STELLAN SAGVIK - Music with a big heart

Published: 2001-09-14 by Stellan Sagvik

(transl. George Kentros) (Published in Nutida Musik no. 4, 1991)


A musical portrait of Stellan Sagvik — with five performances—will be painted during a concert at the Swedish Radio on November 17 (1991).

Mikael Strömberg has met with the productive composer.

For dessert we are served a Sagvik dance. A fluffy creation with a dash of angostura bitter. A Hungarian understands immediately what you mean here. But a Swede? He applauds at the wrong moment and asks his neighbor how the dessert really tastes. The "Sagvikska Danser" (Sagvikesque Dances, opus 127) exist in reality, but not many Swedish chefs have them on their menu. Born in the 50s, Stellan Sagvik, despite his 163rd opus ("Rondané" for large orchestra), for reasons which seem on the surface unjust, is a typical representative for a “nonperformed” composer in Swedish “musical life.” I will go further and call it a “musical life corrupted of worth,” the way musical life seems in a country like Sweden. Stellan Sagvik’s musical life is different. And armed with the curved question marks of the journalist, I stand outside the door to his apartment on the south side of Stockholm. Partly, “Why is he performed so seldom?”, and partly, “Why does he write so much music?” A paradise of paradoxes, I admit. The computer is always on, spreading a busy hum. Note paper there. Answering machine there. Papers to edit there. I can see that not only music is written in this room. Jack-of-all-trades Stellan, are you an uneasy soul who flits from one job to another?

-No, most of all I am a composer, who for more or less economic reasons has been “forced” to educate
himself as a journalist and work on several fronts simultaneously. The Sacred Musicians’ newspaper,
Society for New Music, STIM, theatre musician, singer, conductor, journalist…Sagvik’s aesthetic code,
his idiom, still seems stable. I am not at the center of the universe. I am neither a storyteller nor an analyst, but more of a “dialoguist.”

This means among other things one who takes part in the buzz resulting from active listening and performing, who assents to the emotional levels of sensualism and sensibility inherent in all he does. Another part of the picture is his clearly formulated disgust with the notion that all joy, usefulness, and meaning in music can be explained with a theory, cryptogram, structure, or series. The thought is simple and direct. He is an artist, not a researcher. As a result, he works with emotional expressions that search for a partner. And since the aim of his work is honest, it needs not be protected with the armor of (self-satisfied?) work commentaries. A builder of towers?

-I really don’t understand the point of a tower. Dig a hole instead, into which the audience can fall (ha ha). Subversive, no. Pragmatist, yes.

Be-in-the-world
I think he says that the decision—the choice of a dialoguist—has grown over the years into a be-in-the-world, a more unified compositorial existence. Today, he accepts his lot as a composer smack in the middle of the difficult relationship between money, meetings, children, and family, which is what reality offers us. A few quick pen strokes jot down his current ideas, and he would rather write four songs a week than loiter around an up beat for three.

Here, a credo becomes visible: it is better to write a lot intensively and learn something from it than to write little and extensively, getting caught in all the detail. Better to be a hawk, zooming in his prey from a great height. All this has of course meant that the composer Stellan Sagvik has never been counted as part of the contemporary music sector, of the “new music gang.” He has therefore taken his place at the back of the line for the scholarship and commission wheel of fortune, and has today a less than enviable position as both institutional and non-institutional. A slippery rascal. “You’ll probably get through this pretty much unaffected,” Gunnar Bucht said to Sagvik. In the composition class, he learned how to smooth rough edges and capture time and all those things that a composer is supposed to know. But while his generational comrades such as Pär Lindgren, Tommy Zwedberg, Ole Lützow-Holm, and others chose “contemporary,” Sagvik chose “current.”

There is a faint odor of “the great Music Debate” from the 1960s. Because even though Sagvik doesn’t feel as if he picks up where Wirén, Lars-Erik Larsson and de Frumerie left off, and where Carlstedt still nourishes “a middle way, without impassable obstacles,” this is where he is placed. Without a doubt. Accused of being a “sporty populist,” he seems to get through the storm rather unaffected by it. “Current” or “Contemporary”—isn’t music a little like religion: the recipient is in the final analysis an individual. It would behoove one to look at Sagvik’s pieces as counterparts to a tradition which he has never felt the need to disavow as a matter of principle. For example, his ten "Svenska Concertinor" (Swedish Concertinos), written with folk musical themes taken from different parts of Sweden.

-But I have actually written two wholly serial works: the first Flute Concerto, and Sequenzia for clarinet and piano, as well as some passages in my opera "Meneo." And I have survived. If you write melodies, you end up automatically with something that has already been heard, but where each piece is its own master.

No formula
Ever since a sixteen-year-old found his obvious “calling” with a suite for two violins, canonshaped, "Nittvarnon" (opus 0), it has been easy to compose 163 opuses! There are learned men who opine that a composer with 163 opuses can hardly be trusted. Are you in the claws of the dictates of music? Do you ever say “no” to a beauty who falls into the notes? Is imagination also a part of reality?

-I listen and associate and can easily transform impulses into music. All my pieces are of course different, but I almost always work directly, seldom make changes, have a larger form, attitudes, dramaturgy and goals ready when I get the idea for the piece. It all comes simultaneously, and easily, like a total concept. My material is always its own leader and guide, maybe it doesn’t “dictate” everything, but it is so closely tied in with its concept that there is no room for wayward trips, other than from pure spite, or impulse, or due to my aversion to repeating myself. There is never a formula! The map is redrawn, but out of step with the development of the terrain. The only thing that can steer it is honesty. And my imagination. This is why I have to dare to work on my own terms (and not on the terms of others), the way artists always have worked. To think that you are making something totally new is not only vain and pretentious, it is also a waste of knowledge. We do not need to invent the wheel again… and again. I am a part of a tradition, a chain, to say anything else would be vanity. Unscrew your mind and open your heart!

You imagine that you have an overview of the entire piece at the beginning, is this really true?

-Yes.

And your technique, your tools, what about them?

-Small cells. Sculpted motivistic work, where the material is allowed to steer itself. Musical cross-breeding and relationships. This causes me to often go back to the metamorphosis technique. I love these “tail-biting” forms.

Literary
To a certain extent, he describes a working method similar to that of an author, such as beginning in the middle and allowing the music (novel) to swell, a free attitude towards cause and effect, to different tenses, etc. It is not only that Sagvik’s music is unusually “literary”; the titles themselves often serve two functions, both as name and as code.

-The title is often born in conjunction with or before the work, never afterwards, as the piece is being realised. In this way, the title is both a catalyst and a program in miniature.

Sagvik completed his first opera, "Förlorade i molnen" (Lost in the Clouds) while working as a ticket taker in Stockholm’s underground. Musical drama and theatre music are his great passion-- he has written eight operas so far: "EGO"; "Ödesspegeln"(The Mirror of Fate); "Målet" (The Case); "Sköldpaddsberget" (Turtle Mountain); "Anna Månsdotter" (Anna Moondaughter); "Morminne" (Memory of Mother); "Meneo"—and a ninth on the way, about the rise and fall of Soviet elite culture, which he is trying to sell to opera heads in Stockholm, Hamburg, and Paris. Slavic rhythm and temperament, long lines, flowing, continuous, playful, diverting, languishing melodies, Nordic… these words come easily to mind when you try to describe Stellan Sagvik’s music.

Portrait
The listener will soon find this out at the portrait concert at the Swedish Radio, Studio 2, on Sunday, November 17. The concert will feature no fewer than five world premieres: "Sonata Tre Strati" for piano; "Serenade Piquante" for alto flute and 10-stringed guitar; "Amariosa" for mezzo soprano, clarinet, cello, and piano; "Cellocon" for cello and piano; and finally his fourth String Quartet, "Esembe," commissioned by Samtida Musik (Society for New Music) and the Swedish National Concert Agency. First an “absolute” piano sonata, motoric and full of effect, which is set against a dream landscape with a continuous pedal. The landscapes comment on, complement, and generate one another. The Serenade is a big prank executed with the help of pastiche, a piquant anti-serenade with cryptic subtitles in the spirit of Satie. Once again, the composer mixes his own life into a relationship drama, "Amariosa." Afterwards comes a pure performing piece which centers around a mantra, the word “Cellocon,” cello con.

Warsaw
One can immediately characterize the Sagvik quartets as being quite dissimilar, with the Larsson-Carlstedt idiom of the first quartet, expressive shrieks of the second, and the research into the expressive power of the string quartet itself in number three. Even number four stands alone. The key word is Warsaw, a turbulent, stinking city. In this milieu, a fix idee was born, which built the foundation of "Esembe": a short, intense piece which encapsulates the hectic Warsaw of fall, 1990. From a technical standpoint, all the material in the quartet emanates from the simple motive which comprises the central tones of the introductory glissandi: changes, mirrorings, transpositions, and inversions. In the hotel room next to Sagvik’s in Warsaw, the second violinist of the German Auryn Quartet practices for hours at a time. Echoes of his exertions in the already busy atmosphere find their way into Sagvik’s own music.


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