"On the Another Timbre website, composer/pianist Magnus Granberg is grilled about how Ist Gefallen in den Schnee came out sounding more Feldmanesque than his actual source material: a jazz standard (Granberg can't remember which) and two songs from Schubert's Winterreise. He explains that Schubert's songs provided him with a rhythmic and temporal framework, while the jazz standard lent him the tonal material, the point being "to reconcile musics with different social connotations". Presumably Granberg's mixed ensemble of improvisors (including violinist Angharad Davies and Toshimaru Nakamura on no-input mixing board) and 'straight' players is making much the same point, although everything is buried at such a subterranean structural level that the distinction evaporates in the listening. Granberg has thought through the 'whys' carefully: players are handed 'pools' of material, with suggestions of how to treat it, and his hour long structure balances formal rigidity with an internal energy clearly deriving from musicians listening, working out where to go next."-Philip Clark, The Wire
Interview with Magnus Granberg
First of all where do the ideas for the piece come from? I know that Schubert was important in some way, but don't know how. Could you explain this?
The way the piece relates to Schubert is that the rhythmic material as well some other temporal proportions are derived from two different songs from Schubert's well known (well, that's an obvious understatement!) song cycle Die Winterreise; the title of the piece,
Ist gefallen in den Schnee, is a text fragment derived from one of these songs.
The tonal material, on the other hand, is derived from a jazz song, which one I have actually forgotten. The rhythmic as well as the
tonal material is then transformed by means of different methods, in some cases rather mildly, in other cases rather heavily.
So, why did I choose to do like this when writing the piece? For a couple of different reasons, I think. For me it's a very concrete way of relating to and at the same time transcending musics that have, in one way or the other, been of a certain importance to me. Coming more or less from a working class background as I do, choosing Schubert is a way to approach a music that I haven't really have had access to (but which I somehow have come to like), without giving in to it fully. Jazz, on the other hand, is more or less what I grew up listening to, so partially basing the piece on a jazz song is a simple way to relate to that heritage without reproducing the actual music. It's obviously also a (perhaps both naïve and pretentious) way of trying try to reconcile musics with different social connotations, and a way to reconcile oneself with history and the contemporary world.
That's interesting because listening to it without knowing this, I don't think of either Schubert or jazz. The music it reminds me of most is Feldman - though obviously as a kind of improvised or semi-improvised re-working of Feldman's sound. Can you explain to what extent the piece was composed or improvised, and whether Feldman is in there at all?
Yes, it's more or less impossible to identify the source material, the Schubert songs and the jazz music are very much to be found in the subtexts, but in a very concrete way, though. The musics and ideas of the composers associated with the so called New York School have, among many other things, also been very influential and dear to me. The early music of Morton Feldman was probably the first modern classical music I could thoroughly relate to when I first heard it in my late teens; it seemed informal and at the same time very much open to the outside world, even more so than Cage's music, which I of course still love as well!
Regarding the piece on the record, it is an attempt to thoroughly integrate composition and improvisation. In my role as a composer I provide different pools of material (pitches, rhythms, timbres, melodic fragments, chords etc), suggestions regarding how to treat the material and a temporal structure which regulates which pool of material should be used when. Perhaps one could say that I provide a potential which could be realized in innumerable ways, but the actual realizations are always the result of what decisions the musicians make throughout the piece; formal differentiation occurs spontaneously as a result of an improvisational process.
Duration is another aspect of the piece that reminded me of Feldman. It's unusual to have a single movement piece, whether composed or improvised, that lasts over an hour. And for me there's a similar sense as in Feldman of hearing patterns slowly unfold rather than having dramatic changes or developments across the piece. Is duration a factor that you were consciously addressing?
Well, duration is quite an important factor in our music in that it allows certain things to happen or potentials to be realised that probably wouldn't occur within a shorter time span. The totality of all different factors constituting the music at the particular time when playing and/or listening is to me mainly a sense of spatiality, though: everything which takes place or even that could take place but actually does not during that particular time are all part of that experience. When I first formed Skogen (which is Swedish and translates as "The Forest" or The Woods") I also had a feeling and an idea that the music should be like an environment, perhaps a forest in which inhabitants with different characteristics could move freely in accordance with the environment and their own and each other's properties and abilities; the piece, the time and the space could be the forest and the musicians its inhabitants.
Yes, I was going to ask what Skogen meant. The 'environment' of the group on this occasion involves several Swedish musicians, but also Toshi Nakamura and Angharad Davies. How did this come about - and is the Swedish core of the group consistent, or do different musicians come and go within that as well?
I had known and admired Toshi's work since the beginning of the 2000s, and Erik and Henrik (the two percussionists in Skogen) had also made a tour of Sweden in 2008 together with Toshi and Tetuzi Akiyama, so there was already some sort of connection there. The first time I heard Angharad must have been on the album Endspace together with Tisha Mukarji, which was released on your label. I had also heard some marvellous solo violin pieces that thoroughly convinced me that Angharad's playing would fit very well with the ensemble, so I simply asked her to join us. The core of the ensemble has so far consisted of five Swedish musicians, but on this occasion was enlarged with the addition of another two wonderful Swedish musicians - violinist Anna Lindal and vibraphone player John Eriksson - and will continue as an ensemble of nine in the future.
I listened to the disc again today, and it struck me that although the dominant feel of the piece is one of beauty, at times different players - perhaps especially Toshi Nakamura and Petter Wästberg - are gently pushing against that and playing a subversive role. That tension between an almost static beauty, and an energy that pushes the music along really works for me. As the composer, do you see it like this at all?
I think that's a correct observation, the roles of Petter and Toshi are very free indeed. They were provided with some suggestions and some rather vague materials that they could choose to relate to if they wanted to, but their primary function is one of free improvisation. Apart from that, all players are provided with more or less specified materials and suggestions on how to treat them and are also encouraged to choose how much they would like to adhere to them and how and when to deviate from them. The players all make different choices at different times, all in accordance with their personal inclinations as well as how the music is shaped through the dynamics of group improvisation. I myself, for example, mostly tend to limit the elements of improvisation to what material is played when, how many times the materials are repeated, how notes are accentuated, minor changes in tempo, slight fragmentations and permutations of the materials et cetera. Other players obviously and happily make other choices, which makes the music come alive in ways I wouldn't have been able to come up with myself. To take part in how something rather well known is transcended and transformed into something previously unknown is a blissful and rewarding experience quite central to how and why I choose to make music.
My feeling is that improvising in large groups doesn't generally work
very well, and I usually much prefer small groups. Now Ist gefallen
in den Schnee is largely composed and so avoids the messiness that large group improvisation often involves, but - as you seem to be expanding the Skogen group - I'm interested to know if you generally prefer working with larger ensembles? Or do you work in small group projects as well?
Well, Skogen has up until recently mainly been working as a quintet, but I myself have in the last few years felt an increasing inclination for conceiving and taking part in a musical environment made up of a larger number of independent and interdependent voices. I would very much try to develop these things further, but recently I have also been writing some music for somewhat smaller ensembles in which I will be playing the clarinet. In general, considerations regarding the size of the ensembles in improvised and other non-institutionalised forms of contemporary music are to a large extent also a question of funding, or perhaps rather a lack of funding: it is, quite simply, quite difficult to gather many people in the same place at the same time (let alone go on tour with them!) when there is no economic foundation which allows you to. The working conditions are, generally speaking, obviously very different from, say, operas or symphony orchestras...
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