Photo Agnes Thor

”I was an odd bird with my interest in folk music and amateur choirs”

One of the most frequently performed Swedish composers on the international scene, Karin Rehnqvist works in the borderland between folk music and art music. She has integrated the ancient female singing technique called ”kulning” (herding calls) into a personal tone language that has given birth to choral classics such as I Himmelen (In Heaven), in which the girls´ choir surprises us with its powerful expressivity. She is professor of composition and loves the Swedish choral scene. 

Interview with Karin Rehnqvist, December 2019

How does your own voice sound?
Do you mean how I sing? Not so good! I sing very little nowadays. But I´m going to remedy that soon. I grew up singing in church choirs in Nybro in Småland: girls´ choir, children´s choir, youth choir and adult choir. Choral singing is where I belong and my voice is my instrument. 

We read in a biography devoted to your life: ”Looking at music history in the direction that we refer to as ´back´ has involved a way forward toward renewal for her.” Do you recognise yourself in this statement?
It is true that I make use of our tradition – folk music, that is – but I do it in my own way. What I am looking for is something will cause a fire! You have to hazard the risk. I have of course gone my own way entirely and have absolutely no need to jump on anyone else´s bandwagon. I think it is fun when I realise: Aha, they were not expecting this! But sometimes you have to fulfil expectations, otherwise you will leave the audience in the lurch. 

Folk music has been the great passion of my life. Strangely enough, it is not an interest that I brought with me from my childhood in Småland, but encountered it for the first time after I had moved to Stockholm and heard it on a record. It was instant love. When I started in the composition class I recorded my singing of a polska on one of those old-fashioned tape recorders late one evening. I played it backwards and it sounded so amusing! That was how Davids nimm, my breakthrough work, came into existence. In Davids nimm Lena Willemark and Susanne Rosenberg sang very forcefully and with a special sound in their high notes. I wondered: What is that? It was the first time I had ever heard kulning, herding calls. 

Can you do herding calls?
Why yes; rather well, actually. I can make the sounds, even though I can´t do the ornamentation.

How would you describe your tone language?
Someone has written concerning my music that it articulates its way forward. Like that backwards sound in Davids nimm. And it should be precise and clear! My expression can be quite straightforward, something I find in folk music as well. I use scales taken from folk music, with quarter tones. If I write for string instruments I prefer it to sound a little noisy when bowing, as it does in folk music. The expression should be powerful. 

Something that recurs is the cry and the prayer: the extroverted and the introverted. As in Ljusfälten (Light Patches), in which Edith Södergran´s text reads: ”I have powers. I fear nothing.” By singing this one also becomes stronger! I choose texts with great care, as much for the meaning as how the language sounds. And the wordless parts more for the sake of the sound, where you also sing on mmm and lll.

I have written a great deal that should not have vibrato. Triumf att finnas till (Triumph of Existing), for example; It should be sung out directly and forcefully. Then I contrast it with the opposite expression, a slightly humorous and neat ”doo-ing”, so to speak, so it doesn´t get pompous.

The fact that young girls are allowed to sing in an ugly manner or forcefully, can this be considered innovative in choral music? 
A human being has many sides. It is vital for me to express the raw and the harsh. The Hjos Church Girls´ Choir sang I Himmelen at the opening of the Parliament a few years ago. First they sung something romantic and beautiful. Then suddenly they began to sing herding calls, the MPs woke up and looked at one another; How should we react to this? Such powerful expression from the girls was so unexpected.

What in your life has influenced your composing?
Excellent musicians and excellent choirs! That is my great source of inspiration. On different levels and in different ages. I remember when I heard the Bulgarian Women´s Choir for the first time on LP in the 70s. What an awesome sound! They are of course professional singers and have been trained, but with another technique than ours. They have an unaffected, straightforward and direct expression that really appeals to me. The sound explains life as a whole. 

I collaborated a great deal with legendary Swedish conductor Bosse Johansson, who sadly passed away much too soon a few years ago, and his Adolf Fredrik Girls´ Choir. I sang in a Stockholm choir that he conducted, and when I started to compose he was always interested and curious. He called me up and said, ”I am going to China with the Girls´ Choir and I was wondering about the herding calls and the folk hymns… ” Then I wrote I Himmelen. After that I wrote things for them that were way too difficult, such as Triumf att finnas till. They sang it anyway! He liked challenges. And we had the same sense of humour. I miss him very much. 

What comes to your mind when you hear the words ”Swedish choral music”?
The Swedish choral life – that is the most beautiful thing we have in this country. Every week people from different generations and professions meet and create something artistic together.

What kind of choral music do you want to write in the future?
I would like to write more of what is simple, such as Natt över jorden (Night over the Earth), for example. It is vital for me to work with  amateurs as well as professionals. Just now I am collaborating mostly with professionals, composing complex music. I would really like to have more commissions from amateur choirs. Preferably children and adolescents!

What has been your greatest choral experience?
Every time I have had my music performed really well. When singers and musicians contribute their own musicality it sometimes achieves more than I could have imagined. 

When I got to hear Ljus av ljus (Light of Light) for the first time, performed in Paris by the French Philharmonic and the Adolf Fredrik Girls´ Choir. It was a fantastic experience. It is a shimmering and at the same time slightly melancholy piece, I think. When it was later performed in Stockholm with the same choir and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, they played Allan Pettersson´s Seventh Symphony at the same concert. Real ”barbed wire music”! A wonderful combination, quite to my taste. 

You were the first woman to be admitted to the composition programme at the Royal College of Music. How was that?
I was an odd bird in the composition class with my interest in folk music and amateur choirs, but I didn´t really think so much about being a woman there. Then I ended my studies and gave birth to my first child in 1984. It was undoubtedly at this point that I became more conscious about it being different to be a girl. 

Was this when you founded KVAST (The Association of Swedish Women Composers)? That´s right; I saw that the proportion of women composers whose works were performed in concert halls and festivals went up and down. It got better… but then it was back to zero again. I got so depressed that I lay down and couldn´t get up from my bed. But after a week I realised: They need help! I called together all women composers and we decided to form KVAST. We counted all the pieces by women and men respectively in orchestras in the upcoming concert season. The result was catastrophic, so we contacted the press. This definitely had an impact, and a lot has changed since then. And I have every reason to be proud of this! I thought that I had risked my whole career for this, that now no one would want to play my music. But thank goodness it didn´t turn out that way! We found a tone in this that was kind of humorous. I believe the key was that we were not angry when speaking to the directors of the musical establishments but instead asked the question: ”How can we help each other?”


Three choral works by Karin Rehnqvist
Haya! Song to the joy of Day. We greet the dawn in a fonetic language invented by the composer. A jubilant piece, often used as a concert encore. Commissioned by the Swedish Radio and Berwaldhallen (Swedish Radio Concert Hall) for the Eric Ericson Award for young conductors in 2009. SATB divisi, a capella. Advanced level. (See Latvian youth choir  See Latvian youth choir "KAMĒR..." sing Haya! at the Tolosa choir contest in 2018)

Songs from the Earth (Night on our Earth and Do not fear the Darkness). Karin Rehnqvist's beloved settings of Swedish poet Erik Blomberg, for descant choir. SSA, easy level. Also in a version for SATB. (Listen to Do not fear the Darkness, sung by Do not fear the Darkness, sung by Arctic Light and Susanna Lindmark.

Songs from the North. Karin Rehnqvist writes: "The choir is a gathering of people. One can sing with and towards each other. Close or far. Most importantly: those who sing and dance together does not make war." Texts by indigenous peoples of Greenland and Alaska meet elements of Swedish folk music in herding calls, kulning. SATB + 1-3 soloists, a capella, medium/advanced level.

Karin Rehnqvist on Spotify - playlist!
Works for mixed choir
Works for descant choir

More about Karin Rehnqvist
Karin Rehnqvist on Wikipedia
Karin Rehnqvist on