WITH RICHARD HELLGREN
During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to Swedish composer Richard Hellgren. The pianist takes some time to tell us about himself and his first album Ainigma, as well as the Baltic and Scandinavian cultures.
Richard, tell us about yourself. What is your story?
I live on a small Swedish island in the Baltic sea called Gotland. I have played and studied the piano since I was young. I then pursued a career as an architect; I have always wanted to do something creative, so being an architect seemed to be a good choice for me. Lately, I have been coming back to music, and I am currently studying composition at the Gotland School of Composition. I like both worlds and can see a lot of relationships between music and architecture.
Why Ainigma? What is the meaning behind this title—what is the album about?
Ainigma means mystery—I believe that music is to some extent beyond words. Perhaps you could say that the album is about psychological growth; how surrendering or losing something can be an opening to something bigger. I like that Rumi quote “The wound is the place where light enters you”.
What about the pieces? How do they relate to each other?
When I listen back to the record, I hear and see a lot of my home island: the horizon, the landscape, the weather, the lights, the sounds and our vulnerability towards the sea. There is also an emotional landscape in the music: the piece Air sets the tone, Surge is repeatedly asking a question that is never answered. There is some resolution in the following pieces: Ainigma symbolises surrender and transformation and Rich ground and Leaves of Grass a new equilibrium and place for growth.
Tell us about your creative and compositional process.
Melodies often come to me late at night through piano improvisations—I then finish them the next day. I work in an evolutionary manner: new pieces can come from old ideas or old pieces that have been reworked.
How would you describe the current Scandinavian scene?
There are a lot of Swedish emerging artists in this genre and we are slowly all beginning to discover each other. I have recently been to a wonderful live performances in Stockholm from Jakob Lindhagen and Vargkvint.
In the East, there is a Baltic sound; Would you say that there is a Scandinavian sound in the North?
Gotland is actually in the centre of the Baltic sea and quite close to the Baltic countries, so you could say that Gotland is also part of the Baltic region. However, I think the Scandinavian piano sound is perhaps inspired by the Swedish musician Jan Johansson. His album called Jazz på svenska—Swedish Jazz—is made of jazz interpretations of old Swedish folk melodies. He had a very particular style of playing; very stripped down with a pinch of seriousness and melancholy that perhaps people associate with Sweden and Scandinavia. The country also has a piano building tradition; we used to make great upright pianos and there are a lot of very good old pianos that you can get for almost nothing. I guess this also defines the Scandinavian sound. I personally play on an old Malmsjö that has recently been rigorously restored!
So after Ainigma what’s next?
I love working in a chamber music setting, so very soon there also will be pieces for strings—and perhaps also some woodwinds! But first I want to record some piano pieces that I have written with a more Autumnal character.
Thanks very much Richard. Last one for the road—one book, one album, one film—tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
Book; Gunnar Ekelöf: a wonderful Swedish modernist yet mystically oriented poet. Music; Henrik Strindberg Neptune’s Field: a magical musical depiction of a shore, with winds and waves—Henrik also happens to be my composition teacher. Film; Peter Greenaway is very inspiring to me. I just read that his first cinematic experience was The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman—that film was actually filmed on Gotland!
Bouncing on Richard’s words; Jazz på svenska is indeed a fantastic album! Read my review of Ainigma.