Monday, May 17, 2010

The Wunderkind from the North

I just learned that musicologist Gunnar Valkare has written the world's first biography of the legendary and enigmatic Swedish composer Bo Nilsson. Nilsson is a very interesting character indeed, so much so that I've always felt that his life story would make a great film.

It's the classic story of a young wunderkind, coming out of nowhere, rising to the top, bedazzling the elite, and then falling as quickly as he had risen.

In the mid 1950's, the teenage Nilsson was a shy and introverted young man, living in a small, isolated town in northern Sweden, where he spent his time listening to German radio stations broadcasting the latest experimental atonal classical music from the continent. Nilsson, already a talented jazz piano player, quickly adopted the sounds, ideas, codes and inner workings of this new 'modernist' music and started composing his own works.

In 1956, the 18 year old composer travelled to Cologne, Germany for a premiere of one of his pieces. If I remember correctly, Nilsson was invited by the leading guru of the musical avant garde, Karlheinz Stockhausen himself. Unfortunately, once in Cologne, the young Nilsson got lost in the city and was too shy or confused to call Stockhausen or anyone else to ask for help, so he travelled back to northern Sweden without having attended the premiere and without having talked to anyone. Or so the story goes.

In any case, soon after this rather awkward start, the 18 year old Nilsson was hailed by the international avant garde elite as a genius, a true Wunderkind, everyone in the 'scene' was crazy about his infinitely complex and mathematically advanced scores in all their intellectual sophistication, and especially Nilsson's refined methods of deriving his works out of complex mathematical formulas.

Only it wasn't quite true. After a couple of years, Nilsson was fed up with the whole intellectual avant garde music scene and admitted that the mathematical formulas he had printed in his scores had little if anything to do with the actual compositions, which apparently had been composed completely intuititively. The intellectual elite was outraged, and probably quite embarrassed by the whole thing, after all, Nilsson had exposed the absurd and dirty underbelly of a movement apparently more preoccupied with the myth (and kitsch) of scientific and mathematical perfection than any genuine artistic expression, and once that myth had bursted, they found themselves in a kind of 'emperor's new clothes' situation.

Nilsson, however, didn't seem to care that much; he turned his back on the world of complex atonal music and started writing more conventional, tonal music from the 1960s on. I'm hoping to pick up a copy of Valkare's book later this summer, I'm sure it'll be a fascinating read. Until then, here's a rendering of one of his infinitely complex piano pieces from that era, "Quantitäten" (1957):

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