Jacob Mühlrad, Composer

Interview, 16 December 2015

One of the most exciting newcomers on the Swedish classical music scene in years is Stockholm native Jacob Mühlrad. His rise is a magnificent saga that was close to not even being written due to a major obstacle that stood between a gifted young musician and his dream of becoming a classical composer.

Jacob Mühlrad was in his early teens when his father fixed up an old synth that had been sitting in the basement of the family home. On it were a few prerecorded classical pieces that he started memorizing by ear and he gradually taught himself how to play the piano. Over the ensuing years, and with the help of teachers who saw a diamond in the rough, Jacob Mühlrad grew into one of the most promising classical composers Sweden has seen in a long time and his praises are sung by a unanimous choir of pundits and music legends alike.

Today, at 24 years of age, he has already written music for esteemed musical institutions such as the Swedish Radio Choir and, as their youngest composer in history, for the Royal Swedish Opera. His work has been performed at many of the largest concert halls and stages in Sweden and word of his fresh take on Art Music and his creativity is spreading fast, not only in his native Sweden.

But the road to fame and glory was not always paved with rose petals for Jacob Mühlrad. Having battled with severe dyslexia all his life the quest for learning music theory was never an easy one. Thanks to several teachers who saw his potential and decided to go out of their way to help him overcome his condition he was finally able to learn the fundamentals of music notation and is now writing music full time for a wide array of commissioners, and even for some of the very teachers that helped him get over the disadvantage in the first place.

We were fortunate to get a minute of his time to discuss music, art, spirituality and the inevitable return of a reasonable pace at which humans are allowed to explore their creativity to the fullest.

Who is Jacob Mühlrad?

– Tough question… Well, I’m 24 years old. I am a composer who mainly writes art music but also cross genres occasionally to collaborate with other artists. At the moment I’m involved in a project that combines art music and hip-hop. Besides that I’m based in Stockholm but also work a whole lot internationally.

The term “Art Music” can be confusing to some; can you define what it means?

– It’s a pretty hard term to define because it doesn’t really represent any specific genre; it’s more of a non-genre really, where different esthetic expressions come together as an extension of the heritage of western music. If you look at classical music for example, you can argue that art music is the classical music of tomorrow. As well as art in general where you have some people that do surreal pieces, for example Salvador Dali, you have the corresponding surrealism in music.

Is atonal music connected to art music?

– Absolutely, you can say that atonal music is something that has evolved out of classical music via Arnold Schoenberg who invented twelve-tone music. The French composer Claude Debussy started out writing traditional classical music, but in 1890 an Indonesian gamelan orchestra came to Paris to perform one of their pieces and that was the first time western music was exposed to eastern traditional music, which contains totally different tunings and scales but also different ideals of what is to be considered beautiful music. That was the springboard for what was to become modern art music.

“I feel there’s a point to creating some sort of friction between the listener and the musical piece. It’s good for people to break away from familiar patterns”

How do you find people reacting to hearing art music for the first time, do you have to have a very open mind to be able to enjoy it?

– An open mind is useful when being exposed to any kind of art, but judging from my own music I find that people are pleasantly surprised and some feel there has been a void that they been meaning to fill but haven’t known where to look. Then of course there are people who hate it but I am not of the opinion that all art is supposed to be easy to take in. I feel there’s a point to creating some sort of friction between the listener and the musical piece. It’s good for people to break away from familiar patterns.

You started playing and composing music at a fairly late stage compared to many classical musicians. How did you go from being a music lover to being a creator of music?

– I was really a big music lover from an early age; I listened to rock and started playing the drums. Then at one point my father gave me an old beat up synth that had all these prerecorded classical music pieces on it, like Mozart for example. I started learning those recordings by ear and fairly quickly fell in love with playing the piano. I slowly started building a classical repertoire and studied under several piano teachers, like Staffan Scheja, who is now the vice principal at the Royal Music School here in Stockholm. But it wasn’t until late into high school that I started composing, before that I had only improvised but never written anything down. The definition of a true composer is to write down what he or she really means, like an author who writes books and not only has ideas in their head.

You’ve battled with dyslexia all your life, how did that affect you going into composing and learning music theory?

– I was already somewhat of an anti-intellectual due to the fact that I had grave dyslexia. To absorb knowledge through reading and writing was something I had always thought of as being extremely painful and exhausting. When attempting to learn music theory I finally had my first positive experience of attaining knowledge, but I still basically refused to learn music theory from the start because of my previous experiences. I wanted to be a concert pianist from the beginning but I didn’t quite understand the difference in being a concert pianist and a composer. It wasn’t until I met a great composer named Sven-David Sandström who saw my passion and decided to give me private lessons once a week that I really dedicated myself to the struggle of learning music theory properly. He told me that I was at a crossroads and could either write pop music or art music, but in order to do the latter I would have to really learn theory. The decision was pretty easy for me; I moved to the Swedish island of Gotland and spent two magnificent years there studying at Gotland School of Music Composition where I learnt not only music theory but also how to really write music.

Even though you mastered music theory in the end, how much of an obstacle is the dyslexia for you today when writing?

– Great question. It’s still a major obstacle I have to say. I have a copyist who lives in Argentina whom I use. I send him all my drafts written by hand and he double-checks them for mistakes. Plus my school offers help when it comes to proofreading the material I write.
In the beginning it was not so much of an issue but now, when I sometimes write for 80 instruments in one single orchestral piece, the risk of making errors because of my dyslexia is so much greater. It’s tough for someone without dyslexia let alone for someone like me who actually suffers from it.

You were very much into religion and spirituality in your even younger days; can you tell us a little about what fascinated you about that?

– Sure. It was a vital part of my life up until today but also for my path into music. I have a Jewish background and being Jewish is a big part of my identity, much because of the things the Jewish people have had to endure over the course of the past hundred years. That is one of the explanations – that the identity of being Jewish was so strong for me. My parents never pushed me in any direction, I was by far the most religious member of my family and I had a very strong faith in God, and that faith was never questioned up until I found music. It was almost as if music overlapped my faith in God. Evidently there was some sort of void that I felt needed to be filled, and if it was religion and spirituality in my younger days it is now music and art.

So one might say that your concept of spirituality changed and that you have now found God to live in music?

– Exactly! My concept of spirituality changed. I also found deep meaning in my fascination for mathematics and numbers. Johann Sebastian Bach for example always believed in the beauty of numbers and thought of patterns and numbers as divine.

You’ve mentioned before that you believe in the power of really submerging yourself in something and to dedicate yourself fully to a certain cause or art form. In this day and age, where we thrive off results and being extremely productive, how important is it being allowed space and time to deliver good work?

– Funny that you mention that because this is something I truly believe in. It’s a criticism to our modern society; we are expected to be experts in our fields but also to be experts at letting the world know how good we are at what we do. When our time then becomes limited we create a friction that makes us “semi-good” at what we do and we become average at many things instead. It’s important for me as a composer and also for the listener to allow time for the music to sink in. For example, all these apps today that promise the “5-minute meditation session” are absurd. It defies the whole idea of winding down, which is supposed to take time. You just can’t force or streamline certain things; they have to be given time and dedication.

“To be an open minded human being doesn’t come automatically; you have to expose yourself to a broad set of aesthetics and absorb specific ideals”

Do you see that becoming more of a problem in the future, that people won’t be given enough time to create or to enjoy someone else’s work?

– Absolutely, it worries me. But I’m an optimist by nature and I think we as humans are experiencing some kind of a dip at the moment where things get worse and worse, but that we’ll eventually claw our way back to a normal state of creativity. If you look at history there has always been a counter reaction to these kinds of negative spirals that we now find ourselves in. I think we’ll learn to appreciate art more in the future.

Apart from the obvious, what has training to be a classical pianist done for you as a human being?

– It has given me a certain degree of humility towards knowledge and discipline. That learning something really well will, and should, take a very long time. It has also given me an insight into how knowledge works. It’s like walking through a beautiful garden and admiring different plants and trees. Even though you appreciate each thing by it self you can always look beneath the ground and find the root system connecting it all. When you study something specific you often learn a whole lot of other things that you hadn’t maybe set out to learn.

“You can’t force or streamline certain things; they have to be given time and dedication”

What sort of music do you primarily listen to nowadays?

– Mainly hip-hop actually. When I was 11 or 12 I would listen a lot to Eminem and 50 Cent and I still listen to loads of hip-hop, even when I work sometimes.

As a classically trained musician, what do you say to people who might think of hip-hop as a degenerated form of music?

– I think it all comes down to a massive degree of ignorance. To be an open minded human being doesn’t come automatically; you have to expose yourself to a broad set of aesthetics and absorb specific ideals. A classical musician can easily get confined and reduced to his or hers ideals and believe them to be absolute, but that’s never the case with music. You have to appreciate different things in different genres. I focus a lot on different rappers phrasings and intonation for example. I’ve even transcribed the rhythms from different rap songs on sheets of music paper just so I could analyze them, and they are immensely complex and highly interesting.

As a composer, how do you see the near future? What are your plans for the coming years?

– You have to have a crazy long-term perspective as a composer. I sort of have my schedule mapped out for the coming two or three years. I have a commission for the Swedish Radio Choir that is supposed to be finished in 2018 for example, plus a whole bunch of different works for various clients. Then there is the collaboration with Swedish rapper Silvana Imam, which I am really excited about. My job there is to write arrangements for the acoustic instruments on the album and provide general input. It has been a thrill to work with Silvana because she and the producer are so open to my ideas and have not given me any shackles whatsoever. We’ve done a bunch of fun stuff like spending a whole day sampling gong gongs from Thailand for example, and I’ve written arrangements for a 60 piece choir, which was awesome.

What advice would you give to a young aspiring composer or classical musician today who dream of taking their work to the next level?

– Good question, that’s a tough one. A key is to start from a broad perspective; it wouldn’t even have to include music from the beginning. I would start reading up on aesthetics, to aim for understanding the parallels between art history, music history and history of literature to figure out how they all are intertwined. If you look at it that way then it becomes easier to zone in and figure out where you want to go and to find what matches your ambitions. It is also really important to separate your ego from your work.

What should they stay away from?

– Bad teachers. As soon as a teacher says that something is bad you should really question their judgment and their ideals. That’s maybe not so easy for a 15-year old, but it could be worth keeping in mind. I was lucky to have great teachers who were open minded and didn’t sort things out from their own personal perception of good or bad, right or wrong.

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