Composer of the Month #5 is Carl Unander-Scharin

Ever since Carl Unander-Scharin started in the Adolf Fredrik Boy´s Choir at the age of 11 he has devoted all his time to music. He has sung under the direction of most of the prominent Swedish choral conductors, studied to become a church musician, choral pedagogue and opera singer, has been a soloist on 16 CD records, has sung over 40 opera roles, invented electronic instruments, received a doctoral degree from the Royal Institute of Technology, was appointed professor and composed a considerable amount of vocal music. It is when he travels that he finds time to read all the fantastic poetry there is.

”We were working with music all the time!”
Interview with Carl Unander-Scharin from June 2018

You have an enormously comprehensive CV. How do you find time for all of that? 
That is an interesting question. I think I got used to it as a child. I attended the music classes at Adolf Fredrik School and started singing in the boy´s choir there when I was 11. This had an important influence on me. We were working with music the whole time! In middle school I sometimes sang at the Stockholm Royal Opera three evenings per week. I had to be in the make-up lounge at 5 o´clock, then the performance began at 7 and I did not get home until late in the evening. And then it was school as usual the day after. This instilled in me a way of life: academic work during the daytime and rewarding artistic projects in the evenings, on weekends and during summer vacations. I became accustomed to working with many things at the same time, and I still think it´s great fun and stimulating.

How do you introduce yourself to someone who doesn´t know you?
I am a composer who sings and a singer who composes, and in addition I do research and some conducting. And I teach.

What is music to you?
Dickens said: ”Those strange contradictions of feelings that are common to us all”. This quote is telling when it comes to people and feelings, I think. Meaningful music succeeds in bringing together what is full of contradictions and touches upon common heartstrings in people.

What comes to your mind when you think of Swedish choral music? 
We Swedes in general are quite trend-conscous. I like it when composers ”do their own thing”, irrespective of trends. For example, when Ingvar Lidholm composes a work such as  …a riveder le stelle, it has its origin in choirs that can sing [the Swedish folk song] Uti vår hage exquisitely, but based on that knowledge he creates something entirely new.  

Much of the best Swedish choral music is not sung very often. I notice in my teaching at Ingesund School of Music that we do more Mozart than Alfvén, and I actually think this is a serious problem! For Alfvén has, for instance, written fantastic cantatas, and many other [fine] works.

How does your own voice sound?
I have a bright voice with many overtones (formants) and I sing with an emphatic awareness of the meaning of the text, and hence the phrasing. Tenore leggiero is the Italian term for tenors like myself, who sing Rossini, Bach, Handel and Mozart. 

How has the fact that you are a singer yourself influenced your choral music?
I am very interested in poetry. When I sing in operas or oratorios I find it exciting to try to understand what lies behind the choice of the text and what has led up to its becoming music. On the other hand, when I write music I dig long and deep to get to the texts that inspire me. I would say that about half of my compositional work is with the texts and the other half is the ”setting to music” itself. A number of my works have texts by mystics or philosophers such as Eckhart, Blake, Einstein, Ekelöf, Apollinaire and Frostenson. I travel a great deal and always take along something to read. It’s fun! As I am so interested in texts I have written mostly vocal works.

How has your research on opera and technology influenced your choral music?
It is rather the case that all my choral singing has influenced my research on the voice and the development of interactive instruments. For what I do is to try to liberate the singer, mainly the opera singer. I have also worked on ”artist-liberating” projects with orchestras, and just lately with the Swedish Radio Choir, in the work which I have created together with my wife and close colleague for many years, Åsa Unander-Scharin: Calligrammes. The singers played on ropes suspended from floor to ceiling in Berwaldhallen while singing. The artistic idea was inspired by Apollinaire´s poem ”Liens” – which is about the invisible and visible connections that hold mankind together (It can be seen c. 21 minutes into this film).

What kind of choral music do you intend to write in the future?
Just now I am working on a piece for choir and organ commissioned by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble. I have found a text by a fifteenth-century British mystic, the anonymous author of ”The Cloud of Unknowing”. It is 25 years since I gave up playing the organ, so it is exciting to explore the organ repertoire again.

I am also planning a new oratorio based on a moral theme, like God in Disguise, but not professing any faith, as Messiah does. Today it is opportune to take up spiritual issues that are not specifically religious, and that is what I work with. But I won´t say any more about this just now…

What has been your greatest choral music experience? 
To be a part of the Royal Opera as an eleven-year-old chorister! And then all the concerts as a young choral singer with conductors Anders Eby, Gustaf Sjökvist and Stefan Parkman. This was a very important period for me. And later I had some fantastic years with Eric Ericson, both as a singer in his chamber choir and as a student under him when he taught at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. What I learned from him was simply immense.

When the conductor is truly aware of the text, as is, for example, Peter Dijkstra (former principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Choir), the result is bound to be something very special. When Peter worked with the Radio Choir in Calligrammes, he was incredibly careful about how I had set the text and how the singers should interpret and express it. He brought out my underlying intention as a composer in an unexpected and inspiring manner.


Three choral pieces by Carl Unander-Scharin:

Spiritual Exercises/Andliga övningar. No 3 of six motets, for mixed choir a cappella. Texts from three different spiritual traditions form a metaforical and atmospherical "spiritual exercise". Swedish setting: Andliga övningar. SATB, advances level.
...hold infinity in the palm of your hand… Suite in nine movements to William Blake's texts for choir and piano. Commissioned by Adolf Fredrik's Music School. SATB and piano, medium–Advanced level. 
Djupt under dagens yta. No 5 of the six motets. A complex and beautiful musical universe with a philosophical text.  SATB double choir, a cappella. Advanced level.

Read more about Carl Unander-Scharin: