In these times of performance-obsessed parents anxiously drilling their children in classical music from an early age, Britta Byström’s background feels rather liberating. Her family was not musical and, just like her classmates, she did not begin music lessons until she was ten, at which point the trumpet was her instrument of choice.
“My interest in music was quickly awakened in the musical environment of the municipal music school in Sundsvall,” she recalls. “It provided good soil for me to grow in.”
Gradually, Britta started to write her own music. Trumpet tunes evolved into major works, and in the end she started composing for her own teenage orchestra. When she was sixteen she won a composition competition arranged by Umeå Symphony Orchestra.
Britta was accepted onto the composition programme at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm at the relatively young age of 18. She fell immediately for the potential of the symphony orchestra, and has since written over 20 works for this setting. It was also in the tonal palette of the symphony orchestra that she found her own sound.
“I knew early on where I wanted to be, but it took years of composition for me to get there,” she says. “One milestone was when I wrote a piece for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2000, and found the perfect interaction between pitch and timbre, a level where these two things are inseparable. I’ve since built upon this ideal.”
So how does the Byströmian sound sound? Like so much contemporary classical music, hers is based on timbre and non-tonal concoctions of major and minor.
“I work in quite an unstructured way, complicating and distorting the sounds as I advance ear-first towards my goal. To borrow a fine art term, you could say that my music is non-figurative.”
Critics have called her work “palpably beautiful”; she herself would prefer adjectives like “light” and “sonorous”, attributes that she achieves with the help of multiple overtones.
“It’s the overtones that give my music that glittery quality that possibly makes you hear it as less dissonant than it might actually be,” she says.
Another typical Byströmian ingredient is the long reverb. A clashing cymbal is seldom dampened, its reverberations being woven into the notes and sounds that follow. The same applies to the pizzicato effect of plucked strings. However, the many decays can sometimes be a headache during recording.
“I’ve only really realised how important the reverbs were to my music when we’re recording a piece. Because you can’t just edit it anywhere, you have to get longer pieces right in one take, otherwise the effect is ruined.”
Intuition plays a big part in Britta’s compositional process, which often begins with an imagined sound that at the moment of inception is more of a pitchless timbre. It is then a matter of finding music that has the right vibe.
But when it comes to the actual pen-work, intuition no longer suffices. Discipline and structure are called for, which she takes in her stride.
“A normal working day might involve me dropping off and picking up my kids from nursery. And in between those two times I do as much work as I can manage.”
And work there promises to be – as arguably one of Sweden’s most engaged composers, she has many irons in the fire. She has recently completed her second trumpet concerto, Screen Memories, which is being given a double première by the Nordic Chamber Orchestra and the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne. While currently tucked away on her computer is a large orchestral work for the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which is due to have its debut performance in September.
“I love working on new pieces, even if a lot ends up in the bin, both the virtual and the physical. Once the score is ready, I have to make time to work through the music to make sure there aren’t any weak spots. My aim is to keep up a high standard throughout, which isn’t so easy when you write a piece in thirty minutes,” she says.
For many composers, the premiere is possibly the only time they get to hear their music performed. Britta Byström, however, has had the privilege to hear some of her works played many, many times. If you could talk about number-ones in the art music world, then Persuasion, written in 2004, is an obvious chart-topper. Persuasion has been played some thirty times to date and has started to live its own international life.
“I think it’s got something to do with the form – the piece was written for a rather small setting, which means that small orchestras can also play it. On top of that, it’s only eight minutes long and is rather quick in tempo – a typical concert opener in other words. I think it’s a piece that musicians can really enjoy playing,” says Britta about her “bestseller”.
Britta has chosen a Danish firm, Edition Wilhelm Hansen – today one of the largest music publishers for contemporary art music in the Nordic region – to publish her music, and it is through this connection that she has received a commission from a Danish choir for a piece set to lyrics by a Faroese poet.
Being a woman and a composer these days means that you almost automatically have to make a statement; and given that this is something Britta Byström refuses to do – at least not as part of a collective – she holds no membership card of the Association of Swedish Women Composers (Kvast).
“I’m not a group person and am not really into the role-model mentality – this idea that female composers need other women to look up to. Myself, I’ve always had male muses. Of course, I’ve got nothing against Kvast, but I also think it’s important for there to be woman outside the camp.”
She does, however, soberly note that the life of a composer is different for women and men, for both good and ill. On the one hand, men can live on borrowed prestige from their predecessors and piggy-back on that; on the other hand, women composers are more like blank pages and subject to looser expectations.
“It was something I noticed even as a student, that no one had any preconceptions about what direction I should take musically. Now I see how many women composers develop a more personal style than their male colleagues. They’re less sensitive to trends.”
To Britta Byström, by far the most important thing is for new art music to be performed more, regardless of its composer’s sex. And this is where the composers themselves must be prepared to go head to head with the musical heroes of old.
“It’s not good enough for us contemporary composers to compare ourselves with each other, and if women just compare themselves with women, the field gets even narrower! We must try to take on the likes of Bach and Beethoven. Art music should only be given so much special treatment. We must try to write music that’s able to hold its own against the great classics,” she adds emphatically.
This is perhaps easier said than done. How can good become better? After a moment of silent reflection, Britta admits that much of the music written today is too narrow.
“A lot of composers write from a constricted aesthetic and paint themselves into a cramped musical corner that leaves no room for impulsiveness. It’s no place from which to do battle.”
But there is hope for the future. Newly written music is becoming increasingly ear-dependent, she says, and composers simply care more about how it sounds. Which is where new technologies have come into their own.
“When you make music in a computer, you can listen to everything down to the tiniest detail. How does it actually sound? It might seem obvious, but you have to listen hard and carefully when you’re a composer.”
On the relationship between art music and classical music:
“My music is a branch of the same tree that classical composers are on, especially given that I write for exactly the same kind of orchestra that people like Beethoven did. But as contemporary composers, we have the edge on them when it comes to instrumentation. We’ve got a much broader sound palette than they had, we’ve pushed the boundaries.
On listening to her premieres:
“It’s always a bit nerve-racking. I usually have low expectations so I’m often quite pleased.”
On broadening the popularity of art music:
“Personally, I’m tired of being expected to recruit people to art music. Of course I’d like it if more people came to the concerts, but that ‘recruitment’ I do as a composer I do in my scores.
On the most common reaction to her career choice:
At first people’s ears prick up when I say I work as a composer. The first question they usually ask is: Can you make a living off it? I like to respond by asking: Can you make a living off your job as MD, doctor, architect…?
Helena Kämpfe Fredén