Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at218 Translucent Harmonies
Two duos for violin and viola:
Catherine Lamb ‘Prisma Interius VIII’ (Melodic Duo) (2018) 22:26
Kristofer Svensson ‘Vid stenmuren blir tanken blomma’ (2018) 40:13
Played by andPlay - Maya Bennardo, violin and Hannah Levinson, viola
Interview with Kristofer Svensson
I guess a lot of people won’t have heard of you, so could you tell us a bit about
yourself and your musical background?
I am a composer and musician living in Sollentuna – a northern district of greater Stockholm. I write both fully notated compositions for classical/new-music musicians as well as open scores for improvising musicians. An example of the former is found on this album with andPlay – the occasion for this conversation. An example of the latter is the recording of the score "Av hav" that can be found on last year's album "two skies" with Maya Bennardo, Erik Blennow Calälv, and myself; the more open/improvisatory pieces are typically performed in settings in which I play the kacapi. I also have a handful of compositions that exist in between these poles of fully notated and improvised music.
In terms of my musical training, I have a background of practicing shakuhachi performance
in the kinko-ryū school, studying jazz and Western classical music as a young bass
player in Stockholm, learning the guqin in the Rong Family Tradition with Hammond
Yung in Hong Kong, and studying Sundanese karawitan (primarily gamelan and tembang
sunda cianjuran) in West Java with Dody Satya Ekagustiman and Ade Suparman. I love
all of these traditions and had formative experiences from the periods I was immersed
in each of them, but I do not identify as coming from or belonging to any one tradition
more than any other. My primary interest was always to try to bring about experiences
that I hadn't had with sound before, which is why I eventually turned to developing
my composition and improvisation practice.
What about ’Vid stenmuren blir tanken blomma’ – your long piece on the Translucent Harmonies album? How did that come about, and what does the title mean? Also, I understand that it uses Just Intonation, which, to be honest, I’d never have guessed as – to my layperson’s ears - it doesn’t sound like other JI pieces. Do all or most of your more notated compositions use JI, and if so, why?
The piece was commissioned by andPlay and they premiered it in 2018 as part of their concert-length program Translucent Harmonies which also included the duo version of Catherine Lamb’s Prisma Interius VIII – as on the CD.
The piece’s title roughly translates as ‘By the stone wall, thoughts become flower’. I suppose that the function of the title is quite conventional: it uses words to help attune the listener to the non-verbal world of the piece. What is very unusual for me with this title is the word ‘become’ which implies transformation and change, but is something that I think is essential to what I wanted to explore. In this piece, there are many sudden non-expressive contrasts, surprises, modulations, and transformations. For me, the image of thoughts, or mind, becoming flower points to what I experience to be – for lack of better words – the religious nature of these juxtapositions: they enable a dynamic encounter with the ground of awareness from which different sounds are enacted – a sudden insight into the nonduality of mind and matter, experience and experiencer.
All my compositions – save for very few exceptions – use JI, and my improvisatory practice is also in JI. The question of why this piece in particular doesn’t “sound” like other JI music can be answered in a couple of ways. The first answer has simply to do with the fact that this piece is in 5-limit JI. You’re probably familiar with the idea that prime numbers greatly influence the sound of JI. While the primes 7, 11, and 13 generate interval sizes that sound different from Western European music, 5 (and 3 which it encompasses) generate interval sizes that, in their simplest form, do not sound radically ‘unusual’ to a musician trained in Western European music. My hope and belief, however, is that you would have said the exact same thing even of my pieces that are in 7, 11, and 13-limit JI. I typically, even in 13-limit pieces, work with simple intervals and do not generally explore the more thorny, ‘microtonal’ sounds that can be generated with JI. I work modally –building scales and modes by combining different simple ratios – rather than chromatically or microtonally. I then express these modes through rather strict contrapuntal constraints in order to ensure an idiomatic balance between directly and indirectly tunable intervals – i.e. to ensure performability – which for the listeners creates a situation where the intonation stays in the background: what I am interested in is the attunemental flavour of musical modes and the affective qualia of pitches as they are perfumed by the mode, not drawing attention to the intonation or microtonal profiles of pitches. Lastly, many composers are more interested in exploring the intervals generated by 7-limit and higher, so most “JI-composer’s” music does not have the sound of 5-limit JI. This generalization also applies to my own practice as most of my works are in 11-limit or higher.
That’s interesting. Some JI compositions don’t really work for me as they sound like mathematical exercises, whereas your piece has a playfulness and unpredictability which I find very engaging. Did Maya and Hannah from andPlay find it relatively easy to take on your piece, or did its ‘surprising’ elements create problems for them? And how did you meet the duo?
While the piece is written to be light, unpredictable, and playful, this playfulness is situated in a quite placid scenery. There is a calmness and quietness that the playfulness arises out of and returns to. You are right that it is exactly the addition of playfulness, not the placidity, that makes it a challenging piece. In terms of ensuring a good performance out of a score, I have experienced with performances of my music that it is much less of a risk to write a piece that is solely calm and serene. The intricate rhythms, swift tempo changes, surprising turns, and pointillistic phrases of this score can only be brought to a state of playful lightness and buoyancy by dedicated performers who work closely together to carefully sculpt each phrase and tone–relating them to both local musical energies as well as the entire form of the piece. After first meeting Maya at a festival in the U.S. in 2015 where a piece of mine was being performed, I was asked to write a short piece for andPlay, so I knew from working with them that Maya and Hannah are excellent chamber music performers and incredibly synchronized and attuned to each other. It is because of their qualities that I was inspired to write this kind of challenging work. It is not an easy piece, but I knew they would enjoy the process required and that it would capture andPlay’s strengths.
Going back to your first answer, could you say a bit more about your more improvisatory / open pieces? What is a kapaci, and why do you use it in improvisatory contexts?
The kacapi is as central to the traditional music of West Java as the piano is to European Classical music, so it was an instrument I learned as part of the process of studying Sundanese music. Because of its zither form with twenty easily retunable strings over four octaves, the kacapi also became a helpful tool for exploring new tunings and compositional ideas. Many of my compositions, such as Så vill jag glömma for solo violin and Som morgonånga betraktad for bass koto grew out of working at the kacapi. I soon found that I did not need to solidify this practice into fully notated compositions but that it was stimulating enough to improvise rather freely in these new kacapi tunings. I started inviting musicians to improvise in these tunings with me, and I have since found it to be a very rich way of creating music relationally. These improvisatory pieces spell out the JI mode in use and the different tunable paths one can take through it. In that regard, I bring the same care for tunability and contrapuntal constraints that characterize my written compositions to the improvised music–but treated more freely. Some scores give more directions than others–such as characteristic phrases and motives, depending on the tunings involved.
I confess that yours was a new name to me when this project was submitted, but I’ve since bought the ‘two skies’ album that you mentioned above, and am keen to hear more. What other music of yours is available, and what are you currently working on?
There are two quite recent releases by fantastic musicians that I especially would love for new listeners to discover. The first is Miyami McQueen-Tokita and Takashi Sugawa’s recording of my short bass koto and cello duo ‘Av dag och fattigdom’, which appeared on Miyama’s 2020 album ‘Sonobe’ on Namboku Records. Their performance of this brief, austere piece is very moving to me. The second is Mats Persson’s beautiful recording of my half-hour-long clavichord piece ‘I Sommarluft’, released on the 2022 album ‘Stilla sväva’ on kuyin. Mats has been an essential part of the scene for new music in Sweden since the 1970’s - being a real champion for strands other than mainstream modernism and minimalism - and he was the first musician to support and perform my music. Writing this piece for him, and collaborating on it, was a real highlight of recent years.
I’m currently working on a few different chamber pieces. In particular I’ve been spending a lot of time working at the spinet harpsichord recently. A big piece for 13-limit tuned keyboard, ‘Som regn’, that I worked on for many years just premiered at the Sixth Edition Festival for Other Music in Stockholm, and now I’m developing some new tunings for the instrument - among other things completing a long duo for harpsichord and violin. I’m also spending a lot of time with the kacapi this fall; improvising with friends and also working on a long solo piece called ‘Kacapiblomster’, which I’m going to perform a few times this fall in Sweden, Germany and Indonesia. I hope to record it sometime in the upcoming years as the follow-up to my 2020 kacapi solo album ‘Andra Segel’.
andPlay: Hannah Levinson (viola)
Maya Bennardo (violin)
andPlay: Hannah Levinson (viola)
Maya Bennardo (violin)