Magnus Granberg

Magnus Granberg: on fertile ground

The Swedish composer on why he’s raising new shoots from a veritable mulch of old music at hcmf// 2017.

‘I had a vision of wanting to create an environment or a biotope where individuals could coexist and co-act with each other in a multitude of ways all depending on the nature of the environment, its inhabitants and their relations to one another, while still retaining the specific identity and coherency of the environment, of the composition,’ says Magnus Granberg, explaining the origins of Skogen, the ensemble he founded in 2005.

Formed of a core of Swedish musicians plus international guests and taking in chamber instruments, contact mics and no-input mixing, Skogen’s name translates as ‘forest’ – an appropriate shorthand not only for this particular ecosystem, but as a snapshot of Granberg’s wider musical approach.

Making improvisation – which he studied, along with saxophone in Gothenburg and New York – a central part of his music, Granberg as a musical creator is less a micromanaging topiarist than a careful, nurturing gardener, planting his compositional seedlings to thrive under the care of his performers.

‘The music is very much a result of a collaborative or interactive process between, on the one hand, the composer and the musicians, and on the other hand between the musicians within the ensemble,’ he says. ‘I try to articulate and communicate a musical situation in the score where I can accept more or less all possible outcomes. In practice this means that I create pools of materials – containing melodic fragments, chords, rhythms, single sounds, suggestions regarding timbres, etc – from which the musicians can choose what to play and when to play it, along with suggestions as to how to treat them.’

Delicate and considered yet underpinned by restlessness, Granberg’s music, performed both by Skogen and by other ensembles, has found a comfortable home on the Sheffield-based Another Timbre label, whose catalogue frequently inhabits the possibility-rich spaces between improvised and composed music. ‘When I first started to realise my musical ideas with Skogen there didn’t seem to be too many contexts that might be interested in my work. But Another Timbre was a place where the music seemed to fit quite naturally,’ he reflects.

It was the label’s founder, Simon Reynell, who initiated the project premiering at hcmf// on Sunday 26 November featuring Ensemble Grizzana performing a piece each by Granberg and leading Wandelweiser composer Jürg Frey. Although Granberg sees both similarities and differences between his work and that of the highly influential but loose Wandelweiser collective, he is certainly an admirer of Frey: ‘I very much appreciate the atmosphere of Jürg’s music,’ he says.

‘It’s a little bit like a space where it’s possible to accommodate oneself as a listener and become a part of or disappear into the music. At the same time it’s a very temperate and precise music, having a cool clarity and matter-of factness to it which I find equally inviting and refreshing.’

Both works draw upon existing songs, although in a typically oblique manner: in Granberg’s How Vain Are All our Frail Delights?, keen-eared audiences may discern spores cast adrift not only from Renaissance composer William Byrd’s Oh Lord How Vain, but also from 15th century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Deploration sur la mort de Binchois and Tin Pan Alley songwriter Jerome Kern’s In Love In Vain.

But equally, they shouldn’t worry too much if they can’t: ‘Knowing the source materials of the piece won’t necessarily help the listener in understanding the music, I’m afraid,’ Granberg says, ‘The source materials are mainly used as an inspiration and impetus to do something different and are all transformed quite heavily by means of different methods and processes.’

It’s a long-used compositional method for him, which he characterises on one hand, ‘as a way of treasuring or taking care of the creative impulses the act of experiencing other musics offer: to let the music that moves you set something in motion in a very direct and concrete manner,’ and on the other, ‘as a way of approaching and getting to know musics a little bit better that you perhaps partly find it difficult relating to, finding inlets or ingresses to musical thoughts and practices via the fragments that do intrigue you.’

It also offers Granberg, who more frequently plays clarinet, the chance to flex those green fingers on a relatively unusual specimen when he joins Ensemble Grizzana. ‘The use of celesta in my piece very much stems from my desire to play it, and since I happened to know that the University of Huddersfield has an example of this comparatively rare instrument I thought I’d better seize the opportunity to do so!’ he admits. ‘And it’s a lovely instrument which fits beautifully with the other instruments, of course.’

Meanwhile, a busy few months lie ahead, with Skogen preparing for concerts and recordings in Sweden this winter and a tour next year. Elsewhere, he and Michael Pisaro are both writing new works for the 40-strong Swiss ensemble IMO (Insub Meta Orchestra), to premiere in Geneva in May 2018. ‘I guess these aspects of music making still fascinate me: there are so many gradations of this spectrum of connections and interactions, independences and interdependences between composition, improvisation, composers and musicians that seem yet to be explored, I think,’ he concludes.

Ensemble Grizzana
26 November @ 1pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £12 (£9 concession / online)

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