INGVAR KARKOFF - With attention to detail

Published: 2001-10-01 by Stellan Sagvik

By Johan Jeverud (Transl. Sven Borei) (Published in Nutida Musik, no. 1, 1988/89)


A presentation of Ingvar Karkoff’s Saxophone Concerto

and Variations on Gujarati


Charles Ives is usually counted among the heroes of American music. The honour is in no small part due to the fact that in the early 20th century, in spite of his relative isolation, he not only managed to match what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. He did much of it first.

This situation can not be duplicated today. With modern society’s communication means almost all information is accessible to almost everyone – almost immediately. Today there is no problem obtaining recordings once reserved for the ears of the Japanese emperor alone. Previously inaccessible cultures have been sought out by ethnologists bearing tape recorders and through our media we can hear and see a host of cultural events, ranging from the most narrowly defined to the broadest thinkable. The fact that we are already used to it and have come to take it for granted, makes it no less remarkable.

Moreover, even granted that the possibilities are small of entering and understanding a culture that differs radically from one’s own, be it a chasm of time or of space, nothing stops us from having all these artistic expressions as part of our daily experience. This is why it is no surprise that the central European dominance of art music is beginning to dissolve.

As long as he can remember, Ingvar Karkoff has lived in a musical cross-fire, though without suffering either visible or audible damage therefrom. His music is a relatively friction-free melange of influences from different corners of the globe, as well as from more western musical eras than just modernism. The result is a breadth rather than a segmentation and this winter sees the first performances of two pieces that are illustrative of this – the Concerto for alto saxophone and percussion and the Variations on Gujarati for brass quintet. The latter will be performed by the Swedish Brass Quintet at the Berwald Hall on 14 January 1988. The former has been commissioned by the Swedish Music Radio, then written and dedicated to saxophonist Jörgen Pettersson and the percussion ensemble Kroumata.

Non-European influences are marginal in the saxophone concerto, appearing in not much more than the choice of percussion instruments. In addition to the mallet instrument, cymbals, triangles and bass drum, the percussionists have a cabaza, bongos and kettledrums, as well as both Peking and Thai gongs.


It is a one movement piece lasting around 20 minutes. The tempo is high and the music runs without clear segues or sections. It is lively music with a focus somewhere between rhythm and sound. There exist defined rhythmic figures, motion and sometimes a beat, but the sections are short, the entire percussion part fragmented and the instrument changes so frequent that the piece seems best experienced as sonoral.

The continuous saxophone melody hovers on its own above or along side of this percussion base in some type of post-Wagnerian spirit, its phrases shifting between being cut short by rapid note changes in the percussion section and being wholly free like long, spider-woven cantilenas. The effect is of a freely improvised composition.

In the brass quintet, on the other hand, the non-European influences are near at hand. As the title suggests the piece encompasses Indian melodic material. The piece is so economic in its use of melodic material that the result is considerably more than just a hint sensed in the background as in the concerto.

The five brass instruments are treated rather as equals, though with a slight preference for the trumpets and the tuba. The others play a more traditional, supportive role. The piece offers vigorous fiddler-type music with large shifts in tempo, dynamics and density. In spite of certain meeting points mostly in the form of general pauses, the music is so polyphonic it approaches being ordinary, old-fashioned counterpoint. The changes in time are many, but 6/8 and 12/8 dominate in a manner that creates recurring, dance-like rhythms.

The brass quintet, like the concerto, does not appear to be grandiose, planned music, such where the composer first writes the outline and the fills it in. Rather the impression is of small musical moments which have grown both sideways and upwards and in the process, seeming to make a comment on priorities.

But just this care for detail, for the moment, is one of the clearest characteristics of Ingvar Karkoff. Ornamentation and articulation take a prominent place in the notational picture. There is no visible automatic system controlling the note choice. The treatment of the instruments does not extend beyond what they were built to deliver, though within those rather generous bounds he uses the sonorities available fully. He likes to think of his music as situational, feeling that it has developed playfully and characterising both these pieces as diversions, perhaps even with some type of naivistic flavour.

Still, the possible architectonic beauty of a piece is best seen at a distance. And I believe that Ingvar Karkoff values the contemporaneous participation higher, the purely physical presence, the being there as it is happening.


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