Runhild Gammelsaeter: Amplified Contamination
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Runhild Gammelsaeter's voice is chaos contained, but how she electronically stretches and warps it sounds like the sublime expansion of the universe. Three years after the release of her first solo album (originally pressed to CD on the excellent Utech Records), the recent vinyl reissue of Amplicon provides a welcome reminder of the incredibly unheard-of cosmos Gammelsaeter created.
Floating somewhere in the realms of folk, noise and black metal, Amplicon sounds like it could have soundtracked the psychedelic existentialist film Enter the Void years before it messed with our minds. Gammelsaeter is no stranger to these realms: She was just 17 when she screamed for a pre-Sunn O))) Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson in Thorr's Hammer, and she provided vocals for the appropriately titled Chaos Is My Name, an abstract drone-metal record by Khylst. And, as I found out in an email interview with Gammelsaeter, every single sound on Amplicon — the terrifying growls, the ghostly whispers, the clattering bells, the sub-basement drones, the synth-like screes — comes from her voice and body. And, when she's not busy being a cell physiologist (and sometimes model), she really likes listening to Britney Spears. Who knew?
It's been three years since I listened to Amplicon, but putting it on recently, the album still sounds just as forward-thinking and unreal as ever. It's so easy for ideas in the avant-garde and noise communities to be copied and filtered down, but I still haven't heard anything quite like this album. What were your intentions with Amplicon? Does it still hold up for you three years later?
An interesting question — you just made me reflect on the in-between, what the intention was compared to how I perceive it years after it was made. I play it rarely and it always surprises me. Listening to it makes me flinch at my own shamelessness. It is an emotional record for me, very naked. Some passages I am proud to have made. Some things I can't understand that I made. Other things I remember vividly working on. Listening to any kind of music enhances the process of retrieving memories formed when listening to the music previously. Listening to my own record brings back memories of the things that were going on in my life in the time period when it was recorded, which was an intense and important period personally for a number of reasons.
For me, it holds up in being a personal and emotional statement, which it intentionally also was. Expression of the universe and life in sound, using my own voice and life. But I never thought of it as something anyone would want to imitate, though I can see that it probably stands out, as a statement perhaps. I am humble that somebody desired to re-release it, and that it is not forgotten.
While the spastic, cut-and-paste sounds of Amplicon stand out, I think what I react to most is your voice. It's folkoric and vulnerable one moment, sublimely terrifying the next. How much of the album is created with your voice? Who do you consider your vocal inspirations?
Most of the record are vocals or body sounds. I recorded vocals through different kinds of microphones, and used a stethoscope to record my breath while singing as well as my heartbeat. Obviously, there is a lot of effects used on the vocals, and a lot of the noise and synth-sounding things are vocals. There are no synths on this record, contrary to belief. And the vocals are recorded at odd times of the day, when I was in different emotional energy states.
I believe the vocal expression of the emotion implied in the words is the most important thing about singing. For me, the expression of emotion is more important than clean tone or good pitch. I will easily throw away a take where I sing in tune and use one with poorer-quality singing but more emotional impact. And I will remove reverb and delay if it hides small quirks in the voice which I find to have emotional significance. I could have polished the vocals with equalizers and compressors, but I didn't, because it takes away parts of the "human frequency."
Although I never sought to imitate any other vocalists, there is a wide range of singers I admire greatly. The thing that fascinates me most about a vocalist is not how clean the vocal tone is, but how much emotion the voice expresses. Also how true the face and body language of the vocalist when singing. I want the singers to mean it. And I want them to write their own lyrics and preferably their own music. It puts a totally different perspective, depth and content to what is coming out of their mouths. For growling, Carcass are my all time faves — not just the thrilling double-vocals of Bill Steer and Jeff Walker, but also the anger and sincerity in their voices reflecting perfectly the lyrics. Also love Burzum — the vocals are so tormented and naked. Sidsel Endresen is a Norwegian jazz singer who is an idol for me. She focuses on sounds and even makes up her own language — non-existing words — to fit the music, and it just makes you feel stuff, although you don't understand what the words are. Diamanda Galas is so intense and honestly brutal when she sings, and damn, can that woman sing. Perhaps the greatest singer alive today. Natacha Atlas has that warm Middle Eastern vibrato in her voice which I love, and expresses this drama-queen scandal thing which I find to be a total party, although it also is desperate and very feminine. And the opera singer Jessye Norman has a quality in her voice when she sings "When I Am Laid in Earth" by Purcell, which expresses the whole emotional implication of the lyrics and totally destroys me with its beauty. In opera, it is easier to find those special singers, because they all sing the same operas. Not like a cover song where you reinterpret, but the exact same lyrics and same music, yet each singer makes it sound and feel so different. I love opera and listen to different versions to find my preferred performances.
From pop culture, I love Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane — her vocals are so muscular and strong, with fantastic intonation. Crosby, Stills and Nash do some wicked harmonies. And I always preferred Britney Spears over the other pop girls. She uses her mouth and tongue so actively to form and create sounds, and her diction is immaculate. You see this very well in the video for "Circus." She is not putting on an act to add emotion to the music she is served by her producers; she is continually holding back emotions, which lends a subtle sense of closure and mystery to her vocals. She is always in control. I think she is underrated, a total professional. [It] would be amazing to compose and produce something for her so she could express something true with her voice. I'd love to hear that girl scream.
What is an amplicon, and how does it relate to the inspiration or creation of the album?
"Amplicon" is a word used in molecular biology, and means amplified pieces of DNA. I primarily think it is an extremely cool word, disregarding meaning. I get pretty obsessed with how words feel when I have them on my tongue. But what it means to make amplicons is to take fragments of DNA in a molecular lab and amplify them to thousands of copies using molecular lab techniques. I used to do this a lot when I worked with molecular biology. There are certain challenges with amplicons. If you spill them on the lab bench, you can contaminate other DNA samples, which can give you all kinds of weird results. I think this is exactly what I have done on this record: pieces of sound, amplified and mixed together, with all kinds of weird results.
Do you ever plan to record a follow-up? Or do your professional pursuits in cell physiology take up most of your time?
I would love to make more solo music, but at the moment, having a demanding job does not give me time to pursue such a project. As all musicians know, making a record does not just take time; it demands quite a bit of mental and emotional energy and focus, which is difficult to combine with a full-time job. On that note, I never illegally download music, because I don't want professional musicians to go extinct from hunger. We need talented individuals to dwell full-time with music, to create really great new things for us to cherish. I do, however, make and perform some music with two guys in a project we call Decay. We are two vocalists and a guitarist only. This music is probably the most similar stuff to my solo record of all my bands. We have been doing live performances, curated pieces, and are making a record now. Work with it is slow, though; we all have other jobs, so it is done in our spare time.
Amplicon is out now on Little Black Cloud. You can stream the full album at Invisible Oranges.