A part of me – An interview with Hilde Marie Holsen

Hilde Marie Holsen records everything she plays on the trumpet – every practise session, every live performance, every time her lips touch the instrument, she hits the record button. Every day, her hard drive expands with the memories of their time together, like a photo album of hazy residual memoirs gathering dust in binary code, to be pawed over later or immediately resigned to the back of the album, where all the blurry mistakes lurk. She might not “listen to everything”, but what started out as a practise tool, is often a way for Hilde to get outside of the music and can yield it’s own interesting results. “After I improvised I can sometimes have this feeling that this was really bad. And then after four days, I go back and listen to it again. And then I’m like; ‘why did I stop, this was so interesting.’” Hilde breaks out in an exuberant chuckle, her voice drifting out over the café where we sit and says; “if I didn’t record on my rehearsal’s last year, I wouldn’t have had anything to release.” Her laughter reaches a crescendo as the words tumble out in between the gasps of air she has to take. She’s talking about her debut album, Ask, an album that has received much critical acclaim since it’s release, and has seen Hilde’s star rise far above the firmament of it’s humble beginnings of recorded practise sessions.

Mentor and teacher Maja Ratkje planted the seed for the album when she said to Hilde in the autumn of 2014: “I think you are going to release an album; it’s going to be part of your project.” Although Hilde didn’t feel quite ready to embark on such a project, she did what came naturally to her and hit the record button on Ableton (recording/performance software) every time she would sit down for a session. “Every lesson with Maja, I would be playing with her generally sitting on the side, writing down what she heard and making comments.“ The practise sessions eventually found their voice into an album that has it’s origins in Hilde’s trumpet, the instrument that now sits beside her quietly in its demure brown case and if it had ears, they would certainly be burning right now. Hilde is a master manipulator of her instrument, knowing exactly how to coax the desired sound from its brassy shell, which she then manipulates through her computer and alienates from its origins in the digital realm. She knows the trumpet intimately enough to pre-empt exactly the result of each execution, but her relationship with this particular instrument is a young one and her musical career starts back in her hometown Jølster with the trumpet’s “little brother”, the cornet.

“I started in the school band when I was nine.” Her family wasn’t musical by Hilde’s account and although she grew up with her dad’s Doctor Hook albums, it was her friends that actually encouraged her through some innocent peer pressure to join the school brass band.” It’s like football.” (A sport she also tried her hand at until she broke her leg.) “It’s just one of the activities you can choose from. I started playing the tenor horn and moved onto the alto horn, but at fourteen I turned to the cornet.” It was as a 14 year-old, an age where most of us waste our time on frugal teen-age pursuits, that Hilde started taking music more seriously, practising daily, getting to know her instrument, and at 16 she took her first steps into classical training, but it was not to last for Hilde. “I realised I would never be a classically trained musician. I couldn’t make a living out of classical music. When I was 19 I went to the folk high school on a jazz course. That’s where I learnt to improvise.” Encouraged by her Jazz teacher Hilde enrolled in the Kristiansand conservatory shortly after, and it’s here, during her adolescent years that Hilde really started exploring her personal musical voice, and strangely enough it started with Clifford Brown.

“When I started at the conservatory, my teacher suggested that I download Ableton live, but for the purpose of learning a solo by Clifford Brown, because you can adjust the tempo without adjusting the pitch. So I learned April Joy, using Ableton.” Hilde found an immediate affinity with the piece of software for its intuitive design and mastered it in a matter of weeks. “I had my first concert three weeks later where I played five or six minutes of an interpretation.” It wasn’t exactly Hilde’s first foray into the world of electronics. Much of her adolescent years were spent in the library looking for new music, and although she first found her love for Jazz there, she also started exploring labels like ECM. “That was some really good years where I got to listen to a lot of different music,“ she remembers. It also inspired her to buy a portable recorder, and she turned to field recordings with no clear intent as to their final purpose. “So I had this recorder and when I was hiking in the mountains I would track sounds. I didn’t know how to use it. I just had this feeling that I wanted to explore this, but then there was no one else doing this in my environment so I couldn’t get ideas.” It did however lay the foundation for her work within Ableton, but whereas the field recordings were unknown territory to the artist, the trumpet certainly wasn’t and she found a direction with the electronic explorations through the instrument she knows so well. ”I wanted to limit myself to just do things through the trumpet, and I didn’t want to have anything prepared before hand, so everything is improvised. Every sound I make I want to be able to make during a performance.”

Hilde’s live shows are completely mesmerising. She coaxes out the most magnificent sonic landscapes from her instrument through these electronic devices and even though it’s improvised on the spot, there’s nothing to suggest that the piece hasn’t been composed, edited, revised and then composed again. It’s hard to believe it all derives from one instrument, the trumpet, but as Hilde talks more about the trumpet it’s clear to see there is an unbreakable bond between the musician and her instrument. “It’s a part of me. The intonation and timbre changes is very intuitive at the moment because this is what I practise, this is what I play.” The physicality of the instrument means if a single day passes without a practise session, she’ll start to notice. Closeness like that with an inanimate object is sure to bring with it a deep understanding and when you hear Hilde perform it’s almost like the trumpet is extension of her vocal chords.

It might not be that obvious on Ask, since that direct correlation cannot always be drawn for the listener, but with the literal interpretation out of the way, it also means that her music is at its most evocative. Sub-audible drones fall into harsh tonal mutations that create moody cinematic pieces of intense consternation. The disquieting effect might have some relevance to Hilde’s youth spent amongst a crowd in anguish. “At my school, you would either be listening to Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, or you would be listening to In Flames. So I was in the last crowd. The ones that would be wearing all black clothes, dreaming of colouring my hair black, which I never did.“ It’s hard to believe the person sitting in front of me wearing all black and listening to In Flames. Her sunny disposition, big bright eyes, and matching rain-weather outfit all suggest otherwise. But when you listen to Ask and/or see her perform, it all falls into focus. The melancholic sounds and slow winding expressiveness of her music all suggest a personality that likes to wallow in the darker passages of music. “My music tends to be in minor. I feel more at home playing in minor.“

It also marks just another part of the musical personality that is Hilde Marie Holsen. What I find that’s at her core and comes through in her music is her ability to break down the walls of conformity and forge her own individual path. That same sprit that was there when she first did away with the idea of classical music and picked up a field recorder without knowing what to do with it; seems to have followed her, her whole life. When the tutor suggested she used Ableton to learn a Clifford Brown song she found a new form of expression through the software. When everybody at the conservatory was into standard Jazz, she “felt there were too many boundaries and rules on how to play”, never feeling “at home” in that role. “I may think very theoretically and when I learnt about all the different scales I could use on chords, I ended up just playing scales and not playing music. So, for me during the second year at the conservatory, I came to this point where I figured I couldn’t play standard jazz.” Instead she wanted to make music and her most treasured time was when the students were allowed to play freely. “It’s not all about notes to be put in a special system, it’s actually about the melody that means something and expresses something for me. That’s also the case with electronics.” This is probably the most accurate summary of Hilde Marie Holsen and her music and it I couldn’t have chosen a better place to end our interview, even if we planned it that way.

Hilde has some time to kill before her class, where she teaches the cornet to young children. She mentioned earlier how people strangely revere the instrument, the instrument she mastered in her youth, with a sense of scepticism. It’s something she’s also noted in her pupils. “The kids are eight or nine and when they learn on the cornet, they often ask; ‘when do I get to play the trumpet.’ It’s like the big brother. I guess it’s a more familiar instrument.” Hilde still owns a cornet and often brings it out when her trumpet is being fixed, but sitting beside her on the day of our interview is her trumpet. We say our goodbyes, and with the knowledge that I’ll see both Hilde and her trumpet the following week, I forge ahead outside into the rain, where the weather looks like it might be taking a turn for the better.

*Hilde Marie Holsen will be performing at the next instalment of the Formant’s 55.