Interview with Mats Bergström
The first question is always the classic one: how did it start, your love and interest for the guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?
Both of my parents have been professional musicians. My father played the flute in the Swedish Radio Symphony, my mother sang in the Radio Choir and taught singing and musicology at a Stockholm high school. We had a guitar at home and as a young boy, perhaps six or seven, I used to improvise on it along with records of The Beatles, who were at their peak around this time (the late 1960’s). At the age of eight I started taking guitar lessons from a violinist/guitarist who was a trained classical player but also a good improviser. Right from the start, improvisation was an important element of our lessons. It was also he, who once told me that it was unlikely that I would ever be able to make a living as a guitarist. (I later proved him wrong!) If, however, I learned to play the double bass, he said, I would be more or less guaranteed work! Consequently, I took up the bass for two years but never got very far. Once admitted to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm as a guitar student, I quit playing the bass. I own some twenty instruments, most of them various types of acoustic or electric guitars. But there’s also a banjo, a mandolin, and a theorbo.
Why did you decide to play Steve Reich’s music?
It was a coincidence really. In the early 1990’s I was a student at the Juilliard School. There, in the Juilliard Book Store, I one day stumbled across the score to Electric Counterpoint, a piece I didn’t even know existed. I bought it, despite the rather hefty price. It turned out to be one of my best investments ever!
You played Electric Counterpoint several times, what are the differences between your version on the Substring Bridge record and the one on Electric Counterpoint?
As a matter of fact I have recorded the piece three times. The first version was a radio production for Sveriges Radio, the Swedish national broadcasting company, in 1993. I received a fee and got three days in the studio, but the result was never broadcast. I don’t know why, but I think they simply forgot about the whole thing. Anyway, at the time I didn’t care much for the electric guitar, so I decided to use all acoustic guitars, including an acoustic bass guitar.
When recording the piece the second time, in 1999, I was able to make use of the experience from my first attempt. I still used my classical guitar, but replaced the acoustic bass guitar with an electric bass to avoid sounding like a balalaika orchestra. I also adjusted the click track and increased the tempo gradually towards the end of the piece. You may not notice it, but to me it feels more natural than keeping the tempo right until the last note. Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo’s legendary Rainbow Studio made this recording.
Ten years later I was invited to do a recital in Cologne. One half of the programme was to be performed on electric guitar. This is why I decided to make a third version of the Reich piece. Having performed the acoustic version live on many occasions, I had started to feel that the sound had too much mid and too little high frequencies. Of course, Steve Reich composed the piece for Pat Metheny (whose recording of the piece still is my favourite) and his electric guitar, so the idea was not far-fetched. I recorded at the Nilento Studio outside Gothenburg, Sweden; Lars Nilsson was the sound engineer. The click track used was the same as for the previous version, but more attention was paid to timing (if you listen to Pat, he is not always playing evenly but with a slight ”swing”, which I tried very hard to copy), to timbre (with so many layers, you have to use a different kind of EQ than with just one or two voices). Live performances of this version differ from the previous one in that I feel physically freer standing up with my Gibson ES 175 than when sitting down in a classical guitar position, with a foot stool, etc.
You are the only classical trained guitar player I know that introduced remixes in his records. I have and I like a lot the Reich Remixed cd, especially the Coldcut Remix, why this choice?
Many people have remixed Steve Reich (”Reich Remixed”, as you mention, is a very good example) although perhaps classical guitarists are not among them. Well, for somebody with my background it is only natural. I worked in the 1980’s as a session musician and made my living primarily in popular music, both on electric and acoustic guitar. It only makes sense to make use of the experience I have. However, I do not make my own remixes, but commission other people to make then for me. The music of Steve Reich lends itself to remixing for many reasons.
I have listened to your versions of Nagoya Guitars and… It’s so clean and fluid… So classical but at the same time almost funky…
It is funny that you describe it as ”clean”. I once received an e-mail from somebody who asked me to recommend a decent version of the piece. He described the sound of my recording as ”a bummer” if I remember correctly. The ambition was to achieve an idiomatic electric guitar sound. I remember that we ran the guitar signal through a tube overdrive box to obtain a somewhat ”funky” sound. Actually, the guitar was recorded in three ways; with a condenser microphone close to the strings, another condenser microphone on the guitar amp (a Fender Vibroverb) and a direct signal through the overdrive device. It works for me, and for you, but obviously not for everybody…
Again, the bpm of the click track is not consistent; there is a slight accelerando towards the end if you listen carefully. (This is not the case with 2×5; my drummer simply wouldn’t let me do it!)
I really like your version of 2X5.. It’s different from the “official” version in Double Sextet / 2×5, in your version is not so “rock’n’ roll”…
Well, I am very proud of our version as well and i know that Steve Reich likes it a lot, too. I was able to put together the ideal band for this piece, which calls for certain skills. My bass player, for example, has a background that makes him the ultimate player for a piece like this: In his early years he was principal double bass player of the Oslo Philharmonic, later rock star with Yngwie Malmsteen’s heavy metal band. Tragically, our drummer passed away two years ago, so we will never be able to put the band together again.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
That’s an interesting question. I am not the kind of player who can deliver flawless performances on demand. Perhaps this is why I am so attracted to the process of recording, which most of the time means that you can go back and make corrections. However, as implied by your question, too many corrections may result in a flawless but also uninteresting performance. Exactly how far you should go is a matter of taste of course. In the case of the music of Steve Reich, and a piece like 2×5 in particular, rhythmic flaws should definitely be avoided as they disturb the flow. With ProTools (a recording software program), it is easy to make that kind of adjustments, provided of course that the instruments are recorded with acoustic separation. I like to think of live performances and recordings as relating to each other much like theatre performances and motion pictures. I am sure actors would agree that they are two different worlds, albeit with some things in common.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. The classic five discs for the desert island …what kind of music do you listen to usually?
I recently rediscovered my collection of LPs. So in the past few months I have been listening a lot to a Herbie Hancock album, Secrets from 1976. I would also make sure to bring something by Bach to a desert isle. The B minor Mass or Nigel North’s lute recordings. I like violinist Isabelle Faust a lot, so I would choose a recording of hers as well. (I suppose bringing Isabel Faust herself to the desert island would not be an option?) And, finally, any CD with Keith Jarrett and his trio playing American standards.
Do you still play with Ensemble Modern?
Ensemble Modern has not requested my services in a while. But I met them and heard them play just a couple of months ago in Venice, conducted by Franck Ollu. The concert included my best ever Pierre Boulez-moment, his Dérive 2. A masterpiece beautifully performed!
You played in the “Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions” cd, what do you remember about this recording? Have you ever met Zappa?
I was never fortunate enough to meet Zappa. But the EM members have shared memories from the Yellow Shark project. They all seemed to absolutely love him and describe his working method as a unique combination of total control and total freedom. Greggery Peccary… was performed on tour in Europe before the recording took place in Frankfurt. It went on for a full week and I remember it as somewhat tedious, as recording sessions can be. I also remember that they had problems getting the mix right, until one of Zappa’s assistants came over to Europe and helped out. The result is good, isn’t it?
What are your five favourite scores?
I the past few years I have spent hours and hours studying Bach’s autograph to Sei Solo, the three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin. It is a masterpiece in every sense. In the course of fifteen years I have studied, transcribed, performed and, finally, recorded the full set. In fact we just finished the editing of the recording last week! The investment in terms of time and energy has been considerable, but then the reward has been deeply satisfying. So Bach’s autograph is my favourite of all scores.
Two pieces that I commissioned are När jag blir stor by André Chini and Hudnära by Ludd, a duo consisting of Ida Lundén and Lise-Lotte Norelius (both can be heard on the Dadodado CD/BD). The Chini piece is dear to me due to its complexity and the fact that I was able, eventually, to master it. And Ludd’s piece is a favourite because it is so crazy, playful and has a certain sense of humour. The video is, well, something else… In fact, we really should put it on YouTube!
Anders Hillborg’s Close Up is a very short piece, about one minute, for clarinet and percussion that I have performed in various contexts and even used as a basis for improvisation (with Svante Henryson and Magnus Persson on the Musik för Trio CD). This is serial composition taken to the next level! There is something about that tone row (generated by prime numbers) that is almost magic.
Finally, Fridas Bok by Birger Sjöberg, published in 1923, is an ingenious collection of songs with piano accompaniment. Sjöberg himself used to perform them with his own guitar accompaniment. No recordings of him exist, so you are somewhat free when making your own guitar parts. Beautiful material by one of Sweden’s most extraordinary poets – ever!
I saw on your website (http://www.matsbergstrom.com/) that you have several open projects, what are you working on?
Right now I am preparing a performance of Star’s End by David Bedford in Cardiff with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It is a huge work (47 minutes long!) that features the electric guitar amidst a large symphony orchestra. It was recorded by Mike Oldfield in 1974 and has not been performed since, according to the information I have. The concert takes place on February 3rd. Later in the spring I have got concerts with Anne Sofie von Otter and friends in Paris and Oslo, a French program. There is also the recording of an album with soprano Kerstin Avemo interpreting songs by Kurt Weill and Franz Schubert. I have made some new guitar arrangements but assume that I will soon get rather busy making more. In April there is the second “leg” of a tour of Southern Sweden with Göran Söllscher, a dear colleague and friend.
I feel very fortunate to have such inspiring work ahead of me!