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Sofia Jernberg

Monheim Papers A thousand tongues do not lie by Arno Raffeiner
Photo: Sofia Jernberg. Marie Haefner for Monheim Triennale

To call her a 'singer' would be a grossly negligent oversimplification. With her entire being, Sofia Jernberg creates a space of possibility for what the human voice can be. Since her childhood in Ethiopia and Vietnam, she has been on a quest for the unheard.

There is this photograph of Sofia Jernberg, it shows her hiding behind a notebook. You can only see her eyes and one of her hands. The opened page in front of her face reveals a list of instructions to herself, a score in words, all in uppercase, for a ‘VOICE SOLO’ which Jernberg performed at the Borderline Festival in Athens a few years ago. Here is the composition’s highlight:

BIRDS FOR DISTORTION AND OLD MOUTH SYNTHESIZERS

ONE PITCH? AND LONG-LASTING THROAT DISFIGUREMENTS

SEMI BRUTAL CORMORANTS / SKARV

Despite the prominent appearance of cormorants and distorted birds, Jernberg has no use for frequent comparisons. Even though she knows perfectly well that they are by no means accidental. The sounds Jernberg creates with her voice alone (and without any computer processing) often seem unbelievable, almost superhuman. However, it is not her aim to imitate programmable music. She does not want to ‘sound like’ anything. Jernberg's vision emerges from a space of possibility within the sounds themselves and from social contexts. “Many people say that I am like a bird. But all my inspiration comes from musicians and music”, she says.


Jernberg also dislikes the label ‘vocal acrobat’. “I like 'experimental singer'. That's more me. Because it's not about being a virtuoso. It's more about the mentality. I want to work with dancers. I want to work with artists. I want to work with composers. I’m very open minded and I’m prepared to do hard work and to stretch my possibilities as far as I can.” And in fact, she can, really far.

Coo, gurgle, glug, cracking, chortle, crackle, rustle, buzz. Chirp, whistle, hum, bleat, howl, screech, croak. This is by no means the exhaustive array of Jernberg’s repertoire. She likes to speak with two voices at once, she says. She succeeds in doing so in the most inconceivable moments, when larynx, oral cavity, breathing technique and overtone series combine to explore unfamiliar terrain.

Baroque chorale meets diasporic modernism of the sixties, meets personal biography and artificial intelligence

In comparison, Jernberg’s normal voice sounds all the more astonishing during a face-to-face chat with her. Clear and gentle, very concentrated, and she talks about her life and her art openly. At the end of March, Jernberg welcomed me to this interview in a Berlin hotel, already fully dressed in her stage outfit. Less than three hours later, she is in the spotlight at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele for her performance at the MaerzMusik Festival.
Jernberg performs alone, in a concert hall without an audience, a live stream: three pieces, all three world premieres, two of them her own compositions. With her concentrated, matter-of-fact voice, she leads us through the third and last work of the evening, which she created only a few days prior. A collage that opens up a wide space of time and thought precisely because of its loose, associative structure.

During the five-day quarantine in her Berlin hotel room, Jernberg was thinking about Johann Sebastian Bach, she explains. She wondered what Bach would have composed at the same time of year. Because of the Lent before Easter, he could only have worked with limited resources; the organ at the church would not have been available. But he could have written chorales, like the chorale BWV 387 ('Nun freut euch, Gottes Kinder all'), a melody Jernberg hums almost rapturously. At the same time, she plays back pieces by Egyptian-American composer Halim El-Dabh on her smartphone, which he recorded in 1963 in Ethiopia, Jernberg’s country of birth. Eventually, she switches to sound snippets generated by an algorithm on her phone.

Photo: Marie Haefner

Baroque chorale meets diasporic modernism of the sixties, meets her own biography and artificial intelligence, channelled in an unconventional performance, staged as a search for a common language. Welcome to Sofia Jernberg’s cosmos!

“I searched for something else”

Jernberg was born in Ethiopia in 1983, where she spent the first four years of her life. In Addis Ababa, she was adopted by a Swedish woman who worked for the embassy there. The single mother, her daughter and another adopted girl later moved on to Vietnam, where Jernberg attended the International School in Hanoi. “I consider myself as an international person, more so than Swedish or anything like that”, she says. “I grew up with children who came from everywhere, really everywhere. We were only allowed to speak English, no foreign languages were allowed at school, so everybody could communicate. This was normal to me: that you look different, and people are from different parts of the world.”

During the conversation, Jernberg briefly pulls her mouth-nose protector off her face to put a portion of snus under her lip. Chewing tobacco is quite popular as a cigarette substitute in Stockholm, where she now lives again after several years in Norway's capital Oslo. When she first moved to her mother's home country at the age of ten, Sweden had been one big shock. "Sweden was completely different because it was a very homogeneous society. Everyone looked the same, everyone dressed the same, very mainstream and normative. At that time there were a lot of real Nazis who had these tattoos and everything. That was a real boom in Sweden in the 90s. I didn't like that. The eight years from 10 to 18 years old were really, really hard for me."

In this unusually uniform and conformist environment, Jernberg took refuge in music. For her, it had always been fed by the most diverse sources and traditions. From Ethiopia’s pulse, Southeast Asia’s folklore, mixed with pop and European classical music. “In Vietnam I heard a lot of traditional music. We went to live concerts there, and we also listened to Ethiopian music that my mother had brought along. I wanted to combine all this in what I do myself.”

Jernberg used to sing in a choir, attended music courses at community college and learned about composition later on. But she likes to emphasise that she did not receive any formal music training at university. Her true schools were the record shops where she rummaged for special sounds as a teenager and, above all, learning by doing. At 19, she started her first band, Paavo, with seven members – and at times even more –, and developed her own jazz style. “Training as an opera singer became not so important to me. I wanted to be more flexible”, she explains. “I couldn't really identify with Western classical music. I felt uncomfortable because of the people I sung with – how to say? I was just not fitting in.” So Jernberg started to do what she is still doing today: “I was searching. I searched for something else.”
She prefers to refrain from using language – language in the sense of identifiable, coherent words and sentences strung together. “I want to do music on a high level with instrumentalists, without being 'the singer'. This is what I’ve concentrated on for 15 or 17 years”, she explains. “I want to do music that is more than words, that's pure music.”

Expanding the singing realm

By means of Bach, Halim El-Dabh and a phone, Jernberg thus searches and finds her way back to her central artistic goal: to communication (even in a solo performance). Direct exchange with other musicians is what continually enhances Jernberg's skills. She has been on stage with Hailu Mergia, the grand seigneur of Ethiopian jazz; with saxophone berserk Mette Rasmussen; in opera houses as an Arnold Schönberg interpreter; was a protagonist of art projects such as ‘Union of the North’ by Matthew Barney, Erna Ómarsdóttir and Valdimar Jóhannsson; made a guest appearance together with Camille Norment at the Venice Art Biennale. The list is rather long.

The projects Jernberg is or was involved in are approaching innumerable while her vocal range is diverse. The ‘Voices Of The World’ compilation was an early and important influence for her. The caption read ‘An Anthology of Vocal Expression’ – which is also true of Jernberg's entire oeuvre to date. The multitude of genres and fields that could be listed – New music, Jazz, opera, Noise, visual arts, film, theatre, sight-singing, improvisation – only makes clear that Jernberg cannot be grasped in such categories and by no means does she think in these terms.

Maybe she should rather explain why she doesn’t do certain things, she says, when asked about the diversity of her collaborations and her selection criteria for them. She jokes half-heartedly, then quickly adds earnestly: “I can't really lie with music. Everything I do, I need to believe in.” And she adds: “I am happy to always change identities in music. As a person, my identity is always questioned. People ask me all the time, where are you really from? To be able to change identities and change musical styles is a better representation of who I am.”

For the Monheim Triennale 2022, Jernberg is transforming herself further and presents "Hymns and Laments", a collaboration with Hamburg's Ensemble Resonanz, conductor Christian Karlsen from Sweden and other participants from Scandinavia and Ethiopia as well as Mongolia, Korea and Armenia. She reveals a couple of details: “The musical material is hymns and laments from around the world. They will be arranged by various people. I will be doing an arrangement as well as the conductor. The trumpet player Peter Evans will do an arrangement, probably the cello player as well…”

The idea to work intensively with hymns and laments is a genuine consequence of recent times. While Jernberg and Christian Karlsen were stuck in Stockholm for months instead of travelling from gig to gig as they usually do, an intense exchange about music unfolded. Only gradually did the pair realise that they had unconsciously focused on a very special mood. “All of the pieces happened to have this kind of sad vibe. That's how we realised, oh, this is actually nice material! Maybe we can do something with these hymns and laments. It's been very intuitive.”

No security, every possibility

Jernberg's main drive for her multifaceted projects is always an encounter with something she doesn't already know. “I don't need to do new things, it doesn't have to be unheard of”, she explains. “But I like to push myself to the limit and to always develop and not be in the same place.” Her artistic motto is radically simple, unadulterated and unflinching: she wants to make music as long as she can discover something new – no more, no less. If she can earn a living with it, all the better. If not, she would just go back to her job as a nurse, which she did until she was almost 30 years old.

Even a pandemic can hardly shake it. Jernberg’s self-image as an artist, her focus and her vision have not changed since spring 2020. At most a few routines, but she avoids these anyway. “I have no choice. I'm that kind of singer: I need to do music”, she says. “So the pandemic has not affected my belief in what I want to do, and the difficulties are always there when you are a freelance musician. I don't have any security anyway, so I'm not so scared by it. And I know that if I can't support myself, I'll just go back to working with the old people. I liked that work, I would appreciate it. So no, it hasn't changed. Nothing.”

Questions about why, how, what for have never really preoccupied Sofia Jernberg. “I need to do music”, she emphasises once more. “So I will continue with that.”

Arno Raffeiner

Artist Page Sofia Jernberg Signature Project: Sofia Jernberg "Hymns and Laments"