Chamberfest: Exploring the music of the moment with Nordic Voices

Nordic Voices is Tone Braaten, soprano; Frank Havrøy, baritone/tenor; Ingrid Hanken, soprano; Ebba Rydh, mezzo soprano; Rolf Magne Asser, bass; Per Kristian Amundrød, tenor. Photo: Fredrik Arff

Soprano Tone Braaten is a member of the vocal ensemble Nordic Voices, who will make their Ottawa debut in a Chamberfest concert on Feb. 1. In the show they will sing a new composition called Scar Tissue. Before the event, Braaten answered some questions from ARTSFILE about the group and the music they sing.

Q. Tell me about the Nordic Voices?

A. In 1996 I was a singer in the Norwegian Soloists Choir and had just ended my education at the Norwegian Academy of MusicA friend of mine, Ingrid, one of the other sopranos in the choir, got a proposal from her father, a choir conductor, to form a vocal group and do a gig in Scotland which he was not able to do with his choir, and suddenly we were happening. Since we both had sung a lot in choirs all our lives and studied at the academy we knew a lot of singers. We formed a group, did the gig and then we never stopped singing together.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. To be honest, I have always been singing. I used to make my grandparents sit and listen to me singing «concerts» from really early age. When I was eight they finally started a girls choir in my home village and I was thrilled! In addition to playing the clarinet in the school band, this was amazing.

The choir conductor also gave us kids singing lessons, and my first solo was at the local cinema at age eight, so I guess you can say I have always known I was a singer.

Q. Does Nordic Voices model itself on other ensembles or are you forging your own path?

A. Nordic has definitely chosen our own path. We all hungered to make a difference and we all wanted Nordic to go far. To do music without a leader is difficult but we have always wanted it to be that way. In the beginning it took forever to try out every phrase with six different approaches, but after working together for some years we learned that we more or less had the same idea — we just had different ways to get there. Less words made it easier, but we still do talk a lot in our rehearsals. It can sometimes seem time consuming but it is important that we all feel that we have a say.

Q. You have a wide repertoire. Can you explain what kinds of music attracts you and why it does?

A. We do have a soft spot for the Renaissance music and contemporary music. It seems to me that they bring out the best in each other especially when mixed in a concert program. Also — the way of singing these two styles have a lot of similarities. We favour a pure, clean sound which I find suits both styles.

Q. Do you commission? Why?

A. Since our start in 1996 we have commissioned more than 50 new pieces and still are doing it. There are so many good composers and to actually have the chance to work with a person who is still alive is brilliant. Most of the time we have a really good collaboration with the composers and it makes such a big difference to actually be able to ask them why or how they’d like it to be sung. Or even if it is possible to make changes. Sometimes it might be out of range or in a special technique that only works in a certain way and so on.

Q. Do you emphasize new Norwegian work when you commission?

A. Most of the works we have commissioned are from Norwegian composers. We like to bring Norwegian contemporary music beyond Norway. We often find that the audience embraces it, and also often asks us to do it.

Q. This is from your bio on Jonathan Wentworth’s site: ‘One of Nordic Voices’ main goals is to … explore new vocal techniques and a new way of using the classical trained voice. Explain.

A. I love this sentence! It really says it all. We want to explore. We have been trying to do whatever comes our way. Throat singing, kveding (a Norwegian way of singing using a high larynx), chest voice, growling, sub-harmonic singing, all kinds of different noises. We still look for new ways and sometimes we have workshops with composers to look for new ways.

Q. Scar Tissue: Why did you decide to do it? How do you think it has turned out?

A. I think the idea originally came from The Gryphon Trio. After Jeffery Ryan heard us perform in Vancouver, they reached out and then the wheels kept rolling. Nordic Voices have not worked a lot with other musicians, but this felt really up our alley and we were fascinated about the idea and how it all came together. We googled the trio and were humbled by the fact that they wanted to work with us. They are all brilliant musicians, and also working in a very similar way to Nordic Voices.

Q. What new vocal territory are you exploring with Scar Tissue.

A. We love the way Jeffery Ryan has made this work. Every single part of Scar Tissue is written in a certain way, and he has still found a way to make it sit together in a perfect blend. He has been a wonderful person for us to collaborate with and he has found a way to write that makes Nordic Voices sound the best. His music is beautiful and easy to sing, easy to love.

Q. The marriage of science and music and poetry is an intriguing one. What do you think about this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking?

A. It is indeed intriguing. I guess you can say it is all about the interpretation. How we give the words the correct meaning the way we, as musician can do … with all our tools. We need to find the truth that lies between the poetry, the science and the wordless music.

Q. Have you worked with Canadian musicians before? 

A. This is the first time we have worked with Canadian musicians but I truly believe that music is one of the best internatjonal languages.

You don’t need to even speak the same language as long as you love to make music. But saying that — it certainly helps. We have already discovered several musical similarities, both in the music making but also in the way we work together. We all look forward to be on stage with the trio.

Q. What else are you singing on the Feb. 1 concert?

A. In our part of the program we are singing renaissance music. The lyrics are mainly lamentations and we have chosen them because they are filled with pain and sorrow, which has a certain link to the texts in Scar Tissue. 

Chamberfest presents The Gryphon Trio and Nordic Voices
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.