Sten Melin

He became a composer but he could equally well have applied himself to the creative art of cooking and become a chef and explorer of raw ingredients and spices. Sten Melin’s approach to composing a dish and to composing a score is basically the same, he closes in on it, he challenges it, he lets himself be taken by surprise and out of this encounter the unexpected is born. A piece by Sten Melin can be so quiet that the audience hardly dares to breathe, or “molto brutale sub. presto possibile”– very brutal and suddenly as fast as possible, as he writes in the musicians’ parts. Nor is he afraid of the bizarre: songs about fibres, for example, or a set of variations for saxophone quartet on the popular song “Upp på källarbacken” (“Källarback Variations”, 1993).

But even though his works are enormously varied a common theme spins a thread through them all: his ambition to come to grips with fundamental issues and values – relationships, dissonance’s, harmonies, alienation, joy, disgust and strength.

Sometimes he starts out from a picture, sometimes from the properties of an instrument, sometimes it’s a feeling, an experience, something that has affected him personally that he expresses in music. And when the piece is finished and he listens to what he has created, it in its turn tells him something which surprises him and which leads on to something new. He hopes that the music will enrich the listener in a similar manner and light a spark of wonder which will live on after the last note has died away.

Anyone who has listened to the tranquil piece “hyssj” (“hush”, 1995) for flute and guitar develops a new relationship to noise. After a few minutes with the string quartet “Q is Q” (1983) human conversation appears in a new light.

But Sten Melin also has another side: the practical joker, the trickster, the court jester, who makes sure that the audience doesn’t forget that life is not always deadly serious and music doesn’t always dwell in the realms of High Culture, but can also include light-hearted absurdities and howling hooligans, as in “Seven Heaven” (1998/99).
Despite his experiments with form he would not describe himself as an avant-garde composer. He simply sees himself as one of many who over the ages have tested the limits of music and thereby also human limits. His compositions grow out of a productive dialogue with a long line of musical predecessors. Born in Kalix on the 10th October 1957, Sten Melin is a trumpeter who turned into a composer. His teachers and inspirers include Gunnar Bucht, Pär Lindgren and Sven-David Sandström. He has written about thirty compositions, ranging from solo pieces to orchestral works, which have been performed throughout the world. Since 2000 Sten Melin has been president of the Society of Swedish Composers and he is also board member of The Royal Swedish Opera since 2004.

English translation: Cynthia Zetterqvist

A man of surprises
“It’s not what they’re expecting…” (Sten Melin, while working on a commissioned work)

The idea is beyond time. It only takes a moment to capture it. And it appears when the time is right.

Sten Melin once worked as cook at a confirmation camp for seventy people when he was a member of Kerstin Ek’s choir in Täby. Incidentally, straying for a moment from the official subject of this article, it was there that he discovered that it is possible to thicken a sauce with a packet of mashed potato powder, an insight that the gourmet Sten Melin has never had to use since. (More typical of his cooking is that it can take him hours just to prepare a sauce to fillet of venison with a base made out of raspberry vinegar and caramel.) At the confirmation camp a tea mug cracked in two pieces in an unusually beautiful way. And hey presto! The time was right and the idea appeared instantly: in his mind’s eye he saw an LP between the two halves of the mug! With the help of a heat gun and some silicone, an extremely bad Karajan recording of Mozart’s Requiem completed Melin’s tea mug sculpture, which can now be viewed on the front of this CD. The work is typical of its creator: it is visually striking and exhibits a zest for life that is as tangible as it is difficult to define. It contains humour that can be insolent or exuberant. It is well made. And it is candid, not afraid of expressing its opinion. All this could equally well be said of Sten Melin’s music, if you start off the description with “aurally striking” instead of “visually striking”, and yet in some way the aural and the visual are part of the same artistry. He has written works that look like graphic sheets, and commented on Still Life (1993) with the help of a comic strip (see centrefold).

Sten Melin was born in 1957 in Kalix, on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea. His paternal grandfather was head of the teachers’ training college in Luleå, his grandfather on his mother’s side was captain of a tugboat and drove timber along the coast while his maternal grandmother looked after a small holding. His father was a bank manager and his mother was a remedial teacher at elementary school level. He has three sisters and is next-to-youngest in the family. The walls of his parents’ home were decorated with works of art, they were members of the bank’s art society and they were regular concert-goers. That his father was an amateur mandolin-player who could play a tune on any instrument that he happened upon, or that the poet K.A. Melin (who was an esteemed member of the Swedish Academy at the turn of the century) was a distant relation, cannot really be regarded as an automatic introduction to a career as a composer, particularly since in most parts of Sweden, at least outside the big towns, the road to becoming an artist is long, both literally and metaphorically.

Sten Melin began to play the trumpet when he was ten years old. In his teens he played in concerts virtually every evening: in the wind band, the symphony orchestra, the big band – a profusion of ensembles that the local music school and its enthusiastic teachers were obviously largely responsible for creating. The choirmaster, who gave him piano lessons, put Valdemar Söderholm’s “Elements of Harmony” in his hands. Sten Melin produced masses of arrangements – which where completely beyond the fifteen-year-old members of the jazz band. After sixth form college (where he specialised in economics) he spent three years at Framnäs Folk High School, studying trumpet, theory and analysis, then he got a job teaching the trumpet in Haparanda, in the far north of Sweden. He stuck it out for a term, and then moved to Uppsala to study music psychology, but he never finished the course and never wrote a thesis either – except for the title, which is typical of its author: “Where do ideas come from?” These studies were mainly a way of concealing from his family the fact that he actually intended to study composition. By this time he had already begun studying privately with the composer Sven-David Sandström. Once a month Sten Melin travelled down from Haparanda to Stockholm and was actually the professor-to be’s first pupil. These half-day-long lessons – a mixture of instruction, inspiration and conversation – played a decisive part in turning him into a composer. Sten Melin is obstinate: it took him several attempts before he was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (1980). At that timeGunnar Bucht was professor of composition and Pär Lindgren taught electro-acoustic music. Bucht was more impressed by Sten Melin’s obstinacy than by his compositions. Sten Melin himself says that he never felt that he was predestined to become a composer but there was nothing else to choose from. To be a music teacher was out of the question, even though he worked as a brass teacher in Norrtälje while he studied at the “Coll”. In a way he has realised his father’s dream. Sten Melin belongs to the generation that has reaped the benefit of the welfare state and doesn’t have to worry about financial security.

Sten Melin’s opus list is headed by three major works. Vågform 114 (Wave Form 114, 1980) for orchestra was selected for the Young Nordic Music (UNM) festival in Copenhagen in 1981, thereby constituting his actual début. His next work (which was also selected for the UNM festival) was Landet som icke är (The Land that is not, 1982) for double mixed chorus, which requires so many singers that it has never been performed in public (the only part that has been performed is the introduction for soprano and piano). His third major work was the string quartet Q is Q (1983), which was given its first performance by the Arditti Quartet at the UNM festival in Malmö in 1984. His aim was simply to write the best string quartet in the world. His cocky attitude was patent, and was a source of conflict in his lessons with Gunnar Bucht. That Sten Melin only set the first verse of Edith Södergran’s poem to music was a display of arbitrariness that Bucht found hard to accept, despite Sten Melin’s explanation that the second verse contained an allusion which was so obviously religious that it destroyed the enigmatic quality which had so fascinated him and which he wanted to portray in music. Gunnar Bucht’s comment on the string quartet was: “It’s not a good piece!” Sten Melin’s reply was: “You’re wrong!” Today their relationship is extremely cordial and over the years Sten Melin has come to appreciate Bucht’s candour and decided opinions, which provoked a kind of spontaneous father-son defiance which was highly stimulating.

Gunnar Bucht introduced Brian Ferneyhough to the composition class as a much-appreciated guest lecturer. His brilliant intellect and burning desire to keep as many threads as possible alive in the music – usually referred to as “complexity” – have influenced Sten Melin, perhaps most tangibly in bar 215 of Q is Q where the score is marked Molto brutale sub. presto possibile (Very brutal and suddenly as fast as possible). The resulting music seems to be suspended in mid-air, moving in several directions at the same time.

Another important feature of the lively composition classes was the Iacca Ensemble, which could perhaps be described as a productive reaction to the attitude of certain composers. The expression was invented by Ingvar Karkoff and originally characterised composers from Eastern European countries who compose at airports and dress in loud clothes. In a figurative sense it referred to composers whose music displayed a maximum of expression and a minimum of content. “All stations go. A lot of hot air.” The Iacca Ensemble commissioned works and gave concerts. If a commissioned work didn’t materialise, a work was created in the composer’s name. If you think it sounds like a student prank, let it be said that the concerts were undertaken with great seriousness. If you take it seriously, then you have been taken in by a parody… Other members of the Iacca Ensemble included Peter Bengtson and André Chini. The expression “a genuine Iacca piece” is still in circulation…

The most typical compositional technique in Stockholm around 1980 was process form, with Daniel Börtz and Sven-David Sandström as its leading representatives. It is characterised by constant expansion (or continuous disintegration) in which nothing that has already been heard is permitted to reappear. Instead, the process usually leads into a completely new section, which in its turn generates a new process. This compositional technique is clearly visible in Sten Melin’s first three works, after which it is used more to create a general framework, while the fundamental idea is instead allowed to determine the way the work takes shape. In addition, Sten Melin (with few exceptions) has since become more interested in chamber music and more concentrated forms. However, it is still important to him to preserve the independence of parallel processes, a form of counterpoint that allows one or several instruments to complete an idea without its integrity being threatened by everything else that is going on.

Sonora was written in 1985, the same year that he finished his course at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. The process form is still noticeable in the forward drive of the work and the feeling of expansion, but judging from the liner notes the element of surprise is all-important. The “barbed wire” has a rhetorical eagerness that turns and twists and flattens and stretches the musical expression while the piano moves further and further into space. At this point it is worth drawing attention to Sten Melin’s jazz background, unlike most of his colleagues who played in rock bands in their youth. Take Källarbackvariationer (Källarback Variations, 1993), for example: it has a definite big band flavour. If his string quartet was to be the best in the world, his aim here must have been to write the world’s best encore. The idea of taking the most rustic idea imaginable and giving it a finish that Armani would be proud of is Sten Melin™. He never says no to absurdity – he hasn’t forgotten all the MAD comics he read! Or Russia in the 20s – he once collaborated with Miklos Kundler on an opera based on two short stories by Daniil Charms with a libretto versified by Torbjörn Säfve. The plot: two flashers fall off a roof right into a fruit stall at a market-place… The opera project was abandoned due to lack of funds.

Virtuosity plays a crucial part both in Sonora and in Källarback Variations. It is remarkable how often Sten Melin has worked with top quality performers. His music appeals to musicians with an excess of artistry – it provides a challenge that offers its own rewards. Thus the title of Ce n’est pas possible (It isn’t possible, 1993) is a challenge in itself. The piece is over before one has time to sit back in one’s seat. The surprise element here is that considerably larger dimensions are suggested and many allusions are left unexplored.

A portrait of Sten Melin would not be complete without a reference to his most important work so far, Keep the Change (recorded by the Kammarensemble on the Phono Suecia label, PSCD 120), a massive sonic tapestry inspired both in sound and structure by the practice ofchange-ringing church bells and with an emotional depth which is expressed in a unique fashion. I quote his own comment on the work: “The piece was composed in the spring and summer of 1989. During this period my first child was born, ten weeks premature. The incessant trips between my home and the hospital, between my writing-desk and the incubator – being a parent but not having a baby in the cradle – the feeling of unreality which came over me in the midst of this inferno… During this period my life proceeded at two parallel speeds – the one swift and alert, the other extremely slow and muddled. My inability to separate life and death was ever-present. These impressions have made a strong mark on Keep the Change.”

Sten Melin is one of several composer colleagues whose music has changed since they became fathers (see the comment on Källarback Variations). Not just in a cute way in that one’s egocentricity becomes more manageable, but also in the fact that “As soon as you’ve had a baby you realise how wars start” (Fay Weldon) …

Let us now turn our attention to Sten Melin’s more introvert side, represented on this CD by two works, nänns and hyssj where the small initials provide a key to the character. nänns is a big piece about a small matter. You have to imagine you’re an ant to get the right perspective. It is related to the string quartet, in that passages with longer and longer pauses appear in both scores, but at the same time it also represents a step away from pure process form to a more associative whole. The powerful, unison “scratch-tones” which crop up in nänns after the first of these passages are obviously connected to the origin of the piece: a spring day with strong sunshine melting the last of the snow, lying on a mountain slope and smelling “the scent of last year’s lingonberries thawing”. The baroque instruments create a very special timbre, as do the various performing techniques and articulations which can be traced back to the Baroque era and to contemporary spectral music (the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino): harmonics, trills, glissandi, tremoli, quarter-tones and so on. hyssj (hush, 1995) has a simple structure and exudes peace and tranquillity throughout. The liner notes say it all.

Sten Melins songs differ in certain aspects from his other works. The vocal part is simple and declamatory, interspersed here and there with melismas, while the piano part (which moves freely, independent of the song part) is more reminiscent of his chamber music. Sten Melin asked Folke Isaksson, the great poet from the north of Sweden, to select a number of his poems for a work which had been commissioned for the opening of Kalix library in 1991, and Melin himself then chose two poems from this selection which appealed to him musically. The gentle tone of Lampan (The Lamp) echoes the interplay between the child and the lamp portrayed in the poem. Three things stand out in the composition: the enormous range – three octaves! – of the vocal part, the sudden cascade of notes which accompany the description of the glowing filament and the absurd end where the singer is expected to produce “the last, long rattle”. Sömnlös Odysseus (Sleepless Odysseus) is more like a low-pitched ballad. Below the surface an urgent pulse in the deepest register of the piano drives the music forwards. If Sten Melin makes a point of keeping the harmonies in the piano part separate from the vocal part in The Lamp, the opposite is true of Sleepless Odysseus, in which a f minor tonality is suggested, producing a Nordic tone like updated Rangström. There is also a reference to The Land that is not, a tone poem that unflinchingly portrays the experience recounted in the poem. The moon symbolises death. It appears like a chain of rooms that grow larger and larger and finally end in space. The piano, with its twittering, ecstatic runs, is the bridge that forms a link between the loneliness of the solitary voice and the extra-terrestrial fellowship of the huge choir.

Seven heaven (the composer of this musical outburst is well aware how seventh heaven ought to be spelt…) is the most recently composed work on this CD (1998/99). This is probably the first time “Huliganoso” has ever been used as a musical term to egg on a choir of hooligans whose first intelligible words are: “I like Darmstadt”. In the score the composer has written the following message to the musicians: “This piece can be played on any wind instruments and by any number of players. My only condition is that you don’t cheat where the attitude is concerned.” The unprepared listener may well suspect that the Iacca Ensemble has been resurrected… I think you should listen very carefully and take your time before you make up your mind about the piece. “It’s not what they’re expecting…”

Sten Melin is a man with a wide network of contacts. He has worked as a copyist, he has delivered cars to the north of Sweden, he has been involved in a day-care co-operative and he is fond of gardening. And nowadays, as president of the Society of Swedish Composers, he hatches ideas to try and revitalise composers’ relations with their audiences. If he needs help with something, there always seems to be somebody from Kalix who knows someone else who comes up with the answer. His aesthetic is based on the need for surprise in a work of art. It is the unexpected phases in a process which create the tension that short-circuits expectations, producing that lightning flash which illuminates a work. The promise that every piece makes in the first bar should not be realised in full. His attitude towards compositional techniques is pragmatic. And he is well aware that the musical material must never become more important than the idea or the feeling that makes all the effort worth while.

Hans Gefors