INTERVIEW: Petra van der Schoot


In our age of digital oversaturation, Petra van der Schoot—an interdisciplinary artist based out of the Netherlands—has a surprisingly sparse internet footprint. But the description offered by Vancouver’s VOICE OVER mind Festival, in which van der Schoot will be performing later this month, paints an intriguing picture. According to the brief blurb, she’s a “multi-faceted artist with a focus and desire to bring the disciplines of image and music together in various new forms.” In the weeks leading up to the festival, I had the pleasure to speak with the artist via a grainy Skype connection.

For the VOICE OVER mind festival, you’ll be collaborating with Camille Hesketh, a classically trained vocalist. Could you tell me a little about your project?

Well, we’re going to work with video and voice. It’s more of a musical theatre, improv project. And I’m going to project an extra mouth on the singer’s face. It’s about life with a voice that comes from the outside, and you wonder how much this voice is… internalized? Is that a good word? That’s it in a nutshell.

You’ve been trained in both music and sculpture. But do you feel that the human voice has a particularly special artistic function?

I think it does and it also doesn’t. It has two sides. You can also really hate a voice. [Laughs.] It’s really possible to hate a voice. If you like the character which is in the voice, then you love the voice. But if there’s a small, little thing that doesn’t do it for you, then it’s also completely off with the voice. It also depends on how much language is involved. On the one side, you have voice as an instrument, of course. And if you really use language, it starts a parallel symbolic world next to the stuff you’re doing on stage. In an opera, you never really hear what people are saying. It has these two worlds: the text-based world and the sound and visual-based world. But I am definitely very, very sensitive to voices. I think that when you love a voice, it’s the thing that gets to you most.

Do you ever try to actively confuse or disorient the audience? Are you trying to make them think certain things?

Whatever you’re doing on stage, you always want some kind of a reaction. I think that when you’re doing pure music, most of the time you want to move people emotionally. But when you’re using images also, then it also approaches the mind somehow. That’s the two things you’re kind of approaching when you’re doing both. You can present these images that you can wonder about—what it is or what it refers to. That’s the thing that images always add to the voice. But if it’s only the voice, then it’s very direct, I think. It’s very much about your emotional reaction to it.

One of the fields in which you work is composition…

[Interrupting.] You mean music composition? Most of the time I work with scores from someone else. I’m more like a director working with music than a composer.

In a performance of, say, Bach’s violin sonatas, the choice of performer has a huge effect on what the music sounds like. But with a singer, the effect seems like it would be even more pronounced. I mean, two different singers singing the same song can be, for all intents and purposes, like two different songs. I understand that you’re doing chance pieces and interactive pieces, but when you collaborate with singers, is there a dimension of giving up control?

It depends on the project. In this project, it’s very important that there’s a lot of space for the singer. But sometimes it’s very important that the singer has a very concrete place in the whole piece. The thing we’re going to do in Vancouver has definitely a lot of space for the singing part.

Have you worked with Camille often? Or is this a more recent collaboration.

Camille lived in Holland—for ten years, I think. And I’ve known her for four years. And since then, we’ve collaborated a few times—in a big musical theatre piece and some small stuff. We did a lot of video experiments. So this is not the first time.

You said you’re interested in musical theatre. Now, there’s something a bit more immediate about the genre compared with opera. I guess it’s a bit more accessible to a lot of people. Do you find this to be an attractive thing?

I think so, yes. Opera has it’s formats. And the voice is very artificial, in a way. So all the basic human sensitivities are worked out of the work. The voice is made to have all these big, big spaces possibilities. With opera, the voice is the main, big thing. But with musical theatre, the interesting thing is that you try to meld all disciplines and all layers together, like it’s one stream. You can play more. You can play more with formats. Opera has a very clear format, which doesn’t appeal to me. Because it’s always text-based: it’s always about a story, and the images and the music are like some kind of illustration. This does not appeal so much to me.

Would you say that your semantic code is a bit more ambiguous?

I want the meaning to come out of the music and the images and not out of the story. Because with the story, the imagination starts to connect with the words. When you want to put an imaginary world on stage, it’s nice if the music and images are equal and have their own values. While if you use a very concrete story, they colour the story and aren’t their own voice. That’s what I like about musical theatre: you can really use the media, and you can tell a story in a very different way.

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