What happens to your body when you are locked up? How do you cope with life in a closed world? Louise Alenius' Stille slag (Quiet Beats) for various instruments and seven voices takes you on a thought-provoking journey into the intense feelings and mental challenges that come with isolation. The album's lyrics and music are based on interviews with former inmates in Danish prisons, focusing on the psychological and emotional challenges of being locked up – a piercingly beautiful and poignant listening experience.
A Room of Fragments
By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
When composer Louise Alenius and writer Tanja Diers first started work on Stille slag (Quiet Beats), in 2018, their initial idea was to make something connected to the story of Leonora Christina, the Danish Countess who was imprisoned in 1663 for 22 years without charge or trial in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle. Although Christina’s life and writings did continue to inspire them, they found themselves becoming more interested in the ideas of isolation and imprisonment themselves than in the historical figure. To this end, and with the director Tue Biering, they chose to spend 24 hours in solitary confinement in the Horsens Statsfængsel in Jutland – working, Alenius says, on the same principle as a method actor would in getting into a character.
Their experiences were intense, unexpected and surprisingly similar. All three thought they knew what to expect, but within just 15 minutes of saying a cheery ‘see you later’ to each other, they all felt the disturbing and oppressive isolation of solitary confinement. Time became fractured and unreadable; their minds had to devise strategies for navigating its passage. (Alenius says she would think of her bed as a ‘dessert’, which she was only allowed to sit on and be comfortable after a ‘main course’ of standing for two hours.) Sound, too, became strange. In the silence of the prison, sounds were disconnected and very loud. Bent around corridors and the acoustic of the building, they became the only way to conceive of a space different from their seven-metre-square cells: Alenius says her ear became attuned to whether a sound was nearby or far away, whether it was loud or not, and what materials might have made it.
Following this experience, Diers interviewed a number of former prisoners about their own incarceration – partly to check their own experiences, but also to access material for their project. Working closely together, writer and composer created texts based on these interviews and other readings, which Alenius then set to choral music. Diers’ texts are sparse and reduced to their minimum content; through repetition, lists and other fragmentary structures they conjure boredom, disgust, alienation and withdrawal. Alenius’s music, in striking contrast, is warmly textured and occasionally ornate; it evokes the 17th-century madrigals of Monteverdi or Gesualdo – music soaked in love and death, written around the time of Christina’s imprisonment but also some of the most emotionally direct music ever composed. It speaks of a human need to create a continuity of self.
Stille slag was first performed in a staged version, directed by Biering – with a cappella choir and seven inmates acting some of the daily activities of prison life – at the Revolver theatre in Copenhagen in October and November 2021. For this recorded version, Alenius has re-edited her music (cutting some of the longer transitions and pauses of the stage version, changing the order of some sections, but always remaining respectful of the original material) and then added in the studio layers of instruments and sampled sounds. The purpose is to replace the space of the staged version with a different, musical space. ‘To me, the piece was balanced when it was on stage’, she says. ‘When I write music, I’m very aware of the room. Taking the room away is like cutting the legs off. I needed to create the room again.’
That ‘room’ is not recreated in a concrete sense, however. The extra layers do not literally replace the staged space or actions. Nor is there an explicit evocation of the sounds of prison. Instead, they place the choral music in a context that enlarges and enriches it, that counterpoints it, that breaks it up, and that enters into a critical dialogue with it. The sounds Alenius sampled came from all kinds of sources: both concrete, ‘real world’ sounds and instruments that she played herself in the studio. The experience in solitary confinement taught her that a prison is a machine for replacing human beings with raw, disembodied feelings. What she wanted first and foremost was that same rawness of expression that she found in the unaccompanied choir.
In the stage version of Stille slag, that estrangement was captured by prisoners acting out simple tasks but in slow motion, or exploding into violence against the monotony of their situation. In the recorded version, this role is played by a soundscape of strangely disconnected sounds, almost psychedelically warped like those Alenius heard in her cell. The voices continue as before, but now within a space of alien timbres that contain them, undermine them and negate them. Again, the music is often ornate and highly emotive, filled with the sounds of shuddering strings, tinkling music boxes or strident brass. But those emotions never build into a coherent story or memory. Instead, they pass by in fragments, like something that the voices seek but cannot quite grasp.
In ‘Syv kvadratmeter’ (‘Seven Square Metres’) they add flashes of colour and variety to the text’s mechanical description of a cell and its contents. In ‘Smerten bor i knoglerne’ (‘Pain Lives in the Bones’) the ghastly, frightening text – ‘syner/om mænd, der forfølger mig/drukner mig’ (‘visions/about men who pursue me/drowning me’) – is haunted by the four notes of a wooden flute, insistently repeating like a playground chant. And in the last movement, ‘En røgsky’ (‘A Cloud of Smoke’), the repetitive metallic taps – like regularly spaced prison bars – merge with the anxious ‘time, time, time’ of the text.