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)