Key to a room - Interviewing SVEN-DAVID SANDSTRÖM about the opera Staden

Published: 2001-06-12 by Stellan Sagvik

by Erik Wallrup (Previously published in Nutida Musik no 2, 1998)

The rehersals began a week or so ago. There are still five months to go before Staden is premiered at the Royal Stockholm Opera, but Sven-David Sandström is already sitting in on rehearsals, to give leads on characters and levels of meaning in the music and in Katarina Frostenson's libretto. We rendezvous in the Operabaren restaurant, and not only for practical reasons: this is a milieu where Sven-David Sandström feels at home.
      I remember my amazement on first hearing about the partnership. True, Katarina Frostenson had also made a name for herself as a dramatist, and true, Sven-David Sandström has often been exclusive in his choice of librettos - William Blake, Stagnelius, Tobias Berggren. But there was something about the combination, the highly compressed and complex in Frostenson and the superabundant and simple in Sandström, that implied an antithesis. After a few moments' reflection I realised: Sandström has always been perfectly clear as to which combinations have the power of attraction. An if any composer can really make music drama out of the kind of text that Frostenson writes, he must be the one.

      Sandström is a big name in Sweden. As in so many other walks of artistic life in Sweden, you can be immensely influential here but question marks appear as soon as you catch the boat across to Helsinki or Copenhagen. The name is recognised, but little is known about the works. If you venture outside the Nordic area, things become worse still. This is odd, because in his music he responds to a broad tendency: the new simplicity is reaching vast numbers of listeners, even if it is not out and out minimalist. Spiritual thirst is quenched from the chalice of John Tavener, Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. Introverted music from the neighbouring countries across the Bothnian Sea captures those international ears. But Sandström is not an American or British minimalist, he is not saintly in his religious works, and he does not belong to the composers of the whispering spruce trees or the taiga. The simplicity is his own and it has not been understood outside Sweden.
      "I try to make structurally clearer music, and then it becomes simpler in a certain way. You can hear that in Staden, that there is a simplicity where palpable stylistic devices make it clear - the melodies are clearly audible, the harmony is clear so that it can be apprehended as harmony, the rhythms are palpable. There is a special flow in the music."

      Sven-David Sandström talks about the opera as part of a larger movement. At the same time, its simplicity has to be viewed in relation to the complexity of Katarina Frostenson. Although she has said that all her texts emanate from a voice, that it starts in a part and aspires to song, there is a clearly textual character about her - a trait which did much to shape the poetry of the 80s. When her dramas are staged, the literary quality becomes demanding and calls for very deliberate solutions. In the opera this makes demands on the music to which it responds with a simplicity that is necessary in order for the work to come alive as music drama.

      "I want to make it a key to rooms of Katarina's. I try to open the rooms themselves. The idea behind my choice of librettist was to be confronted with a complex world of ideas, a text of purely literary complexity, and formally speaking the things which would stimulate me. It can be awkward, entering a text which is perfectly clear at the first reading; that doesn't suit me, I want a fascination with the inexact, the uncertain. After a while knowledge opens up round about the work, suddenly I understand without grasping, I grow into the world of association."

      It is interesting to juxtapose Sandström's words here with the reception given to Katarina Frostenson's poems. Critics have always regarded the texts if anything as riddles to be solved with the aid of a very limited number of clues. The critical ear has then "lost hearing" of the musical side of her textuality: the sound of the words, the rhythm. Yet it is there that reading must start, without a thought for the meaning but with the utmost attention to what the poems mean linguistically. Perhaps, through the music, one can gain access to this other way of reading her texts.

      "In one of our earlier conversations you said that there is an emancipatory possibility in the music I make in relation to the text. There is also an exciting polarity between text and music [Sandström sings a short melodic phrase] - a single phrase, a melodic feeling to a tremendously cryptic formulation. What we mean by a text being difficult is the interpretation of it, not the words in themselves but the composition, an unintelligible multiplicity of meaning in which every line moves into a new world of ideas and you end up with a large room of unintelligible things.

      "The text this time has clear similarities of expression to dance. I have done a tremendous amount together with the choreographer, Per Jonsson, who has never explained anything (Well - he's explained any amount, but I've never understood any of it, Ha, ha!). That's his intention, because he never sees any real truth, only a kind of fantasterie, an artistic expression. There are similarities to the text, because although it is clear in itself, at the same time it is tremendously unclear as a specific expression. It lives all the time and never ends. I try to be a guide in the music, a certain style of expression causing Eureka situations to arise. That is why I feel that I have ceaselessly interpreted the text."

      In relation to Katarina Frostenson's libretto, Sven-David Sandström's music is if anything compensatory. On a previous occasion, when I interviewed Frostenson about her libretto-writing, we kept using words like "moods" and "states". If the road through Staden, from the dried-out river bed to the outskirts of the metropolis, is simple in the extreme, the textual modes that Frostenson has written are far more complex networks of states and mystical allusions. Mode: Sandström composes modally to a great extent, confronting the listener with situations of recognition. He has entered into a system of codes for feelings, or rather a language. For each role figure he has created a core that creates the centre of the characters which Frostenson's text, in all its openness, hints at. The music creates concretion - clean contrary to what is usually the case.

      "I try to get beyond the traditional way of thinking of opera as theatre, so that the work will be allowed to express itself as music parallel to a type of more abstract plot - which also has to move people, which is a problem. That's the sort of thing I wrestle with. Then you resort to dodges which are perhaps necessary: it turns out sentimental, cold or even flat. I often think about my music psychologically, not so much structure as so many other composer do, where you don't understand why.

      "Sometimes I think I'll make a language. Then I use it, repeat it and the listener has then been taught it. If the same thing is repeated in the same situation, I'm sure people recognise it. Everyone uses repetitions, but if it's too complicated no one hears it and then it just becomes a compositional secret or a belief in the existence of a meaningful superstructure. But I want to go even further, I always work with structures, composition is impossible otherwise, but I do it openly - I have the same melody, the same tune if I can put it like that."

      Wagner's leitmotiv technique, of course, is the typical instance, but Sandström points out that he differs from Wagner, who used the technique for introducing a character or in another scene making the character, although absent, present through the theme. In one of his biggest works in recent years, the oratorio Moses, which was premiered last year in Oslo, that technique is on its way to developing towards the stage. Looking for a turn of phrase while typing this article, I click the file containing my review of Moses: "He [Sandström] has a remarkable capacity for making the listener also long for templates, but when the acquired desire is satisfied, one finds that this has been achieved in an unexpected way." I remember how my listening was sceptical but was still to some extent vanquished. The return, the recognition, carries all before it.

      There are words for that kind of thing. For all his mildness, Sven-David Sandström remains challenging. As if he had just lost the capacity for sharpness, he returns to his words about tunes. He talks about number pieces, musical tunes.

      "I try to make a more superficial form than the long- large romantic, unifying, epic form that exists in nearly all music from the 60s to the 80s. It had long developments, a process taking half an hour, and then it was over. A two-hour opera hanging together like a chunk of something. I make short bits: three minutes, two minutes, seven minutes. They're just like small - well, 'pieces', as I usually call them.

      "I work very deliberately if you view it in a sort of perspective. So you can call it 'pieces' and I want to show that there's no more to it than that. There mustn't be any more to it than that. They must take on a sort of life of their own and a relation to each other that builds up the piece and gives it a shape. You find the same technique in this piece as well: fragments, bits of holistic entities. It varies enormously. I try to characterise the people, and gradually I see it has become enormously tangible. They have their distinctive characters.

      "Recognising a specific structure after seventeen minutes, when you're sitting in an opera house and being deluged with impressions, isn't really possible. It's too difficult. So I try to make the music resilient. I like it when it works: it feels pleasant, good. Many people find that sort of thing superficial, but I find it the opposite. It's filtered out, not by superficiality but by need. And the need isn't superficial, it's a much deeper foundation within me. Superficiality is really just incapacity. If you make façades in order to make façades, it isn't superficial, it's a need."

      Which begs the instant question: Would you call your pieces façades?
      "No. I don't work with that kind of content. I often use religious texts which mean a lot more. No, I try to bring the depth to the surface and to do so purely and clearly. In my latest piece for Stockholm Cathedral about St George and the Dragon there is a tremendous simplicity, I've taken out the simplicity of the sounds that are created by a string quintet, solo instruments and choir. Homogeneous bodies of sound articulate this simplicity, it's a devastating simplicity. There is a tam tam stroke that moves mountains. The compositional secret is putting things in the right place. Then worlds open up. Why they come in the right place is enormously hard to understand, it's an ability to believe in what you're doing. It calls for a tremendous amount of reflection, technique and knowledge."

      And sensitivity?
      "Yes, sensitivity as well, but all artists are sensitive in a way. But it has to do with knowledge and timing. Just taking it once, perhaps. Then there's no more to it, as I usually say, and that's really how it is. Death is one thing and what comes afterwards is a different thing altogether - which is also a nice thought. I find this wrestling music tremendously uninteresting at present."

      Wrestling music?
      "Yes, the music where Heaven and Hell wrestle for souls, which has been a guiding star to me everywhere in my compositional world, the foundation of romantic music. That kind of thing is out now as far as artists are concerned. They don't know what they're fighting for. There aren't any good future outlooks, no resistance, no political involvement. I solve it in my way by bringing out the positive, the plus signs - by putting the tam tam stroke right there and nowhere else. Previously I wanted to disrupt order, now I want to create order and in this way create a feeling of pleasure - out of pain, out of happiness, out of the positive. It's partly a matter of age - agreeing with things is much easier when you grow older, you fight more when you're young.

      "I think the fighting is rooted in the need to become something. If you become something you have to find something else, a deeper foundation for wanting to express yourself. I've been struggling with that for ever such a long time, if you can get what I've done into a bit of perspective, you understand it, if you don't bother, that's different. Unlike the great majority of composers I'm a questing person, whereas they just keep going, seemingly without reflection. Which to me is incomprehensible. The result always turns out accordingly."

      At present, then, Sven-David Sandström is composing for the stage, for music drama. One month before the interview we listened together to the recording of a piano version and looked through a lot of the score. Although the scenarios are there in the music and libretto, it was clear that the work was by no means complete. Not being staged made it feel incomplete - it cried out for visualisation. Comparing it with a modern classic like Alban Berg's Wozzeck or, for that matter, Wolfgang Rihm's The Hamlet Machine, Sandström has clearly chosen a completely different direction from the self-enclosing works of the German tradition in music drama.
      "Sometimes I can feel that I've composed one more bit, because I've removed all the crap that isn't needed. The score is very simple, it has very few structures indeed - compared with a work like Hans Gefors' Vargen kommer, mine is a lot less complex. I've done that deliberately, to create clarity. And to open up to the singing, so that the libretto will also be audible - hearing the voice is one thing, hearing the words is quite another."

      That brings us onto the core question about all opera that seeks to use texts of literary value: the accessibility of the words. With surtitles the words can still be conveyed to the audience in spite of the effect of the singing, which, unfortunately, tends far too often to blur the text. Will there be surtitles, I ask?

      "No, they don't want them. But perhaps the last word has yet to be said on that account. I know there are certain conspicuous problems of stage design involved, because surtitles keep the audience looking upwards. Personally I'm very fond of surtitles, I can read words that I have never understood or haven't heard. I've also discussed having a loose diction, more based on words with associations - a 'poetical' surtitle machine. I mean, in ordinary cases all you hear is individual words, never whole sentences, and these will only work if they are poetical. It's shades of meaning, the combination of them. Better too few words than too many, beautiful words, ugly words, just so long as they mean something. An awful lot of Katarina Frostenson's libretto is like that: written by a poet, they are weighed carefully, they have a high specific gravity. And so you can highlight them without hesitation."

      This can be compared with last spring's production of Verdi's Falstaff in Malmö, directed by the same Lars Rudolfsson who is directing work on Staden. On that occasion a vital dimension of the performance was lost because it was sung in Italian without surtitles. The humour of the moment, the poetical turn of things, came to nothing.
      "Ironies disappear, not least. Finding the total power in the music alone isn't easy. Just a few words will help, so that you can understand whether they are quarrelling or making love."

      Sven-David Sandström spoke earlier about a quest, and this is a quest which - to put it very soberly - has led him away from the traditional avant-garde territories. He has visited and dwelt in many fields of music that were previously unacceptable. "Unacceptable." The word puts us into a sphere where the main focus of interest is not on a specific material but on the action which crosses a boundary. He has retained from the 70s the will to challenge, but it reacts against a system, and when the system changes, the challenge must change also. We find ourselves in the same kind of paradoxes as when speaking of the conservatism within communism.
      "It's the artist's ability to change. At the same time, when as an artist you are capable of changing, you become doubtful and visible. So this is hard to find if you're doing something you've never done before. I've made a lot of operas before, much more than most people believe, I've always loved working with opera because it's most fun - I think any composer who has had the courage to work with it will agree with me there.

      "But most of what you've just observed has resulted from an analysis of what happened, not from anything I decided on. I think my need to change myself, to keep up with the changing times, is stronger than my will to be insistent. Suddenly it turns out this way, and I don't give it another thought. When I wrote the Mass I thought I was writing a really complicated and boring piece, but on the contrary, it turned out to be a piece full of vitality. That still surprises me. When I wrote the Requiem I was dead scared that it would be too provocative. I hardly dared to keep going to the end - it was that unpleasant.

      "This fear of the result is your safest method of analysis as an artist. If you think it's unpleasant, that's a good thing, because then you've done something you aren't quite sure of. Assurance is devastating. That's why I always do things without knowing what they sound like, things I think are daring."

      The latest in a succession of grandiose projects is a possible joint venture with Benny Andersson. Tremendous expectations have been pinned on it in certain quarters. And of course, one also finds a great deal of suspicion. But the most important question really is what Sandström's different movements across the field of music really imply for the notion of the work of art. On successive occasions Sandström, through his modesty, has escaped beyond the boundaries of the work of art. Or how does the composer himself view this matter?

      Answer: "When I move on, I take the art concept with me." Which says a great deal about the ever-changing geography of the cultural field, about the workings of the institutional art concept. Listening carefully, though, one hears in those words the echo of a nonconformist song - with the difference that Sven-David Sandström takes something with him when he leaves.

      Translation by Roger Tanner


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