•02/09/2011 • Leave a Comment

On the last day of our time in the Kvindemuseet, Line handed me a simple bass line and the text of a love poem written to her by her first husband, a fellow sailor, and asked me to improvise a simple sea song on these haunting words. Overlaid with distant fog-horn sounds from blown tuned bottles, the song became part of our performance that evening.

it is still opera!

•21/03/2011 • Leave a Comment

This is opera. A simple yet existential human drama. It’s about death, love and being caught in a wreck without escape. Death has a sound. The sound of the human voice. The unschooled raw, pure tone of our human essence. Few have unimpeded access to the entire spectrum of human voice and few manage to bring it unspoiled onstage. We are moving on the edge of  conventions and we split the opera. Me and Life Itself – “Zoë”.                                  by Line Tjørnhøj


Sex, death, Medea and sailing

•21/03/2011 • 1 Comment

Medea: “Call me what you want – savage, lioness, witch – I know that I have split you open and reached your heart with this.”

Jason: “And split yourself: you must share some pain”

Medea’s reasons for killing her two children – explosive sexual jealousy and a desire to punish her unfaithful husband –  are completely different from those of the impregnated rape victims of Bosnia, whose story is central to our work so far. And yet, as a virtuosic study of the state of mind of Woman capable of such horrors, Euripides play has provided a rich source of inspiration for me during our creative process, an almost unmatchably virtuosic portrait of Her shadow self.

Chorus: “Hellish witch! You must be made of stone or iron to cut down your own like this!”

Medea: “Medea is not mad. What more horror can there be? Sex leads to death, inexorably to grief is in the very seed of life”.

The power of woman’s sexual passion when turned upon itself can be overwhelming. Women are capable of loving unto death, whilst also having the capacity to kill when that huge force is thwarted. Medea’s great love is transformed through betrayal into it’s mysterious, occult sister: witch, sorceress, murderess. Woman contains all these contradictory forces: equally powerful as a force for darkness as her love is for light and new life.

Medea’s story begins shrouded in sorcery and bloodshed before she steps aboard the Argo to join her lover Jason:

Jason: “You killed your little brother the day you stepped aboard the Argo. You walked his blood across the decks. That’s how you began”

Enter, Split‘s connection to the sea. Composer Line Tjornhoj was a professional sailor from a young age and has many extraordinary tales of life at sea in an exclusively male environment. Photographic artist Jürgen Diemer is a passionate sailor, his great dream being to sail alone around the world. On the last day of our project he wore a t-shirt bearing the legend Work Less, on the front and Sail More, on the back. Line equates my constant travels around the world as freelance musician with sailing of a different kind.

The opening lines in the play, spoken by Medea’s old Nurse:

“If only it hadn’t happened like this. If the Argo hadn’t opened its sails and flown to Colchis through the Clashing Rocks, my dear Mistress Medea would never have met their leader Jason, never fallen for him head over heels, never left a life behind to sail away with him”.

In this line of thought, Woman emerges, Venus-like, from a mysterious sea. A Goddess rich with potentials for both life and its destruction. And sets sail for Love, Sex and Death.

On the last day of our time in the Kvindemuseet, Line handed me a simple bass line and the text of a love poem written to her by her first husband, a fellow sailor, and asked me to improvise a simple sea song on these haunting words. Overlaid with distant fog-horn sounds from blown tuned bottles, the song became part of our performance that evening.

Hei Sailor
Wipe the seafog from your eye
Hei Sailor
The wind is cold, I hear it sigh
Strong man
Drag the dead – the dead bodies from the icy sea
And stow them – in the bottom of your mind
There´s a catch sailor – a catch in the wreck
Better back out on the icy deck
I love you sailor – come back to me
You kiss me sailor and sail away
A storm sailor is gathering
Turn your back on me – run away to sea
You live your life in danger stream
Love is only in your dreams
Your heart i soft – your mind is steel
The tears you cry – you cry out real
Go sailor – wash down the deck
Tell the logbook ´bout the pain in you neck.

Something so Danish, to my London ears, about dead bodies included in a love poem. The conflicting forces of romantic love and the harsh life at sea, life and death, loss and abandonment, devastating forces of nature, are all here in these simple lines.

With these thoughts in the salty air, “Split” continues its voyage of creation, love, sex and death on board, plus the odd orchid stowaway.


Day 4 – performance

•20/03/2011 • Leave a Comment

As I sit with my morning espresso in the café round the corner, an orchid flower falls from its stem onto the page of the book I’m reading. One of Line’s lines (!) of enquiry has been to look up pictures of varieties of split fruit and flowers, the kind that resemble female sex organs, of which the orchid is a prime example. Nice syncronicity.

There is much to do today. We are to pull together our 3 days-worth of brainstorming to present to the public in the museum later this evening. It takes 3 hours to render 10 minutes of film footage, so Jurgen is really up against the clock to get things ready in time, as is Line who has run into technical issues in preparing sound samples to use with the video. The computer has jammed (in layman’s terms) and is infuriatingly refusing to let her edit. Meanwhile, I go into our work/performance space to learn the pile of scores/texts/actions that I am to perform competently in a few hours, to find an expectant audience of museum visitors, some from earlier in the week (including our Fan), who have brought chairs and wait, smiling, to see me do something dramatic. They have clearly heard about the naked film shoot from earlier in the week. Putting prep aside I duly improvise a suitably harrowing cello/vocal piece about a 13 year old rape victim who has just murdered and buried her unwanted baby. The punters lap it up eagerly and afterwards launch into an in depth discussion about the conflicts of the mother’s natural instinct to nurture, the social ostrasization of Muslim women bearing children out of wedlock and how men react to these issues, touchingly described by the only man in the group. He said that he felt very moved by the emotions explored in my little improv and explained that although he is a man, he can feel these sad things just as deeply as women.

All absorbing stuff, but somewhat frustrating in terms of getting work done. Also, I am beginning to find the subject matter profoundly draining energetically. One can’t help but become immersed in the emotional states that spring from this material, and having distance from it, especially while improvising and performing around it, is proving tricky. Each night the three of us have been utterly exhausted by the intensity of our work, which has been more or less continuous since we arrived here.

One of the toughest jobs at this very raw stage of creation is to organise our kaleidoscopic array of material – sound, film, text, written pieces – into something resembling a coherent whole for tonight’s show. I take myself out of the Kvindemuseet to the relative privacy of my now favourite cafe, an incredible bakery in the centre of town called, innocuously, “Cafeteria”, and contemplate the list of Split “splinters” (LIne’s latest word for our stream of consciousness off-shoots) like a chess board. Somehow, aided by a glazed sugary walnut thing and espresso, I emerge with a structure which I then refine with the others and write up as a colour coded performance script for us to follow.

The wonderfully accommodating museum director Meret Ipsen allows us to rearrange the exhibition room as a performance space and invites us down to the now-empty after hours cafe to share some homemade soup and bread with her before the public arrives. In her soft Danish lilting English she tells us a little about the beginnings of the Kvindemuseet, which she inaugurated, her role in the Danish feminist movement and how she amassed the museum’s impressive collection of art pieces and historical artefacts, admired all over the world. This museum is a unique phenomenon: there’s nothing like it anywhere else and Merete says that people are often first lured into its peaceful spaces by the café, which has become a focal spot of the local community, mostly women, but also some male regulars. The café is tastefully arranged with sepia photos of ladies with swept up hair in long dresses, oak cabinets filled with 19th century jewellry, tall clocks, a very early Danish piano, inlaid lacquered wood tables and chairs, arrays of painted crockery and vases, elaborately carved glass cake stands, loaded with homemade cakes. The building was built in 1857 and served as the Town Hall for most of it’s existence, briefly becoming a police station for a few years until the Kvindemuseet took over in the 1980s as part of the upsurging Danish women’s movement. It’s amazing to learn that the heavy oak and green baize table at which we have been working was presided over for Town council meetings for over a century and that women were forbidden to enter until the 1960s.

Short but peaceful respite over, we make our last minute preparations. Our audience is small, a mixture of men and women, who listen with astonishing focus and intensity to our hour of strange offerings, seated on chairs around a large video screen balanced precariously on a couple of tables, Jurgen and computer alongside, Line behind the audience with Mac and mixing desk, and me perched on one of Kirsten Rose’s colourful painted chairs. Somehow events proceed without a technical hitch, and we follow our completely unrehearsed sequence more or less according to plan. I do a mini plastic wrap of the room, suddenly aware that high heels were not the best choice of footwear for such activities, and accidentally sing “Seafrog” instead of Seafog” in an otherwise moving love song. Some of the video pieces take me by surprise, not having seen the finished version until this moment, and it’s immediately clear to me that certain texts now don’t fit with the film. Somehow I adapt as we go along, all the time my brain clicking away filing notes on what works, and what doesn’t. And I have to remind myself even as I’m presenting this material that this is only a beginning, a workshop, a work in progress, a glimpse of things to come.

Line explains this by way of postlude to our attentive audience who then enthusiastically share their reactions to our presentation in Danish, German and English (for Jurgen’s and my benefit). It would appear that this rough and ready material has made a powerful impression, and it’s reassuring to know that something tangible has emerged for us to work with in the coming weeks. However, one grey frowning man in glasses was most anxious to convey his concerns that we find a professional singer and bigger film screen for our future performances, that he found a performance in the middle of an art exhibition confusing and wondered what kind of music was this anyway? Whilst it was clear that he had expected to hear a tradition opera piece it still knocked me back a little, and later led to some very interesting conversations with Line about her definition of opera and her extraordinary knowledge of the untrained human voice and it’s possibilities for expressing big emotion in a convincing way. More of which later, as it’s central to this work and all of Line Tjornhoj’s fascinating creations.

Although there is much to do before Split makes its debut at the Wundergrund festival in October, it’s reassuring to know that we can produce such rich material in 72 hours. We are on course.

by Zoë M

On the edge of the sky

•18/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

“Tone”:  an abstract and poetic flowering of the initial creative process that contains the profoundly serious and existential themes inherent in Split. That breathing space where we can reflect and generate musical expression. I feel great apprehension and reluctance to begin working with “Born of Rape” – a central text of our work. I find my self again dealing with impossible life situations and unsolvable dilemmas. Trying to find a path to art music – hearing in Tone the deep sadness you feel in your body when it is not possible to fix the problems. Walking hand in hand with Zoë on the “edge of creation” – having her exceptionally beautiful and sensitive voice –  able to bring hope and comfort – as the medium.
We need to bring our audience home, feed them with soup, good bread and a little whisky… and talk about  adventures on the seven seas. After all, there is a sailor present…
by Line Tjørnhøj, composer

Day 3 – submission, liberation and ice skating

•17/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

It has immediately become apparent on viewing Jurgen’s beautiful film images from yesterday, that his presence is an integral part of the creative process. “Split” is quickly showing itself to be much more than just a concert piece. Seeing clips of a cello/voice improvisation set against an eerie backdrop of the Århaus docks, northern winter light permeating the scene, with some of Line’s sampled sound scapes attached, reveals this to be a three way collaboration.

Jurgen goes about his task of documenting our work by finding strange and interesting places to film. I improvise simple childlike pieces in the children’s section of the museum: in one room children’s clothes hang from the ceiling in clear plastic casing, lit in neon pink and green, in another I sit on a white rubber cloud singing and playing simple melodies as children’s fluffy toys swing from strings above us. It’s more than a little bit horror movie, to my mind.  Psycho child sort of thing.

These dream-like child sequences fit into Line’s yellow post-it notes collage plan on our work bench. She has compiled a text from journalists’ harrowing conversations with the young adult ex-inhabitants of Bosnia’s orphanages for children born from rape. This is tough stuff. The protagonist of the text is a young male, fatherless, rejected by his mother and society, and with bitterness feels condemned to marriage only with another child born of rape. More disturbingly, his anger is finding expression in sexual violence to women, thus perpetuating the victim/abuser cycle.

Line has become interested in the idea of feeling trapped by circumstance and state of mind, triggered by a conversation in which I described the experiences I had recently had playing in a classical symphony orchestra, feeling utterly stifled and restricted by the elaborate conformity to a larger organism such work requires. By way of physical metaphor, I wound 300 metres of plastic wrap around the exhibition space, using the final few metres to bind myself as completely and quickly as possible, finally ensnared in the web of  my own actions, bound wrists crossed above me in the classic pose of the submissive. Fully immersed in the exercise I experienced senses of exhaustion, surrender and a faintly erotic buzz. Reversing the process – strangely time consuming to untangle the elaborate maze of plastic – was a joyful act of liberation and a useful workshop tool with which to visit different emotional states.

Having journeyed to submission and back, Line then asked me to read part of Lady Macbeth’s famous “unsex me now” soliloquay, Shakespeare’s most powerful female character’s chilling call to the black spirits to dehumanise her, take away her female sensibility and compassion in order to carry out the murders that will give her husband absolute power. From an initially dramatic “Shakespearian” rendering, I then was to speak the text as if tied up, unable to express myself in physical gesture, but solely through the voice. This produced something quite new in the sound, although felt extremely uncomfortable, especially when Line asked me to scream and shout fragments of the text directly at her. Suddenly it felt personal. Angry. I felt upset, unbalanced, not myself. And the sound reflected it, which is what Line is constantly looking out for. Doubtless drama students do these kind of exercises throughout their training, and learn a certain objectivity at the same time, but for a most-of-the-time cellist, this confrontational method of working really puts me through the emotional wringer. And it’s only just 4 in the afternoon. Teatime.

A welcome break from Lady M’s unholy state of mind, and a step back to the Child theme, Jurgen and I now find ourselves crouched over a gentle, worked-metal sculpture of a woman partially submerged in a bath of sand by artist Signe Kirk, who, our wonderful museum curator happily assures us, would be delighted to know that her work is being used for such purposes. Line’s idea here is to recreate a short scene from a Nintendo game called “Split Second”, where cars race against impossible odds of exploding buildings, toppling bridges, erupting earth chasms and the like. Using some of Line’s children’s toy cars, I “race” the cars over the sculpture, upturning them against toy police vans, crashing them into the woman’s arms, burying them in the sand, Jurgen somehow following my gestures with a constantly turning camera. This will be quite an editing job for him…

Psycologically unwrapping myself yet again, the three of us now make our way to the nearby outdoor icerink. Yet another of Jurgen’s brainwaves, I somehow shuffle my way to the middle of the rink, cello in hand, and surrounded by fascinated skaters begin to improvise against the floodlit backdrop of evening sky and magnificent 19th century facade of the Hotel Royal. Thank god, the cello survives the cold and ice spray, and friendly locals stand around to ask us about our activities.

Thawing out over rich parsnip soup back in the museum cafe we start to pool the huge amount of material gathered in the day and make sure that the stream of consciousness method in moving from one creation to the next retains coherent links in our conscious minds. It’s vital that there is a strong thematic thread to make a comprehensive structure. My sense is that the real work will begin in the weeks after this intense creative incubation at the Kvindemuseet. Then we start the business of teaching our new “Split” child to walk.

(posted by Zoe Martlew)


•04/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

Composer – Line Tjornhoj; film by Jurgen Diemer; Zoë Martlew – cello/voice improvisation.

Ice Child is part of the initial creative process of SPLIT, a documentary opera monologue to be performed at the Wundergrund festival in Copenhagen in October 2011.

Filmed at the ice rink in Århaus, Denmark.

Split – a documentary opera monologue

•03/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

Initial meeting at the Womens Museum, Aarhus, Denmark. February 2011

Line Tjørnhøj – composer;  Zoë Martlew – cello/vocal;  Jürgen Diemer – film/photography

Kindly supported by:


The Women’s Museum in Århus
Edition·–S – music¬sound¬art 
Wundergrund Music Festival 
Sponsors and funders:
Hotelejer Andreas Harboes Fond
Kulturhus Århus


•03/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

Our working room upstairs in the Kvindemuseet.

Here we are with women visiting our workshop space  discussing themes raised during an exercise “wrapping” the room in plastic (see Day 3 post) followed by an initial reading of of collected journalist interviews with rape victims of the Bosnian war.

Many such informal discussions took place during our working time here, and not only with women, and helped us to realise how deeply people are touched by issues that surround such traumatic and complex subject matter.

First two days of SPLIT, a documentary opera monologue in the making…

•03/02/2011 • Leave a Comment

Naked, but for a swathe of black cloth, I lie under the unblinking eye of a camera, pelted intermittently with roses, moving slowly, sensuously, as if in a dream to caress the prone body of the cello beside me.

This is working day 2 of the creation of SPLIT, a documentary opera monologue for cello/voice, sampler, electronics and video. The composer Line Tjornhoj is throwing the flowers from a Tibetan bowl we may use later for water percussion and photographic artist Jurgen Diemer is making this short film sequence using green screen technology which enables him to superimpose moving images and allow me to appear suspended over a flowing river.

At the heart of the project is an exploration of the experiences of the rape victims of the Bosnian war, and that of their unwanted children. We are approaching this bleeding centre via pathways or “strings” of connected material generated in a e-correspondance in the weeks leading to this collaborative meeting. These “strings” includes texts from journalists working in Bosnia, the tragedies of Euripides and Shakespeare, films of Lars von Trier, our travels, love affairs, the erotic poetry of Hildegaarde von Bingen, dream states, lullabies, buried traumas. Our sound world starts off today with an array of improvisations on mutually generated text fragments, extended cello techniques – multiphonics, sub-harmonics, – breath, the sounds of flowers landing on cello strings.

Line has already created two notated pieces for me to perform: it’s the first time I’ve had to sing and play the cello simultaneously with irrational rhythms, and as a non-trained singer it’s a tough call. One has to split (!) the brain to organize the independent lines and physical gestures and I’m now doubtless using brain-cells dormant since childhood. It reminds me of a mime artist training technique once described to me where students learn how to move in five independent rhythms and gestures using head, arms and feet. I guess jugglers have similar skills.

The tranquil beauty of the Kwindemuseet here in Århaus is the perfect setting for this exploration, with it’s perfectly preserved mid-19th century architecture, wooden beams, high ceilings, softly painted panelling and unbelievably kind and supportive all-female staff, who seem only too happy to have us do our strange things amongst their lovingly-displayed exhibitions. The downstairs cafe serves delicious wholesome organic food, good coffee (an essential for at least 2 of us in the Split team) and a fabulous array of homemade cakes. Our main work room is also the setting for a retrospective exhibition of Danish artist, Kirsten Rose, whose assorted figurative paintings and sculptures sit harmoniously alongside our activities. As we work, members of the public wander in and out to look.

Our initial project day, yesterday, had brought us together from our respective countries and languages: German, English and Danish, with Line the only one speaking all three, and was an excited throwing together of all the ideas that had brought us to this place. Line had already prepared the themes discussed in the lead-up to this week, written on multiple yellow Post-it notes, giving us a strong framework to start from and another exhibit on our work table for the punters to muse over.

It’s a first for me to be carrying out this usually most private of processes, creating a new piece, in front of a random audience of museum visitors. They seem intrigued and in some cases, fascinated. One elderly lady stayed with us all day, even helping to clear up rose petals and camera equipment afterwards. Split has its first groupie. Underneath all these surface activities I sense the emotional state of the women we are writing about. Trauma is so often buried beneath conscious recognition safely out of reach and I am dimly aware that somewhere inside me an empathetic pool of grief, shame, rage and shock is mixing uneasily with sensuality, motherhood, tenderness and ecstasy. These states will appear somewhere in our piece through combinations of sound, text and visual images, and will doubtless drive the overall architecture. Woman, in all her colours, is at the heart of this work.

(posted by cellist/vocal performer Zoe Martlew)