Tag: amature

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

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.

The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence.

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.

Karin Rehnqvist

Karin Rehnqvist conducts her own Here Is the Music! for the inauguration of the new Royal College of Music buildings in 2017. Photo by Lena Tollstoy.

Here’s a brief example of what a Stans Kör show looked and sounded like by the late ’80s. It’s from Tilt&Mara,[1] 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.[2]

Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces.

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.

Movement 2 “Recitative for a downhearted cow” from When the Raven Black Turns White. Ulrika Bodén, voice, The Nordic Chamber Ensemble.

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.

She didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

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

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.

[1] The title alludes to two pieces performed, Rehnqvist’s TILT and Mara Mara Minne by Arne Mellnäs.

[2] 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.

Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center

Nestled in the picturesque Wellesley College campus each summer is the Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center, a two-week meeting of composers, professional performers, and dedicated amateur players who come together to live and breathe chamber music old and new. I was fortunate to have been invited to be a fellow at Wellesley in the summer of 2012 and to have been asked to return as a commissioned composer this summer, so let’s start with that full disclosure. The conference is among the old guard of summer composer institutes and will celebrate its 70th anniversary next summer. Headed by Mario Davidovsky for nearly 40 years, the primary goal of the conference is to provide emerging composers with an opportunity to work with some of the best players from New York and Boston and to have their works performed and professionally recorded.
To say that my time at the conference was positive is an understatement, but let’s talk for a moment about what goes on there. During the program, the fellows participate in daily forums in which they present and discuss their music with each other and the guest composers. Formal presentations concerning technique, performance practice, pet peeves, etc. are made by the staff instrumentalists, but the atmosphere is such that informal conversations during meals are common as well. Afternoons are populated with rehearsals for the various concerts that are held over the two-week period. The Wednesday and Saturday night concerts are the main shows and feature two or three works by the fellows, as well as a variety of works from the canon.

Fellows check out a few scores

Fellows check out a few scores.
Photos by Andrew Sigler, except as noted.

Composers may write for any combination of the available instrumentation. This varies slightly from year to year but includes virtually all traditional instruments (though no harp presently, for instance) and tops out at chamber orchestra. The players are extraordinary and approach each piece with enthusiasm. Though the conference is all about new music, the concerts feature new works alongside well-known (and occasionally obscure) pieces from a variety of periods. When I attended the first Wednesday concert last summer I was preoccupied with the fact that my piece was going to be played that evening; I was sweating bullets, no doubt. When I sat down and looked at the program, I saw the other works to be played and initially thought, “Okay, a little Schumann, some Bach, some guy I’ve never heard of from the early 18th century. I’m sure it will be lovely, but aren’t we all here for the new stuff?” Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to hear just another run-through of one of the Brandenburg’s; I was going to hear a really good version of it. It added a whole new element of excitement and anticipation to the proceedings, and the players (while certainly top-notch new music performers) were also impeccable interpreters of the canon.

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel's work Even Exchange

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel’s work Even Exchange

Thursday nights are reserved for presentations by the guest composers. Though these composers typically change from year to year, it just so happened that both years I’ve attended the guest composers have been Melinda Wagner and Eric Chasalow. The presentations typically involve a discussion of the composer’s life and work as well as a live performance of at least one work, as well as recordings of previous works. They are, like all of the concerts, free and open to the public. Wagner’s live piece, Wick for Pierrot plus percussion, was fast and furious with only a brief respite while Miranda Cuckson’s performance of Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap exhibited her deft technique alongside his rhythmically complex fixed media. Past guest composers at the conference have included Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman, John Harbison, Lee Hyla, Earl Kim, Donald Martino, David Rakowski, Shulamit Ran, Gunther Schuller, Joan Tower, George Walker, Ollie Wilson, Charles Wuorinen, and Chen Yi.

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the Meet The Composer evening

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the “Meet the Composer” evening

One of the particularly fun moments early on in the conference was when the group of fellows learned that public speaking was part of the fellowship. Tuesday nights are the “Meet the Composer” nights, and there’s nothing like a putting the spotlight on a bunch of nervous composers who spend much of their time working alone. Though the law of averages would seem to dictate a few awkward moments, all of the composers gave compelling snapshots of their backgrounds, the pieces to be performed at the conference, and their plans for the future. It’s good that these presentations happen relatively early in the conference as it presents an opportunity for the amateur players (“ammys” as they’re affectionately known around the campus) to get to know the composers and perhaps get a snippet of information that might spark a conversation at lunch. It’s been a long-standing goal to introduce the ammys to new music, since very few of them perform it with any regularity. The Chamber Music Center portion of the Wellesley experience is largely a separate entity in which these talented amateurs typically spend one of the two weeks (they rarely attend for both weeks) being coached by the professional players in several ensembles.

Chris Gross leads an "ammy" rehearsal

Chris Gross leads an “ammy” rehearsal
Photo by by Kathryn Welter

In 1987, the Chamber Music Center instituted a commission to be fulfilled by one of the ten fellows from the previous year. A panel of the ammys selects the composer to be commissioned. The first winner was Lee Hyla, and though his piece Anhinga was written for amateur players, it was well-received by the professional players as well and picked for performance more than once! Among the players I worked with on the commissioned piece this summer was violinist Joseph Singer. Joe has participated in the Chamber Music Center for 26 years and provided me with the following anecdote concerning his and other ammys growth as a result of the conference:

About fifteen years ago, one of the coaches was tired of hearing the amateurs complain about the new music and how dissonant it was. We came to the coaching session (the Scherzo of a Beethoven string quartet) and the coach gave us a line of music he asked us to play. We played it and were perplexed. It sounded familiar; it was the last line of the Scherzo but different; it was the same piece but it wasn’t the same piece. It was awful; it was sickly sweet and boring. “What did you do?” we asked. “You murdered Beethoven!” He smiled. “I changed eight notes,” he said. One by one he changed them back and we played the line each time, and each time it got better and better.
He was trying to make a point. Some of us thought we did not like dissonance, but he was showing us that what made the music beautiful, poignant, moving, what made it move forward and made us want to hear what was next, was—dissonance. It was the notes that did not “belong” that impelled the music forward and created tension that could then be resolved. So it was the structure that created expectations mixed with the dissonance that disrupted them, and all of this shaping moments in time.


Composer Jenny Beck, a 2013 Wellesley fellow, said of the experience, “The best part…for me was the emphasis placed on getting a good performance and a stellar recording of the pieces we had written. I think I can comfortably say that this was the best experience I’ve had working with an ensemble. Not only were they remarkably capable, but to have them display such commitment to the success of each piece was inspiring. James Baker’s rehearsal process is brilliant, and he seemed to know exactly what I wanted and what I was trying to do in the music without my having to say much. Finally, the recording engineer [Anthony Di Bartolo] handed my recording to me immediately after the concert: a flash drive containing the dress rehearsal and concert, broken down for mixing and also mixed together for immediate listening. You know how frustrating it can be to wait for a recording; it was really nice to skip that part.”

The flash drive was a new addition this year, but I can attest to the high quality of the performance and recording, as well to having been amazed that I got my recording (a fully printed disc with numbered tracks and the Composers Conference logo to boot) during intermission! The methodology of running and recording the dress rehearsal is the result of years of experience on the part of both Baker and Di Bartolo. Baker doesn’t simply run the works once or twice, he makes sure that each section is recorded such that alternative takes are available (and more easily spliceable) in the event that there are any issues with the live performance.

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks's music

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks’s music

Again, the stated purpose of the conference is to provide the fellows with quality performances and recordings of their works, and if that was the extent of the offerings it would be time well spent. But the connections and friendships that are made are a large part of what I took from my time at Wellesley. I truly anticipated a more adversarial environment in which various camps and dogmas played a larger role, and while all the composers had distinctive sounds and strong personal opinions, the overall tone was supportive and genuinely inquisitive. Most people seemed as interested in hearing and learning about other people’s work as they were in discussing their own. The daily schedule was also thoughtfully constructed. A three-hour morning seminar (with coffee break!) followed by lunch, three hours of rehearsals for the fellows’ works (attendance encouraged but not required), dinner, then a concert or presentation provided just enough structure to keep us focused. But it was flexible enough that we could take care of upcoming projects, get in some practice, or just take in the picture postcard that is the Wellesley campus.

To cap it all off, there are the infamous nightly parties which are held in one of the larger rooms in the same dormitory where fellows, players, and amiss alike retire in the evening. Like any conference, having a few hours to unwind with your colleagues after a long day provides the perfect opportunity to really let one’s hair down. Discussions veer away from music in particular to life in general and back again. It was particularly nice to have frank, workaday conversations about gardening, exercise, and cooking with people who had negotiated one gnarly nested tuplet after another just an hour before.  War stories from the road gave way to the challenges of raising a family while maintaining a career. I heard more than one story about the role that Skype played in traveling musicians’ lives; about the quick and often harried trip to or from a concert to make sure that time with a partner or child would not be missed. These shifts from the sublime to the daily grind are not part of every career, and in the world of art the focus is typically on the former and rarely on the latter.  The Wellesley Composers Conference puts a frame around all aspects of this path, providing perspective on our present condition and giving insight into our future.

Have Some Fun

Every fall since I began teaching at SUNY Fredonia, I’ve been asked to come speak to the School of Music’s Freshman Seminar class in order to let them know about our composition program. In addition to the real advantage of connecting with students who are interested in composition but either did not make it into the program or hadn’t considered studying it full-time, it also allows me to speak to the many performance and music education majors. Not only do I encourage these students to collaborate with composition majors as instrumentalists, singers, and conductors, but I always take the opportunity to encourage them to try composing themselves, especially if they’ve never done it before. “One does not need to be a poet in order to enjoy writing poetry,” is something I always tell them.

These yearly talks I have with 18-year-old students propelled me to take the opportunity to speak in a similar manner to professional music educators, first at the NYSSMA Winter Conference (New York State’s “all-state” convention) and now at regional and national conferences like the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME) Eastern Division Conference. The main gist of my presentation has been to encourage music teachers to begin to compose, something most of them have never tried outside of an occasional theory homework assignment. I explain that there are many reasons why composing can be helpful to educators, from giving them a much stronger context through which they can interpret the works of others to improving their skills in sight-reading and rhythmic comprehension. And with such a foundation, they can better work with their own students who want to try their hand at writing music.

But I also tell them that they should do it because it’s fun.

Having fun, or composing simply for the intrinsic enjoyment of creation, isn’t something that’s discussed much in education or composition circles, but I think it should be. Teachers tend to think that composing is something that is a mystery, an alchemical process in which they are, by default, not worthy to participate. Composers tend not to think in quite such esoteric terms, but I would wager that most would subscribe to the notion that there are too many aspiring composers out there already and they might question the notion of encouraging a large population of professional educators to dive into the composing pool.

To consider it another way, most of us look at professional composers in the same way that the sports world looks at specialists such as fencers: we can understand the basic concept of the sport (once it’s explained to us every four years during the Olympics), but very few of us ever get the chance to try such an activity. Most of us don’t meet fencers at parties or in the grocery store, and while there are fencing clubs around the country, the sport does not have the popularity of golf or tennis or even chess. I suppose what I am doing is asking why composing can’t be more like golf or chess. Very few will ever hope to reach the level of true masters, but the activity itself is still seen as an enjoyable pastime.

I guess the question at the heart of the matter is what is more important: the act of musical creation or the final product. For those of us whose livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our creative work, then the final product is, of course, a very high priority. But one might suggest that allowing and encouraging others to partake in the act of creation–whether or not the final product is performed publicly, used as an exercise in a classroom, or simply listened to in private–is both worthwhile and important for the future of our art.