“I’ve been more interested over the years in the ephemeral qualities of music rather than repetitive pop structures,” Norwegian vocalist Jenny Hval said in an interview last year. On Monday night, Hval joined fellow Norwegian singer Phaedra (Ingvild Langgard) at London’s Borderline, an unlikely venue for the keen experimentalism that marks both of these artists.
It is vital not to forget the nature of Hval’s and Langgard’s arrival here – via Norway’s Rune Grammofon label, which has long been producing records that defy the glacier of cliché that seems to surround the contemporary reception of Nordic music. Sitting on the outside of a congested music industry, Rune Grammofon operates almost as a parallel label, with its extended recording and production processes always aiming at the long term.
Hval’s set mostly revolved around songs from Viscera, her 2011 Rune Grammofon release – which marked a break from the more conventional musical structures of her previous recordings as Rockettothesky (2006’s To Sing You Apple Trees and 2008’s Medea).
The ways in which Hval plays with explicit language in the context of live performance is fascinating. On Engines in the city, accompanied by delicately shaded percussion, she slowly delivers, “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris, After a few weeks it ran out of batteries, humming silently between my lips”, delaying the close of the line to arrive at an atmosphere either comic or ironic. Hval’s vocabulary constantly verges on this kind of instability. Rather than seeking out the visceral possibilities of expression, Hval structures her songs around words – consciously bound up in the literary feminist tradition.
Another standout 2011 record from Rune Grammofon was Phaedra’s debut album The Sea – beautifully concentrated folk music from Ingvild Langgard. Despite some novel instrumentation (including the appearance of a thumb piano on Death Will Come), Langgard’s songs are set to stripped back textures, purely reliant instead on her melodic capabilities. Langgard’s nocturnal pieces belong to a song-cycle obsessed with death, and she met this with suitably detached vocals. This kind of fine chamber music was a little lost in the harshness of the venue, with percussive passages overpowering an otherwise carefully balanced sound. Showcasing new songs from the forthcoming sequel to The Sea (the next part of a trilogy), Langgard revealed far more confrontational instrumentation and some strikingly burnished singing on Half Human.
In relation to the jewelled musical structures employed by Langgard’s songwriting, Hval’s set seemed more absorbing, despite a performance that was at times endearingly shambolic, plagued by feedback problems and the Borderline’s dire acoustics and lighting. In music that was much more interested in examining imperfection, it mattered little. Throughout the evening we observed how, in a live context, Hval’s recorded songs can end up somewhere completely different. Beyond the feminist intent behind her lyrical references to the internal body, and the timbral experimentation apparent throughout her set, it was Hval’s voice that was most intriguing. Shifting between the spoken word and snatches of lyricism, as well as slipping into carefully controlled vocal lines, Hval constantly played with improvisatory spontaneity. Her journey towards increasing musical liberation is being made ever more clear.