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Marie Samuelsson

by Stig Jacobsson

It can start with a sound. A seed. Marie Samuelsson (born 1956) is all ears for everything that makes a noise round about her. Who knows what sound might chance to stick in her mind, germinating and becoming the source of a large-scale and imposing compositional structure. This has occurred a number of times. Once she happened to bang on a big ventilation shaft made of galvanized metal and discovered the wealth of sounding possibilities it had. The result was Air Shaft III (Lufttrumma III) (1999), premiered on Swedish TV by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is a frequently performed orchestral work in which three percussionists play on the unusual instrument – at the disposal of any interested ensemble. The instrument has to date been on tour throughout Sweden and even as far as France.
Since the turn of the millennium her creativity has meant that the boundaries have been extended and the content has been deepened. She has, with imposing vigour, presented one masterpiece after the other with ever varied structure and expression. But something that has so far been a general feature is the one-movement form. And the durations have rarely exceeded 20 minutes, which makes the music easy to insert into a concert programme.
Her pieces have been heard in many countries. Rotations (Rotationer) is a work for string orchestra that Musica Vitae took with them on their tour of Italy. In Sweden and Finland, Anna Lindal has performed what some critics have maintained is Samuelsson´s best work to date: the violin concerto Bastet the Sun Goddess (Bastet Solgudinnan). It was premiered by the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and depicts, with ambience and timeless, moving beauty, the ancient Egyptian legend about Bastet, who every night must slay the snake Apep so that the sun can rise again the next morning.
Her works are often physical and contain virtuosic parts. For the listener the music is exciting in its rhythm and at the same time beautiful in an almost impressionistic way, without ever abandoning her strong creative conviction and consistency, which have become her hallmarks.
In 2007 a four-day-long composer festival at the Stockholm Concert Hall was devoted to her music, during which nineteen of her works in various genres were performed. Singla (to float), a commissioned work for orchestra, was given its premiere performance at the festival. Once again her creative spark was aroused by an accidental sound phenomenon when a large plate fell spinning to the floor. And the title suggests something light, snow flakes or leaves that float down, twist and turn, whirl and swirl, just like the music, which explores tempo changes and motion.
Samuelsson´s tone language is always richly varied in rhythm as well as in sonority, and often gains strength from the depth and the darkness – preferably with contrasting effect. This is sometimes also hinted at in the titles of the works: Flying Lines andRumbling (Flygande linjer och dån) is such a piece for orchestra. Layers of airborne flageolets in the strings or quick trills in the winds are combined with powerful, thundering chords that propel the music forward. The Stockholm New Chamber Orchestra premiered the music in 2009 and took it with them to a festival in Beauvais, France, and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra performed the work in 2010. We find the contrasts already in Samuelsson´s early career. She has played classical piano since childhood and has had a background as a rock and improvising musician before she studied to be a composer. She had good use of all her musical training and experience when she received a commission for a piece that she named Composition – Improvisation (2007).
She was fascinated by recordings of wolves and processed their howling electronically. In the completed piece, saxophonist Jörgen Pettersson plays together with the recorded wolves – with roots in ancient times and at the same time a step into the future. As always when it comes to Marie. In the Wolf´s Eye (I vargens öga) has been performed in more than ten European countries, as well as in Turkey and South Africa, and was selected for the Nordic Music Days in 1998. Electronic sonorities are featured in a number of her works, and she learned more about this kind of composing when she studied with Pär Lindgren and was chosen to attend an exclusive course for professional composers at IRCAM in Paris.
When she was a composition student with Sven-David Sandström and Daniel Börtz at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (1987-95), she was given a basic run-through of all the saxophones´ possibilities and she discovered “slap tongue”. The sound stayed with her and inspired her to make something big of it: her breakthrough, Signal, (1991) for saxophone quartet. This piece has also been played in many places, and is a veritable orgy in these demanding and technically difficult tones, at the same time as it requires maximum concentration in a polyrhythmic texture with accents and a sixteenth-note pulse. The little seed had grown into a thicket, at the same time remarkably disciplined and – dare one say – beautiful.
In 2011 Marie Samuelsson was awarded one of the finest distinctions conferred on composers in Sweden, the Bo Wallner Prize, and the last few years have been dizzying. Fear and Hope was in their repertoire when the ensemble Orkester Norden went on tour to, among other places, Munich and Berlin. Sorrow´s Passage (Sorgestråk) was performed by the Caput Ensemble at the Nordic Music Days in 2006. The electroacoustic work Myon song was performed at an exhibition at the Universeum in Gothenburg; the French horn concerto The Horn in the Wind (Hornet I blåsten) was played by the Stockholm Wind Symphonic Orchestra with Sören Hermansson as soloist. Her production comprises to date about fifty works of many different kinds. And her desk is stacked with new commissions: at present she is working on an opera for the Vadstena Academy to be premiered in 2013, set to an original libretto by Kerstin Ekman.