the art world and referred to as sound art. And then they’re put into the context of the entire history of sound art stretching back to the sixties, and of other things I hardly ever thought about when I started making music. Suddenly I’ve become part of a history that I never belonged to in the past. That’s something that might be worth looking into more closely. For the time being it’s a bit incoherent.
NM – But that’s the way it is.
ESE – Sure, that’s the nature of dialogue, of course. Since conversing is what we are meant to be doing here, so to speak. It’s an extremely creative form in itself, don’t you think? I mentioned earlier that I was listening to a science podcast about why it’s so difficult to build a robot capable of natural human dialogue. The reason is that dialogue is «perpetually surprising»; one is constantly trying to surprise one’s interlocutor by heading off in unexpected directions. That’s what I find so good about dialogue; it jumps from one thing to another, avoids going directly to the point. It’s all about chains of associations; basically one is forever trying to impress the other party by introducing surprising twists, so as to reignite the dialogue, to keep it alive.
NM – And digressions provide fuel.
ESE – Digressions, creative input, and the turnings one takes. But this is of course hard to reproduce in a text.
SL – Absolutely, the sound of space is one expression I came across while researching your work. And it’s something I notice in Trollofonen, Lokofonen and Rural Readers – that space, situations and events, social space as well, has sonic presence.
NM – And a history. Which brings us back to the trolleybus workers at Mannsverk; they’re the ones who gave the project the sonic quality, because they’re the ones with the memories and the hall, the stock of stories. And here again it’s all about dialogue, because dialogue presupposes mutual trust. We two know each other well, so that’s not a problem, but when you meet someone in a very closed environment, it can be a real thrill just to have a key that helps to give you access. Recently we’ve been forging contacts with entirely new and very exciting archives, to start a dialogue. With Salmonsens, we’ll be continuing our work but with an entirely new archive, and in very different ways. We should be careful not to say too much. But it looks like we’ll be having fun.
1 Viggo Rossvær, Ruinlandskap og modernitet: hverdagsbilder og randsoneerfaringer fra et nordnorsk fiskevær. Spartacus, Oslo 1998.