Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving
Karin Rehnqvist was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist), and after numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself. The amateur path she started on actually showed itself to be an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship.
In 1977, one year after Karin Rehnqvist arrived in Stockholm to attend the music education program at the Royal College of Music, she was given the opportunity to lead a newly formed amateur choir Stans Kör (The City’s Choir). Its members were young—the oldest was 26 years old—and Rehnqvist herself was just turning 20. She had virtually no experience leading a choir, although she had been an avid choir singer in her small hometown of Nybro since early childhood. Hardly any of the members had sung in a choir before, and no audition was required. As one former member put it, “We were a bunch of people that you randomly could have picked off the street.” Only a few members could even read music; scores were used almost exclusively for learning the text. Rehearsals were time-consuming, as Rehnqvist typically first sang or played each part on the piano, and the singers imitated her. The members were so inexperienced in following a conductor that it wasn’t even possible to perform a ritardando or an accelerando during the early months of rehearsals.
Despite its musical shortcomings, the choir had its strengths. The choir’s culture emphasized personal engagement and support—members socialized and some, including Rehnqvist, even found their future partners in the choir—and the choir was also democratically organized, with its members taking an active part in decision-making. The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence during the fourteen years Rehnqvist led it. The group was willing to try just about anything and, as it turned out, there was a huge advantage to the tedious rote-learning approach that their lack of musical background required: by the time the members were ready to perform a piece, they had it memorized. Most of their performances came to incorporate theatrical elements and should be better understood as shows than concerts. Although a musically far-from-excellent group, the experience would have an enormous impact on Rehnqvist’s compositional output for the rest of her career. At the time, she had no idea, as her early plans did not include becoming a professional composer. She just needed a job and took advantage of an opportunity.
Here’s a brief example of what a Stans Kör show looked and sounded like by the late ’80s. It’s from Tilt&Mara, given in multiple performances in the Stockholm House of Culture (Kulturhuset) 1988–89. The first excerpt is from a romantic choral piece that’s part of virtually every Swedish choir’s repertoire, Killebukken by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, which sets a Norwegian poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson about a child with a pet lamb (with the morbid ending “gain weight, mom wants you in the soup”). Sweden has a strong choral culture, encompassing church choirs, university choirs, and a few professional or semi-professional groups linked by a common aesthetic: a work like Killebukken is to be performed in a standard mixed-choir set up, standing still on a podium focusing on the intonation and the perfect, homogeneous choral sound, and of course, there’s typically no humor. Stans Kör performed it differently:
As you can hear, even after ten years in existence, the choir sounds far from perfect, but it has something else—an attitude and an artistic vision. The Tilt&Mara show attracted a larger audience than virtually any other choir in Stockholm at the time and received multiple newspaper reviews.
Another example from the same show illustrates the group’s creativity in their choice of repertoire and their ability to create stunning results with limited means. In their performance, Rehnqvist’s interpretation of Francesco Cangillo’s futuristic poem “Canzone pirotecnica” (which was intended to be performed and even includes dynamic markings, but no rhythmic notation) was enhanced by employing flashlights and stage lighting.
Such an adventurous choir attracted creative musicians over the years—not only singers, but also composers, arrangers, and instrumentalists, and several connections and ideas would stay with Rehnqvist throughout her career. (A career that’s still going strong by the way; she’s turning 60 this year and is as productive as ever, having recently completed commissions from the German contemporary music group ensemble recherche in Freiburg and the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future pedagogical commission project.) Her style has been consistent through the years, firmly anchored in Swedish folk music—an interest shared by virtually no other Swedish composer born after 1945. Her collaboration with numerous women folk singers made her adapt the style and mode of performance in an innovative manner—for example, the non-vibrato sound production and use of micro-intervals—as in her breakthrough piece Davids nimm (1984) for which she transcribed a Swedish traditional song, a polska, backwards and expanded it into a three-part composition for three women (two sopranos and one alto). She has also embraced motherhood in her work and emphasized how important her three children have been to her compositional output, including composing songs to texts by them. Other works are explicitly feminist, in particular Timpanum Songs—Herding Calls (1989) for two folk singers and percussion. In this piece she quotes misogynic Finnish proverbs about women to turn them into powerful feminist statements.
In a large number of her works—both choral works and chamber compositions, for professionals and amateurs alike—she continues the practice of staging the performances, often by very simple means, such as employing a lighting designer or requiring simple choreography or acting from the musicians. Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces. An approach she took a few times with great success was to combine existing works, add a few connecting movements, and present a staged performance. Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the Angel with the Fiery Hands, 1990–2005), for example, is a collection of choral compositions to which she added a few new pieces featuring voice and instruments. As with the Stans Kör productions, the choir had to memorize the repertoire for this almost hour-long performance. The result is visually quite striking, as in Ling Linge Logen, performed by the choir La Cappella, conducted by Karin Eklundh.
One of her most innovative works, När korpen vitnar (When the Raven Black Turns White, 2007), for folk singer and chamber group, is also semi-staged with very simple means: the instrumental ensemble has to memorize a few sections so that they can become active participants on stage, as they join together with the singer to depict the witch hunt process in Sweden during the 17th century—one in particular during which 91 people, mostly women, were decapitated and burned in the biggest peace-time execution in Sweden’s history. In this work, she connected her strong feminist strand with her interest in folk singing and folklore.
This piece was part of a larger outreach project, Häxbrand (Witch Fire, 2008), in which Rehnqvist collaborated with folksinger Ulrika Bodén, the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sundsvall, and students from Mid Sweden University. The students—who were education students and not music students—came up with ideas such as “The Witch’s Flight Theme,” which were translated into musical gesture and arranged into a complete work. The reason for engaging future teachers was to awaken their interest in music. The idea was that if art music and other cultural institutions are to reach the children in schools, teachers’ attitudes toward culture are crucial. As Rehnqvist put it, “The idea is that composition is not a divine intervention but a craft and that the teachers should take the child’s way of working.”
There is another important effect of Rehnqvist’s many years of outreach, beyond developing her own creativity: she gained a reputation as being an approachable team player, which resulted in a number of commissions, including several for children’s and girls’ choirs—especially her work with Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir, a choir at the Adolf Fredrik music magnet school in Stockholm—in which she was able to develop her feminist approach into an expression of girl power, as in the ironic introduction to Hörru Veckorevyn, a piece that mocks the body-image obsessions in teenage magazines: “Don’t kill love by eating chocolate, have licorice. Leaner thighs, eat algae. Do you also want a sexy ass, take a cold shower.” In her children’s opera Sötskolan (The Beauty School, 1999), the main character—eleven-year-old Bella—has to overcome demands to become well-behaved and pretty in time for her mother to remarry.
In several works, the results went beyond the theatrical and political: In the musically stunning Light of Light (2003) for girls’ choir and symphony orchestra, the clear, shimmering, perfectly-in-tune and vibrato-free choral sound set to texts from the Book of Proverbs and the Swedish hymnal contrasts the dark orchestral texture. This is simply a type of work she would not have written without her collaboration with children and young adults. In her work for children she shows that she takes them seriously; she believes they are able to deal with difficult existential questions, often about life and death.
Rehnqvist also received a large number of other engagements, such as guest lecturing and leading composition workshops with children and high school students. One such workshop, which became particularly well known, included a capstone experience of students writing for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. These engagements were much needed since she worked exclusively as a freelance composer until 2009 when she became professor and head of composition at the Royal College of Music, a job she secured to a large extent thanks to the experience she gained through her large-scale projects and teaching outreach. During her time there, she has continued to develop the composition curriculum through projects and interaction with professional and amateur ensembles and musicians inside and outside the institution. Virtually everything the composition students produce is done with a particular ensemble and a set performance date in mind.
The amateur path Rehnqvist started on became an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship. And in contrast to her generational colleagues, she was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist). On the contrary, she is proud of it. After numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.
Given that Sweden is a country with a population of only some ten million and an extensive public network of public support for artists, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons between Sweden and the United States. But two of the main takeaways that could be applied to both countries are that: 1) there can be immense benefits to working outside the institutional framework of a major arts organization or a university; and 2) there should be no stigma associated with working with amateurs. Creative impulses from outside the “classical” mainstream can be liberating. In Rehnqvist’s case, her on-going collaboration with Stans Kör contributed to the development of an artistic vision tied not to virtuosity and musical perfection, but rather to accessibility and engagement. These ideals are evident throughout her career, notably in her embrace of the idea of writing for a range of specific rather than idealized performers and ensembles.
Indeed, the Rehnqvist case suggests that success feeds success and support can go both ways: composers who embrace and support their own communities can gain something incredibly valuable from it.
Per F. Broman is professor and associate dean at Bowling Green State University, College of Musical Arts. He has published extensively on Swedish music, including the chapter “New Music of Sweden” for New Music in the Nordic Countries (Pendragon Press, 2002), a monograph on composer Sven-David Sandström (Atlantis, 2012), and an article about the reception of ABBA during the 1970s (Journal of Popular Music Studies, 2005).
A shorter version of this text was originally read at the New Music Gathering at Bowling Green State University on May 7, 2017, in a session titled “Support.” It incorporates material from my forthcoming biography on Rehnqvist, published in Swedish by The Royal Academy of Music and Atlantis.
 The title alludes to two pieces performed, Rehnqvist’s TILT and Mara Mara Minne by Arne Mellnäs.
 See Rebecca Sleeman’s dissertation “Feminist Musical Aesthetic in the Choral Music of Karin Rehnqvist” (University of Iowa, 2002) and Per F. Broman, “Gender, Ideology, and Structure: Pedagogical Approaches to the Music of Karin Rehnqvist,” College Music Symposium 44 (2004): 15–27.