Love Streams

Joseph Henry on Jenny Hval’s The Practice of Love at HAU, Berlin

Jenny Hval at Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, February, 2020. Photo: Marco Fuentes.

HAVING MOVED TO BERLIN from New York last September, I was dismayed to learn that Valentine’s Day is also a thing in Germany. It’s not just that the holiday tends to endorse a set of normative conventions around love (heterosexuality, monogamy, consumerism); it also reminds me that I might want parts of these normative conventions (despite—or because of—my usual queer predilections, which tend towards non-monogamy, long-distance, etc.). In preparation for this piece, I read Dodie Bellamy’s Valentine’s Day essay in this magazine: to my horror, Bellamy confessed her own attachment to February fourteenth clichés, its “roses and baby’s breath.” My realization that I have repressed investments in romantic orthodoxy is itself no new revelation.

In a press release describing the premise of her 2019 album The Practice of Love, the musician and writer Jenny Hval admits, “This all sounds very clichéd, like a standard greeting card expression.” The LP, the seventh under her name, builds from a set of dialogues and monologues surveying how subjectivity absorbs or rebukes love’s codification. The album’s many voices (all women) suggest love is a collective predicament felt privately. “I wanted to write to you about love,” the velour-voiced Vivian Wang narrates in the title track. “I hate love in my own language [Norwegian]. It contains the entire word honesty inside it, which makes it sound religious, protestant, hierarchic, purified. The word love comes in the way of love, and makes me want to say sorry.”

When Hval brought her live staging of The Practice of Love to the black box of Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) for three post–Valentine’s Day nights, she was partaking in the city’s preoccupation with such amorous thematics. There was the “Love and Ethnology” exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt last fall; the artist Konstanze Schmitt opened her show “Love Meetings or Love in the Time of Capitalism” at Galerie Wedding this month; and even the cruisy gay party Cocktail d’Amore in Neukölln held its last iteration this month—love vanquished by developers. Suffice it to say, all three nights of Hval’s performance were sold-out.

Like Laurie Anderson before her, Hval has managed to shape a corpus that’s formally committed to the spoken word yet still eagerly embraced by independent music circles. Sound for Hval is a poetic device, whereby meter and timbre inflect the meanings and materialities of text. The body and sexuality are never far from her concerns, whether they interact with musical idioms informed by acoustic folk (her 2011 album Viscera) or by the broadly electronic experimentalism she’s embraced since 2016’s Blood Bitch. For The Practice of Love; Hval made her most coherently pop record yet by appropriating the gossamer textures, casual melodies, and unfaltering rhythm of ’90s trance. Imagine Alice Deejay’s holy “Better Off Alone” channeled through A Lover’s Discourse. In this sense, The Practice of Love (and its live version) are informed by a twinned field of clichés, those of love and those of dance music’s jejune days as a discrete genre. Hval even chose to bump the beats a bit harder for her live iteration.

Jenny Hval. Photo: © Jenny Berger Myhre.

With regard to clichés, Hval adopts a nearly psychoanalytic approach: “I’ve learned that if you avoid something because it’s a cliché, you’re not going to learn anything,” she stated in an interview last year. “Everything can be a cliché if you don’t work through it, or have good questions for it.” To dramatize this working-through, Hval exploited the aggregative aspects of theatrical space and time. Instead of running through a cycle of songs in one fixed proscenium position, as would befit a standard show, Hval divided the HAU stage into discrete zones and interrupted the flow of music with quizzical interludes. Performers (including Wang and the musician Laura Jean Englert, both key contributors to the recorded album) alternated spots between a cluster of instruments, a small arena of sand and various props, and a camping tent at upstage left. In various moments, one musician would be playing keys while another sifted through the sand, cast shadows on the backdrop, or read text into a camera whose live feed was projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. For their bits between songs, the entire company variously played cat’s cradle, piled into the tent, and in one instance listened to MP3 players with headphones, miming or signing to the tracks unheard by the audience. Love here was very much a “practice,” a concept limned through gestures, rituals, citations, and rhythms, in modes both resolute and haphazard.

In earlier projects, Hval rendered love and sexuality through a hyper-materiality: she squeals, moans, aspirates, and bellows in her 2013 album Innocence is Kinky, with a constant emphasis on the grain of voice. In her novel Paradise Rot, translated into English in 2018, biological imagery of spores, membranes, and flesh mediate the narrator’s sexual exploration. But in the HAU performance, love constantly oscillates between material and symbolic planes: in one instance, Hval projected live footage of herself writing, drawing, crossing out marks, and flipping through blank pages in a large notebook, in a constant search of love’s proper language. As if responding to her earlier, sensualized aesthetic, Hval asks in one refrain: “I was a thumbsucker, what am I now?”

Tellingly, Hval dedicates an entire intra-song sequence to this line; in the camping tent, she and other singers, visible only through shadows cast by a flashlight, harmonize its words in a jovial chorus. The lyrical and theatrical imagery is childlike, but not infantile, as the Freudian role of the thumbsucker might imply, caught as it might be in the developmental oral stage. Instead Hval commits to another cliché: a “childlike sense of wonder” as method, as a formalism that casts the world into relief, erotically or otherwise. “Look at those clouds / Look at them now . . . Take a closer look,” demands the speaker in “Lions.” As in the ostinato of the album’s last song “Ordinary,” Hval seems to suggest that in practicing love, we find room for ourselves within petrified social codes, and we commit ourselves to some kind of experimentality within the normative: “Just gave in to the ordinary / Giving into the ordinary / Giving into the ordinary / To the ordinary.”

Jenny Hval performed The Practice of Love at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin from February 15 to February 17, 2020.