WITH JOEL LUNDBERG

London, 2021

During this interview, I change seats, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to Swedish composer Joel Lundberg. The musician has just released his debut album entitled Music from a Room; these are his impressions…

 

Joel, tell us a little more about you.

 

I am a composer from Gothenburg, Sweden. I have been an organiser of sound for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would sometimes gather dried wood logs and organise them into musical scales using other wood logs as mallets, building my own marimba! As I recall I wrote my first song when I was about five years old. There were a lot of instruments and records available in my childhood home, so I had great opportunities to create and experience music. From an early age, I played in different bands learning a variety of different instruments. I have been a touring musician for the larger part of my life, playing in an indie rock band doing numerous tours in America, Europe and Japan. I have dedicated the last three years to composing and being a father. The touring days, for obvious reasons, are put on hold.

 

What about Music from a Room, your latest solo project?

 

Music from a Room was conceived and composed over a period of approximately four years. It was written in between tours, during house renovations and becoming a father. The album contains eight compositions for piano performed by the concert pianist Kalle Stenbäcken on a Fazioli grand piano. It also features a beautiful artwork by my friend and artist Ola Mellberg. One thing I wanted for this project was to bring back the “fine” music from the concert halls to the “ugly/common” room. To be clear, I actually do not believe there is such a thing as an “ugly” room but what I mean by that is that you do not need a tuxedo or a ballroom dress to enjoy and experience classical music. This does not mean that I exclude the “fine” rooms, though.

The way I was supposed to realise this vision was to go on tour as a duo, with me introducing and talking about the project in the role of the very-much-alive-composer-of- classical-music and Kalle Stenbäcken as the pianist, playing “fine” venues but also the “common” rooms such as bars and clubs as long there was an acoustic piano present. Well, that didn’t happen. COVID came along and stopped it all. But shame on him who gives in... Hopefully in a near future, when life returns to something that resembles normality, I will be able to make it happen. The album was recorded during three days in late December 2018 and in February 2020. 

 

The album has been recorded by Kalle Stenbäcken. Nowadays piano composers tend to perform their own pieces; why did you decide not to record the music yourself and have it done by Kalle?

 

Since I am not a classically trained pianist (and I lack the 20,000 hours of practice that is needed to become one) I decided very early on in the writing process that Music from a Room should be performed by a real piano player, like Kalle. I feel very strongly that my limitations as a piano player should not stand in the way of my compositions well being. I am also very fond of the idea with the relationship and correlation between the composer and interpreter.

 

Tell us about impressionism, in which ways has it influenced your music?

 

If I had a time machine I would like to go back to the time around 1900, in Paris. The artistic movement that occurred, including Impressionism, was driven by the urge to push the envelope and break barriers. A sophisticated and intellectual early form of punk, if you like. It was also a movement that was multilateral, meaning that all of the arts was intertwined, and each of them fed off each other in one way or another. That era paved the way for many great artists.

 

You studied both composition and improvisation, how do you think they relate to each other?

 

For me they are contrasts to each other, and I love contrasts. They coexist and together they create some sort of balance. I would not want to live in a world where one of them was missing.

There is no way, in the eye (ear) of the beholder, to hear the difference between a composition and an improvisation as long as no information has been shared about the matter between the artist and the audience beforehand. Of course, the audience can assume there is a difference based on presumptions and/or knowledge about the artist and the music. But there is no way of really knowing except if someone spells it out for you. I believe that a composition can act as a framework for an improvisation, and an improvisation can act as a catalyst for a composition. Both feeding off each other. But when I compose, I rarely (almost never) base the composition on an improvisation but rather on intellectual processing of ideas and inspirational sources.

Simply put, one could say that a composition is an improvisation but in slow motion. I used to think so myself, but now I find that the two disciplines have very different mindsets. When I compose I have the ability to stop time and lose myself in phrase or nuance for hours and hours without having to allow for anything, except maybe for my mental health and family members, where improvisation on the other hand is all about the here and now. To me, an improvisation makes more sense when interacting with other musicians. I regard improvisation as a conversation between two or more parts. The topic can be decided on beforehand (or not), but the order of who speaks when and what is going to be said is not yet determined. Now, imagine having a conversation with yourself... Since composition is a solitary activity for me, it therefore needs to be treated differently from an improvisation.

 

Tell us a little bit about your creative process? How do you compose?

 

I sometimes find it difficult to scrutinise my own creative process since it is something that I tend not to think about that much. It is just there. But I can definitely see the benefits of some sort of scrutinisation from time to time because it helps me concretise the very abstract side of the composition process. Thank you Doug for raising that question! My creative process has changed a lot from my childhood to the present, but the last couple of years I like to see it in three stages. Gathering of ideas and sources of inspiration, the construction of a frame and the actual composing. Keep in mind that there is no watertight partitions between these three stages and they sometimes (quite often...) intertwine with each other. So in retrospect I have boiled it down to this: I usually start by finding and collecting sources of inspiration. It could be something concrete as a technique, a specific tonal modus or a rhythmical shape or pattern, but it could also be very abstract like a feeling, a physical/mental/cultural movement or nuance. I often find myself looking for contrasts as a source of inspiration. It could be contrasts in life, harmonic, dynamic or rhythmical contrasts etc. Sometimes I do research and studies of scores and sheet music to find inspiration. For example I find the first twelve bars of Stravinski’s Le Sacre du Printemps stunningly fascinating and inspirational. The way it is notated and how it makes total sense when hearing the music. These bars have been an inspiration to me since childhood.

Another source of inspiration is my ever expanding record collection spanning over all genres in the musical spectrum. These sources of inspiration become building blocks that I can use to start the construction of a frame, wherein the composition or part of the composition can thrive and develop. There is this quote by Frank Zappa that I think describes the importance of having a frame: “The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively — because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops

and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?” For me the frame is not rigid or stiff but flexible and agile in its shape and form, meaning that it can change over time if needed. A composition can have one or numerous frames connected to each other, creating the large-scale form. When the initial frame is in place I start composing in a more traditional sense, filling the empty spaces and gaps inside the frame based on the gathered sources of inspiration. A solid framework could make the compositional stage easier and more efficient which some compositions benefit from. While others do not, and therefore the construction of the frame and the actual composing sometimes develops together.

 

So after Music from a Room what’s next?

 

I am currently working on the successor to Music from a Room and hopefully it will be recorded later this fall. I used to say that Music from a Room was an homage to the golden era in Paris, 1900. This one I regard more as a homage to the piano itself and because of my musical vocabulary and style of composition, there will be some degree of recognition to Music from a Room.

For this project I have studied the piano works of Ravel among others. Not from a pianist point of view but from a composer’s perspective. Which techniques are used and how can I implement and translate them into my musical language? Take Gaspard de la Nuit for example. As a composition it is so smart and well crafted; using jaw-dropping techniques, not to show off but for the best interest of the composition. The composition process is very time consuming and a lot of afterthought and contemplation is invested in this project (as with everything I do). Every note, nuance, phrase is examined using a fictive microscope so when I’m done with the final score the interpreter will know exactly what is supposed to be done. So with a little luck the new album will see daylight early next year, hopefully.

In parallel to this, I am always searching for ways of expanding my musical universe and exploring new methods of composing.

I recently bought an Octatrack (a very advanced sampler) by Elektron. I am still in the learning phase and trying to make it fit to my compositional idiom or dialect. Right now I am asking myself; what would the likes of Varèse, Stockhausen, Stravinsky or Cage do if they were presented with the Octatrack…? One of the projects I have planned for this device is to write compositions using my three year old daughters piano playing and rearrange it and turn it into organised sounds, using the Octatrack as a modern version of the reel-to- reel tape machine. Musique Concrete but in a more modern context. A couple of years ago I came up with an idea to write a piece, or pieces of music, using my modular synthesiser system, which I refer to as the Organism. The working title is Music for Four Oscillators. The idea is to treat the oscillators as members of a traditional string quartet, where every oscillator has its own part, frequency range, place and function in the ensemble. The latter two are still in an intellectual conceptual stage.

 

Thanks very much Joel. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?

 

One book: The Long Ships (Röde Orm) by Frans G. Bengtsson; one album: In Rainbows by Radiohead; one film: Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore.

 

Bouncing on Joel’s words, a booster shot of Radiohead is always a good idea, particularly when seeking direction in one’s creative evolution. Read my review of Music from a Room.