“We would only write when drunk so we couldn’t control it”

March 9, 2013


Composer Mikael Karlsson

Mikael Karlsson

Mikael Karlsson. Photo by Isabelle Selby.

AOP: Tell us about your new opera, Decoration.

Mikael: Well, I co-wrote the story with David Flodén. He’s a good friend of mine, and neither of us are librettists, but we just like to hang out. We got drunk, had a lot of fun and just started talking. He said “Why don’t we write an opera?” So we did, and we decided that we would only write when drunk so we couldn’t control it. We didn’t want to know what we were going to write, because then, why write it? The process has to be fun, and this way, it was.

And so the story has changed a lot, and it was always about whether to lie or not. The title refers to the way that we pretend that there’s meaning, the way that we pretend that love conquers all, or that it has meaning or that it matters. And the truth is that the conflict is between devotion or belief on the one hand, which helps us live, and science and the cold facts, that this little shit hole that we’re in is going to burn up in a couple of million years, so no matter how we live our lives, it’s not gonna matter. But we can’t live knowing that, so we decorate our lives by lying a little.

I tell myself that my friendships to other people really matter, and it feels like they do, I know they don’t. On a personal level they do, but to the universe they don’t, so the story is about that.

Rebecca Ringle as "She" in a promotional photo for Decoration. Photo by Krister Atle.

Rebecca Ringle as “She” in a promotional photo for Decoration. Photo by Krister Atle.

So our main character, her name is SHE – it’s very impractical – we wanted her to have a neutral name because she’s not about the beauty of the name, for instance. She’s a woman, and an astrophysicist. She treats her scientific belief and conviction as if it were a religion. So she’s maniacal about it, she truly believes that science is all that matters. She refuses to cope with any other belief, so she becomes very lonely. She’s diagnosed with an MS-like disease that slowly starts to destroy her body, and she’s losing control over it. And to a scientist, that should be great news, because you’re only a brain, you know? You can be a martyr for science by giving your body, saying that “this doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t, ideas are all that matters.” So at first, she’s being brave, and she thinks, “I can live like this, I can prove that ideas are what I am.” And I like that idea; it’s very brave of her.

In the second Act, as she’s slowly deteriorating, she changes her mind, and she wishes that she would have listened to some of the lies – to some of the love. But it might be too late, and it turns out that she’s losing her mind also. So she talks to the universe as if it’s a god, and it goes on from there. The central question is, should you be honest when nothing matters? And if nothing matters, why should honesty matter? If nothing matters, truth doesn’t matter. Then what are you going to do?

It’s a very strange story, and I like that it has logical loops and holes in it. We have an aria about dimensions also, so the idea of wormholes comes into the story, where something makes sense to a limit, and then you slip into another logic where it no longer makes sense over here. I hope that there are mistakes in it, because then the listener will have to figure something out. That’s what I love about David Lynch, noise music, anything that’s really gritty, distorted or fucked up – that you have to make sense of it, it’s not presenting itself to you. Then it’s interesting – then it’s trusting its audience that they’re not kids. That they’re grownups who can deal with problems. So we’re giving them a problem, and I hope we’re giving them an interesting enough one that they’re willing to solve it for us.

AOP: You’ve eclectically composed for video games, dance and opera. Do you feel your composer’s “voice” changes based on the medium? How has working in one medium influenced the way you compose for the others?

Mikael: I’m not sure I’m aware of what my voice is. I think it’s inevitable, and if you have one, it’s going to carry over into the different mediums no matter what you do; you have no choice. I never sat down and decided that this is going to be my voice. My voice is what I love and am able to do, those two things combined. And what I’m trying to achieve in terms in terms of furthering where I go. What I love in sound carries over the different genres.

My mom, who’s not a classical listener says that she can hear me; that I wrote it, no matter what it is. Whether it’s a gnarly, atonal clustery song-cycle, or if it’s a sweeping orchestral score for a movie, she hears that it’s my music; that’s good to me. My voice is there, it’s my brain, so it’s going to have something of me in it.

And it turns out that what I love fits into many different categories. If I were to only work with percussion, which is a very popular thing right now, it might limit me, or it might steer me in directions, but my love is melody and noise. To find beauty in something that’s ugly, or to distort something that’s beautiful, until it is almost no longer beautiful.

AOP: If Decoration could be a double-bill with any existing opera, what would you like to see it paired with?

Mikael: A comedy, I think. Decoration will have some comedic elements in it, it needs to. But it’s not a laugh-out-loud, happy romp. It deals with some really difficult stuff. But to have that with another dark piece, that would be unbearable. This is a pretty dark opera, so it needs to be paired with something joyous. I would love to have it paired with something that also celebrates life, but that does it in another way. Ours does it by saying “ok, so we take your bible away from you, we take your burning bush away from you, we take your weddings and your friendships and your love away from you, and we take your fairytale legends away from you, but look! Up there, in the sky, in the universe, in space. How can you not think that’s a better deal? That’s fantastic. Crashing galaxies, black holes, dark matter. If you can pair that with something that’s funny on the surface, then that’s the whole universe to me.

Decoration will be performed on March 17 at The Manhattan School of Music and on March 23 at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn with the composer in attendance. Event info: www.operaprojects.org/events


DECORATION: Versatile composer Mikael Karlsson to premiere and discuss scenes from his new opera

March 5, 2013

Mikael Karlsson. Photo by Isabelle Selby

Few classical composers can state their music has sold over 8 million copies, but Mikael Karlsson, the composer of two scores from a hit video game franchise, can claim that distinction. He’ll tell you though that he gets just as much satisfaction, if not more, satisfaction from composing for dance, film, and opera.

AOP returns to the Manhattan School of Music for their annual Opera Index series with scenes from Decoration, a new opera by Mikael with a libretto by the composer and David Flodén. The enigmatic work concerns “pointlessness, science as faith, entropy, a room with zero dimensions, druggy visions, rabbits, “new flesh,” lies and oracles floating on top of oceans inside hospitals.” The performance on March 17 features singers Rebecca Ringle, Margreth Fredheim, Jason Cox and Raehann Bryce-Davis with stage direction by Caren France. Decoration comes to AOP’s series OPERAtion Brooklyn on March 23 in Brooklyn.

Decoration was developed in AOP’s Composers & the Voice program in 2011-2012. The March performances of Decoration are made possible in part with generous funding by The Victor Herbert Foundation in memory of Lois C. Schwartz. Artist bios and video samples can be found at: www.operaprojects.org/decoration

Read Mikael’s interview with IGN.com about bringing his avante-garde classical style to the video game Battlefield: Bad Company.

Introductory lunch with Tobias Picker

October 17, 2011

Mikael Karlsson, Guest Blogger
Composers & the Voice composer, 2011-12


We had decided to have lunch at P.J. Clarke’s near Lincoln Center. I had, after being so instructed by Tobias, printed a few copies of a synopsis to an opera that I’m writing with my friend David Flodén. The name of the opera is Decoration.

I had already started my first aria assignment for AOP, but Tobias insisted on a synopsis in order to be able to assess the aria’s potential as part of an opera.

The days leading up to the lunch, David and I worked a lot on our strange story. It will most likely take another couple of years before the synopsis is complete and the libretto in the can, but the key elements are coming together now. We have already taken a few years to get to where we are, and there are plenty of holes to patch, cosmic phenomena to research, mythologies to build and nurse outfits to fashion before the first high C floats off the Decoration stage.

That said, the first Decoration aria – Internal – is already in the hands of Rebecca Ringle (mezzo soprano) and Kelly Horsted (pianist and AOP co-music director) for workshopping in November. VERY excited.

The sum of all this is that I had to present a rather unfinished version of a rather abstract story (it has a concrete storyline but that storyline takes a few good turns into the fantastical) to Tobias Picker, Steven Osgood and [AOP Managing Director] Bob Lee for feedback.

Tobias Picker

Now, what am I doing using an introductory lunch with Tobias Picker for feedback on a synopsis? I don’t even know the guy…

Or do I? (evil stare)

Yes, I do. I have been Tobias’ assistant since the production of An American Tragedy at The Met in 2005.

How did that happen then? A tech savvy and good friend of mine was unable to do some midi tech work for Tobias back in 2005 while he (my friend) was traveling, so I stepped in and went to Tobias’ apartment in Manhattan to meet him. He was very friendly and funny and asked me what I do. I told him that I was just about to get my master degree in composition. He then said that he’d like to hear some of what I’ve written, so when I got back home I sent some pieces to him to listen to (I was lucky to already have some great recordings of early stuff, recorded by some astonishing musician friends).

Upon my second visit to his apartment for follow-up work, he told me that he had listened to what I had sent, and laid on me some very lovely things about my music. He then asked me whether I would want to be his assistant, since he needed one now that his workload had become so great that he had better focus on only the composing as much as possible. Needless to say, I said yes yes yes.

It’s been a great six years so far. I have learned a lot from him, I have grown familiar with more of his wonderful, rich, complex and very honest (this is so key to my taste) music and how he thinks about the compositional process. I have seen a huge opera come to life (two more coming up shortly) and I have seen a praised and very famous composer deal with what it means to truly be in music. I have seen the vast amount of legwork and office task stuff involved in commissions and production work. I have had a steady job (granting me the crucial O1 Visa that allowed me to stay after I graduated) and a dear friend from it. He has been very generous with his time when I’ve asked for feedback. It’s a privilege to get to bounce ideas off someone trustworthy, open-minded and experienced.

That’s why saying our hellos didn’t make much sense in 2011.

Back to the lunch then…

I sit down with Bob and Steven and a minute later Tobias shows up. I hand out the synopsis to see if anyone has any feedback to give, and I am asked by Tobias to tell the core story in “25 words or less”.

A few thousand words later, the tangled, mangled and twisted version of the story I had managed to convey was being discussed with a lot of energy and sincerity. Why this? What about that? How do you make that fit with this? I’ve never seen this kind of detail work without this way of presenting it and so on.

It was a lot to process, but I got some really good ideas to bring back to David to address the questions the lunch participants had had and see how we feel about them.

The best advice is usually that which can be generally applied. That way the advice is not changing the intended destination of what you’re trying to do but rather giving you the map of getting there faster. I received a good handful or two of really important things to keep in mind that David and I had not addressed.

Halfway through the lunch, J. D. McClatchy dropped by (to meet with Tobias) so Tobias, in his typically playful manner, dropped the challenge of explaining the story to McClatchy (who has written countless libretti, including that for Tobias Picker’s hugely successful opera Emmeline) on me once more. I think I shaved a few hundred words off the “25 words or less” presentation, but strings still spaghetti-ed untied all around us when I finished. McClatchy listened intently and introduced the matter of abstract concepts in narrative storytelling to our discourse, and recommended the last and unfinished story of Nabokov, which deals with a man who erases himself, for some pointers on how to and how not to go about such a venture.

As the lunch drew to an end, I thanked all for taking time out of their ridiculously cluttered schedules to do this. It’s so very New York to me to be in situations like this, where accomplished, and unusual persons who certainly do not have to be helpful still choose to be because it’s in their nature.

In 2000, when I first moved here from Sweden to study composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, I was assigned a mentor by the college to make sure that I felt welcome and at home. Her name is Maxine Fisher, and she did this mentoring for no pay. She introduced me to a lot of fun music and to Passover with her family! She was a stranger to me, but she made me feel so incredibly welcome.

I once asked her why it is that New Yorkers, who are rumored to be so rude and cold, keep being so friendly and helpful all the time. She explained it this way: In New York, if someone does you a favor, they don’t expect a favor back from you. They expect you to do someone else a favor.

I truly believe that without that pay-it-forward attitude in its inhabitants, the New York new music scene would consist of one rich lady in a room with a string quartet playing Philip Glass music around the clock for her only. There is so much art that needs nursing to expand our communal experience of music. The amazing roster of Composer Chairs for this year’s Composers & the Voice is testament to that that attitude isn’t going away anytime soon.

After goodbyes were said, my tummy, the poor Waldorf Salad inside it, and myself walked happily down 8th Ave in the Indian summer sun.

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