BO RYDBERG and the links

Published: 2001-10-01 by Stellan Sagvik

By Göran Bergendal (transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 1, 1991)

Bo Rydberg’s Link/Sequence for saxophone quartet and electronics had what probably is its sixteenth first performance (!) on March 17 [1991], this one presented by the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet at Fylkingen in the capital city.

Bo Rydberg is one of Sweden’s leading, younger composers working in the musical segment between audio tape and instrumental music, a spare, carefully calculating, computer composer with sometimes audible roots in rock, jazz and improvisational music.

In trying to find some indirect explanations for his music, it’s worthwhile looking at some links in his background. He was born in Göteborg in 1960, spent his childhood in Malmö in southern Sweden and has been working in Stockholm since 1982. While a teenager he taught himself to play the piano, using his skills mainly for rock, pop, jazz and improvisational music. He studied natural science at the upper secondary level and included a special project on composition, inspired by his art teacher, composer Sven Hultberg.

He studied musicology at Lund University, worked a year as a chef in Kalmar and then moved on to Stockholm and EMS. After continued musicology studies in Stockholm and Uppsala, he began studying research methodology under Professor Ingmar Bengtsson. He also studied counterpoint.

In the summer 1982, Bo Rydberg attended the Darmstadt summer seminars in the company of bass clarinet player Tommie Lundberg. In his own words, he felt he received a special push from the international setting, the chance to meet composers by the hundreds and to hear their music. In 1983/84 he attended the one-year course at EMS in electro-acoustic music with Jan W. Morthenson as teacher – according to Rydberg, an important contact. He also assisted Morthenson with the work on his “1984” and “Strano” compositions.

By now he too is a teacher in electro-acoustic music, working with composition students at the College of Music at Malmö. Since the spring of 1990 he is chairman of Fylkingen.

School concert on order
Some time ago the Swedish National Concert Organisation commissioned on behalf of the Stockholm saxophone quartet. This group works indefatigably on developing a new repertoire and needed a new composition for a concert tour of middle schools in Stockholm County in December 1990. Bo Rydberg was suggested by Jörgen Pettersson, the alto saxophonist who had devoted much studious care and many a virtuoso performance to the composers Illuminated Bodies.

And as they’d thought, the quartet found in Rydberg a very interesting contact to develop. He composed eleven minutes of music for five saxophones (soprano to bass), various smaller percussion instruments including a hammer and a cobblestone, and electronics. The piece was called Link/Sequence.

Not simplified
A commission to a developing composer is always exciting. In this case it was interesting to see how he would deal with the stated focus of the commission – children in middle schools. What became apparent was that neither Bo Rydberg nor the saxophone quartet were in any way interested in adding to the long and sad list of simplified children’s music. “The combination of all the instruments and the electronic apparatus ought to be interesting enough. And all comments from the children confirm this.”

Rydberg’s general attitude towards the purpose is characteristic. “For me, composition isn’t decided by its purpose, but is something that must happen. I don’t try to be simple.”

He applied the same attitude when he composed piece called Event; Action in 1986, a work for eleven instruments done for a group of youthful amateurs in Lerum – the Lerum Chamber Reeds. In this piece he refuses to take the amateur status of the players into consideration, more than that the voices are a bit less technical. In addition, the computer has been used in this piece to compose a spatial course.

Another clue to this composer’s picture of musical function is found in the sub-title of the trio Sultana for bass clarinet and strings – rheme I. In the terminology of information theory a rheme is sign that can mean something without necessarily doing so. The title to Self/Model for guitar and audio tape is definitely more definite than that, providing some type of content direction. According to Bo Rydberg himself, ‘self’ in this context stands for that which is introverted, recursive and self-elucidative.

Changed through dialogue
At least for the time being, Link/Sequence is a work in progress. The piece has now been played about 15 times, having changed and developed along the way through a dialogue between composer and musicians. The Stockholm Saxophone Quartet is a stimulating partner. “The quartet’s enthusiasm for the new and the unknown provides ideal conditions!”

In other words, the development process continues long after the score is ‘finished’. “In this type of music, the work continues together with the musicians. The electronics voice is fixed as a type of base material, leaving mainly the saxophone voices to continue working with. There is no way of knowing in advance how the combinations of instruments and electronics will work. It is unpredictable.”

Key concepts
Link and chain are a key concept in Bo Rydberg’s composition. A few titles will confirm this –Link/Sequence, Cadena (= chain) and Caravan. His compositions consist of short sections the join to each other in different ways. In Link/Sequence the sections are called Connect - preLINK I - 1st filter/a - preLINK II - 1st filter/b - Chain - LINK - postLINK - 3rd filter - Disconnect.

The music is developmental, beginning with the introduction’s rhythmic and sonoral impulses and moving to the central LINK movement’s fugue-like counterpoint. The link-form, link-thinking is applied mainly on the sonoral courses, both horizontally and vertically. For example, in Link/Sequence the links are created using phonemes, hammer against cobblestone, synthesiser and a host of varied ways of articulating on the saxes. However, in time there are no links – there are often quite abrupt changes in the joints between sections.

The link-structure is an important element in the compositional process, but I don’t think the concept provides much help to the listener, especially when it happens that Bo Rydberg has been known to cut up his chains in the final edit.

Caravan is a good example of this. Written for oboe and audio tape, Bo composed it 1985/86 for Helen Jahren. Using the link technique, both the oboe and the tape voices were built up as long, connected crescendos. Then they were cut using scissors into small pieces and rearranged Ð each of the parts in their own way. This has given the tape voice a seeming ABA form, while the oboe voice has been sprinkled as section fragments in opposition. “Music is timeless, like a slice of time, a layer that can be removed and studied. A ten minute piece is accumulated sound spread over 10 minutes. An idea, a concept is a bolt of lightning. Length has a practical importance, for music is more about places than time.”

Dialogue with the computer
For Bo Rydberg, much of his compositional effort is as a dialogue with the computer. He’s worked with computer programming since 1977-78, and as it is for most computer composers, the computer is a partner who answers questions and is encouraged to make suggestions. But as always, the usability of the answers is extremely dependent on how the questions are formulated. “Looking back, I feel I’ve become rather good at formulating questions.”

It’s possible to see a rather classic historic parallel to the computers role as assistant in how Jean-Baptiste Lully worked – granted he didn’t have access to a computer, but he used students to fill in the relatively unimportant middle voices in five-voice string sections. But as with Lully’s students, it’s obvious that the computer technology has nothing to do with the temperature in Bo Rydberg’s music.

Sculpting music
However, it is characteristic of Bo Rydberg that his work is relatively seldom purely electronic in nature. He feels such music is easily too static. He does confess a clear affinity for the French ‘musique-concrète’, preferring to work with recorded sounds which are reshaped or analysed and then resynthesized. In such a universe of sound, the work of the composer is reminiscent of the sculptor’s – the music is carved out of a given ‘rock blank’. The raw material can vary. In Self/Model the most prominent sound is that of a triangle, in the charming et je danse for cello, live electronics and audio tape partly written with an UPIC pen in Xenakis’ laboratory in Paris and in the audio tape piece Cadena the sound material consists of 10 seconds of rattling chains, a 0.1 second knock on a plank and a one second nail scrape against a piece of wood.

A living impression
Bo Rydberg’s music is well controlled and often reserved in both expression and action. But it is quite apparent that it seeks to leave a living impression, one that I feel most obvious in the tension between the artist and the electronics.

Many of his compositions cultivate just this type of counterpoint. In a work like Illuminated Bodies for saxophone and audio tape, the saxophonist builds in part on articulation and phrasing drawn from jazz to gradually move to a higher temperature using great expressive power. The oboe piece Caravan and the piece for cello titled et je danse seem to have calculated in the light, almost playful virtuosity of Helen Jahren and Mats Rondin. And though Bo Rydberg distances himself for audience courting attitudes, does not preclude his supposition that the listener shall use his inner ear to contribute his voice to the outward counterpoint.


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