The sensory spaces of Malin Bång

Interviews 31.03.2023

The Swedish composer Malin Bång inaugurates spring with a rich news : on one hand, the piece for instruments and objects Inuti, premiered on March 24 in Strasbourg by the ensemble lovemusic in the framework of Botanica, and broadcasted the same week on France Musique, on the other hand, the stage music Judith's Gaze - I, volcanic on a libretto by Mara Lee Gerden - the contemporary counterpart of Béla Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle - that she will present on April 19 at the Folkoperan in Stockholm.
A perfect opportunity to meet this solar composer, with an infectious serenity.

Malin you came to France to participate in the creation of your piece Inuti by the collective lovemusicWhat is your relationship with France and the French contemporary music scene?
I lived in Paris for a year a long time ago, in 1996. It was a parenthesis in my music studies. I wanted to experience something else. It's a very nice memory: I took a few French classes, I went to concerts, I attended seminars on composition at the CNSMdP... At that time, I took a class with Gérard Grisey, even though I personally have no affinity with spectral music.
I also participated in the Académie Voix Nouvelles de Royaumont. It was a valuable experience because I was able to meet many French composers. Then I came back to France for a composition residency at the Cité des Arts in 2010. I am always happy to come to Paris for a while!

Apart from lovemusic have you had other collaborations with French ensembles in the past?
A few years ago, I had the chance to work with the Ensemble 2e2m. At Royaumont, during the academy, my music was played by the ensemble Cairn.
Moreover, during my composition studies, I also took part in the summer academy of the Ensemble Aleph: it was a very inspiring experience. I met many young composers from all over the world.

Before creating Inuti for France musique  lovemusic had played two of your pieces, I believe?
Yes, but I had not been able to attend the concerts. This time, we got to know each other. I really like the spirit of this collective, because it is very close to the one of the group I created in Stockholm, Sweden: theCurious Chamber Players. Both groups have the same way of choosing music, the same curiosity, the same will to experiment, to embrace the most diverse musical styles. Another common point is the fact that they are a group of friends, brought together by the pleasure of creating together, with also this joy, this happiness of sharing simple things of the everyday life: a meal for example!
The only difference is that Curious Chamber Playersis a directed ensemble. It is my husband Rei Munakata who conducts the ensemble. He is also a composer and plays objects, depending on the configuration. 

How long has this ensemble existed?
The ensemble was born in 2003. We had all just finished our studies at the conservatory. We already had projects in progress and we wanted to have a structure to make them live. The idea came to propose to all our musician friends to join us in this ensemble. The group was born like that. Of course, the group has undergone some transformations in its composition because of certain changes in our lives - we were young - but today we are a very close-knit group, driven by the same passion for creation. We bring a lot to each other.

Are you several composers in the ensemble?
There is Rei and me, but we collaborate with many other composers.

Do you play an instrument in this band?
Sometimes I play acoustic objects. I started music as a child with piano and violin, then viola, but very soon, in composition; I was looking for sounds that are not found on traditional musical instruments; I wanted to enrich my sound palette. So I started to introduce objects, and the most convenient was that I played them myself! That's how I started to manipulate objects on stage.

When did the desire to compose your own music become a reality?
The desire to write my own music came quite early, and gradually. I remember feeling the desire to play the piano when I was six years old. I told my parents, "we need a piano". So they found a piano...
Then came the music lessons at school. Very quickly I thought that music was what I wanted to do in life, even if I didn't know yet what form it would take.
I liked playing the piano. I was attracted by timbre music, Debussy's piano music for example. A little later, I spontaneously went towards more contemporary music. At school, with friends, we liked to organize performances that combined music and theater. I believe that the joy of creating was born from these performances. Later on, as a teenager, I opened up to different styles of stage music: jams, opera, musicals... I was very impressed by all these approaches to music, and I really wanted to go in that direction, but to do that, I had to learn composition first! I started composing more consciously in high school. In fact, from the age of sixteen, I didn't stop writing music.

You said you manipulate objects on stage. Indeed, you often introduce objects in the instrumental and scenic staff. You like noisy, blown, rubbed sounds. Friction seems to me to be a characteristic of your music...
The way I organize my sound materials is often related to the presence or absence of friction, and the spectrum is wide: it can go from air coming out of our lips (no friction in such sounds), to sounds that contain a lot of friction and require a lot of physical force. These are very different energies.
I have the same kind of relationship to pitches. When you have to sing a high note for example, it requires a lot of energy, a lot of friction, as opposed to playing on the breath, pianissimo. 

Does this mean that you think of music primarily in terms of friction and movement? What role does the tension-relaxation binomial play in the music you imagine?
One does not prevent the other. I also like the classical relationship of tension and relaxation within a work, but I displace it, because it is not the pitches that interest me. During my studies, I tried to imagine harmonic progressions that brought this kind of tension, but in reality I realized that I don't listen to music in this way at all. I have found it liberating to use the sounds for themselves, and for their physical movement: I am interested in how the sound evolves, and how I can suggest that movement in my music.
Often I am looking for sounds that have "elastic" qualities, that can appear pianissimo and in the background at first, only to develop and contain a lot of energy at the right moment.

In many of your works, you use the voice, the breath of the instrumentalists.
The use of the musicians' voices has developed over the years, because of the physicality of the instrumental sounds and the objects I add, and also to obtain a relationship between the musician's body and his instrument. In fact, the breath was naturally introduced into the playing, and also the voice, as if to support the instrumental sound.

Inuti is a work that solicits the musicians' voices, their breath, and also the manipulation of objects. It is a tactile, sensory piece that seems to correspond to the need to return to some fundamentals?
Indeed! The central idea of this piece is the connection of our body with the outside world through contact, through the senses. It is a path between the inside of our bodies and the outside of the world. It is a form of manifesto, a way to express my frustration with the importance of digital technology, with these increasingly commercial platforms that intrude into our lives and divert our attention, as soon as we open a page on the web. Even though we are all aware of the danger, we let ourselves be caught up in it!
With this composition, I tried to focus on our sensory experiences: what happens when we touch the surface of a wooden box, of a musical instrument... Or what happens in our mouth when we play a wind instrument, when we try to say something with our mouth closed... How we feel the contact of a twig on our skin, our hand, our cheek...
I think I also needed that in my personal evolution. I wanted to open a different space, more interior, far from the rumor and the agitation of the canvas. 

Nature, plants often appear in your music in one way or another. In Inuti for example, the musicians have to handle twigs of willow, eucalyptus, reed...
My interest in nature has grown a lot in the last years. I have read a lot of books about the life of plants, about how they communicate. There are a lot of books on this subject, and it's fascinating. In 2015-16, I wrote Kutzu, a piece named after an Asian climbing plant. In this composition, I wanted to explore the existing relationships between plants and humans in the context of climate change. The fact is that plants have a great capacity to adapt. They communicate so well too! They even have a form of solidarity: it is said that some plants come to the rescue of other plants. Finally, the plant world is much more resistant than humans... Through these readings, I have learned to respect plants more and more! And since we talk a lot today about climate change, we could learn a few lessons from the resistance of the plant world: on how it functions, adapts, communicates and lasts. These questions have become more and more important to me.

In Inuti, you denounce the weight of the digital and the importance that platforms have taken in our daily lives. In your 2015 orchestra page, splinters of ebullient rebellion, you were interested in the fact that an isolated individual could contribute to changes in society, thanks to social networks. These questions seem to occupy you a lot?
The composition can be a diary in which we write what happens in our everyday life, what concerns us. When I composed this orchestral page, the context was very different from today. I didn't have this negative view of the digital world yet.
At that time, digital platforms really allowed people to disagree, to mobilize for a cause. It was a tool for political discussion. Some societal changes could be made via the voice of the citizens. All it took was for someone to speak out, and it was like a spark that ignited chain reactions around the world. These courageous initiatives for more freedom are fundamental!
The central theme of this orchestra piece is precisely the relationship between the individual and the collective. The collective is symbolized here by the orchestra. Seen from the outside, the orchestra is a very hierarchical structure, but seen from the inside, it is made up of the addition of individuals with their own convictions. The combination of these two situations interests me a lot!
So in this splinters of ebullient rebellion page, some musicians express themselves in a personal way. At other times, they are the voice of authority. I wanted to play on this ambivalence of roles.

You experience the relationship between the individual and the collective through your dual activity: on the one hand, composition - a rather solitary practice - and on the other hand, collective life as the artistic co-director of an ensemble. How do you find the balance between these two poles?
It is very important to find the balance between the two! The balance can vary from one period of life to another. For a few years, when I was composing and performing with the Curious Chamber Players, I was able to find that balance, but once I started composing long orchestral pieces, things got out of balance, because it's a long term job. I had to spend a lot of hours at the table, which I also enjoy immensely, but after a while, in spite of yourself, you are cut off from the world! That's why, at such times, contact with my students has been salutary: my activity as a teacher has allowed me to rediscover this balance between the inner and the outer world.

Interview by Anne Montaron

To be seen on April 19 at Folkoperan in Stockholm, Judith's Gaze - I, volcanic
To listen to : Inuti on France Musique 

Photos © lovemusic