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The Wire / Beam Splitter

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BEAM SPLITTER’s Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø (left) and Audrey Chen in Berlin, October 2023

BEAM SPLITTER The electroacoustic duo of Audrey Chen and Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø hone a language of breath and space to explore human intimacy By Julian Cowley Photography by Florian Bong-Kil Grosse

HU E A N D CRIES

Voice artist Audrey Chen and trombone player Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø have worked together as BEAM SPLITTER since 2015. During a Zoom conversation with the couple speaking from the apartment they share in Berlin, I ask why they have chosen that name, ostensibly derived from the science of optics. Chen smiles enigmatically, disappears momentarily from view, then returns brandishing a large format book of illustrations. “It’s from Star Wars: Complete Cross-Sections,” she explains. “I’ve held onto some books that belonged to my son. That was one of his favourites when he was little. He is 23 now, living in New Orleans, where he works as a rocket propulsion engineer. The way I make decisions and improvise has very much been shaped by my experience of being a mother. My son has influenced me more than any musician. Now that Henrik and I have played together for a while, the name BEAM SPLITTER does feel like part of us. But in the beginning it was definitely a secondary consideration. The reason that we make music and use sound as language is so we don’t have to use words.”

Nørstebø acknowledges that the more down-to-earth reference in the group’s name, to an arrangement of prisms commonly used in laboratory experiments, can indeed be seen to convey a sense of their shared approach to making music. “The optical device has one beam going in and a spectrum on the other side. That does represent how we work, with strong energy that’s bound together at one point but then scatters into the whole rainbow.”

Still, he too is wary of prioritising verbal formulations. He was, he points out, content for his 2011 debut recording to be entitled simply SOLO, with no fanciful titles allocated to its ten tracks. In the course of our conversation it becomes increasingly clear that their distrust of readymade labels and terms contrived for convenience is intimately bound up with their shared commitment to the steady development and visceral articulation of their own sonic language.

Emblazoned in upper case, the name BEAM SPLITTER may grab the attention and prompt speculation on the relevance of optical refraction, but once you encounter the intense immediacy of their physiological interaction as they make music, and experience the complex projections of inner states that occur within that process, the limited significance of mere words becomes glaringly evident. “I don’t know that what I do is highly musical,” Chen observes. “It is music in some ways, but it’s also organisation of sound in ways that I feel are more closely related to poetry. For me, in my personal practice, the language that I’m making expresses the in-between state that I occupy, as a single mother from an immigration/migration background, who exists between places and cultures. It has a lot to do with these aspects of my life and identity.” The duo is an intimate storytelling project, an exercise in joint autobiography conducted primarily through the channels of amplified voice and trombone. Although it is audibly an expression of mutual support, this duo is not a smooth grafting of harmonised sensibilities but an ongoing, tense and gritty process of negotiation. “Audrey has a tendency of wanting to add, and I have a tendency of wanting to subtract,” Nørstebø remarks. “That tension exists in our daily life as well as in our music. If there is inactivity that Audrey finds too protracted, she wants to make something happen, while I feel the energy of stillness much more strongly. Can we keep this blank space blank? The differences between us are really integral to the way we relate to each other, the push and pull between our different backgrounds. Our personalities are extremely different.”

When the couple first met in 2014, Nørstebø was living in Oslo, while Chen was already resident in Berlin, a city she found affordable during difficult times. “My move from Baltimore in 2011 was a matter of survival. This city offered cultural support, as well as a better quality of life than the US, and with its uniquely rich international arts community Berlin is such a good base to have in Europe.” In purely practical terms, the city provides a convenient hub for these musicians, who travel extensively and frequently to perform worldwide. Nørstebø, who grew up in Trondheim, keeps a base there in order to preserve strong ties, and splits his time between Berlin and the thriving cultural scene in Norway.

While at school, Nørstebø was steered into playing with a marching band, a strong local tradition. Offered a small selection of instruments to learn to play, he opted for trombone. It was a split-second decision, but also a formative moment. “Before I knew about jazz, sound art or improvised music specifically, I was deeply interested in shaping the tone of my trombone, being able to make it sound warm or harsh.” He remembers devising his own high-spirited accompaniment to The Blues Brothers soundtrack, and then venturing to improvise along with a Miles Davis fusion album that was part of his parents’ record collection. Subsequently, Nørstebø acknowledges, he spent many hours “digging through trombone history trying to find out where I am situated. But there has never been one trombone player who was my guiding star. I never found someone who was the complete representation of what I want to do, the way some people love [John] Coltrane and simply want to play like him.”

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