Piteå and Sandström

In June-July 1988 I participated in a music festival in Piteå, Sweden, a small town at the very top of the Baltic which happens to have a prominent “folkhögskola” (literally, folk high school), committed to the teaching of music, and which is very close the coastal resort town of Luleå.  Sommarmusik i Piteå turned out to be one of the most interesting musical experiences of my life.  Piteå is up there—above the Arctic Circle; the sun never really set during the course of the festival, and the midsummer partying for which Scandinavians are famous was an important part of the festival offerings.  I was the only American participant, aside from the master vocal coach, Dalton Baldwin—which was not a problem, linguistically:  everyone there spoke decent English, and my tortured attempts to speak a hodgepodge Norwegian/Swedish were greeted politely and patiently.  We slept in dormitories (the windows had black-out blinds, to create the illusion of dark night), ate in the student cafeteria (herring, reindeer, flatbread and cheese were always on the menu), attended concerts most evenings, and had plenty of time to swim, hike, and explore the town.  The mosquitoes were terrible—worse than in Minnesota; people wore long pants, long sleeves, gloves, and interesting mosquito nets, which they draped over their heads.

By day we participated in master classes. The singers were from all of the Scandinavian countries, and presented primarily the standard repertoire—French, German, Spanish, American English—of which Dalton is a noted interpreter.  I was the only singer who brought Scandinavian song—Grieg, Stenhammar, Sibelius—and was coached primarily by the other students when I had the temerity to sing it.  As a group, these were some of the best young voices I have ever heard—strong, clear, solid, well-schooled.  They could do everything a voice should be able to do.  Dalton agreed about the physical quality of the voices, but felt the singers lacked imagination, warmth, fantasy, mystery-- he was hard on them.  Following the festival, I flew with him down to his summer program in Nice, and thought a lot about his criticism-- indeed, the singers in the latter program were more daring, more individual, also more obviously egotistical and outrageous; many lacked the solid vocalism of the Scandinavian singers, but seemed to make up for this lack with color and shading, rubato, dramatic expressiveness.  Really, I thought, this is apples and oranges—and I still feel that way.  Nordic musical composition and performance has its own beauties, its own expressiveness, promotes gasps of wonder and delight in its own way.

While we singers worked in one part of the campus, instrumentalists, composers, pianists worked with their own master teachers, in other locations.  We saw little of one another.  So I did not realize, until some years later, that Piteå and its School of Music were and are the home base of Jan Sandström (born 1954), one of Sweden’s most noted composers.  Like other Swedish composers of his generation, he began his compositional career writing in an austere, theoretical, sophisticated, densely-constructed idiom—in his case, making using of spectral techniques (composition based on analyses of overtone registers); it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that his voice began to veer toward something more emotional, playful, gentle, even naïve—an exploration of ordinary people, ordinary feelings, of living in the moment—as he has written,  “Every morning when I wake up, I want to be surprised by whatever I might think up today!”

These later characteristics are on display in the Sandström composition Chorale will perform on its coming concerts.   Gloria (1995) is one movement of a mass in progress, dedicated to the orphanage of “La Casa de la Madre y el Niño” in Bogota, Columbia.  To my ears, this piece reflects much the same sensibility as works by spiritual minimalists Tavener, Pärt, and Górecki, though with less brooding darkness and mystery.  The listener must put the rush of life to one side, and listen patiently, allow the gently repeated musical cells, the simple diatonic harmonies, the silences, to take over and lead where they will.  One critic has written that Sandström composes “music that pats you on the hand and says ‘there, there, it’ll be all right’”—a significant journey from the music he composed earlier in his career.

As I am with all of the minimalist music I program for Chorale, I am slightly uncomfortable with this work-- I have a hard time with simple, uncomplicated statements and the silences between their repetitions; J.S Bach is my favorite composer—I like “too many notes.” I tend to feel that the bones, the structure, harmonically, rhythmically, dramatically, liturgically, should be so strong that they stand by themselves, with or without a great performance—that they indeed can make a performance, and a performer, great, by providing a worthy structure.  Minimalism seems to require great performers doing a great job at doing very little—only through a great performance can the elusive beauty of such music succeed, and not be weighed down, broken, made maudlin, by less than perfect execution. Thoughtful, talented composers are writing this music; I want to support them on their journey and see where it leads.  I see little sense in re-tilling worn-out soil; so I help with the planting of seeds in new ground, and hope to like what comes up.

One thing I can say:  Sandström’s music does indeed reflect the tundra and mountains of Lapland, the northern place out of which it springs.  The simplicity, the silences, the fearful devotion, seem very apt when I think about my time in Piteå—a short, brilliant summer, followed by a very long and dark winter.