A conversation about listening and resonating force

Jeffrey S. Stratton

Choreographer Marie Topp and composer Julia Giertz speak to us about their collaboration on the work Oceanic and their exploration of sound and listening as something that can both be seen and physically felt.

You may, or may not, be familiar with the work of Danish choreographer Marie Topp. If you are, you are also indirectly familiar with her long-time musical collaborator Julia Giertz.

Julia has composed the sound for nearly all of Marie’s work, going back to their days as students in dance school. However, in their newest piece, Oceanic, the composition of sound takes a much more central role in the production.

Leading up to the Copenhagen premiere of the work, we hopped on a 3-way Zoom call to speak with Marie and Julia to learn more about the work and their desire to have Julia’s influence be much more present.

What are some of the topics or researches that you both have shared in years of working as artistic collaborators?

Marie: I suppose the concept of “force” is something that both Julia and myself have shared an interest in researching and developing work from each of our perspectives. The idea of force is one that often finds its way into our ongoing dialogue. More specifically, the relationships between the forces of nature, emotional forces, and the body’s energetic forces.

You can trace back different lines of research from our early works like The Visible Effects of Force through Oceanic and even to my newest piece, Hail to the Good Listener.

Can you elaborate on some of that research in regards to your more recent works?

Marie: I think it’s tough to divide the works into a series because all of our work is somehow connected. However, for the last three pieces, we have been more focused on investigating the structures embedded in our senses. We spent a lot of time researching the ideas of “blurriness” and haptic visuality that resulted in the first work in this series, Liaisons, that premiered in 2018.

With Oceanic, the second piece in the series (which was first premiered in Sweden in early 2020 but halted mid-tour due to the pandemic), our investigation began to focus on how we listen, more specifically, how we listen to the female voice and the shrill frequencies of the voice.

Hail to the Good Listener is the most recent piece and continues the research that was begun in the previous two.

Julia: We have these topics and methods of working together that seem to be constantly present, so it is not like we abandon a subject once one work has been created—as if it has reached its limits. These ideas like force, haptic listening, blurred vision; They stay with us. They keep circulating around us, and we continue to accumulate more and more to the pool of work, and we never step out of it.

Marie: Yes, and it’s curious because one might say that our field of working is not structured around this idea of artworks that continue to research and pull from the same pool of work. Because everything is project funded, there is sometimes this expectation that there has to be a completely new invention for each project. However, the way we look at our practice is to stay with the last project. We allow new projects to grow out of the pool of research and ideas born in the previous one—keeping with an expansion of our practice and the conversation between the two of us.

Can you paint me a picture of how that research manifested in Oceanic?

Julia: In Oceanic, we wanted to expand on the force of sound within the physical space. For example, in previous works, we were using multi-channel set-ups so that speakers surrounded the audience. But with Oceanic, we wanted to have singing-bodies [instruments] throughout the space. So from just a basic technical set-up, we were utilising the entire space for the acts of listening and calling to establish relationships between the instruments, Marie, and the audience as an almost tangible force. Like the whole space is singing, in a way.

Marie: And with myself in this case, as well. I really used my voice for the first time.

Julia: Right, you also became a resonating body. The entire space is full of resonating bodies, so the act of listening encompasses the work and how the audience experiences the work.

And for you, Marie, how did this continuous evolutionary practice affect how you developed Oceanic’s choreography?

Marie: I found a way to work—and this goes with almost all of my works—where I can compose and set the choreography based on principles of energy or different kinds of emotional landscapes that I go through within a piece.

In Oceanic, we found a way of working with singing, which created a stream of movement coming through me. I often work with my imagination when I perform, so I create a landscape around me that changes my being in the moment. In my practice, you might say that there is always this threshold between “set” choreography and “potential” choreography. It’s not improvisation, but more of a way of being present in the “set” material, but with a willingness to explore.

So to clarify. This is an “internal” process that occurs within you as you perform?

Marie: Yes. It is an internal process, quite simply; One that transforms the body. It is a tool—or a method for dealing with the material—that I am constantly developing.

In terms of the development, I think it might be easier to think of Oceanic as less of a “set” choreography and more of a somatic narrative—as my dramaturge, Igor Dobricic, has defined it. There is a lot in how the material unfolds in the space during my performance journey. And the experience of that journey produces emotions within the space, which will change how different people within the audience listen and experience the work.

Julia, you mentioned earlier that the space is filled with ‘resonating bodies,’ which leads me to think about the unique instruments created for this piece. Can you tell me about them?

Julia: Yes. I created them in collaboration with an artist named Felix Ahlberg Eriksson–who built them. I got the inspiration for the instruments when I was taking a class at the Royal Institute of Art with a Professor named Tarek Atoui, who specialises in instrument building for installations.

Through him, I was introduced to many instrument builders worldwide, which opened my eyes to the potential of live acoustics rather than music projected through a speaker system. More specifically, speakers limit the sound to the boundaries and capabilities of the speaker membrane, whereas organic instruments can resonate sound through more extraordinary shapes.

These instruments, and also with Marie’s singing, expand the field of resonance. So instead of having this single membrane, you suddenly have this complete structure of sound activated.

And why did you choose to construct these particular instruments specifically for Oceanic?

Julia: I think the act of listening comes down to honing or activating the practice of empathy. So, it was essential to find methods of activating empathy in the performance space for Oceanic—as in being touched by something or someone or “called” by something or someone.

In the past, I often worked with bass frequencies to force a space to resonate and to set the architecture in motion so that an audience could actually feel it. But in doing so, you are also limited to those sub-frequencies to fill a space with energy.

However, by working with these organic instruments—these entities that now have a voice—it was possible to activate the energy of the performance space with a greater range of frequencies.

Our thoughts

When we first opened up this discourse with Marie and Julia, we intended to wrap up the conversation with one final question to both Marie and Julia. What were their thoughts on revisiting the work completed over a year ago—but cut short after only one performance due to the global COVID-19 pandemic?

However, as we concluded our conversation, we gained a deeper understanding of how Marie Topp works—alongside her long-time collaborators Julia Giertz, Igor Dobricic, and Mårten K. Axelsson. And through that, a greater sense of the futility of the question.

We now understand that while the work of Oceanic is complete, the remnants of the research put into it will continue to influence current and future works. So one might say that the completion of work is distant in time but still ever-present in practice and bodies of Marie, Julia, and their team.