Swedish Composer Jacob Mühlrad releases his Deutsche Grammophon debut – Time
The album was recorded by The Swedish Radio Choir with the participation of conductors Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin
Those who peep through the window of Jacob Mühlrad's studio in Stockholm will see the composer busy behind his computer screen, perhaps blasting some Drake or FKA Twigs as he works on his own music. Judging from the outside, one might think that the fashionably dressed and energetic 29year-old is producing a hip-hop or pop album, when in fact, behind those doors Jacob's on a very different and profound kind of journey; composing choir music that deals with themes of mortality, of the human condition, of tradition and of the holy. In part, it is the very dichotomy between the it-man frequently appearing on ‘Sweden's best-dressed' lists and the introspective composer, that makes Jacob's work so unique and fascinating – he is known for infusing archaic and pious music with a brilliant modernity and sense of youthfulness. His debut album Time marries rhythm and words to the existential questions of humanity, and in that fusion Jacob attempts to understand the incomprehensible and express the infinite through new sounds.
"To me, music is the ultimate way of expressing spirituality. Music is one of the very common grounds for humanity in itself. It's a very primitive thing to express yourself with some type of sound," says Jacob. It's this perspective, of music as both universal and timeless, that informs Time, and common to all the tracks is a sense of the eternal. Much before turning to music however, these metaphysical matters already nagged in Jacob's mind; as a young boy he was greatly devoted to his Jewish faith to the point of considering pursuing special religious studies to become a rabbi. An old synthesizer repaired by his father marked the serendipitous beginning of Jacob's path with music, and with it the transition from a love of God to a love of sound. Time draws on the composer's religious upbringing, but it's epiphanies are best understood through the prism of music: the listener is left with the feeling that beauty has made sense out of what often seems incomprehensible or arbitrary. "The core of my music is very much about trying to communicate the sense of spirituality I had from when I was a believer. Today I'm a non-believer, but I am in search of that state of being, of that feeling of God's presence, that I now experience through music," he says.
Anim Zemirot, one of Jacob's earlier pieces commissioned by the Sofia Vocal Ensemble, was inspired by this transition from believer to composer. The text is from the Jewish liturgy, a synagogue hymn from the 13th century that speaks of King David's love for God and traditionally sung at the end of the Sabbath by the youngest member of the congregation: "I shall compose pleasant psalms and weave hymns…" Jacob's music conveys both the comforting quality of the text and also its yearning – the glissandi in the upper voices at the very beginning already hint at this – but it is a yearning that in the composer's hands frequently spills over into ecstasy, the voices cascading over each other like sonic waterfalls. "King David's love for God was so strong, and I could really relate to that energy and feel that love to music itself. This was the first choir piece I wrote, and it's perhaps a little bit immature but it's so personal and important in that sense."
With Kaddish, Jacob engages directly with Judaism and the subject of the Holocaust through the personal lenses of his family. The composer's grandfather was a survivor, and the work is conceived as an imaginary dialogue between them. It employs texts by Michael Bliman (the composer's grandfather), transcribed from an old homemade video Jacob would only discover years after his grandfather's passing, and that marked the beginning of his conversation with the dead. The personal family recollections are mixed with texts by Eli Wiesel and fragments of the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, but once again there are wordless sections, when Jacob feels that music can say more than text. Indeed, the work springs from the subterranean depths, before words can be uttered, though it moves slowly towards affirmation, in the form of bearing of witness so that such a thing may never happen again, and the full expressive range and dramatic potential of the choir is called upon to achieve this. "I'm asking my grandfather the questions I never had the chance to ask myself. In that sense it's also a type of a way of processing this trauma," reflects Jacob.
Despite Jacob's personal drift away from religion towards a more ample conception of spirituality, his music continues to retain elements of the rituality he was first introduced to in religious prayer. "I was very struck by how repetition in the religious or musical context helps to get in a certain state of being," he says. With Nigun, a composition for double choir, the composer's stated aim was to create "an abstraction of a Jewish service," but there is also a connection to the mysticism of the Kabbalah in the use of wordless melody ("nigun" in fact means melody). The effect is something like hearing the liturgy in a dream, with fragments of words drifting towards the listener on vast clouds of sound, but there is an unexpected moment of clarity with the tenor solo around halfway through, leading to awestruck repetitions of the word "kadosh" – holy. Nigun also makes clear Jacob's prowess at manipulating sounds structurally, beyond the actual meaning of the words and texts he composes spirit into the architecture of the music and at times the organic overlaid voices almost sound like electronic systems.
Time deals with the subject of communication, by means of the story of the Tower of Babel, of which the composer says that "it is a powerful metaphor, not least in our present time, when discussions transcending national borders are so vital." For the piece, Jacob worked incessantly trying to connect a multitude of languages into a single word – time. After translating ‘time' into 104 different languages, the composer tasked himself with organizing the sounds, not only by their linguistic roots but also their unique timber, "The process gave me a palette of sounds, I felt like a painter who spent three months mixing different types of colours until I had a nice twenty-seven colours that I could start to paint with," says Jacob, "I had this very clear structure and I got such an energy from these language restrictions. They created a cage I wanted to break free from."
Jacob Mühlrad's plight with Time seems familiar if we consider the project of Babel itself and mankind's eternal attempts to transcend human limitations. Far from an easy-listening experience this album is demanding, it requires the listener the same kind of diligence and focus that is required in religious rituals."That way of viewing music is very close to how some religious people view God. It's in the small details and everywhere, but you have to work to see it."