Swedish Electronic & Concrete Music 1955-65

Swedish Electronic & Concrete Music 1955-65
Part 1/2

Fylkingen Records FYCD 1027. Duration: 76:01

1. Karl-Birger BlomdahlMimamusik (1959) [13:11]
2. Bengt HambraeusDoppelrohr 2 (1955) [3:55]
3. Rune LindbladFormation (1958 - 59) [5:51]
4. Rune LindbladOptica 2 (1960) [8:24]
5. Arne MellnäsNite Music (1964) [5:58]
6. Sten HansonFruits de mer (1962) [1:25]
7. Åke KarlungAntihappening (1962) [3:48]
8. Leo Nilsson Skorpionen (1964) [5:53]
9. Ralph LundstenAtomskymning (1964) [3:14]
10. Bengt Emil JohnsonEnmans Gubbdrunkning (1964) [7:22]
11. Lars-Gunnar BodinDen heter ingenting, den heter nog Seans 2 (1965) [16:01]

Rising into consciousness one weekday morning in August out of glacier crevassed dreams after a summer of Lapland mountain hikes in the area between Tarfala and Unna Räita, into the soaring immediacy of the temporal shifts of Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s Mimamusik (The Mima Concert Suite), is like climbing the steep side moraine ridge right by the nasty Kebnepakte Glacier up past the Black Lake, through mist into sunshine behind Kaskapakte’s summit: a mystical experience between icy precipices; the reward a soaring view across Kuopervagge!

I’m listening to the new historical CD with electronic and concrete music from Swedish Fylkingen Records. After Fylkingen’s last great venture, the 5-CD box Text-Sound Compositions, a Stockholm Festival - which was a re-release+ of the material of eight documentation text-sound LPs that Fylkingen issued in collaboration with the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation from the Text-Sound Festivals in Stockholm between 1968 and 1977 – the label has now regained energy enough to compile this highly interesting and enjoyable collection of the very earliest, artistically self-sufficient electronic and concrete works out of the Swedish sounding inquisitiveness of this early decade, 1955 – 1965.

Track 1. Karl-Birger BlomdahlMimamusik (1959) [13:11]

It is suiting to start with Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s Mimamusik, which once again highlights the genius of one of Sweden’s most profound cultural personalities (1916 – 1968), who through his relatively brief existence in that particular body had an immense effect on music and opera, but also as head of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, where he, for example, saw to it that Terry Riley came to Stockholm as artist in residence in April of 1967, after he found out from Folke Rabe that Riley’s new music was the most interesting phenomenon that Rabe had encountered during his recent voyage of discovery in America. Blomdahl was a free spirit, a free thinker – and you can sense this in the Mimamusik.

Blomdahl composed three tape pieces for his masterwork Aniara, the space opera built on the Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson’s unparalleled epos in 103 songs about a space ship – a goldonder – that was one of many such vehicles evacuating human beings from the planet Doris, that they had destroyed through pollution and nuclear war, to the tundras of Mars – but this goldonder Aniara had a technical failure and drifted off course without any possibility to correct its course or turn back, and continued its helpless journey in the direction of the Lyre. The many thousands of evacuees stayed alive for many years, until finally the last of them ceased to exist, far into deep space, while the goldonder drifted on in the void, in timelessness.
The story has many implications, and is, of course, also an allegory about Man in Time and Space, and about Life in the Void – and the Meaning of Life, long before Douglas Adams found it to be… forty-two…. It should be expressed, also, that Harry Martinson received his Nobel Prize of Literature in 1974 because of Aniara – even though perhaps his great production of other writings also was weighed in – but that much of the cultural elite of Sweden in that period of forced, correct leftist political thinking, never really accepted his nomination and honor. This attitude among his lesser colleagues and the critics plagued the sensitive genius so deeply that he committed suicide. This is by far the greatest disgrace of the impotent Swedish cultural upper class and the blindfolded gang of flash-in-the-pan critics that has ever bestowed them.

An interesting aspect on Harry Martinson is that he regarded himself a Buddhist. He said: “I write as I do because I’m a Buddhist […], ethically, philosophically”. The critics of the time did not grasp this. In spite of Martinson’s convictions, he was given a Christian burial. I can see a modern analogy to this in the Christian burial of Karlheinz Stockhausen. I have to be a little careful in criticizing his two woman companions or his extended family for this, because Stockhausen did talk about the Christians' God in his composition courses in Kürten, and sometimes he slipped this way and that in religious regard – but he was convinced of reincarnation, and returned to this ever so often in talks and seminars, when he expressed that what we learn in this life, we learn for many coming lifetimes. In a letter where he talked to me about his Mikrophonie and his experiences of the 2nd World War he once (5th January 2001) told me to read the Bardo Thödol; the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In a sad respect it seems that his closest companions in life did not take him seriously in this, the way they publish Christian prayers etcetera on Stockhausen’s official website. By golly, he even composed a piece – Kathinkas Gesang – that he said should be used as sonic guidance through the Bardo between this life and the next.

I have to direct interested readers – especially those who understand Swedish – to a fantastic recording from 1959 of a reading of the entire Aniara by the actor and writer Ulf Palme, originally made by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, now sold by Bonnier Audio for a negligible sum in a 4-CD box. For the longest time I used to listen to that reading before going to sleep, in the darkness in my bed, drifting into deep space aboard the goldonder. It’s a marvelous reading of an unparalleled text, which quite naturally also makes you think very hard.

The opera was a great collaboration between composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl and librettist (and famous poet) Erik Lindegren, and became a project of national interest, in a time when even art music composers could become loved by the people, and when the focus of a whole nation tended to drift in unison (one TV channel, two radio channels). It was also a time when space was opening up, especially with the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite 1957 and the following Moon probes that the Soviets sent in 1959, and when fear of collective destruction loomed hard through the US and Soviet tests of doomsday bombs, the superpowers locked in the gridlock of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) philosophies in the venomous Terror Balance equilibrium.

The three tape pieces that Karl-Birger Blomdahl composed for Aniara are here presented in their suite form, seamlessly connected into one flowing electroacoustic and textsound piece, in which classical electronic sounds are connected to concrete recordings of explosive blasts, bells and old field recordings of Sámi people’s yoik, probably from the field trips to Lapland that were conducted in 1953 by Matts Arnberg, Håkan Unsgaard and Israel Ruong. I even think I recognize the voice of Jonas Edvard Steggo in the yoik part, also used by composer Rolf Enström in 1997 for his Prix Italia winning work Tjidtjag & Tjidtjaggaise, but Blomdahl’s choice might also come from a tantalizing and unusually extended yoik called The Herd on Oulavuoile, by Nils Mattias Andersson. I’m not sure.
Other sections of the Mimamusik contains bands of almost static organ music spread out across the stereo image like bands of color in a Mark Rothko painting. Blomdahl, incredibly, also works with cut-ups of spoken word, like sound poets Brion Gysin and François Dufrêne, while in other sections he seems to utilize the Theremin, so beloved till this day by, for example Pelle Halvarsson and Girilal Baars of The Great Learning Orchestra. In any case, Blomdahl is extremely open-minded and brave, fitting these kinds of features into an opera of national importance, probably opening the ears of the many for the first time to these sounds in music.

Stanley Kubrick chose parts of Blomdahl’s Mimamusik for his film 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

Apart from the historical significance of Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s compositional bravery, the Mimamusik is exciting and enjoyable, standing its very own ground as innovative music, good to its last noise!

Track 2. Bengt HambraeusDoppelrohr 2 (1955) [3:55]

This very early piece by another of the most important Swedish composers of last century makes its second appearance on CD here, the first run made on the celebrated double-CD Electroacoustic Music from Sweden in 1988 (Phono Suecia PS CD 41), where it opens the collection. Bengt Hambraeus (1928 – 2000) made this piece at WDR (Westdeutsche Rundfunk) in Cologne in 1955, when Stockhausen also was there, having made groundbreaking Studie II in 1954. (In Studie II Stockhausen used sine tones superimposed in groups of five, sent into an echo chamber, with a sounding result similar to noise-bands of different characteristics. Studie II is the first electronic piece with a score)
Stockhausen began his revolutionary Gesang der Jünglinge in 1955 at the WDR. Hambraeus was there at a magic time at the crossroads of here and now. He and Stockhausen, furthermore, were both born 1928.

In Doppelrohr II, which is his first electronic work, he works with reworked sounds of the organ, which, of course, is an instrument, which through many centuries has emitted glittering vibrancies, which, indeed, seem to belong in an electroacoustic, electronic realm, even without any treatments of any kind. Bengt Emil Johnson says, in his commentaries to the work, printed in the booklet of the earlier 1988 double-CD mentioned above:

“…In this work timbral manipulation becomes a new compositional element. The importance of the organ is immediately established not only in its exclusive use, but as one of the most effective timbral fillers of the gap between live and electronic music”.

This is a short, venomous piece of invasive audio, which might have caused some pain back in its prime, when most people weren’t in acceptance of piercing dissonances, but now comes across as a joyous little bagatelle, which tells a lot about its creator’s originality and imaginativeness.

Bengt Hambraeus was in a strong position nationally and internationally, and through his work at the Swedish Radio he was in a position to diffuse the new music.

Track 3. Rune LindbladFormation (1958 - 59) [5:51]

Rune Lindblad was an enfant terrible of Swedish electronic music – the first Swede to get into this avenue of music, in 1953, when he started using early tape recorders in a manner that must be regarded compositional and experimental (and electronic!) - but he was never really accepted by the lion part of the cultural establishment, and I must agree that most of his electronic works don’t show any sign of genius or blatant talent, but it was another aspect of his creativity that was of importance: his enthusiasm for sound and his unaffected attitude, plus his enormous productivity and his role as an introducer of new art, which he practiced as he taught music teachers at the SÄMUS Institute in Gothenburg. Otherwise Rune Lindblad worked as a chemistry engineer, while also being active as a visual artist, with paintings, woodcuts etcetera. Texts about Rune Lindblad can be found at other places on this site, like here - where you can also see some of his visual art - and here .

Rune Lindblad: Sorg (Sorrow) (woodcut 1955)

Another interesting aspect of Lindblad’s art, electronic and visual, is its social and political glow, always on the side of the poor, the battered and the oppressed.

Lindblad’s enthusiasm and spontaneity shows well in the fact that he found my interest in his music so rewarding that he began copying his works, mailing them to me on cassettes, with the help of his friend Gert Bosshardt at Musical Sciences in Gothenburg. Lindblad was so ill at the time, with severe arthritis (that turned out to be terminal), that he was unable to execute the copying himself, but he was determined to get the recordings to me from the vaults, and before he passed away in 1991 (born 1923), he managed to get me most of his unreleased works. I still have work left to do with transfers from analogue to digital and perhaps some noise reduction. I believe Lindblad’s most valuable legacy is his flaming enthusiasm for art in all its forms.

When Lindblad came into possession of a little better equipment at the end of the 1960s, he remixed and reworked earlier works, and discarded the earlier versions, without noting this formally. This might have been the case with his first entry on this CD; Formation.

Formation is a wailing, winding path through the Bardo of afterlife, ill sounds surrounding you, or hovering in standing waves of metal dust, saw blades cutting into the Paiste tam tams of Stockhausen. This could well be how Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgment would resound, from a distance, the flames of hell fire reflected behind the mountains of Unna Räita, the cold glaciers of relentlessness crevassing inside your ignorance…

Rune Lindblad: Vandring i regn (Walk in Rain) (erasure 1962)

Track 4. Rune LindbladOptica 2 (1960) [8:24]

Lindblad experimented with painting on film, that he ran through a film projector. In his work comments on Optica 1, where he describes the process, Lindblad says (my translation):

Optica 1 is one of three different works based on studies of painted sound on film strips. To realize this idea I used a 16 mm film projector, wherein the lens system hade been reconstructed to allow usage of the entire width of the filmstrip for painting. After some time I changed over to 35 mm film and projector, which simplified the process. I painted thin, black varnish onto the glossy, transparent film, in the shape of coils, short figures and so forth. The film was registered by a photocell unit at various speeds, and the resulting sounds were directly recorded on a reel-to-reel. Further treatments were solely of dynamic character.”

I had the misconception that Optica II – which is presented here – had been released before on one of the Pogus CDs with Rune Lindblad’s early works that came in the late 1990s, but I was wrong. That was Optica 1. I also checked Radium’s double LP Rune Lindblad from 1988, which was the beginning of Rune Lindblad’s revival, but they also chose to release Optica 1, plus another title that I confused with Optica 2; namely Objekt 2. This seems to be the first release, then, of Optica 1.

It is a thudding, electrostatic affair to begin with, much in the vein of the crackling gadget electronica of young device-loving laptop composers of today, but soon enough it gets fatter and wilder than that, filling up the remainder of the vicinity with soaring jetliners in the distance and the echoes of the banging on big hulls in Gothenburg shipyards.

After the whole content is bent out of shape in an upward glissando, Lindblad introduces short silences, abrupt as hell, when, then, nothing was painted onto the film.

Linguistic layers are sensed in there somewhere, but I would gather they stem from the “short figures” that Lindblad said he painted. They sound like a heated argument in swing on the other side of the wall of an apartment house.

The sounds change character gradually, from dull, gray drones into sharper incisions into your auditory organs. It almost sounds as if Lindblad was using a ReBirth digital imitation of an early 1980s’ analogue synthesizer, even though I know he wasn’t. He was just painting and playing film through a film projector with adapted photocells, reaching this hallucinatory state thus!

Rune Lindblad: Träd och sol (Tree and Sun) (etching 1962)

Track 5. Arne MellnäsNite Music (1964) [5:58]

Arne Mellnäs was the first Swedish composer who got all sides of electronic music from the very beginning, since he studied and practiced the pure electronics of Germania with Gottfried Michael Koenig 1962 – 63, and then, in the midst of the 1960s, worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, with its more liberated approach to electronic sound.

If you’re a resident of Sweden, you may well have heard Folke Rabe’s celebrated radio series from 1988; From Hopefulness to What? which in five hour-long programs deals with new American music from the perspective of the knowledgeable traveler Rabe during two trips, one in 1965 and one in 1985, when he visited composer and musician friends of his, and analyzed the times. At Folke Rabe’s site, you can read the radio manuscripts in English and Swedish.
Well, if you have heard those shows, you will instantly recognize the sounds of Arne MellnäsNite Music, and identify the machinery used; the Chamberlin. This was a kind of ancient analogue synthesizer or sampler. It is basically a keyboard hooked up to a contraption with numerous tape loops that can be played individually, each over its own tape head. When you press a particular key, the tape will play its sound, and when you release the key, the tape winds back. You could have any sound on those short – usually about eight seconds – tapes, but mostly people put on various instrumental sounds, which could then be played at will from the keyboard, through an amplifier and loudspeakers.
The reason why the Chamberlin is so easily identifiable on Mellnäs’ piece here, is that Folke Rabe played Ramon Sender’s Chamberlin piece Desert Ambulance in the third of the five shows of From Hopefulness to What? Apparently Ramon Sender and Arne Mellnäs had the same tape set-up while recording their two works, because the sounds are often identical, even though the compositions, of course, differ.

Nite Music starts ever so slightly, gradually presenting itself on a soaring, thin but multilayered tape loop, which repeats and grows louder, while other, very short bounces and bits of audio, like cut-up chords of an unidentified keyboard instrument, appear in the soundscape. Up till then the feeling is modern, electronic – but at that instance, old-time foxtrot type fragments dance in sideways, bewildering and amusing the listener. Percussive quotes are thrown in, and when you think you know where you are, unexpected sounds crush your cozy familiarity.

Track 6. Sten HansonFruits de mer (1962) [1:25]

Sten Hanson (1936) is a great jester of modern music, always letting his many textsound and electronic pieces trickle with fat and juicy humor of a Rabelaisian, Medieval kind that I wish he wasn’t the only one to practice. Well, perhaps Bengt Emil Johnson, to some extent, also devotes himself to a similar humor, so rare in the mad anorectic seriousness and rancid dryness of modern avant-gardism (demonstrated in the modern music magazine Nutida Musik) – but those God-sent artists are the only ones, at least here in Sweden, since Åke Hodell passed away. Another aspect of Sten Hanson’s pieces is that they sometimes leave the Anglo-American jive for the French, which also lends a beautiful twist to his art. I wish many more would abandon the English language completely, if only because of its total dominance. (Something for someone with an English site to suggest!) It’s not even a nice sounding language. I tolerate British English better, though, than the US kind, which is truly hard to take.

Sten Hanson, Eva Rehnström Rabe and Folke Rabe
at the Nordic Music Days in Norrköping 2007

Sten Hanson has had the job to transfer all pieces on this CD from the analogue to the digital domain. He also effectuated the mastering, and wrote the liner notes. Perhaps this is why his musical contribution is so short, to avoid suspicions of taking advantage of his situation – but Sten Hanson really is one the most important – and perhaps the most original – of our sound artists, and I wouldn’t mind if his piece was a little longer!

As the 1950s transformed into the 1960s, Sten Hanson went to France, socializing with people from the experimental art groups. He became acquainted with François Dufrêne and Gil Wolman from the Ultralettrists, and Dufrêne asked Hanson to partake in a manifestation against the Lettrists with some sort of composition. Dufrêne brought Hanson home and let him use two tape recorders, though Hanson was reluctant. He also offered him something to eat; so-called fruits de mer; a smorgasbord of various shellfish. Hanson used the names of the shellfish for his composition, which he recorded onto the two mono tapes, intended to be played back simultaneously.
When Hanson discarded his earlier compositions in 1969, Fruits de mer was retained just because it happened to lay at the bottom of a cardboard box with clothes, and was discovered only much later. Because of this, Fruits de mer is Sten Hanson’s first surviving textsound composition, but the term textsound had not yet been coined. This happened five years later, in 1967, and I even have the exact date, the 3rd of September. It coincides with the Swedish change over from left-hand-side driving to right-hand-side driving; a date all Swedes who were of some age in 1967 remember vividly. I have the date of the branding of the term textsound composition straight from the horse’s mouth, since I attended and recorded a seminar conducted by Bengt Emil Johnson and Kerstin Ståhl at the Department of Musicology and Performance Studies at Stockholm University on the 4th of October 2005. Bengt Emil Johnson explained that a conference was called in Hilversum, Holland, and representatives from half a dozen broadcasting corporations attended. The conference lasted three days, and almost two of those days dealt with finding a unifying term for the radiophonic art forms that were brewing all over Europe, at the crossroads of poetry, language and new technique. The conference didn’t agree on any term. Many were suggested and abandoned, like verbosoni. However, one day when Bengt Emil Johnson and Lars-Gunnar Bodin – the representatives from the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation – were sitting on a park bench in Hilversum, they decided to start calling their art Text-Sound Composition. This was on the 3rd of September 1967. The conference didn’t state that this was the term, but it caught on and was widely spread, and became the accepted term for the art. Till this day I don’t know, though, if it was Lars-Gunnar Bodin or Bengt Emil Johnson who came up with the term on that Hilversum park bench. As they rose from the bench, the term was found, anyhow!

However, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, in the leaflet to a private CD that he sent me in 2002 with his Mystery Play for Radio in Fifteen Tableaux Sonores, called Lipton's Adevnture (Liptons äventyr) (Mike Phillips in memeoriam), derclares that he and Bengt Emil Johnson first used the term Text-Sound Composition at a concert at The Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm already in April 1967.

As Sten Hanson shows with his French shellfish composition, the art was in full swing many years before the coining of the term. In Fruits de mer – of a mere 1 minute and 25 seconds (on repeat in my ears as I write and sip strong coffee) – Hanson treats the sounds of his own voice in various simple ways, like layering it in different pitches and achieving some sort of reverberation, but it comes across in his usual, humoristic and innovative atmosphere, suggestive and inspiring for anyone interested in language and sound. For people interested in Hanson’s art, there are quite a few recordings out, on CDs and vinyls. He is a hero of this art!

To part II