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Finding Emotional Depth And Sad Wonder Within The Sonic Details [2023-03-28]

Stockholm-based Magnus Granberg stands as one of the more talented and compelling artists working within the modern composition world today. His sparse, yet often detailed long-form compositions span both the worlds of modern chamber music & gentle improvision, with many nods towards more conventional genres weaved into his work. I first became aware of his work in 2018 after hearing & been very much taken by Early To Late- a split release he did with Swiss composer and clarinettist Jürg Frey. His track on the split How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights a  just shy of the forty-two-minute composition, which is constructed around gently unfurling & cautiously building, then receding haze of acoustic and electronic textures. Ever since hearing this split, I’ve keenly followed Magnus's work, and his output has remained wholly consistent- with each new work finding him presenting his distinctively sparse-yet-micro detailed style in a subtly different manner. So, I was thrilled when he kindly agreed to give me an email interview.

M[m]: What are some of your earliest sonic memories- be they musical or sound based? And do you feel any of these impacted your wanting to create/ compose your own work?

Magnus: I guess some of the earliest sonic memories that I have probably would be my mother listening to Swedish popular music on the radio while baking or cooking, some of which I even remember disliking quite strongly, actually! But one of the first things that I heard and to which I responded very enthusiastically must have been some jazz music from record: my parents had a box set called ’The Jazz Story” which they never listened to but which somehow called my attention and which I insisted listening to when I was around five or six years of age. I remember finding the music very exciting, but the next time I wanted to listen to it we couldn’t really remember which one of the ten LPs in the box set we had played on the previous occasion, so it took a few years before I sought it out again and started to listen through all the records of that particular compilation.


M[m]: Can you still recall exactly what Swedish popular music rubbed you up the wrong way as a child?. And what was Swedish pop like during this period?

Magnus: Well, the two pieces that I remember being quite annoyed with as a little child were actually covers of American popular songs from the late 50s or early 60s but with their lyrics translated into Swedish: Sugartime (by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols) as performed by Alice Babs and Sån’t är livet (by Bill Cook, the original song known under the title You Can Have Her) as performed by Anita Lindblom. They weren’t of course contemporary by then, but I remember them getting a lot of airplay on Swedish radio in the late 70s, at least on the radio channel my mother used to tune in to at the time. As regards more contemporary Swedish pop music at the time, I guess one was exposed to quite a lot of ABBA; they were most probably played a lot as well and I also remember my parents having a couple of albums of theirs which I didn’t care to listen much to, I guess.


M[m]: I believe you studied saxophone at the University of Gothenburg - was this the first instrument you played? And if so, what attracted you to that instrument in particular?

Magnus: Yes, the saxophone was my first instrument, which I started to play at the age of eleven. I guess the main reason I started to play the saxophone was that my older brother had started playing it a couple of years before me and that my parents perhaps thought it was practical or convenient in one way or the other. Originally, I wanted to start playing the trumpet, but my (not very musically trained) parents had heard from my mother’s cousin that it was very hard to get a sound out of it and suggested I started playing the saxophone instead. They probably thought it was a little bit cute having two boys playing the saxophone as well, but that’s very much my own unconfirmed speculation.

M[m]: Did you ever play Sax with your brother, and did his interest in the instrument/ music in general continue?

Magnus:  Yes, I actually did play together with my brother some, we were both members of the same wind orchestra for a few years from, say, age 11 to 16 or so. And I also remember us performing as a duo at the yearly meeting for the local co-op when I had played for about six months or possibly a year or so. I remember us playing Trumpet Voluntary on soprano and alto saxophone untransposed reading from the same score, thus playing it in parallel fifths…As regards my brother, he more or less stopped playing music in his late teens but has continued to have a great interest in music, mainly popular music of various kinds: indie pop, rock’n’roll, soul, rhythm & blues and so forth.


M[m]: You went to New York in your twenties- what prompted this and how long did you stay there? And how differently did you find improvised and experimental music were treated in your home country?

Magnus: Well, the reason for going to New York in my twenties was probably a combination of a lust for adventure, the old dream of New York being the intense centre of the world of jazz where everything’s happening, and quite simply the fact that it also turned out possible doing it as a part of my studies at The College of Music at the University of Gothenburg. I stayed in New York for three months in the spring 1997- where I had lessons (and played) with percussionist Andrew Cyrille for a couple of hours every week, here I also met up with people like Lee Konitz, Barry Altschul and William Parker on a couple of occasions. And of course, I also went to a lot of concerts while being there which was a great experience as well. But I also slowly started to realize that the dream of New York being the centre of the musical world very much a vanishing dream as well and that the public interest sometimes also could be very low. I remember for example going to a concert with Rashid Ali at an internet café in the East Village where we were only two guests in the audience: me sitting in front of Rashid Ali and his band listening and the other guy checking his mail.


M[m]: You’re a self-taught composer- please talk about why you wanted to go this route, and not have formal training?

Magnus:  Well, even if I haven’t studied composition formally I have at least studied music performance and I also attended some seminar series in theory and musical analysis while being at university. But after graduation (when I kind of lost faith in jazz, the saxophone, myself and how we all related or not related to contemporary society) I quite simply had to start working day jobs so studying formally wasn’t really an option at that time, neither in terms of economy, nor in terms of knowing really what to do and why. But music was still incredibly important to me, and I was very determined to try to find ways of learning what to do and how to do it. So, in a way I just started all over again, examining the things I already had learned very critically and trying to listen to, think about, study and navigate other musical worlds and try to come up with what my place in the larger world of sound and music possibly might be.


M[m]: You talk about taking up a day job after to graduation- so how from here did you start composing your own work?

Magnus: Well, after graduating I felt the urgent need to critically re-evaluate everything I had been learning and doing so far, so I more or less stopped playing the saxophone in order to start listening and thinking about sound and music from a more open-minded and unbiased perspective and try to re-articulate or reformulate my music, not taking musical traditions as given but try to listen carefully to the nature of sound and to try to extract new music from how I perceived the nature of sound and silence. So, I guess that’s how I eventually came to start to compose.


M[m]: In 2005 you formed your own ensemble Skogen- please discuss how & why this came about? Who are the key players in the ensemble? And have the members shifted/ changed since its inception?

Magnus:  Well, I finally formed Skogen in 2005 (or possibly in 2004, even) as a vehicle for trying out ideas that I had been working on for quite many years but somehow hadn’t dared to present to other musicians. The first year we played as a quartet with percussionist Erik Carlsson, cellist Leo Svensson Sander and electronic musician Petter Wästberg, mainly just rehearsing and trying out some simple sketches of mine. In 2005 percussionist Henrik Olsson joined us and we also started to play our first concerts, and in 2008 we recorded our first album with that setting which was released on Bombax bombax as a limited-edition CD-R with a silkscreened cover. And in November 2010 we invited Anna Lindal, Angharad Davies, Toshi Nakamura and John Eriksson for the first time, which also resulted in our first album for Another Timbre which was released in 2012. After that we’ve continuously invited various musicians to join (or re-join) us, our latest album which was recorded during the pandemic being the exception to that rule.


M[m]: Your compositions are often atmospherically rich & spellbinding- both pared-back, yet texturally varied, and rewardingly eventful. Are you able to give us any insights into your writing & arranging of works?

Magnus: Without going too much into technical detail, I’d say I more or less always take fragments of pre-existing musical historical materials of various kinds as points of departure when starting to compose. Quite often this would be tiny rhythmic cells or shorter rhythmic phrases which are subjected to various treatments: fragmentations, permutations, prolongations and recombination of various kinds. As regards tonal materials, I often tend to use fragments of chord progressions from various songs (quite often jazz standards, but not always) which are transformed into different kinds of modal tonalities in accordance with a certain system that I have developed throughout the years. So, after having extracted and transformed the source materials I quite simply start to compose large pools of musical materials which are then distributed to the musicians, who normally are allowed quite extensive freedoms of choice and action as to what to play and when to play it. As regards form, there’s normally no prescribed formal differentiation (apart from tonal differentiation), formal differentiation is mainly a product of the spontaneous choices of the musicians, individually and collectively.


M[m]: You talk about creating a system to compose/ arrange work- are you able to talk about this a little more, and how you use it?

Magnus: Well, I think this quickly would become a little bit too technical and time-consuming to describe (it would almost have to become an essay or lecture in its own right, I’m afraid) but I think I at least covered the basics in one of the answers above, hope that will do for a start at least!



M[m]: One of my favourite compositions of yours is How Lonely Sits The City?, which is wonderfully eerier full of shadowy unease and moments of spiritly disquiet. I believe you wrote it during the Covid pandemic. How did the pandemic personally impact you & when working on the piece, I take you had to change/alter your normal ways of working?

Magnus: Yes, How Lonely Sits the City? was written during the pandemic for a particular project I was being part of during that time. The pandemic obviously meant great difficulties meeting up to rehearse and record, and the recording was also postponed a couple of times due to various conditions pertaining to the pandemic. From a personal point of view the pandemic of course meant a great deal of isolation from your musical community, not being able to play or to go to concerts and it also meant great difficulties planning projects for the future. But I at least had a day job I could (and had to) go to which was good for the economy as well as for the social well-being, I guess.


M[m]: I often detect in your work elements from outside of normal Improvised/modern classical music- for example with How Lonely Sits The City?- I really noted influences like Tom Waits & Miles Davis's electric period. I’m guessing you listen to a wide range of different music- but what would you say our your favourite genres?

Magnus:  Yes, I do listen to quite a lot of different music and also tend to listen to things quite intensely for extended periods of time. Things I often return to includes North Indian music, Javanese gamelan, gagaku, medieval, renaissance and baroque music, contemporary classical and experimental music and of course jazz and improvised music as well as many other things.


M[m]: Following on from the last question- are you able to select say five albums that were impactful on you throughout your life?

Magnus: Well, five (out of many!) impactful albums (which by the way may not necessarily be ”the best” albums by the different artists but meaningful and impactful to me at certain points in my life) may perhaps be the following:

Miles Davis: Round About Midnight (Columbia)

Charlie Parker: The Dial Recordings (Dial)

Erik Satie (performed by Reinbert de Leeuw): Vexations, Early Piano Works Volume 3, Mélodies, Hymne, Poèmes D'Amour, Ludions  (Philips)

Indonesia: Javanese Court Gamelan From The Pura Paku Alaman, Jogyakarta (Nonesuch Explorer Series)

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar: Raga Yaman (Nimbus)



M[m]: According to discogs to date you have fourteen releases to your name- what do you see as some of your favourite releases, and can you explain why?

Magnus: Yes, something like that, or perhaps even fifteen or sixteen; think there are a couple of releases that haven’t found their way to Discogs yet. As regards favourite releases, I guess I’m really quite happy with a couple of fairly recent releases, for example Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost (on Another Timbre) and Night Will Fade and Fall Apart (on Thanatosis), Let Pass being one of the finest representations of Skogen’s interpretations of my music and Night Will Fade being one of the finest interpretations by other ensembles. Both albums were also very beautifully recorded at the Atlantis studio in Stockholm (as were quite a few other albums of mine as well) and my dear old friend Anders Dahl also made a great job mixing them, I think. But there are many other recordings I’m also very happy with, these are just two (perhaps somewhat arbitrary) examples.


M[m]: You’ve now released a few albums via Another Timbre- how did you first come to work with the label, and what has kept you going back to work with them again & again?

Magnus:  Well, I had heard a couple of albums on Another Timbre which I had enjoyed greatly (among them Angharad Davies’ and Tisha Mukarji’s Endspace) and quite simply sent Simon Reynell the recording which later became Skogen’s debut album on Another Timbre, Ist gefallen in den Schnee. Simon has been incredibly supportive of my music throughout the years, and I have been very happy to be able to continue the collaboration with him and Another Timbre. And over the years Another Timbre also very much has become some sort of community of people doing interesting stuff, a community which I’m very happy being a little part of.


M[m]: Looking back on Skogen’s debut album Ist gefallen in den Schnee - what are your thoughts about this release now? And how do you feel way to approaching composing now?

Magnus:  Well, Ist gefallen in den Schnee actually happens to be Skogen’s second album, our first album was basically self-released as a CD-R (with screen printed cover) on our short-lived label Bombax bombax. But in a way I consider Ist gefallen in den Schnee more or less as a kind of opus one (or possibly opus two) where the music finally was finding its form, the music which has come afterwards very much has taken this music as a point of departure, trying to understand, unfold and develop some of the information contained in this first representation of the music.


M[m]: Could you talk a little about the Sheriff project?. And sonically where does it sit?

Magnus:  Yes, Sheriff was actually the very first thing I did after my hiatus from the saxophone, a first attempt (in the form of a slow, low-dynamic, experimental rock music performed on electric guitar, piano and percussion) to articulate some of the ideas that I had been considering in what one perhaps could call an embryonic form. But I think many of the interests that I would go on cultivating, articulating and refining with Skogen and other projects were, in a way, already present in the music of Sheriff, albeit in a perhaps somewhat cruder and less complex form.

M[m]: One of your recently released works has been Night Will Fade And Fall Apart- the two CD set on Thanatosis Produktion. Seemingly the work was influenced/ inspired songs from two very different times and places: Tres gentil cuer and En l’amoureux vergier by the French, late medieval composer Solage as well as My Foolish Heart, a popular song (and subsequent jazz standard) from the late 1940s by Victor Young and Ned Washington. Please discuss how you used these influences within the composition? And is this the first time you have been influenced in such a specific manner?

Magnus:  Well, in a way I think I basically already covered this question in my early answer, the procedure described above is generally how pre-existing musical historical source materials somehow find their way into my music.


M[m]: The two-disc set features a full ensemble forty-three-minute piece on the first disc, and solo instrumental takes on elements of the piece. What inspired you to do this?, and do you think this is something you considered doing again in the future?

Magnus:  Well, this is an idea that I’ve had for quite a long time, to be able to re-use and re-organize materials in various ways in order to shed a different light on the materials constituting a piece, to get different perspectives on the potentialities of the music which perhaps are not obvious at first. I’m quite sure I’ll try to consider and investigate these possibilities further at one point or the other, it’s more or less always there at the back of my mind, at least.


M[m]: What has recently impacted you in the last few months- be it music, film, literature, or art?

Magnus: When it comes to music I’ve had the great pleasure to listen to some excellent new stuff from people like Tim Parkinson, Naomi Pinnock, Clara Iannotta, Finn Loxbo and Adrián Democ, but also to slightly older things like Robert Ashley, Bernd Alois Zimmerman and Jani Christou. I’ve also had a long period when I’ve listened to North Indian music of various kinds, for example by Buddhadev Das Gupta, Gopal Krishan and Bahauddin Dagar. As for literature I just read Michel Houellebecq’s little essay on Schopenhauer which I enjoyed and which made me want to return to Schopenhauer again. As for film I haven’t watched too much lately but seeing Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman for the first time the other year made a great impression on me, one of the most memorable films I’ve seen in quite a few years, I think.


Thank you kindly to Magnus for his time & effort with the interview. His website can be found here, and he has put out several releases on the wonderful Another Timbre- who release the most interesting/ creative releases from with the modern classical/ modern composition genres  photo credit:  main page pic Leo Svensson Sander, small menu pic Anton Lukoszevieze, first in interview pic unknown, second  & third Maria Hägglund .


Roger Batty
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