Name: Marta Forsberg
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Current release: Tkać on Thanatosis.
Recommendations: Any work by Virginia Woolf or Ursula K. Le Guin.
If you enjoyed this interview with Marta Forsberg, visit her homepage for more information about her work.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing in bands and ensembles when I was around 14-15 years old, so as a teenager. Before that I had played my violin in the local music school orchestra since I was a small kid.
I think these first experiences of making music together in a group were super crucial to me, to even continue playing my instrument at all. I was not very excited about playing violin when being around 10-11, but through the youth orchestra I experienced how great it was sitting inside the music. I was always in the second violin section, so right in the middle of all the other instruments – which was extremely cool when we played the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings. I still remember how playing that felt in my body.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
When I moved to Stockholm in 2010 I became friends with musicians connected to the free improv scene. Through jamming and playing gigs with these people I formed a completely new relationship with my violin – suddenly playing my instrument felt uncomplicated and playful – and people actually appreciated the sounds that came out of me. This was new! Through my whole classical music education I was always running behind more talented instrumentalists so when I started playing free improv I realised “Wow, this is how it can feel like play violin?!”. It became very clear that I had finally found a good place to make music.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
After a couple of years of free improv music I found the Electronic Music Studio (EMS) in Stockholm and I signed up for the studio courses there. I had already been playing around with effect pedals when playing my violin, so it felt like a natural step. Also, already back in my hometown Härnösand I had been attending two different courses in electroacoustic music, which I remember felt really exciting and liberating at the time. But for some reason I never considered that being a possible way of making music. So finally at EMS I found that room, closing the studio door behind me and enjoying being completely alone with my sounds – that was a very important step for me.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I suppose my first studio was EMS, so I will probably never bee able to reach that standard again, haha! Since then I’ve been lucky to be part of different studio collectives, both in Stockholm and now in Berlin. I also have a studio at home, and I would say that my most important tools are of course my computer, and Ableton which is the software Im composing with. Then my headphones and very importantly my OP-1 synthesiser from Teenage Engineering – it's my best friend in the studio!
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?
I’m obviously completely dependent on my computer when composing, which is an amazing tool. But it’s funny when I suddenly pick up my violin again to play alone or with someone else, I always realise how easy it is to make music and sounds, haha! You just take up the instrument and there it is!
But ever since I started working with live electronics I’ve come to love the interplay between working with electronic music and playing my acoustic instrument, and how this relationship and these different processes feed and correspond with each other in such a wonderful and funny way.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I really love finding out the limitations of any tool I’m using. I’m not very interested in pushing the limits of things, rather I appreciate when it's clear – the machine is like “This is what I can do for you, and I'm doing it very well!” So I take that and use it as a frame for my work, I love these things! I suppose this means my tools have a big impact on the music I make.
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 through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I love love love working together with others. I would say I rarely work completely alone.
The best thing I know is to involve other people in my work, sharing sounds with each other, recording other musicians, showing and discussing my work with others. It's not always the easiest, but I find it extremely important to have others listen to my work and sharing their opinion with me. It makes everything much better and real, I believe.
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?
For some years now I’ve been lucky to only depend economically on my work as an artist. This doesn't mean that I compose music all day long, but rather I’m balancing administrational work with the time where I focus on the creative part – composing and playing.
Since the pandemic I spend so much more time at home and in my studio. Before, I was traveling a lot for projects and concerts. So at the moment my life is slower, more regular and monotonous then it has ever been – which I actually don't mind. I love to have so much time in my hands.
I get up and have breakfast, and at the latest by 10.00 I’m siting at my desk where I work and compose. There are always some emails that I can’t resist to read and respond to, but I try to keep administrational work and compositional work as separated as possible. At the moment I’m even having regular admin days, so I don't even need to open my email inbox every day. Works sometimes! But anyway it’s nice to know there is a time and place for everything, nothing will be forgotten.
The day goes by and I just work, work, work on the current project. I don't keep up any list of tasks or deadlines for my everyday work, I somehow trust the process and that I will be finished by the deadline. It has always worked so far. Everyday I go for a walk, and sometimes go running in the afternoon. And in the evening – around 18.00 I’m done for the day, close the computer and just do other stuff – I like reading books, or watch series or talk to friends and family on the phone. Do the dishes.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album 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?
In 2017 I had a two week residency at the sound art gallery Rum/Klang in Jyderup, Denmark. I was staying in a school, like a pre-college, so there were young people there studying art and music. I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with them and during the days I was working by myself in the gallery. I was supposed to make a completely new sound and light installation but I was really struggling to come up with something. Also I was tired from an intense time of traveling and playing concerts, the only thing I wanted to do was to take long walks in the surrounding forests.
After some time I kind of gave up trying to come up with something new and just decided to present an old piece. It was an installation consisting of LED light strips and samples from my violin, called “Light Colours”. When looking into my old Max/MSP patch I suddenly came up with an idea – what if I would replace the violin sounds with a completely new sound, but keep the form and all the rest of the installation as it is? I decided to ask the students from the pop music program if they would like to sing, and three of them volunteered. I simply played them the original violin recordings and asked them to imitate what they heard. It was a bit challenging to follow the rather complex pizzicato and flageolet sounds, but they made it so good!
The installation turned out very nice, and I was fascinated how the human voice change everything about the composition – it became a completely new piece! I call it “Light Colours for Jyderup”. I think the students of the school found it very nice to hear their friends' voices played through the speakers at the opening night. It became a very local piece, both in time and space.
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?
For me it’s ideal to have a whole day of uninterrupted time, knowing that I don't need to do anything else then focus on composing. It’s simple but crucial. And it is a challenge to plan my time in a smart way in order to ensure these composition days. I guess I will always have to find new strategies, since life changes all the time. But in general I would say that good planing is the key.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
What I always find interesting is how time feels different when siting alone in the studio in comparison to how it feels when I’m on stage. As soon as there is another person in the room, my listening changes and all the nerves make time very intensified somehow. Suddenly time feels thick and silence feels scary, haha!
In the studio everything makes sense in a different way. So I make sure to write down a score before my concerts, that I follow when performing. If I would follow my gut feeling in that moment, my music would turn out half as long since I just want to keep making sounds and push the form forwards. I get so stressed by all the waiting!
But then I know that it makes sense in a different way for the audience, so I trust that and just look at my stop watch and follow the score.
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?
For a long time I was scared of mixing. I think I felt intimidated by the holiness of The Studio, and how studio people related to their tools and all that gear. I was never nervous around my own live electronics, that felt very intuitive and exciting. But the studio, with its silence and huge mixing desks and analogue gear ... It was a bit too much for me.
So for many years I didn't do so much about my own sounds, I recorded them and spacialized them and there they were, and that was the composition. It's actually in the last one and a half year that I started mixing – and I LOVE it! Today I listen to sounds in a very different way. They now take shape and it’s not as blurry any more, the way I experience them.
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?
Since a couple of years I’m working together with Swedish dancer and choreographer Sindri Runudde, who lives with visual impairment. Talking with them about sound and life has been one of the most interesting processes for me as a sound artist. The way they relate to sound in their work, and in relation to movement and touch is expanding my understanding of what sound is in our world – what it does to us, how it functions and how we live with it.
When I compose music together with Sindri I get much more sensitive to the sounds we make, it forces me to listen deeper somehow. I have the feeling it extends my senses in general, all of them, and especially it kind of broadens my listening. From the bottom of my heart I recommend checking out Sindri's work, it’s really wonderful.
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?
I remember the first lesson I had with my composition teacher Mattias Sköld when I began studying my bachelor in electro acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. The first thing he said was – since I’m studying music now, payed by Swedish tax money, I should make sure to use my time well and when finished I’m supposed to give back to society with the music I make. I think this is a very inspiring way to look at the role of the artist – as an important part of society. And to be relevant to others, to many! For me it creates a solid ground to stand on, from which I feel supported, so that I can give back to others through my artistic work and research.
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?
My main hope for the future is that more people will be able to make music, or continue to make music. In my home town Härnösand where I grew up, every kid had to play an instrument for one year, I think when we were around 9-10 years old. I don’t think this program still exists, at least not for all kids. I would wish more music making for more people. My violin is really a life time friend, imagine everyone having their own instrument life time friend – how great that would be!