Saturday 3 December 2022

From Super Nintendo to a dialogue with Debussy: Swedish composer, Martin Skafte's Preludes

Jonas Olsson and Martin Skafte at the recording session for Skafte's 24 Preludes for Piano
Jonas Olsson and Martin Skafte at the recording session for Skafte's 24 Preludes for Piano

In December, Toccata Classics issues a recording of Swedish composer Martin Skafte's 24 Preludes for Piano, played by Jonas Olsson. This is music directly referencing Debussy's 24 Préludes. Martin, who trained at the Gotland School of Music Composition and the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg, has also written piano solos based on Chopin's Mazurkas, and a group of pieces to be played with Beethoven's Bagatelles.

Martin's Preludes started as a group of twelve, based on Debussy's first book of Préludes, but then Martin realised that this was the most fun he'd had composing and so he went back for the second book after a couple of years. Each of Martin's preludes is based on a different idea, and for the first book, the preludes start quite close to Debussy and gradually move away. Martin sees his preludes as being in dialogue with Debussy. At the centre of the first book is The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, where we can hear Debussy quite clearly. Martin's idea in the preludes is that we hear the music trying to rebuild itself based on the memory of Debussy's music 100 years after it was written, allowing for the normal shortcomings of the human mind.

The preludes originally came about because Martin was not happy with what he was composing and decided that if he could learn from anyone, then Debussy was his first choice of composer. Martin sees his preludes as being somewhat in place of a dialogue with the composer, he wanted to get the essence of Debussy's works as a starting point for his own musical language.

Martin loves the piano classical tradition and is still very much tied to it. He lost his love for the tradition at one point but feels he has now returned to his roots. His creating music arising directly from the classical tradition began when he was still a student, writing pieces based around Chopin's mazurkas. Choosing to write pieces based on Debussy's preludes meant that with a longer set of pieces he could move further and further away from the originals, thus giving a sense of distance as he travels through the pieces.

Martin Skafte
Martin Skafte

Martin had piano lessons as a child, albeit reluctantly, and started again when he was 16 or 17. He heard a Chopin waltz, having previously heard little classical music before, and he fell in love. They always had a piano at home, so Martin listened to CDs, bought sheet music and tried to learn. He developed some skills, but he was quite old when he started the piano and didn't practise a lot. So, he remains a pianist at heart, but not a professional one, though he would still love to be a piano virtuoso! He adds that it is better to have his pieces played by others.

He is currently working on a piano concerto inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel, To The Lighthouse, for Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski [see my 2021 interview]. Jablonski has championed Martin's work, and Martin wrote his Fantasia over two works by Scriabin for Jablonski who premiered it at the Karlskrona International Piano Festival in 2021. Martin finds that there is so much imagery in Woolf's novel and he loves the language which is musical in itself. The concerto will not recreate the story, his music is not descriptive. As with the dialogue with Debussy in the preludes, Martin gets a sense of the essence of Woolf's story and then creates a musical world from the shell.

With music inspired by written texts, Martin has usually read something, got fascinated by it and then got a feeling, simply going with that to create the music. It is instinctive; he has no idea quite how it works and feels it is better not to know.

When Martin started learning the piano again in his teens, another friend also played the piano. This friend wrote a song. Martin laughs when he tells the story. That song was very, very basic, but the teenage Martin wanted to try. They were both into video games, Super Nintendo, and listened to the music from the games, so they tried to write their own video game music. They would write songs and regularly record them for each other. As Martin got better at composition, he started doing classical pastiches and then gradually grew out of that. When he was supposed to be practising the piano, he found it boring and would drift away into composing his own smaller piece.

Whilst studying composition at college he heard Ligeti's piano preludes and felt that this was the music that had been missing when they were discussing contemporary music. Ligeti's preludes filled the hole exactly and influenced his piano writing. Other influences include Debussy of course, whom Martin describes as brave for what he did, ignoring what people told him. Another influence is Beethoven, particularly the late piano sonatas. These inspire Martin, though he is not sure why, perhaps because of their openness, the way Beethoven breaks down form and makes Martin feel he can do anything. As for his musical style, he prefers not to describe it, it is what it is.

Martin Skafte: 24 Preludes for Piano - Toccata Classics
He tends to use the piano a lot and writes what he feels. He enjoys the traditional forms, the piano trio, piano and instrument duos. Martin feels that there tends to be a lot of harmony in his music and using a piano is a way of making this happen with a small ensemble. Whilst he was studying, he was told to look at something other than the piano. But he kept feeling that his writing for the instrument was not good enough yet; so why move on? He is still trying to perfect things and will probably never leave the piano far behind.

He is currently working on two piano trios, two contrasting works that use the same ideas. He has finished one, which he describes as harmonious, and is currently working on the second, the less harmonious of the two. Some years ago, he wrote a song cycle, Preludier, 12 songs based on poems by Danish author Peer Hultberg (1935-2007). He now plans to go back to the cycle, which lasts an hour, and fix some things he is not happy with. The cycle came about because he heard Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and having heard little Schubert before, he fell in love. He thought, why not write a song cycle, it was the first time he had worked with text on that scale.

Martin Skafte's 24 Preludes for Piano is on Toccata Classics, performed by Jonas Olsson. Further details.

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