Rokkur is a project by composer-performers Heðin Ziska Davidsen, Reuben Fenemore, and Sarah Albu. It is a performance based on old tools and processes for preparing, hand-spinning and knitting yarn. One of these tools, a traditional spinning-wheel, is called “Rokkur” in the Faroese language. As these tools are used to make wool into yarn and yarn into garment, these processes will also produce sound. Using electronics, the artists amplify and augment the sounds and add instrumental and vocal sound, creating a tapestry of sonic textures, upon which songs, stories and musical improvisations are formed.
Reuben Fenemore is a freelance musician and creative currently based in Berlin, Germany. Hailing from a classical background as a clarinettist, he has since extended his expertise across genres and improvisation.
Sarah Albu is a Canadian experimental vocalist, composer and performance-maker.
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Annie Corrigan: Describe your personal connection to rokkur and other tools used in spinning and knitting. Do you make textiles in addition to making music?
Sarah Albu: My own professional practice is in music and performance but work with textiles is deeply ingrained in my family history. Both of my grandmothers (Italian on my mother’s side, Romanian on my father’s side) were proficient in knitting and crochet, as well as sewing, embroidery and lace making and I understand this goes back for many generations. Watching both grandmothers make so many household things out of tradition and habit (and stubborn all-weathering creativity?) after it was no longer a necessity heavily influenced the way I make music and my DIY roots/sensibilities. In terms of my own fiber arts practice, aside from sewing I started out with the macramé friendship bracelet fad using embroidery floss in elementary school and then became interested in knitting through a friend from my choir. As soon as I picked up the needles I knew I would never stop – and it became a connecting point between myself and my maternal grandmother. We were only in the same place once or twice a year. She would send me stitch swatches in the mail with handwritten instructions on how to do different stitches, or half-finished projects for me to continue knitting. I inherited all her books and tools as well as many handwritten patterns and cherish them, my last link to her, tools and garments that passed through her hands and kept so many people warm all those Thunder Bay Ontario winters!
In November and December 2017 I apprenticed with a spinner named Sharon Orpin in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and began working with spinning wheels and drop spindles. My interest was primarily to come back with physical knowledge for the Rokkur project, but once again I was hooked by the process, with feeling the fiber transform between my fingers, and I have been continuing making my own yarn separate from any musical practice. In terms of the symbolism of handcraft I find it quite radical to continue making slow work by hand inside capitalist society, tracing materials back to their source (sweater-yarn-wool-sheep-grass). I’m highly compelled to continue physical tangible practices as I experience the world and even our work as artists being pulled more and more in the direction of online, extra-physical space. I draw a connection to experimental music and small-scale music production in the process of going from something raw and wild to something more refined (or not); filtering material (fiber or sound) through a process of combing, examining, combination of tension and release, the thrill of choosing what goes where and in which way.
AC: Making art with found objects and unusual musical instruments is a focus of Sound Symposium. What is it about these woolmaking tools that also makes them musically interesting?
SA: In our early discussions about the project, one of the things we were most fascinated with was the contrast between the perceived silence of these activities and the inner experience of knitting or spinning. These are not loud processes, but they have an internal rhythm that is experienced by the spinner/knitter. We were very interested in exploring the kinds of “imaginary” sounds that we could relate to the rhythm of the physical work, or even extract from the physical process. We are also interested in the space for solitary reflection and community gathering that woolworking offers in many cultures.
AC: The three members of Rokkur are located all over the world. How do you collaborate on new projects from such distance?
SA: We have a Facebook messenger group where we share photos, inspirations, articles and ideas, that has been active for almost 2 years. It’s funny to think about working on a project that deals with one of the world’s oldest technologies (tools for making wool) in a non-physical space (the internet). The messenger group has started to feel familiar, like a cozy living room or something. Usually the way it works is whoever is “on the ground” (physically closest) to the place where we will work or perform next becomes a sort of “team captain” and does the groundwork leading up to the performance, finding spaces and community members and local materials. So far we have mostly worked in the Faroe Islands. The performance and content is different each time, depending on the setting and the materials we end up with in each place.
AC: Describe what we can expect from a performance by Rokkur.
SA: Our performances are always different, and the musical content varies greatly depending on where we are, who we’re with, and what we’ve been listening to lately. We are all improvisors with different backgrounds. We make a lot of space for the sounds made by the instruments and tend to focus on the relationship between the visual/physical and the sounds, some parts can be very quiet and reflective, others more loud and explosive. I’m really excited about including local fiber artists from the St. John’s area and involving vocal storytelling this time around, weaving that into the soundscape.
Rokkur At Sound Symposium XIX*
- Workshop, Sound and Music with Woolmaking Tools — Friday, July 6 at 2:30pm (LSPU Hall)
- Concert — Monday, July 9 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
- Workshop, Experimental Instruments — Friday, July 13 at 2:00pm (Choral Room, MUN School of Music)
*Times and locations subject to change.