Jacob Mühlrad

Payback time

“I’ve always felt a strong need to let myself go, to love something with a real passion.” Jacob Mühlrad became deeply religious at an early age and went to the rabbi twice a week for private lessons. Then he discovered music and swapped the synagogue for the piano and composing.

“As I look back now, I see the connections from the social and ritual aspects of Jewish culture with what I’m passionate about today. The music in the synagogue, the ritual repetition, reading the Torah. There’s an absolutely direct link from what I fell for in Judaism to what interests me in music now.”

An interest in Judaism was not imposed by his parents, but something that Jacob developed on his own.

“I’ve always enjoyed listening to music and was interested in those teardrop signs, small symbols that provide an indication of a particular melody.”

It was only when he reached his teens that Jacob realized that music was something he could do for himself. He discovered his talent by chance on an old synthesizer. A TV program in which Bach’s Fugue was being played gave him something of a religious experience.

“It woke something up within me. I felt curiosity and passion.”

With the support of his mother, Jacob started to take piano lessons.

“I was extremely naive, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it helps me to get over thresholds, I’m not the sort of person who thinks ‘I can’t’ or ‘I daren’t’.”

At his very first piano lesson Jacob, aged 15, asked his piano teacher if he could learn how to play Bach’s Fugue.

“She burst out laughing and taught me Spanish Guitars.”

By the next lesson Jacob had learned the song by heart, picking it up by ear.

“So I asked, can I learn how to play Fugue now, then?”

Jacob was severely dyslexic and found it very difficult to understand sheet music. But by copying and imitating, six months later he was able to play not Fugue, but at least Bach’s Toccata, at his piano teacher’s performance.

This marked the start of a musical journey. Jacob had an anarchic fingering technique but a good ear and he improvised pieces, as he had not managed to learn many and did not understand how to read music.

“I discovered scales before I knew what they were, and with every new piece I learned, the more building blocks I picked up for the creation of my own works. A few years later I no longer wanted to play other people’s music, but to compose my own.”

A lot of people took notice of this young talent. He was given piano lessons by star pianist Staffan Scheja. And as an 18-year-old, Jacob was discovered by the composer Sven-David Sandström when he was playing the piano and a mulled wine event. Sven-David started to give him private lessons and introduced him to art music.

“I was struck by how intricate and expressive it was, while at times I didn’t understand a thing.”

The two mentors helped Jacob to be more sure of his ambition to become a composer rather than a concert pianist. They also made him understand that as a composer you had to know how to write sheet music.

Jacob studied how to write music intensively for a few months, applying to and being accepted by the Gotland School of Music Composition. So, immediately after upper secondary school he moved to Gotland.

“I was in something of a state of shock. I went from playing advanced piano pieces with thoughts of being a concert pianist down to the level of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, because I didn’t know how to read music. It was tough with the sheet music, moving away from home and seeing music in lots of new ways.”

Jacob started to think about music as research.

“It’s about building on what others have already done and taking small steps forwards. Take the Higgs Particle – that fact that we’re aware of it is because of many different scientists who’ve conducted research step by step. Small steps take time, and one leap takes at least a lifetime! I’m just at the beginning of my career.”

To say that he’s just at the beginning of his career, Jacob has achieved a lot. The 25-year-old has already composed for some of Sweden’s most prominent ensembles, choirs and orchestras such as Norrbotten Neo, the Swedish Radio Choir, Sofia Vokalensemble, the Swedish Wind Ensemble, musicians from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and for musicians such as Staffan Scheja, Fredrik Ekdahl, Johannes Rostamo and Silvana Imam. Jacob’s music has been performed on some of the country’s biggest stages, such as the Royal Swedish Opera, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm Concert Hall, Nybrokajen and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

“I’ve been lucky enough to meet others who are passionate about my music. And as for me, I really enjoy collaborating and am happy to take the initiative in  collaborations. One thing often leads to another.”

At the tender age of 19, Jacob received his very first commission, from the Royal Swedish Opera. June 2012 saw the premiere of the ballet Friction, a collaboration between Jacob and the choreographer Bence Janscula. This made Jacob the youngest-ever composer to have a piece performed at the Royal Swedish Opera.

The choreographer Joakim Stephenson took a liking to Jacob’s music, and together they set up Avici.

Jacob gave some thought to how art music could be made more accessible, and felt that modern art and modern music belong together. He contacted Jonas Kleerup and the artist Andreas Emenius, and the outcome was a project entitled Through and Through, a cultural encounter down in the  Royal Institute of Technology’s reactor hall.

“A lot of people aren’t familiar with art music, but would like it if they gave it a chance. Things that exist visually also exist as sound. We wanted to put modern art and modern art music in the same context in order to attract a new audience.”

As more music was needed during Through and Through, Jacob phoned the solo bassoonist Fredrik Ekdahl. This subsequently resulted in Fredrik commissioning a piece for solo bassoon and string trio for the musicians Christian Svarfar, Eriika Nylund and Johannes Rostamo. This was performed in Berwaldhallen in early 2016.

“I was introduced as the youngest-ever composer to have had a piece performed at Berwaldhallen, which made me feel nervous. At the same time it was great fun, they’re my absolute idols and being able to work closely with them and to perform things that hadn’t been done before was amazing.”

A recurring feature of Jacob’s music is the religious, ceremonial feel. The Berwaldhallen piece Silent Prayer was inspired by the holy prayer that is read “in silence” together in the synagogue.

“Fredrik really made his bassoon preach, speak in tongues and sing. It was incredible. Now two of the others have commissioned new works from me, which feels great. I’ll be doing a violin concert for Christian Svarvar and a solo cello piece for Johannes Rostamo.”

The pianist Staffan Scheja, one of the people who nagged Jacob enough to make him learn how to read music and apply to the School of Music Composition on Gotland, commissioned a piece from Jacob last year.

“I felt that it was payback time. Writing for such a fantastic pianist is a challenge. I overlaid rhythms on top of one another and experimented with an electronic magnet inside the piano, which makes the note persist and not die out as it usually does when you strike a piano string. ‘Thank you Jacob, you’ve saved my Saturday evenings,’ was Staffan’s first comment when he saw the score.

“But he liked it. It’s an extremely difficult piece, but of course he managed it in style. And now I’ve been given a commission for a piece of chamber music for Jewish Culture by his wife Lizzie Scheja!”

Another route to success is the ability to talk about and generate interest in music – something else about which Jacob is passionate.

“I believe that a lot of people need prior knowledge to be able to open their ears to art music. A lot of people have preconceived notions or think it’s too difficult. If you’re not afraid to talk about music and explain your thinking, you put it in context. I think it’s helpful if people understand how I think, and after all one advantage of it being contemporary music is that those of us who are composing are still alive and can talk about it.”

In 2013 Jacob was asked to give a TEDx Talk about art music as an existential platform.

“I still recall what it was like not to know anything at all about music. How it feels and what it’s like. I can use that when I’m explaining my music and also when I’m composing.”

Composing art music is real craftsmanship, which for Jacob also involves a lot of research.

“I spend a lot of time analyzing sound, what’s known as spectral analysis.”

Jacob taps his cup of green tea on the marble table.

“I often focus on tones. How do you achieve this tone? To find out, you can perform an FFT analysis, which results in a ball chart image, from which I can pick out tones. It’s incredibly time-consuming, but exciting! I’m interested in researching music. I’m interested in orally performed liturgical music. Different cultures have different scales and tunes, some cultures have quarter tones that occur naturally in a natural harmonic series.” 

Jacob often makes notes by hand, but he then he has to use a music writing program to be able to keep track of everything and put the notes in exactly the right position.

“The hand can’t draw the notes with sufficient precision,”

Jacob is curious about most things and has already managed to investigate many different art forms.

“I think it’s a matter of starting on a broad base and trying out as much as possible, so that you can then nerd your way into something specific later on. Although to be fair I do both, performed liturgical music is nerdy to say the least...

“People usually say that it takes at least ten years of struggle before you can make a living as a composer. I’ve been lucky to have received commissions even during my studies, although at the same time that means that I’m working and studying about 200 per cent...”

Everyone has a relationship with the human voice, and it is precisely this that encourages Jacob in his choral works.

“It’s amazing to work with real-life people, organic material. Everyone can relate to the human voice. Not all cultures have violins, but language is everywhere.”

Even when it comes to choral works, Jacob focuses on the tone. He writes in Hebrew, a language in which he himself is not fluent, in order to achieve the right tones. The intention is not that what the choir sings should mean anything, but that it should have a certain sound.

“There is a point to using a language that I can’t speak, it puts the entire focus on striking the right tone. I’ve had the benefit of working with the Swedish Radio Choir and they can handle anything, which really gives me the courage to experiment. It gave me a kick to hear it live, with a bit of déjà-vu at the same time. This was inside my head, and now it’s there for real! Being a composer is like being an architect. I produce a drawing of an imaginary skyscraper, and a building contractor comes along with a number of builders and they complete it. I look forward to working with the Swedish Radio Choir again, and I’ve got a new commission for 2018.

“For better or worse, I always take a bit of a risk when I compose. There’s no point in playing safe. I want to expand and challenge myself, so that the music takes a little step further.”

After a number of classical collaborations, it might seem strange to work with the rapper Silvana Imam, but not for Jacob.

“We met at Trädgården (a summer club in Stockholm - ed. comment) and hit it off straight away. She’s got a sense of humor and musical preferences similar to mine. Silvana loves sounds and tones. She played some music she likes and I played one of my pieces, and then she asked me to help her with her record. I arranged some songs and composed parts of others. We sampled some Thai gong-gongs, arranged a 60-voice choir with angelic voices, double bass orchestra and much more. It’s been great fun working with Silvana and the producer Nils Lundberg, especially cool that they each won a Grammy. We’ll keep on collaborating.”

This summer Jacob will graduate from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. So what’s the next dream?

“This might sound a bit corny, but I’m living my dream now. I’m already writing for some of the best musicians in the Nordic region, of course I want to continue with that. At the same time I want to continue expanding and developing on an artistic level.”

About the Stim grant

I’m so incredibly grateful that I received the Stim grant of SEK 25,000. It came along just at the right time. Making a living as a composer is tough. I need to upgrade my tools, for example the music writing program, so the money comes in very handy. At the same time it’s an acknowledgment and an honor. It’s fantastic that Stim has grants that enable me and others to continue to create.

About inspiration:

There are no hard and fast rules about what music should sound like. There are unwritten rules and they are dangerous, but I’m inspired by ceremonial and ritual music, Jewish rites, Indian raga music, Javanese gamelan. This gives me an opportunity to create new musical forms.

About his own taste in music:

I listen a lot to hip-hop and pop music. I don’t really want to evaluate music. There’s a lot that’s wonderful to listen to. It’s nice sometimes to listen to guilty pleasures, a bit like watching Game of Thrones on TV. It’s relaxing in a different way than, for example, classical music.

Ideas in the pipeline:

I’ve an idea about making physical music for deaf people. There are certain sound frequencies that can be used instead of water cannons at demonstrations. There are lots of exciting things you can do with sound!.

Another idea, which is further down the pipeline and will probably stay there for a good while, is a really left-field hoketus idea with two large orchestras. Hoketus is when you knock things back and forth; if we were to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you’d say “Twin”, I’d say “kle”, then “Lit” from you and “tle” from me, and so on. Imagine that with two full-scale orchestras!

First musical memory:

Must have been when my mother sang for me when I was little, and of course the music of the synagogue.

Jacob Mühlrad

Age: 25

Lives in: Östermalm

Education: Gotland School of Musical Composition, the Royal College of Music in London and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.

Four composers that Jacob listens to:

Karin Rehnqvist

Pär Lindgren

Djuro Zivkovic

Giacinto Scelsi

Four artists in Jacob’s earphones

Erik Lundin

Silvana Imam

Arcade Fire

Kendrick Lamar