My university days taught me to ponder

Sound artist and AU graduate Marie Koldkjær Højlund is glad that her MA programme lasted two years. She believes that rushing through life – and our educations – might not be the solution to the world’s crises. And she’s particularly grateful today for one of the professors she had the hardest time with as a student.

[Translate to English:] Lydkomponist Marie Koldkjær Højlund
Marie Koldkjær Højlund is a composer and sound artist. In 2020, she released the album  Intet er Nok under the stage name Kh Marie, and she has previously worked with other bands, including bands like Tigertunes and Nephew. She has contributed to several theatrical performances, including Lyden af de skuldre vi står på with Simon Kvamm at Aarhus Teater. Højlund has a PhD in audio design and is an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Culture. Photo: Morten Hilmer

What is your favourite memory from your university days?

Now that the government is proposing to making Master’s degree programmes half as long, I’ve been thinking back on my own MA and how it would have affected me if it had been cut in half. Of course, counterfactual history-writing is always difficult, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it would have had a very strong negative impact on my later voyage out into ‘reality’. I remember those two years as formative and absolutely fundamental in order to ‘get around to’ pondering what it really means to study. Here I don’t mean studying as something that’s only relevant while you’re a student, but as a fundamental curious and exploratory relationship to the world that our whole society, with its focus on saving time, is working to combat, with reforms to put limits on time to degree and expressions like ‘dossing-around year’ (fjumreår, a term for ‘gap year’ with negative connotations, ed.). Even though this kind of ‘pondering’ might seem like the wrong strategy to practice in a world where there are lots of crises that demand action here and now. But as catastrophe research has shown again and again, we humans are unfortunately extremely bad at learning from previous catastrophes because we immediately try to return to the illusion of ‘everything’s the same as before’. I believe that taking the time to ponder is an essential method for making the time to create transformations of our habitual way of relating to the world – everything we simply don’t even realise we’re doing and can’t change very easily for that reason.

So to answer your question, I don’t remember one specific memory from my university days, but I remember a state of being that I constantly have to remind myself should be part of life – pondering. To me, the word ‘ponder’ has an important quality that ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ don’t have: namely an outward focus that’s aimed at something outside myself.

Who was your favourite teacher?

I liked all of my teachers in their own way, and their differences really enriched my university experience. I once heard about a study in which former university students were asked to evaluate their teachers 20 years after graduation. What was interesting was that to a high degree, students reported that the teachers who had meant the most for their subsequent careers were the teachers they had the lowest opinion of back then. In line with this, I remember a particular – now deceased – professor we thought was really tough and old-fashioned back then, because he asked to to read difficult texts in German and assigned us a really difficult analytical essay in our first year that we also had to present orally in front of the class. One of my fellow students and I panicked at first, but then we started to dive into the material, and we learned the hard way the difference between going to school and doing homework, and studying at university. It was really difficult and anxiety-provoking, and we ended up with more questions than answers, but I realised that the point of the assignment was the process itself: to learn how to search for knowledge and combine fragments into new, open-ended forms of understanding and then share them with others.

What advice do you wish you’d been given in your first job?

Today, being a composer and musician (and by the same token, a researcher) involves being able to run projects, negotiate pay and rights, hire people, own and manage a company, balance the books and a lot of other skills you don’t learn when you study musicology or audio design.  Even though you can learn most these things by doing them, I do wish that someone had advised me to take a few basic classes in bookkeeping and such things. That would have saved me a lot of hours in the long run.

What are your current interests?

I’m composing music for a performance about SDG no. 16, ‘Peace, justice and strong institutions”, that will be performed by young opera talents as a part of their TalentU course under Den Jyske Opera. I’m also preparing this spring’s course for the audio design MA programme, Sign environments: listening and creating atmosphere’. I’m also following up on several of the projects I’ve done in recent years involving improving the audio environment in maternity wards in Hjørring, Aalborg and Gødstrup and at care homes in Aarhus. Last but not least, I’m working on my second album under my stage name, Kh Marie. It’s kind of turned into the ‘difficult second album’, so it’s going slowly, and I’m spending a good amount of time pondering.

Are you still in contact with anyone from your time at AU?

Yes, once in awhile, particularly in professional contexts I run into a number of them here and there. Recently I went to the musicology programme’s 75th anniversary, partly because I still work there myself, and there were a lot of people from my year.