Marcus Fjellström: The gray area between the acoustic and the electronic is my favourite field to play around in
We’re back in business! So is Swedish composer Marcus Fjellström who resurrected after a six-years-long absence on Miasmah with an eerie new record ‘Skelektikon’. We figured it was the perfect timing to chat with him about all the skeletons in his closet – all you need to know about the new record, how to avoid album titles Rammstein would use, the perks of being a DIY filmmaker and the latest adventures of moving to London to score an AMC thriller series.
It’s been six years since your self-released last album ‘Library Music 1’. Lots have happened since then but let’s hear about the conception of ‘Skelektikon’ first. With all your various other projects, you rarely indulge in composing and releasing a full-length record.
I’m afraid that’s more by happenstance than by choice… I love composing full-length albums, but for a long stretch of time I was simply too busy with other projects, mainly composing for the contemporary classical music scene, as well as some stage work. As for ‘Skelektikon’, I feel it’s something of a sibling to my previous Miasmah album, ‘Schattenspieler‘. I actually started work on half of the tracks on the album around the same time as Schattenspieler, but they were left unfinished until I picked them up again some year and a half ago. In any case I feel this album explores the same universe, although maybe some different continents…
‘Schattenspieler’ was released in 2010, how did it feel to pick up those bits and pieces again? It’s quite common that one does not want to have anything to do with old ideas that they’ve explored already.
Actually, it felt right. Like coming home. There is also something very rewarding about being able to bring years of new savvy and experience to ideas that were spawned earlier. Time can provide a lot of perspective, and not only was it often suddenly very clear how to proceed with most of those bits and pieces, it also gave me a chance to take some of them in directions I couldn’t have envisioned when I started working with them.
I guess these years of new savvy and experience also includes the time spent composing ‘Boris Christ’, your very own audio-visual opera. This is your most extensive work up to date – what were/are the biggest challenges during the creative process?
So many challenges…! I think the biggest challenge was dealing with the situation my stupid ambition/hubris had gotten me into — promising to deliver a 90 minute notated score, plus 90 minutes of electronic music, plus 90 minutes of animated projections, in half the time I would actually need for such an undertaking. I’m still surprised I even managed to get to the end of it. In the end it was a very nice experience, much because of getting to work with great people — the musicians, the singers, the producer, the director etc. The whole thing was a very long time coming; writer and dear childhood friend Daniel Pedersen and I first spawned the idea for the opera in 2004 and we worked continuously over the years to try to bring it to the stage and we finally got a commission to write it in late 2013, so by that time it was a labour of love. But it nearly ran me into the ground, work-wise. It was worth it though. I’ve currently finished reworking the opera into a shorter, condensed, non-vocal version — a “silent” opera for processed solo violin, live electronics, and video projections, I’m hoping to be able to premiere it soon and go on touring with it around Europe, with the great Christoph Berg on violin. Looking forward to that happening!
Even though it’s still haunting and eerie, to me Skelektikon generally sounds somewhat more playful, calmer and brighter than Schattenspieler – perhaps because of its more high-pitched sounds. Was this something you did consciously or is it just me who thinks there’s more light and hope here among the skeletons?
Maybe, it’s hard to say, and I’m not even sure I think of my music in those terms. But the album was completed as I was going through a period of heartbreak, so I’m pretty sure that influenced it to some extent. I was considering titling the album “Schmerzrot”, a German word I made up that translates into “pain-red”, which I thought was a beautifully poetic reference to heartbreak, but some native German speakers advised me against it, since they found it sounded too brutal, and more like something a Rammstein album would be called. So “Skelektikon” it is.
Correct me if I’m wrong but it also sounds like you’ve started using more and more synths in your sounds lately. How do you find your balance between acoustic and synthetic elements?
Actually there are very few synths per se — almost all of the sounds are acoustic sounds treated electronically, even the synth sounding ones first started out as a recording of something physical and conventional, be it a classical instrument, a physical object, or a location recording, and then put through different electronic processes. A lot of it I end up building as sampler instruments that can be performed with a conventional keyboard and MIDI controllers, or sequenced in a computer… so by then it’s almost turned into a synth in some sense, but not in the sense of it being generated electronically from scratch like a synthesizer would.
In any case I think this gray area between the acoustic and the electronic is my favourite field to play around in, because when you twist the familiar and even old-fashioned into something alien and unnatural, I find you end up in a very magical, almost timeless but otherworldly, dreamlike place that you can both relate to and be surprised by.
‘Hermitage’ also comes with a video which is your work too. Could you tell us a bit about the technique you’re using for these animations?
Filmmaking and animating has become something of a second passion of mine, it started out slowly in 2006 when I first started playing around with moving images to my music, and as my craft grew, so did my passion. The visuals I created for Boris Christ was something of a milestone for me in that it was by far my most visually ambitious work to date in terms of aesthetics, style, and overall look, but I think my video for Hermitage pushed me even further towards yet another important personal milestone. I’m really pleased with how that turned out — I’ve long had a passion for the look of really old 1930’s/1940’s colour film footage, and with this project I started getting close to the look that I’ve long aspired to but never quite achieved. I find the result kind of looks like a dreamlike blend of Georges Méliès, the Quay Brothers and Guy Maddin… all of who are huge influences for me.
As for the technique — I’d say about two thirds of it is simple 2D animation with still images moving in different layers — and the remaining third is filmed footage I shot in my apartment and composited into these animations. Bodies / body parts, a porcelain doll’s head, a brain made out of clay, leaves and foliage brought in from the park outside my apartment, “nerves” made of white string taped onto black clothing and filmed against a black background, those kinds of things. All extremely lo-fi but I’m so in love with that kind of filmmaking. I never learned After Effects or any kind of 3D animation, so I have to find my own, hand-made solutions to everything, limited to what I can film in my flat and how I can composite those things in Sony Vegas which is the only video software I ever learned how to use. And then of course the post production phase — image processing, grading, colour correction, etc. is a huge, HUGE part of it.
If you could pick an already existing film that you think Skelektikon would be the perfect soundtrack for, which film would it be?
It would have to be a film I’ve yet not seen… maybe if Fritz Lang had secretly collaborated with Svankmajer, Borowczyk, and Jodorowsky, and if that forgotten film was discovered in a dusty vault somewhere, I’d be there, first in line, offering Skelektikon as source material for its score.
Some skeletons have whispered that you’ve also completed another short film. What is this short film and what are your plans with it?
Berlin-based artist and musician Katrin Hahner is a good friend of mine, and together we have embarked upon an ambitious long-term project exploring the character of Tiresias from the old Greek mythology, in a series of works in various mediums such as film, music, visual art, stage, etc. The first work in this series is a short film I completed a couple of months ago, titled “The Delights of my Modular Gender”. This particular film is based upon the idea that the ghost of Tiresias — who according to the myth lived his life both as a man and a woman — has the ability to freely switch and swap various body appendages in the Underworld to create different hormonal balances for his/her prophetic endeavors. We’re currently looking for a suitable context for its premiere — but it shouldn’t be too long before it reaches a wider audience, both online and otherwise.
How about your future plans? The skeletons also whispered something about you composing music for the new AMC drama/thriller series ‘The Terror’, co-produced by none other than Ridley Scott. There must be a really cool story behind this, please do share!
Yes! I’m extremely excited about this. Screenwriter and showrunner Dave Kajganich contacted me last year and introduced himself as a long-time fan of my music, asking if I would be at all interested in considering scoring this production… I don’t think one could wish for a more wonderful and humbling way to get a gig. Of course I didn’t need to think twice about it. The themes, the setting, and the sensibilities of the show overlap with so many of my own creative and aesthetic realms, and Kajganich and co-showrunner Soo Hugh have such an ambitious vision for this project. In our first conversation I was thrilled to discover that we all share a similar passion for ambiguity, abstraction, and emotional subtlety/complexity… and this of course allows me to really do my thing, which is wonderful; being sought out specifically to do one’s own, weird, personal thing must be such a rare privilege for composers working in film and television today. I really couldn’t be happier about it. I’m currently, as we speak, in the process of relocating to London for the duration of the production, to work closely with the creative team over some six months or so. It’ll be such an adventure… and again; really couldn’t be more excited about it, and I can’t wait to see the finished result later this year!
MORE on MARCUS FJELLSTRÖM