A Chat with a Composer and the Duo that Plays His Music: Fredrik Hagstedt and the Duo Gelland
Composer Fredrik Hagstedt lives with his wife, Joanna, and son, Gustav, in an apartment close to the sea in Gothenburg, Sweden. He loves the area because many other artists of various kinds live there. His building is near the harbor and close to beautiful parks. He says that the cloudy and foggy days that come with being near the ocean make him appreciate the sun so much more. He does not need a car because he can get to the center of the city in only ten minutes via bus or tram. Duo violinists Martin and Cecilia Gelland live in Lübeck, the “marzipan city” of northern Germany, with their two children, Dominik and Trolle. Last fall I spoke with all of them about playing Fredrik’s music.
Q: When did you first get interested in music?
FH: I suppose I always have been interested in music, I cannot remember not being interested in it. When I was a small child, I liked to sing for myself. Later I liked to improvise on the keyboard and come up with my own melodies. My big brother listened to all sorts of music except classical, and what he listened to I heard as well. Sometimes I really liked it. Before the age of 14, I didn’t listen to any classical music except when I heard it in films. Then, my father played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the car stereo and I was bewildered. The music was interesting, but very difficult to understand. I just had to listen to it again and again to try to grasp it. The biggest challenge for me was the continual variations in dynamics. I wondered why there were so many gradations between loud and soft.
MG: Cecilia comes from a musical family, where all five daughters played instruments and sang. Her mother, Monica, sang and played the piano in a very musical way, although she was a schoolteacher and not a professional musician. Monica’s brother, who died at 22, had played the violin as did Monica’s dad, who came from a very poor family and couldn’t afford to buy a violin until he had grown up. These two men were carpenters but they loved the violin. Cecilia had piano lessons by age six and started playing the violin soon after.
CG: I was a very angry child but as soon as I got a violin into my hands, everyone knew this was the medium for my temperament. Screaming, swearing, shoving, looking sullen all day was not acceptable, but playing with fire was considered something beautiful, so that changed things for me. Martin’s family was not exactly musical. They must have thought they had been given a kid from the moon when he showed intense and exclusive musical interest very early on. He played his xylophone for hours, and knew how to read music without being taught long before he could read words. It had to do with his having perfect pitch. He gave his teddy bears weekly recorder lessons, too, in particular the one bear with an open mouth. Martin wanted to play the piano, but his parents had heard that you could get a job as a string player more easily, so they started him on the violin and he soon excelled at it. Later, Martin was allowed to take piano lessons. At the first lesson, in order to ascertain which book to buy, the piano teacher asked him to play the first page. She ended up having to turn every page in the book while he just played on. At the end she said, “I guess you don’t have to buy this book” and she couldn’t believe that he didn’t even have a piano at home.
CG: My father let me draw a picture of
The Rite of Spring
by Stravinsky when my mother was not at home. She didn’t like loud and violent music like that. I still remember that picture. Martin loved Mozart as a child. As a teenager he was very taken with Mahler, Scriabin, and eventually Schoenberg.
Q: What made you choose music as a career?
FH: I’m still not sure if I’ve chosen music. Maybe it is music that has chosen me, but not because it’s the most obvious thing for me to do. I really have had a struggle with many parts of it. It’s rather because I’ve found the challenge irresistible. By now I’ve become accustomed to being a composer and think it’s the best thing for me to continue doing. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do other things as well, such as being a leader of various music projects, giving lessons, and teaching seminars on how to listen to music. Eventually, I realized that I also could write a symphony like the old masters if only I worked hard enough. Before that, I had thought that you needed a mystical talent to be able to create such works. Since then I’ve changed my mind a little. Of course, you need to work hard, but you must also have a great vision. I think my vision is big, at least, if not great.
Q: How did you meet each other and form the duo?
MG: We met in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Neither one of us was supposed to be there. I had gotten a position in another orchestra, but had asked to finish my contract first, and Martin had changed plans to do the audition in Copenhagen at the last minute. We ended up at the same stand.
Q: Do you also teach?
FH: I teach all sorts of people how to listen to classical music. When it comes to composing, I’m not convinced that it is a good idea to teach. You can, of course, teach music theory, music history, music analysis, and how to play various instruments. Teaching composition? No, that is quite weird. Of course I’ve learned something from all my lessons, but it doesn’t compare to what I’ve learned from listening, reading, and analyzing music. What really needs to be taught, however, is how to live on what you earn from your art. That is a subject I’ve had to learn almost entirely by myself.
Q: Who were your most influential teachers?
FH: I think I got a great deal of inspiration from Sven-David Sandström, because he is restless, energetic, and constantly composing new pieces. Even if I don’t like all of his music, I think that his state of mind is something to try to imitate. From Anders Hultqvist I’ve learned useful philosophical ideas as well as composing techniques, even if I don’t use them consciously. My composition professor at the university, Ole Lützow Holm, is a great teacher. However, I think my private lessons with him were sometimes frustrating for both of us. He always thought my pieces were too long, and he never liked the speed with which I composed. At every lesson I showed him a new piece. I seldom followed his advice. Usually, I did the opposite. One time, he really liked one of my pieces and that made me feel I was on the wrong course. The best teachers for me were Jan Yngwe, who taught conducting, and Gunilla Gårdfeldt, who taught musical communication.
Q: Which composers of the past do you find most interesting?
FH: If I had to pick one, it would be Carl Nielsen. I admire his sense of proportion and I think there is a beautiful balance in all of his music. Beethoven is important; of course, because it was his symphonies that long ago inspired me to compose large works. Mahler is a continual inspiration to me. For example, I recently discovered the true greatness of
Das Lied von der Erde.
I’m also very fond of Haydn, Schubert, Debussy, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Bartók, Britten, Messiaen, and Ligeti, among others. The most inspiring Swedish composer is Allan Pettersson. There are certain works by each one of the great composers of which I never tire.
Q: What is most helpful in starting a career as a composer?
FH: Ask yourself: Do I have to do this? Do I have a burning desire to compose? Am I willing to give most of my time and energy to learn what is needed? If you say “yes” to these questions, learn as much as possible about every aspect you can think of about composing, music, the arts, life, people, marketing, project leading, and 50 other important subjects. What I mean is, you should strive for mastering all aspects of being a composer, which is not actually a job, but a lifestyle. I hope I’m continually getting better at doing it myself.
Q: What instruments or ensembles do you like to write for?
FH: I like to write for all kinds of acoustic instruments and singers. I’ve tried to write for odd combinations of instruments, however, and the results have been equally odd. Therefore, I prefer to write for established settings. The musicians and singers for whom you write and with whom you collaborate are far more important than the selection of instruments. Most of the inspiration for my music comes from the actual persons playing it. When the Duo Gelland performed my pieces live, they gave me some of my life’s best experiences.
Q: What made you write for two violins instead of violin and orchestra?
FH: First, I must say that so far I haven’t had the opportunity to write for violin and orchestra. The day I get that, I suppose I will immediately write a concerto. I chose to write for two violins instead of for orchestra because, for me, the violin duo has become a small orchestra, at least when Duo Gelland plays, and they are the real answer to the question. Because of them I’ve written three large-scale duos so far, and could easily write some more.
Q: What are the most important influences on your music?
FH: The most important influences on my music are the people performing it and the situation in which it is played. I write a new piece for the location, its acoustics, the concert program, if I know that, and other circumstances that will surround my piece. Sometimes I also want to communicate an important message, a philosophical idea, or a more concrete subject. I want my music to be a tool that helps people develop their consciousness. For that reason, there needs to be some sort of challenge involved in listening to the piece. It is, to give an example, sometimes good if there is some provocation involved in the music. Sadly enough, I don’t think I have succeeded in really provoking people so far.
Q: How do you go about composing?
FH: It often starts with an idea, or a commission, which just says which ensemble to write for and suggests the duration of the piece. From this, I try to come up with a lot of possible ingredients to include in such a work. Some years ago, I used to make a detailed plan for the composition with all parts specified as to length, dynamics, tempos, instrumentations, characterizations, etc. Now I like to work more intuitively. I just start to compose and see where it brings me.
Q: What aspect of composition interests you the most?
FH: For the last two years or so, I’ve been interested in making the music more compact and more intense, even if the work is long. Thus, when I am finishing the composition, I look through the whole score and delete all unnecessary bars and parts of bars. It’s not so much the genuinely soft or silent parts I delete, but rather some gaps between important notes and some repetitions. In this process, I can also put in extra notes, extra voices, and make the impression more complicated. Sometimes I call my style maximalism. I want my music to be long lasting, with a lot of contrasts and, perhaps, too much energy.
Q: How much of the work is in your head before you write it down?
FH: Everything, but most of the time it’s not very long. Sometimes when I look at the score in progress, I just see what should come next, or what is missing. And sometimes during a composing period, a theme or motive for a new work just continues to my attention when I’m doing other things. Then I know it’s something I need to develop more fully.
Q: What emotions do you find most easily aroused by your music?
FH: That’s hard for me to know, because people rarely want to speak honestly about their emotions. I think there could often be some sort of confusion, which hopefully releases into clarity at the end of the piece. My own hope is that as many different emotions as possible are awakened by my music. I want it to be as rich as life, if not richer. Some people have called my music beautiful. I like that.
Q: Do you consider the audience when you’re working on a composition?
FH: I do consider them, more or less. But it is difficult to really know how other people listen and what they actually hear. I simply have to trust my own intuition. Sometimes I can hear an inner voice commenting on what I’m writing at a given moment, but I prefer to ignore that if I can.
Q: Cecilia and Martin, how did you meet Fredrik Hagstedt?
MG: We did a workshop with the composition students at the University of Gothenburg when he was a student. He contacted us again, having composed his duo
(Purification) for us. It took years until a suitable occasion for a premiere turned up, but then things happened very quickly for the
, the recording, a third duo, etc.
Q: How would you describe the
Sinfonia per Due Violini
FH: Both are long, deep works. The
has four movements and a lot of thematic material that develops in various ways. The individual movements have different characters, but they also change a lot within themselves. At the same time they build a continuous progress, which does not come to a conclusion before the very end of the last movement.
is one single unit, and the different parts lead into each other. This work is inspired by a description of different kinds of consciousness, from the senses and physical needs, via emotions, fantasy, and thoughts up to divine intuition.
MG: Fredrik’s musical vocabulary in itself is not particularly modernistic. The way he plays with the structure of the piece, its flow and fragmentation, as well as your expectations from the form and the ensemble, become a very personal, expressive statement in musical language. Some ideas suggest a haiku format, others depend on having much more time to unfold their essence. Fredrik’s music is more like the latter. It is as if he is playing with the course of emotions in real time, much like in the theater. To delve deeply into a certain state of mind and emotion takes time. It doesn’t mean that longer is better than shorter, only that you can travel farther and to different kinds of places within a long time than you can within a brief time. A symphony is a long idea. Obviously, you can write a long idea for two people and a short idea for a crowd. Fredrik’s
is a long, long thought-arch made up of fragments that try to burst the piece apart. The challenge is to hold it together, almost against its will. You have to try to save its beauty from imploding in your hands. That tremendous effort is crucial to what this music is about.
, there is this one place you build up to, and when it comes, you feel that it calls for a very “out of this world” expression and tone color. It demands something absolutely intimate, a motion combined with emotion. We had to invent a new kind of bowing here. You do only up-bows, starting at the frog, but with the bow going the other way so you end up at the tip. Afterwards, you do only down-bows and end up at the frog. It is infinitely fragile; it does something with the color and the timing to meet the magic of the moment.
FH: Musicians often like my music, both for playing and for listening, and that is invaluable to me. On first hearing one of my pieces, you should be mystified, maybe overwhelmed, and then curious enough to want to hear the piece again. By this I mean it is important for me to have both an interesting surface and rich deep content. I think some of my pieces are not very accessible if you are not prepared to listen to the whole. For me it is more important to leave impressions afterward than to make them during the pieces. What you’re left with afterward is what affects you the most, and I hope my music will affect people and influence them to do positive, constructive, empathic things.
Q: Are there non-musical influences, such as nature, that you consider to be important in your music?
FH: Sometimes when I am walking in the forest or by the sea, there is complete silence and I feel an urge to take that impression into the work I’m composing. It’s the aura of silence itself that I love, perhaps as a rest, or rather some very soft slow music with long notes that contrast strongly with other parts of the piece. I’m also very interested in philosophy, self-development, alternative views on reality, and similar ideas. These influences often help me with titles, and show me how to end pieces.
Q: Do you have suggestions as to how one should listen to new music?
FH: Yes, of course, because I really like to give people tools for listening. I don’t think there is a big difference between listening to new and old music. It’s just that most people have heard the old music more often and are used to it. What is always important is to choose the works you want to listen to wisely, and to be as open-minded as possible. You will make wise choices if you read about the music and ask people who know about it. Being open minded is very important. Listen to the same work, or various parts of it, at least five or six times before you decide whether or not you like it. Of course, you can go to a concert without knowing anything about the pieces in the program. I do that myself, sometimes. But, I must say, it’s rare that I really get much out of it.
CG: There is much to learn from children. They don’t think of music as something you understand or don’t understand. They listen with great eagerness to what the music does, like the world’s most exciting excursion or adventure in a constant: What happens now? What happens now? This “what happens now?” means listening to the richly differentiated sounds and structures coming in through the ears. It also means listening into yourself, listening to the footprints of the music in your feelings, your thoughts, perceptions, sensations, your soul. We never ask children if they like the music or not. That’s an irrelevant question. We ask, “What did you hear?” and then they describe what they heard with words and metaphors from their lives. You could say that they grip the music with their lives and they grip life with the music. That’s a wonderful way of listening.
Q: Do you ever write for film or TV?
Sinfonia per Due Violini
is intended to be used, at least partly, as a film score. The film is not financed yet and so far there is only a script and a pilot. We are not sure when it will be realized. The scriptwriter and director, Johannes Nyholm, known for the short film
, wants this music to influence the recording of the film. That is why I really appreciate working with music in films. Of course, if I get a good offer to write for TV, I will probably do it, but I’m not actively searching for it. Maybe that is because of my unwillingness to compromise. At the same time, I like problem solving and being flexible, so maybe it would work out more easily than I think.
Q: Do you have a particular affection for a particular musical form?
FH: Well, as you can imagine, because of this CD the symphony is my favorite form. I appreciate sonata form, but you must realize that it’s just a construction made up because of the urge to analyze the music. I can’t help saying that I prefer the exceptions to the form. Still, the form is needed. If you have no form, you do not have anything from which to take exception.
Q: Are you working on any new projects now?
FH: I’m always working on new projects! Currently I am writing chamber pieces for young students to play together with professionals. I’ve done this before, for the piano. This time it’s focused on string instruments. Another project, not new, but ongoing, is my first opera, for which I have also written the libretto. It is a big struggle, but now I’ve found an interesting way to continue. I will collaborate with some opera singers who are accustomed to improvising. We will do a workshop where they first read a scene, and then improvise song for that scene. I may ask them to improvise a new text as well. That way I can see if the characters in the synopsis really work. We will do this scene by scene. We really don’t know what will come out of this and that’s the purpose. I have also applied to collaborate with the Kreutzer Quartet. Hopefully, I can bring them here to Gothenburg to perform music by some of my Swedish colleagues and myself during the fall of 2013.
Q: Do you have any new works being premiered in the near future?
(Liberation), my piece for chamber ensemble, was performed at the new Mid Winter Music Festival in Gothenburg. In May, some of my songs for children’s choir will be premiered as a part of a performance with only new material. There will be about 120 children on stage.
Q: What do you see yourself doing five or 10 years from now?
FH: I want to compose for the best ensembles and orchestras of the world! Every piece should be long and deep. Some of my music should be played every week in many different countries. Well, this is what I actually strive for. I believe it’s just up to me to stay convinced of it. I also do seminars on listening at a regular basis, because I think the world needs to be better at listening.
Q: Are you planning any new recordings?
CG: Martin and I release recordings every year. At the moment, there are three recorded but unedited productions waiting to be released. One is the music of Louis Spohr on gut strings. There is a disc containing music by: Max Reger, Paul Hindemith, Frida Kern, Adolf Busch, etc., and there is another with works by Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, and Giorgio Netti.
Q: Do you think these are difficult times for young composers?
FH: I don’t think many young composers believe that they can live entirely on their music, so they don’t become disappointed. At the same time that is a problem, because if you don’t believe something is possible, you will never get it. What we really need now are more people who believe that art is a highly valuable necessity. Composers need to feel that they can live by composing without having to compromise. Such thinking can make a big difference and expand our field.
Q: How would you characterize the new-music scene today?
CG: Musical roots are important. I plan to try on a crinoline to better understand the music and times of Louis Spohr. But would you want to walk around in a crinoline every single day, every waking hour of your life? So why would anyone want to exclude all music by composers who live now? It makes no sense and it cannot last, not in the United States and not in Europe. We are about to participate in a research project in the U.S. documenting children’s unmistakably great interest in contemporary music. That’s interesting!!
Q: Do you use much modern technology in your career?
FH: I use the computer as a tool in my composing. I think it works well so long as you are aware of the importance of not getting stuck in there. You have to think, to visualize, and to come up with solutions away from the computer. For me, the best way is to take a walk, short or long, depending on where I am in the process. I also often listen to the simulation of my work-in-progress, when walking outside. Sometimes it’s horrible, sometimes really inspiring. When I get back to the computer, I often know exactly what to change, delete, and add.
Q: Do you prefer paper scores or ones that can be downloaded?
FH: I prefer paper scores, as well as real books. At the same time, most of the time I send scores and parts as PDF files, when I deliver the music to musicians. That is, of course, very practical.
MG: Off stage, we need the Internet all the time, but on stage we are purists. Our old Italian violins hold unique potentials of subtle and extreme color differentiations. Live music is the best way to experience that. A handwritten manuscript expresses something beyond the notated pitches and other instructions. There is nothing like a beautiful handwritten score, but we have lots of imagination and the aura of a composer can be read off a downloaded score too.
Q: How do you see the future of classical mus
FH: That question is closely linked to the question about the future of humanity. If we agree that by classical music we mean music based on ideas about becoming a better human, developing ourselves, and making people more aware about reality, I think there always will be people who will compose, perform, and listen to it. Of course you can easily get pessimistic when you see that most orchestras play old music almost exclusively. Their programming is based on a mentality of scarcity, and they assume their audiences are idiots, and will only come to concerts if the program is made up of music they already know. Of course I want the classical masterpieces to be played, but you can’t build the future upon the history alone. The ability to know the present is crucial if you want something better to come.
MG: Comfort and joy will always exist, but unless we all turn into insects, life will also hold personal and global crisis and chaos. Music speaking about life’s drama will always be complex, like life itself. What this music will be called and which instruments perform it, we do not know. But I am certain that there will always be a need for instruments with great subtlety and richness of differentiation.
Q: Do you manage to have much of a private life?
FH: I think it could be a bit mixed up with my profession. I try to work at least a little every day, even on holidays. Since I usually work at home, the border between the private and the professional is not always clear. I need to have time for my wife, Joanna, and one-and-a-half-year-old son, Gustav, as well as for music. When I’m not composing I like to listen to music, watch and study movies, read books, study self-development, meet people, practice yoga, walk in nature and, of course, just enjoy my family and play with my son. He just loves it when I play marches for him on the stereo.
CG: Our private life and work are intertwined. Our children are a great source of inspiration. Life and art belong together. Our son, Dominik, is eight years old and our daughter, Trolle, is 14. One time when Trolle was little, we were performing in a church. She suddenly grew tired of her babysitter and escaped up to us. She held on to our knees, walking around us, then she circled around us faster and faster and faster as the musical intensity gradually increased. The audience hardly breathed wondering how long it could go on. They talked about nothing else afterwards. It had become a visual metaphor of the musical experience. Another time, when she was six months old, we needed to prepare some new major duos while on tour, we would sit her down on a ring of pillows and play until she tipped over. Then we would sit her up again and so on. We could practice all our wild, demanding duos but one. She just didn’t like a certain sonata and she would cry unmercifully when we played it. The premiere of that piece was quite exciting because that was the first time we played it from beginning to end without a break.
Sinfonia per due violini. Depurazione
NOSAG 192 (73:19)
(Purification) begins softly and elicits some unusual sounds from the violin duo that intrigue the listener who cannot see them play. That is followed by a restless tension that draws us into the music and into a deeper state of concentration. Flecks of melody fly by, borne on the wings of intensely persuasive rhythms. Short themes unite and form a melodic line punctuated by occasional percussive beats. Exquisite variations of harmony play back and forth between the violins. Sometimes they take off like soft-colored birds flying along the seacoast. Sometimes you see them plainly and at other times they are half hidden by a slow, enveloping fog, but you know they are always present. Hagstedt’s music is persistent. Sometimes it flows slowly and at other times faster, but it moves inevitably toward a positive conclusion. He always pushes us forward into the future. He knows the available tone colors of the two violins and he uses every conceivable variation of timbre together with a full range of dramatic contexts. By the end of this piece he can bring you to tears with his plaintive melodies. The work ends much as it began, with tones and textures that offer solace and hope for the future.
Sinfonia per due violini
begins with what could be a modern dance tune. It slows down and morphs into what might be a contemplative love song for spiritual lovers. When they disagree, the music mirrors their agitation. Eventually, the story continues as they reunite and dance together. The second movement opens with pizzicato strings reuniting snatches of song. This
was originally written to accompany a film that deals with grandiose visions and unattainable dreams. As the poet Robert Browning wrote in
Andrea del Sarto,
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” The quest can be beautiful when there is a possibility of gaining the item wanted. When that item is a mirage and can never be had, our desire for it may still be beautiful on the outside, but it can lead us in other directions if we scrape away its many layers. The music carves away layers of our conscious and unconscious desires. By the third movement we can be convinced that all is possible, all is attainable. The music has enchanted us and we give ourselves to its sweet sustaining tunes and tempting rhythms that convince us that nothing is beyond our reach if we work hard enough and we want it sufficiently. All this fades away, however, as we continue on our journey guided by the duo violinists. They show us shining jewels and many other delights as they carry us along on the magic carpet of Hagstedt’s music. By the finale we find that this piece has helped us learn to see new aspects of familiar items. Perhaps it leads us to a new sensibility. Careful listening can teach us to more fully appreciate every color and gradation of timbre. Hagstedt takes the myriad strands of color that he has been weaving through the movements of this work and ties them together into an intricately patterned tapestry that ends with soft melodies to soothe the soul. Best of all, the sound on this disc is clear and pristine. I think you will enjoy Hagstedt’s fascinating music.