Outcast by the classical fraternity in his native Sweden, Stig Miölssön has come to Britain in search of acceptance for his revolutionary ideas. Tim Goodyer learns about cut-up classics.
When you're one of the most controversial forces in Swedish music and have a revolutionary new instrument, only one thing in life is certain: nobody loves you.
IT IS USUAL, when a new instrument is invented, for that instrument to inspire innovations in music. It is a rare occurrence that an instrument should be invented to fulfil a musical need. Yet this, simply, is the story behind Stig Miölssön's Solsken.
Although a recognised and well-respected, if controversial, musician in his native Sweden, Miölssön has yet to receive the same level of recognition throughout the rest of the world. And this situation seems destined to change only slowly as he invariably turns his attention to the challenging fringe areas of music rather than indulging himself in the attention that accompanies mainstream success. That said, if any of Miölssön's activities to date is likely to gain him notoriety abroad, his use of the Solsken is the one.
The history of the Solsken (pronounced soolshien), begins with Miölssön's presence at the '87 DMC convention. There he saw people taking commercially available records and making new music from them with the help of a pair of turntables and a small disco mixer. In so doing they were availing themselves not only of other musicians' playing skills (on which much of the current controversy is centred) but the ingenuity of other composers and the facilities of studios all over the world. The idea intrigued Miölssön, but his classical background left him thinking along entirely different lines to the DJs he'd seen mixing and scratching in London.
For Miölssön, there were greater possibilities for the DJs' mixing skills than dance music. More specifically he wanted to combine classical music with his own ideas, but instead of composing variations he decided to take existing recordings and treat them in his own inimitable style. To this end he needed to be able to take analogue recordings of music and manipulate them, as he'd seen DJs do, and also add to them with his own instruments.
Regardless of his years spent studying piano at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music, recent years had seen Miölssön's interest in high technology grow alongside his awareness of contemporary music. Sitting in his private recording studio in the fashionable Sodertelja suburb of Stockholm, he had a Roland Super Jupiter, Yamaha TX802, Emulator III, Akai S900 and Roland TR707, 727 and 808 drum machines all under the control of a Yamaha QX1 sequencer. All that was required was a means of linking this equipment to the turntables that had accompanied him on his return from London.
Enter Anne Sofie Eriksson, electronics specialist and long-standing cohort of the illustrious Stig Miölssön. Presented with the problem of syncing together a mechanical turntable and sequencer, she devised a system that could derive a sync code from the record deck and use it to control Miölssön's QX1. In so doing she had made Miölssön's ideas a viable proposition.
The first work to result from Miölssön's use of his Solsken was a piece entitled The Dream of Solsken. Inspired by Sir Edward Elgar's own comment on his score for The Dream of Gerontius, "This, if anything of mine, is worthy of your memory", Miölssön had chosen to remember it with a rework that drew on excerpts from Sir Adrian Boult's recorded version, and elaborated upon it with his synthesisers. Within the classical fraternity the work was regarded as nothing short of sacrilege. His record company withdrew his contract and the Swedish branch of the MU expelled him. Miölssön remains unrepentant.
"This is the way forward I see for the classics", he says from atop a piano in the foyer of one of London's more exclusive hotels. "It is not enough simply to reinterpret the works of composers like Elgar, we must take from them ideas and give back new music."
Miölssön's presence in London is part of his now annual pilgrimage to attend the DMC competition. Later this evening, as DJs from all over the world demonstrate their virtuosity with a pair of Technics SL1200 turntables, the Swede will be looking for new techniques to incorporate into his Att tar Bitar approach to writing.
The Dream of Solsken, hurriedly re-released on Miölssön's on hastily established Skruv Mejsel label was just the start. His work soon began in earnest on SlÃ¤gga, as Miölssön has christened his new musical movement.
"There was right and there was wrong in The Dream", he explains. "I had to go on to explore the possibilities of the music. With 'Also In C' I set out to put all that was wrong with The Dream right, but of course, it cannot be done - it takes time. For six months I work on 'Also In C', and now I am using the TR707 as well as the synthesisers. This is the first time a drum machine appears in classical music. I make it a lot shorter and not so close to the original piece."
'Also In C' is taken from the third movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in C minor, as recorded by Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink. Here Miölssön has enlarged upon the opening cello lines with synthesised flutes and added a bizarre percussive element with the TR707.
"You see, the cello lines are meant to sound machine-like because the music is about war", he continues, "and so I added more machinery with the drums. The cellos, to me, sound like samples already, so the result reminds me a lot of what popular music is doing with its sounds. The theme of the symphony is war and yet I'm having fun with it, perhaps more fun than the kids with their pop music."
Since the exploratory steps of The Dream of Solsken and 'Also In C', Miölssön's compositions have become more refined. 'The Fifth Season' and 'Scherzo: Vivace' displayed the composer's ability to incorporate a variety of classical styles into Slagga, while 'Fortune' (taken from the opening section of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (perhaps better recognised as the theme to the film The Omen) - found itself containing sections of Michael Jackson's 'Speed Demon'.
"You don't know this, but there's only a couple of beats per minute difference between them - I think they are 138 and 14Obpm, something like that. With a little pitch shifting, the two pieces fit together som magiskt. The title I take from Orff's title '0 Fortuna' and the fortune with which the pieces of music are matched."
The critics continue to criticise and Miölssön happily continues to offend.
"In my studio at home I am making a recording using Satie's 'Gymnopodies'", Miölssön announces proudly. "In this I take the gentle piano music of Satie and add some samples - like Brian Eno and David Byrne did with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. So many sampling records are angry that I want to make a happy one, so I take music that you don't have in pop music and add some samples I take off television commercials. Do you know the happiest music is in commercials? 'Do the Shake 'n' Vac and put the freshness back...' 'They're tasty, tasty, very very tasty, they're very tasty...' 'She won't make a racket, as long as it says Walkers on the packet...' They're the happy tunes. If you listen to the words from the commercials but forget what they actually say, you find little bits of happiness you can put into your own music. I am stealing the happiness they're using to sell their products and I am giving it away with my recording."
ON THE TECHNICAL side, Miölssön is as quick to praise his Steinway grand piano as his TR808 or his Emulator. They are all simply instruments to him, as is the Solsken.
As Eriksson is only too happy to explain, the Solsken works by generating a sync code from the rotating turntable with the help of an optical sensor. The sensor reads light reflected from the stroboscope bands around the edge of the platter (the same bands that are used to accurately set the turntable speed). This information is then converted into FSK timecode that the sequencer and drum machines read. The principle is simple but there is one complication.
"The problem Stig brings to me is a simple one of timing. Mind you, most of Stiggy's problems have to do with his timing", says the attractive blonde in even more broken English than Miölssön. "All Stig needs was an easy box to make his grammafon talk happily to his sequencers. I take a few bobs and bits I have lying around and precis!, I have made the Solsken.
"It is a nice machine that we have much interest in Sweden. Already many people are wanting my services."
"To begin with, we had much trouble getting the records and the sequences to start together", recalls Miölssön. "The machines would run in time but they wouldn't start at the same time. Anne Sofie spent many problems here."
The solution to the problem turned out to be simpler than she or Miölssön suspected.
"I scratch all my records", he reveals with a laugh. "It's true - all my records I must scratch if I am to use them with the Solsken! If there is an audio event - a scratch - some place before the music begins, I can make an offset for the sequencer so both musics begin at once. But you must be careful to have only one scratch or things they don't go well."
But why go to so much trouble with turntables when much of what Miölssön has achieved could have been done with a sampler?
"The sampler's sounds are its own", comes the reply from atop the piano. "The records and the samples don't sound the same and they don't play the same. When I want to scratch in a chord from Stravinsky I do it with the orchestra on the record, not with a copy of the orchestra on the record. If I could do it with the orchestra itself I would do it. I try once with the orchestra in Sweden. I hire them into the studio and I play them some records and a sample from the Fairlight and say 'we play these!'. But the orchestra don't like what I do so they leave. They don't even try. How can classical musicians say technology steals their jobs when they won't even try? Perhaps I don't buy their records any more."
TODAY IN SWEDEN, hundreds of young musicians are using Miölssön's and Eriksson's Solsken design to sync turntables, sequencers and drum machines to produce just the sort of music Miölssön is anxious to avoid.
"The trouble is it's so easy", he says. "Anne Sofie's design is so simple anyone that can use a soldering iron can give to their record player the Solsken. In Sweden the circuit was printed in a magazine and the next thing we know we're receiving all sorts of pop and rock and dance music for the record label from the young music makers. Of course we cannot release it because it is not in the interests of Slagga that the label supports such music. But there are labels in Sweden now putting out what they're calling Rispa - the popular version of Slagga, if you like. Some of it's very good too; you could do with it over here instead of this Reynold Girls nonsense.
When have I heard such skit - such silliness?" When indeed, Stig, my old son?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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