Malin Bång: Playing with Time

At hcmf// 2017, violinist Karin Hellqvist premiered Siku, Malin Bång’s composition for a slow but certain end of the world. Meditating on the ecological turmoil of our modern age, the Swedish composer fused the piece with what she described as ‘four musical materials’, each one serving as a sonic metaphor for the elements of fire, earth, water and air – ancient cornerstones of the world she believed to be shifting from their natural positions through generations of environmental pollution. It stood as a reminder of time – and how much of it we have left.

Siku is typical of Malin Bång: it is a tale of progression, transition and unending movement. Climate change is a political concern so constant and unmoving in our lives that we often perceive it as static, as though it has been decided upon – happened, rather than happening. Through Siku, Bång says the opposite: she describes the destruction of earth as the living, breathing problem it is. The piece does not exist in isolation — coming at a time when those entrenched in power would deny its very themes, it is just one example of Bång’s new crop of deeply humanist work.

It is no surprise that Bång has found more to say about our dangerous environmental practices. Her 2017 work Kudzu will be performed at hcmf// 2018, and considers the role ‘negative economic structures’ play in earth’s pollution. Rather than use the mythic excuses of disaster movies to explain the phenomenon of climate change, Bång’s new work is a rich political critique, considering policies of environmental stress and excess. Describing the piece, Bång asks ‘it is not if, but when will the world as we know it collapse?’. Her subtitle for the piece is the Sixth Phase, and refers to the stage of extinction we find ourselves living in. It is a precise and methodological way of describing her subject, at odds with a history of romantic attempts at apocalypse art.

Bång’s music moves. Her practice is built on dramatic dynamics and contrasting textures, relating scientific energy transfer to patterns of social development. Quiet, melodic sounds turn, often glacially, into harshness and noise. Her 2014 piece, How Long is Now?, is a perfect example of her ability to turn history into a mere pathway to the present. A thought experiment in memory and transformation, she composed the piece by visiting areas of Berlin that were under construction, considering how our memories of what they looked like persist relative to what they are now.

Bång’s physical and conservationist themes often manifest as musical content. She makes use of acoustic objects to detail her surroundings, believing them to be valuable tools in shaping compositions. Just as a choir of voices is used as a metaphor for seasonal change in slädspår (2009), so too will Bång create with literal material, bringing swingsets, typewriters, metal sculptures and kites into ensemble pieces as their own agents of sound. A recent composition, Jasmonate (2017), includes hourglasses and typewriters in its ensemble. Here, Bång’s theme of ‘Sixth Phase’ extinction becomes explicit – as it runs down in the glass, she literally plays with time.

As a champion of experimental composition, Bång made an excellent choice as resident and co-artistic director of Curious Chamber Players, an ensemble interested in exploring different corners of contemporary music, including acoustics, noise, sound installation and improvisation. Her collaborative work in Scandinavia and beyond is storied; amongst her compositions she can also count her work with Faint Noise, a trio of herself, Karin Hellqvist and Anna Petrini that formed in 2011. An attempt at expressing their experiences across continents, the trio willfully challenged standard notions of performance, marrying recorder and violin to Bång’s electronic and acoustic object instruments.

Bång’s use of objects – things you can find, pick up, even salvage – should come as no surprise. In many ways, her recent work frames her as both an experimental composer and a concerned ecologist, wrestling her resignation to a polluted planet with the hope for a better future for it. Siku and Kudzu are pieces about the destruction of our world, but also the existence of it. And by making music from the objects that exist in our lives, she invites us to better relate to our living, dying planet.