Ahead of the release of his album of music from the film ’Burn All My Letters’, the composer reflects on the unique sounds stringed instruments contribute to his work

MAIN Jacob Mühlrad, credit Morgan Norman

Jacob Mühlrad © Morgan Norman

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One of my earliest dreams as a composer was to write a piece for a massive orchestra with a large string section. From the start, I understood that I was reliant on the players that would generously accept to dive into my ’anarchistic’ compositional experiments with me. This informed my approach to the craft of composing from early on and inspired in me the utmost respect for the musicians I have worked with. Together with these talented players, I have learned so much about the capacities and limitations of string instruments, and although I feel this is a never-ending journey, somewhere along the way, the basics of the violin, viola, cello and double bass have become a part of my spinal cord. 

There’s something intoxicating about the limitlessness of sounds you can attain through strings alone. And it’s not just about choosing between different notes and rhythms, but also how notes and rhythms can sound, the colourisation of a pitch - the airy tremolo that can be attained when players use the tip of the bow as in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) or the muted sound in Debussy’s La Mer, or even the crystallised sound of harmonics by Sariaaho. This incredible quality of transformation of the sound of stringed instruments is absolutely inspiring, and when I compose I almost feel like a painter who’s been granted this massive pallet of colours to play with, and still today I keep discovering new tones and shades. 

There’s something intoxicating about the limitlessness of sounds you can attain through strings alone

Some of the composers and pieces that opened my eyes to this enormous variation in the sound of strings were Salvatore Sciarrino and Kaija Saariaho (especially her piece Sept Papillons  for solo cello). When it comes to strings as a collective, the micropolyphonic structure of Atmospheres  by György Ligeti also moved me greatly – in the piece, Ligeti managed to create the depth and richness of an ocean with infinite layers. Then I was struck by the simplicity and the richness of just one pitch in Giacinto Scelsi’s music. When I first heard Scelsi’s violin concerto, Anahit  I thought the pitch ‘E’ was dubbed by a voice, but I discovered it was the scordatura that made it possible to play three simultaneous ’E’s. He plays around the pitch with microtones, making the interference phenomenon vibrate rhythmically in your ear. 

All of these inspirations play into my work as a composer. When I was writing my piece Maggid, for instance, I met the Finnish cellist, Johannes Rostamo. It was with him that I discovered the sonorous qualities of the tendons on the baroque cello. It made the instrument sound like a voice, and so I experimented with writing down different melodies from readings of the Torah, an oral tradition that carries such complex melodies and ornamentations. Many years later, when I was composing REMS  (premiered by Stockholm Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Pablo Heras Casado), I used this insight from Maggid  and expanded the idea to the collective sound of the orchestra.

REMS  was a piece inspired by sleep and the different aspects of our unconscious dream state not only from a scientific perspective but also from the perspective of Judaism, which poetically explains how the soul temporarily leaves the body during the night. I asked myself, how would that sound? When I wrote REMS  I was experimenting with the glissandi of the individual to then imagine the collective implementation of this gesture. The strings were the centre of the sound, in the foreground, and the orchestra even the percussion instrument tubular bell was doing glissando by sinking the pipe in the water to achieve a glissando together with the strings. Since the piece dealt with the world opened up by sleep, diving deeper into the eternal complexity of the continuous sound of strings playing glissandi was an important part of the musical expression of this piece. 

With the strings, everything I learn progressively opens doors to new possibilities, and this was no different in my latest project. When I got asked by director Björn Runge to write the music for his film, Burn All My Letters  I was a little bit hesitant since writing a score involves a different craftsmanship than writing music freely without any other dramaturgy than the one you choose to create. After some really deep conversations with Björn, he convinced me to take on the challenge. The whole process was extremely laborious, not least because I was adamant about creating a fully acoustic score. There are no synthesisers in it, so every single sound in my music that you hear is an acoustic sound. While most of the score was composed very intuitively, there are some pieces like The Past  and Cogitate  where the techniques I acquired in REMS, for example, the different glissando vibratos and the microtonal shiftings in the strings, would again inspire me.

A lot of my work is based on microtonal melodies and chords. It’s something that’s more prominent in Oriental music tradition than Western, but it gives the music a wider expression to embrace the versatility of frequency and other temperaments. It was very helpful to use these techniques to match the expression of the movie. The result was a score for pianos, strings, percussion and vocalists combined with a rich yet amorphous bed of sounds. I have no doubt that this score, like all my past compositions, has planted its own seeds in future projects and pieces, and I can’t wait to see where I’ll branch out next.

Jacob Mühlrad’s new album, Burn All My Letters (Music For The Motion Picture), composed as the soundtrack to the film directed by Björn Runge, will be released on the 27th of January via Warner Classics. Watch the video for  Karin’s Waltzhere:

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