Peter Söderberg has always been an adventurous musician. As a lutist he recorded both Renaissance and Baroque music, but he also appeared on several contemporary music records. He also played in some jazz bands and also as a guitarist he played a lot of contemporary repertoire. I have two of his CDs in my archive and have always found his music very interesting. I appreciated the temporal short circuit that he was able to create by performing contemporary music in a totally different sound context. It is curious to think of the lute as a contemporary instrument, dedicated to a contemporary repertoire. But let’s start considering these two records: “The Contemporary Lute Cage, Karkoff, Reich, Stockhausen,” and “Lute with Force”.
Peter Söderberg, Sven Åberg
The Contemporary Lute Cage, Karkoff, Reich, Stockhausen, Alice Musik Produktion , 1991
Tierkreis (1976) Composed By – Karlheinz Stockhausen
Four Duets For Two Lutes (1985) Composed By – Ingvar Karkoff
14 First Duet 3:52
15 Second Duet 1:15
16 Third Duet 1:55
17 Fourth Duet 1:00
18 Dream (1948) Composed By – John Cage
19 Piano Phase (1967) Transposed For Lute Composed By – Steve Reich
This is the first record where I was able to meet Cage’s music performed for guitar … but it was not a guitar music record, but for lute. Exactly. For lute. “The Contemporary Lute” is one of those pleasantly anomalous records, which forces you to review and rethink your way of approaching music. This album, in fact, contains a witty contradiction: how can music designed and composed be performed hundreds of years after the birth of the interpreter instrument? In fact, Peter Söderberg and Sven Åberg play archlutes, Renaissance lutes and theorbo, all Renaissance and Baroque instruments, light years away from our era and from the ideas of Cage, Karkoff, Reich, Stockhausen. Normally the opposite occurs: music from the past is performed with contemporary instruments. On this record, the perspectives are bravely reversed, giving rise to many doubts for those who enjoy musical philology. Only “Four duets for two lutes” by Ivan Karkoff was specially composed for these two performers. All other music, all other pieces, the twelve zodiacal signs of the Tierkreis of Stockhausen, the Piano Phase of Reich and the Dream of Cage are the subject of transcriptions by Söderberg, and therefore of formal interpretations and transpositions for the lute.
It is therefore a sort of Copernican revolution in the field of classical music, where the transcriptions normally follow the path from the past to the contemporary and not the other way around. The result is slightly alienating. It is a sort of temporal short circuit: we are used to listening to transcriptions of Renaissance music and for piano, even for electric guitar. These are actualizations of musical languages designed for other instruments transported on a contemporary level: the music gains a different sound and phrasing and at the same time the repertoire for the instrument is enlarged. Classical guitar, in particular, has enjoyed a remarkable cultural attitude, taking advantage of it to broaden a decidedly restricted classical repertoire. Here, however, things are different. Here we have an instrument that rises from the past to perform contemporary music, a kind of music not thinked for it and not even imagined at the moment of its appearance on the musical horizon. This instrument does not carry only its baggage of sounds, musical images and expressive potential, which among other things are already given as acquired, being well tested over the centuries and by a lot of musical literature. It brings along a powerful aggregate of content, messages and links. It brings history. It brings with itself a whole cultural and poetic context made of connections linked to past historical moments. Now, playing contemporary music, it is like as if all these connections, all this cultural background were removed. It is like listening to the lute for the first time.
I think John Cage would have liked this context very much. This record was made while he was still alive, but I don’t know if he had the chance to listen to it, probably a free mind like him would have appreciated the wit hidden in the notes on this record. As we have already seen for other CDs, Dream is a piece much loved by guitarists. Cage wrote this piece for piano: here it is performed in a version for archlute and viola da gamba by Peter Söderberg and Leif Henriksson. The piece was composed at the request of Cage’s longtime collaborator, the dancer / choreographer Merce Cunningham. As was his custom, Cage only started working on Dream after the dance was fully planned and Cunningham had provided him with a list of metric models for each dance as a model from which Cage could proceed.
Liuto Con Forza, Phono Suecia, 2010
1. Varianti for Lute by Bengt Hambraeus
2. Luta for Theorbo by Ivo Nilsson
3. Pice for Lute and Live Electronics by Erik Peters
4. Vision and Ashes by Lars Ekström
5. Pieces (4) for Lute by Ingvar Karkoff
6. Chemin de Silence by Kent Olofsson
Almost twenty years later, Peter Söderberg released this second record, still dedicated to contemporary music, specially composed for the lute. This is also an interesting program and this time all the music is composed for lute. “Variants for Solo Lute” was the last piece written by Bengt Hambræus, Swedish-Canadian organist, composer and musicologist, during his illness. His passage marks the use of unorthodox tunings, including some ferocious climaxes that would have made any Renaissance lutist jump and would no doubt have been greeted with disapproval. But there are also some references to the tradition of a Dowland or a Francesco da Milano.
“Luta for Theorbo” by Ivo Nilsson, also a Swedish composer, takes us even further back, as it echoes the sound of the oud, the ancestor of the lute, through the use of microtonality. Nilsson creates a sort of bridge between the Middle Eastern origins of the lute and some completely contemporary idioms, generating explorations of the dynamic range of the instrument with particularly interesting results. “The Piece for Lute and Live Electronics” by Erik Peters, composer and performer living in Stockholm, active in the field of experimental music and sound art, contains some moments of ethereal beauty, electronics sometimes support and extend the notes of the lute , sometimes surrounds them with a halo of barely heard sounds; sometimes electronics become the partner for a musical dialogue.
Lars Ekström, professor of composition and instrumentation at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, quotes from Dowland (The Frog Galliard) in his “Visions and Ashes for Theorbo”, but only as a starting point for a typically modern writing. It is a piece in three short movements, with references to the Baroque fantasy. Ingvar Karkoff composed his “Four Pieces for lute” for the baroque lute, instead of the Renaissance instrument. The program ends with a last piece “Chemin de Silence I-III” by Kent Olofsson. Here too there are echoes of the Baroque, but music requires an instrument readjusted in quarter tones and with additional keys. The theorem used in Chemin de Silence produces some deep and dark textures and some suggestive effects of a sort of poetic mystery and even religious expectation. It is very surprising music; like so many other things on this record, it represents an expansion of the lute tradition.
I really liked these records and not only for purely musical reasons. Sure. Söderberg is a virtuoso and a courageous interpreter with a musical vision, but here we are one step further. These albums not only express new musical possibilities, but represent a reversal of the aesthetic paradigm. The past returns with its specific set of sounds to be made available to what is contemporary. Sounds that belong to a past tradition and a past that do not belong to us, but from which we come, are made available for completely different music. It is a temporal dislocation. A new birth. A tradition that seeks the overcoming of outdated and well-studied styles such as musical philology. Peter Söderberg is the bearer of a new musical paradigm.