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Interview with Maja S. K. Ratkje

majabykjetilvalstadsveNorwegian vocalist and composer Maja S. K. Ratkje is coming back to San Francisco this week to perform a solo set on the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. Maja graciously answered a few questions about her life and work, while en route to the US.

Adam Fong: It’s great that you’re coming back to San Francisco! We last saw you in 2015, when you brought your collaborative work, Birds and Traces, as part of the Other Minds Festival, at SFJAZZ. What’s your plan for the SF Electronic Music Festival?

Maja S. K. Ratkje: I am invited to play a solo set which involves using my voices and various electronic devices. When I play solo like this, I always start form scratch, I like it to be completely open, free improvised, and in dialogue with the room and the situation. We’ll just have to see what happens. The set-up I brought along gives some frames for what I can do, but at the moment I have no clue what I will do at the concert. It’s an exciting contrast to composing scores, and the two different ways of creating music – composing or improvising – inspire each other a lot.

AF: Yes, your creative efforts represent an incredibly broad range of musical approaches, including composition for acoustic and electronic resources, small and large ensembles, self-directed bands, improvisation, and multimedia collaborations. How has this breadth affected your career?

MR: I am making a living as a freelancer so it’s natural for me that I use the full width of my interests. I also like the challenge that I meet in trying out new formats, such as Crepuscular Hour. This was an hour-long piece for three choirs, 6 noise musician and concert organ, all surrounding the audience, premiered at Ultima some years back, that we’ve recently mixed and released in 5.1 with video by Kathy Hinde, who was with me at Other Minds in 2015.

When I return to Oslo, I will have a piece performed by Trondheim Voices, a group of nine jazz/avant-garde singers. I made an hour-long staged piece based upon interviews I have made with the singers, where I am responsible for directing the piece as well as script and music. So you can say that my music making is expanding naturally into other creative fields. As long as I feel curious and interested in trying out ideas, I just have to follow the possibilities that open for new challenges.

I still feel that music is best presented live, and I will surely continue to make compositions and performances that have to be experienced live; a recording will in most cases just be a bleak documentation, or just something else altogether, like the Crepuscular DVD, where Kathy has added her own images to the film.

AF: How has becoming a parent changed your activities as an artist?

MR: Yes, I travel a lot less than before, meaning that I work more from home compared to before. My husband, Frode Haltli, is also a freelance musician and composer, so we manage our lives involving a lot of logistics. But we are good at that! Also we bring the kids a lot when we are out working. They have seen more of the world than any other kids I know.

AF: I know you were one of the organizers for All Ears for many years, and have continued to champion Norwegian artists as you’ve toured and received more attention yourself. How has the new and experimental music scene in Oslo (or in Norway as a whole) changed in the last few years, from your point of view?

MR: I moved out from Oslo 11 years ago, so I haven’t been able to follow the scene as closely as I wish, also due to getting kids of course, but I am very happy to see that the avant-garde scene in the capital is still strong, is changing and growing. The explosion of artists in this underground/avant-garde/improv/noise/electronic towards contemporary music and modern jazz that we witnessed around the millennium was apparently strong enough to make a foundation for many emerging artists to form a career today, and hopefully for generations to come.

AF: If you live and work anywhere for one full year, excluding San Francisco and Oslo, where would you choose and why?

MR: I’d pick Svartskog where I live, work and have a studio, where I spend most of my spare time in the nature with my family, at all seasons including skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer and swimming in the fiord.

Maja Ratkje will appear as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival on Friday, September 9, at Brava Theater in San Francisco. For more information and examples of her work, visit

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