Eclectic Swedish Composer Who Likes to Give Pleasure: – B Tommy Andersson in conversation with Simon Rees
B Tommy Andersson becomes Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from autumn 2014. A Swedish composer, whose initial ‘B’ stands for ‘Bengt’, Andersson has just turned 50, and has spent a great deal of his career conducting, as well as teaching conducting at the academies of Gothenburg and Stockholm. His works include many pieces for orchestra, choir, organ and various solo instruments, as well as an opera, William,(2006), about William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. I asked him what he was expecting from his association with the Cardiff-based orchestra.
‘I am looking forward to letting a new audience meet my music. It will be a privilege to be heard in Wales, which has such a strong musical tradition, particularly in choral music. I want to get to know the BBC NOW better, as I enjoy hearing British musicians play, and I am fond of the extensive culture of British orchestras. I’m not expecting to spend much of my time in Cardiff, but I’ll be there for the concert on 3 October 2014, when Thomas Søndergård will conduct my orchestral piece Garden of Delights, which I based on the painting by Hieronymus Bosch. I’ll also be in Wales for other concerts featuring my music.’
Would he be seeking closer contact with Welsh composers, as well as with musicians?
‘I would like to get in touch with Welsh composers as well as artists in other fields of Welsh culture. I haven’t yet made contact with institutions such as the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, or the Cardiff University music department, but I hope to do so.’
Does he think of himself as a composer who conducts, or as a conductor who composes?
‘I am both, and I think the combination of the two is very rewarding for both parts of my activity. It is important for me as a conductor to understand composers and vice versa. I started composing at a very young age, and my interest in music started with composition. It is closest to my heart to compose, rather than to conduct, and when I conduct my own music I have to learn to stand back and treat it like the music of some other composer.’
Although his association is with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, will he also be drawing on the Welsh choral tradition?
‘I’m looking forward to writing for Welsh choirs. Sweden has a huge choral tradition, with lots of big choruses everywhere, so I feel an affinity there between Sweden and Wales. As for setting texts in Welsh to music, I’m not a stranger to that idea. It could be interesting, and something to approach with an open mind, once I’ve got more of an idea of the context of the language within the culture of Wales.’
I mentioned the fact, which I thought might be of interest to a Swede, that although Welsh place names inland are principally in the Welsh language, those around the coast and on the islands are often of Scandinavian origin. Would this be something of interest to pursue?
‘You’re right: the Vikings were here! I’ve also been to Yorkshire and seen the evidence of Danish or Norwegian culture there. I could well find inspiration in this aspect of Wales.’
What projects is he working on at the moment, before beginning his association with the BBC NOW?
‘I’m finishing an organ concerto that has been commissioned from me. Like Mahler, another example of a conductor who composed, I write most of my music during the summer months. This means I have to escape from my academic duties – often by going to Italy, which I love, and spending time there concentrating on writing music. This year I spent two weeks in Rome, and have also been to Puglia. I find the atmosphere there very inspiring. At the moment I have commissions that will take me until 2017 to complete, so I’m not short of work.’
What is particularly unique about contemporary Swedish music?
‘One thing that marks it out is that Sweden has not been at war for the last 200 years. This has had a clear effect on our way of looking at our culture, unlike the outlook in Denmark and Norway, where they have frequently been involved in wars. As Swedes, we have had to look at what lies at the core of our country and culture. We have now realised that it is not so much about material things, but more to do with guarding and preserving traditions. The Swedes have been bad at appreciating our own history, including our folk music, and we have been slow to promote our own composers. There’s nobody in Sweden to compare, say, with Grieg, Sinding or Nielson, let alone Sibelius. We don’t have a heroic figure we could gather around, and as a result we have given the impression that we have never produced any music of high quality, which is not at all the case. Standing as we do on the outskirts of Europe, we have run the risk of becoming isolated from mainstream European culture.’
How does he describe his own music?
‘It’s hard to describe your own music. I am quite eclectic, and that is typical of our time. It’s not that I deliberately write music that resembles the music of past times, but that I try to embody in my music the sum of what I have heard, filtered through my own personality. Earlier on in my career I tried to become a modernist, but it never really suited me, even though I realised that some of the music I wrote at 18 or 20 might be considered old-fashioned. I’m pleased when people like my music, and I find that giving pleasure is an important aspect of composition.’
Simon Rees is a notable dramaturg, opera translator, novelist and librettist.