Modulisme 048

Leo Nilsson

Cover Artwork : Yan Proefrock

Leo Nilsson was born in 1939, and studied at the State Academy of Music in Stockholm 1958-62, graduating as organist, soloist instructor and music teacher. Then he travelled to Paris to work at the electronic music studio of Radio Télévision Française (RTF), and then to Köln.
He has been active as a composer, pianist, organist and chamber musician, and was one of the very first pioneers of electronic music in Sweden. He has supplied integral electronic music for exhibitions in Paris, Milan, New York, Tokyo, as well as composing music for film, theatre, dance & television. He composed mainly at Elektron Music Studio (EMS), Fylkingen, Studio Andromeda (with Ralph Lundsten) and in his own Viarp.
He’s been on the teaching board of the State College of Music in Stockholm from 1982 until he retired.

It’s been a couple of months that I originated our Early ElectroMIX series documenting the works from pioneers in Electronic music, those who paved the way to what would become the musical revolution of the previous Century. Leo Nilsson was a key figure in the field back in the sixties, returning from Paris & Köln and unveiling such new ideas in Sweden. Obviously I was extremely flattered when, after receiving my ElectroMIX featuring his music, he got back to me to encourage and let me know he had truly enjoyed our platform.
We started exchanging and it became obvious that I should bring some of his original compositions back to life, thus here we are offering a retrospective (from 1964 to 1991) which comes right in time to remind us that not only was he ahead of its time but also in thought.

You studied Organ and Composition in Sweden, and then – in 1960 – came to work at the electronic-music studio of the ORTF in Paris? How did you meet/get in contact with Pierre Schaeffer? How long did you stay there? How was it?
Did you also work with Bernard Parmegiani, Pierre Henry? Who did you feel closer to then?

I was indeed studying piano, organ and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. I won a scholarship fund to go study in Paris where I was expected to continue as a pianist. That occurred a long time ago (60-61) but there I followed concerts and lectures at the American Cultural Institute in Paris and once the GRM gave a concert of Musique Concrète and in the program i think we heard – among others – ”Etude aux chemins de fer” + ”Symphonie pour un homme seul”.
Pierre Schaeffer was then speaking about his compositional approach and how he was envisioning the future of music. That totally changed my perception. Suddenly I understood that music could work with the total sounding universe, not only fixed instruments, scales and tonality.
I spoke to Pierre and he invited me to his studio at ORTF.
In the studio Pierre introduced me to all the possibilities of tape-manipulations, tape-cutting, tape-loops, variable speed-machines, filters, mixing tapes etc… And furthermore he told me how sound could change our perception, human experience.
At that time he was working on his “Traité des objets musicaux”. He also introduced me to the big sound-archives which they were building up. We started debating if it was right to use artificial sounds for composition, and what do these sounds really said to us ?

And what was the answer? What did these sounds say to you?

I became more and more interested in the relation between music and psychology, from my own experiences when I listened to pure electronic music I learnt that perhaps there is no bigger difference between concrete and electronic generated sounds. Things work in our mind in a lot of strange ways so perhaps the best way is to observe yourself in a very sensitive way.

Did you meet and become friend with Guy Reibel, Beatriz Ferreyra who were assisting then? Pierre Henry, Bernard Parmegiani? How was the ambience there back then? Family like, you were accepted easily?

The GRM studio was located in a small house near ORTF, I was welcome to visit. People there showed me all the equipments and functions in the studio, sorry I don´t remember names any longer.
Pierre was kind to me and he wanted to speak a lot about sound and psychology.
Later on we met again when he visited Stockholm and Fylkingen when we were planning the EMS – studio.

Then you decided to return to Sweden, was that to share the knowledge you had learnt? Knut Wiggen and you started Elektron Music Studio in Stockholm which is still today one of the most important center for Modular Synthesis, Electronic Music?

Leon Theremin and Ondes Martenot had introduced the sound-generator and in Cologne they had started to build up a studio with a big bank of tone-generators. I had visited the Cologne-studio, and met Herbert Eimert and Stockhausen on my way home to Stockholm.

Back then Schaeffer and Stockhausen had a very different approach/vision. To me it seems that you felt closer to that Köln Electronic aesthetic, didn’t you? How was your experience there? Lifechanging? How long? What did you learn?

In Cologne I was offered the possibilities to build up sounds with tone-generators, sk. ”additive synthesis”, and I was very fascinated. I started to study more music acoustics and the whole world of sound-spectra etc.
In the same time I understod what a huge world sound and music is. Things develops in time with great variations, and you must handle microsounds, vibrato, tremolo etc. and in the same time take care of the big lines in the composition.
In electronic music you are both a musician and a composer at the same time.

Back in Stockholm we started Fylkingen to develop experimental music and explore what electronics could do for music in the future. Karl-Birger Blomdahl set up an opera, Aniara, where he wanted music associated to the ”Universe”.
With our chairman, Knut Wiggen, we started to design ElektronMusikStudio, for the Swedish Radio..
The computer era was in front of us and we decided that the studio should be based on computer-programming for sound-synthesis, until’ then we had to work with mostly analog equipments and we were also building our private studio.
I started studio Andromeda together with Ralph Lundsten. A tape-studio with some special equipments. We got in contact with Erkki Kurreniemi in Finland who had just done a new construction – a sequencer which you could program
over a patch-board. This became our heart in the studio, and then we were engaged in developing this instrument further together with Erkki.

Ralph Lundsten (left) Leo Nilsson (right)

Back then Moog, Buchla had only appeared in the USA. Were you aware of their existence?
What was the effect of that discovery on your compositional process? On your existence?

The Swedish concert organisation Rikskonserter bought one of the first big Moog-synthesizer. I did a lot of concerts in schools with this instrument all over Sweden. In a projekt ”Ljudd” pupils had to build their own synthesizer in plastic tubes and they played after selfmade scores, a film.
Throughout the years other synthesizers appeared and i tried them all. Once I went to London to meet Zinovief as I had heard of a synth in a brief-case: that famous Synthi AKS. I bought it and when I arrived att the airport in Stockholm, the customs stopped me. They thought I was a spy with some special cod-equipment in the case. When I told them that it was a music-instrument, they laughed… No-one had heard of a synthesizer in that time.

Nowadays quite often modularists are in need for more, their hunger for new modules is never satisfied, on your end you tried many different synths, you were building studios, would you tell us about Andromeda and Viarp Studios?

I started my own Viarp Studio and moved to south Sweden in the countryside. I need silence and to be closer to nature. Electronics was for the public too much associated with the nuclear industry and I had the idea of making my music with sun-energy.
In my studio I had the Dataton-equipment which was constructed by Björn Sandlund at EMS. This was a modular-system with small boxes possible to combine to each other in different ways, also with a small computer. I did a lot experiment together with Sandlund. We wanted to construct a very sensitive electronic music instrument and tried with touch-boards, fotocells, motorik input, etc… This inspired me to make new instruments, also as sculptures. There you have ”Instrumental wall”, the plexiglas ”Slinga”, ”Paradox-Parabol” etc.
Also high flying projekts as a ”Singing Satellit”, a model to a Satellite around the world with the message ” destroy all weapons – be happy again”.
As a practicing musician I was occupied with ”live-electronics”. The Dataton-system was portable and every musician could have his board with different sound-manipulations, they had for ex.all a joy-stick for sound-movements in the space.
Sound and space, and sound in environment, also sound and pollution have been questions which has been occupying me all the time.

Would you please describe the music in your Modulisme session? Share some history on how the compositions were created: Installations? Music for dance company? Album?

Those selections depict the evolution of my Electro-Acoustic music throughout the decades :
01. Skorpionen dates back from 1964 and was the first composition in Sweden composed on a programable sequencer-synth constructed by Erkki Kurenniemi.
02. Viarp is Computermusic from 1971 composed in the EMS studio in Stockholm. All the work is programmed in the language EMS 1 – original in 4 channel.
03. Sirrah was composed in 1975 with the Dataton-system, constructed by Björn Sandlund. The music was used by the dance-company ”l’Etoile du Nord” in the performance ”Star-75” where the dancers moved them self with lights over a Buckminster Fuller – Dome.
04. Sonata Infernale is a studio-composition I made using Dataton + the synthesizers Roland and DX7, in 1981.
05. Early Ear is from 1982. Programmed music with the Dataton mini-computer. The music can variate itself over time, forever and ever, here you only listen to an extract.
06. Ode Till En Blodbok means “Ode to a Blood Book” and was done in 1991 for an outdoor-concert in a marvelous garden in Skåne with a very old big red tree to which I dedicated this music. The name “Blood Book” has in this concept in Swedish a dubbel meaning, name of a tree but also in a more dramatic way of life and death.
Composed in Studio Viarp with different equipments.

Were you playing live often or were you more interested in the interpretation/spatialization of recorded material?

Electronic music works perfectly with cinema, theater, dance and multi-media, I did a lot… Exhibitions with architecture, art-installations, music for some dance-company etc… I was also gigging with the PaxArt Ensemble and we even released a live album in 1980.

What do you think that can only be achieved by modular synthesis that other forms of electronic music cannot or makes harder to do?

The real deep thinking is ”what can new music do for the human being of today” ? Our history tells us a lot, marvelous music has been created, can we add something substantial from our time, and what comes in the future?
Do we need a new common musical languages? Will all end in a superficial entertainment?
Is it the artificial intelligence which will make our music in the future? Is it the mobil-telefon in our pocket which will become our new musical instrument, and can I perhaps then play together with my friends all over the world?!

Very often I come to the conclusion that whatever I may try musically it has been done before, by pioneers like you. What you just said brings to mind that the questioning shouldn’t be focusing on the musical compositional result but on the process? On the evolution? Is that what you think, does the music become secondary and the process would bring in the novelty, and from that would maybe evolve some new musical explosion?

A big question !
One curious thing is that most people are very conventional, interested in following the mainstream and music has always developed together with history and society.
Now there is a slinking danger that entertainment/interest takes over the whole market.

Any advice you could share for those willing to start or develop their “Modulisme” ?

Ask your self what you want with music !
Study music-psychology and music acoustics – our sounding material.
Learn from history, different cultures, different art schools, aesthetics.
Be watchful to the society and what happens to the earth.
Be sensitive to your self – your emotions. Follow your inspiration, your skills, whether it be playing a string instrument or the latest programmable music machine.