There are those who are late developers. Paul Gauguin was in his mid-thirties before he quit his job as a stock-broker and gave up his middle class life to paint pictures; Augustus John was twenty-eight when one summer, he dived into the sea, hit his head and emerged from the waters a genius; Mikael Karlsson was twenty-one when he decided to quit his job at the liquor store and become a composer.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘It was very late, it wasn’t until twenty-one when I dropped out of Law School. I’d always been playing piano and drawing, but I didn’t have much to say.
‘Three years into Law School, I realized I really hated it. I wasn’t performing well. So, I dropped out of Law School and found a piano teacher. I didn’t tell my parents that I had dropped out. For a year, I worked in a liquor store to pay for piano lessons, and then I started to bang things out on the piano and record them.
‘Two years later, I realized finally that here was a medium with which I had something to say with. Before then, I had pretty much succumbed to the idea that I wasn’t going to do anything artistic. It wasn’t in the cards for me, even though I had an urge. But I didn’t feel the confidence to do it until I was twenty-one and I was grown-up.’
Mikael Karlsson was born in Sweden in 1975. When he started playing the piano in the mid-1990s, it was more than apparent he had an incredible affinity with music. But without any academic grounding in music, Mikael was unable to enter any of Sweden’s music schools. He, therefore, decided to move to New York
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I’ve lived in New York since January 8th, 2000. I moved here to study. In Sweden admission to music school is centralized and as I was very much outside of that system, I would have not been admitted because I had no background in music.
‘On the other hand here in New York, you kind of pay-your-way into it. So I went to the cheapest possible stage school that would allow me to enter. I went to Queen’s College. What I loved about it was that it was easy to get in, and you could get a lot out of it. I spent 5 years doing that, getting my Masters here.’
Karlsson earned a masters degree in composition from the Aaron Copland School of Music and graduated Summa Cum Laude with departmental honors in June of 2005.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘When I graduated, I realized that the musicians I kept collaborating with lived here. So, I needed to stay.’
Since graduating, Mikael has produced an incredible array of work: writing and releasing albums; contributing tracks to the films of Bruce LaBruce; composing music for the Cedars Lake Dance Company; collaborating with designer and film-maker Anna Österlund; scoring and producing for Black Sun productions; writing music for video games; working with Lydia Lunch; and composing an opera.
Karlsson wears his success lightly. He delights more in other’s good fortune, rather than his own achievements. He makes his life seem like a series of happy accidents, rather than the product of his incredible talent and dedicated hard work, which make him so productive, so successful and such a brilliant composer.
If this weren’t enough, Mikael has the looks of pop star and a wicked sense of humor, which sparkled throughout our interview.
Paul Gallagher: How did you first start composing?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘My friend Niklas showed me how to sequence things on a computer, and I had been writing these little musical sketches, and now I was finally able to hear them.
‘I remember spending an evening programming pieces I had written but never heard performed on his computer, and when I played it back, it was one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had. I was just sitting in my apartment on the floor listening to it over-and-over-and-over again.
‘Finally hearing that there was something there mattered to me. It was a very different feeling. I finally felt content pouring out of me, and it made me curious. It made me wonder what the hell I was saying?
‘I was just exploring where music can go, and in a non-experimental way at first, because I wanted to figure out what the language was. I didn’t know any music theory, but it was now possible for me to replicate something that I heard. So, like any artist at the start, I learnt through copying. Eventually I accumulated a palette of what music I seemed to prefer, and my own language started growing out of that.’
Paul Gallagher: What was your early music like?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘My early pieces were very romantic, and there’s something of that even now, and there’s also that Scandinavian darkness that doesn’t seem to want to leave.
‘None of my pieces are about me. It’s not like I’m expressing something that’s just about me, I’m watching where the music want to go, and that’s what keeps it fresh, that’s how I keep wanting to do more.
‘I’m interested in seeing where elements of Classical music can fit into Pop music, and where Experimental music can fit into more conventional classical music. Such combinations became more interesting as I went along and I became able to do things.
‘Because I was very insecure about what I had made, I hardly allowed anyone to listen to it. But when I did, they seemed to be affected by it, and that was a fantastic kick for someone who had spent twenty-years refusing to go there.’
Paul Gallagher: Which of your early compositions did you like?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘On a personal level, the first piece I wrote that I like was called Multipistes (a French word for multi-track).
‘Do you remember mini-discs? Well, I got this 4-track mini-disc recording device from Pioneer and I started recording into it from my electric piano. I record at half the tempo because I wasn’t very good at playing piano, and I would play it back off the piano at double tempo into the 4-track. I made this little piece – very repetitive, it’s derivative and all that – but it worked.
‘I knew it worked because I wanted to hear it. And after 50 or 100 listenings, if you’re not fed-up with it then it’s a good piece.’
Mikael continued making his recordings, until one day, having moved to New York, he attended a Diamanda Galás concert, where he met writer and musician, Rob Stephenson.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I went to a Diamanda Galás concert (I’ve been a huge fan of hers for a long time) and this crazy forty-year-old man was sitting next to me on the couch at Joe’s Pub, and we were both equally drunk, and we were just so into the concert that we started talking to each other. He then became my very good friend, and he listened to what I had written. They were minimalist pretty things, and Rob said, “You have to stop doing this. This is not what music is.”
‘Then Rob started playing stuff for me, really interesting new music, and some of it I really hated, and some of it was like explosions – I had never heard anything like it. Eventually we started making an album together that’s called Dog. It’s so playful and that’s how he helped me into it.’
Dog is an experimental album created through “thousands of hours of abuse and strategic misuse of software, instruments and people.” Released in 2006, Dog is an eclectic and enjoyable mix of strange, beautiful and enjoyable music.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘We made music, some of the tracks are just ridiculous, some are pretty good I think, some of them are not as good, but there’s something there that shows we were having so much fun. The Avant-Garde can be fun, and it’s worthwhile. I don’t like Avant-Garde that’s about showing-off how weird you can be, because it’s not hard to be weird. I like the challenge of making something that doesn’t make sense make sense. I think that comes from my background of only listening to Pop.
‘I love music that communicates. I love knowing that the audience understands, and not assuming that the audience won’t understand if it’s weird. It’s degrading to think it’s a good thing that listeners won’t get it.
‘It’s much more interesting to communicate with something that is unusual and to succeed in making sense of it.
‘That’s how I found the cross-over between Avant-Garde and Pop not to be strange at all.’
Paul Gallagher: How would you describe this ‘palette’ of music you use?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘If anything that palette is the most effective thing about my music because it’s what I like and what I keep using.
‘As I started studying Classical music I found that compared to my peers my music was incredibly conservative and so I built my palette refusing to not make sense. Because if I did not understand what I was doing, I shouldn’t be doing it.
‘So I built, incrementally, bigger-and-bigger out from what I thought was pretty and started incorporating uglier-and-uglier things, because I saw other people being able to do it. Again, Diamanda Galás uses incredible distortion and multi-phonics in what is basically bel canto singing, and it’s astonishingly beautiful because it’s so ugly and aggressive.
‘I matured from pretty to more curious things.’
Being curious has opened Mikael up to chance, which has led to several highly successful collaborations.
Paul Gallagher: How did you become involved with Bruce LaBruce?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I went to his website back-in-the-day, and I bought a T-shirt from him. And he wrote a personal email back saying, “Thank you for buying it.” Even though it was like $25. It was incredible that he himself replied. I contacted him and just said, “Can I send you some stuff that I’ve written?” And he said, “Sure, why not?”
‘Ever since then, I send everything I write to him, and he puts my music in his films.’
Mikael’s music features in Otto; or Up With Dead People and L.A. Zombie.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘Bruce has this incredibly generous attitude that, seems to resonate in all the people I meet. It’s openness that I really love.
‘Growing up I really liked his movies - the fearlessness, and the earnestness. I like that Bruce made Queer Culture cool. He coupled it with Punk and with Anarchy.
‘For his next film, which is called Gerontophilia, which is about a fetish for the old, I asked if I could actually score it, instead of him putting some of my tracks in it. And Bruce asked me if I would write a certain kind of soundtrack for him, and I said why not let me score it when I have seen the film, and write to it, rather than you taking my music and seeing where it can fit. We made a little deal and it’s going to happen in the spring of 2013.’
His work with Bruce LaBruce led to Mikael’s collaboration with legendary performance artists Massimo and Pirece of Black Sun Productions on their last album Phantasmata Domestica (Household Ghosts)
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I have never met them. They’re splitting up right now, so it never happened. We kept sending tracks back-and-forth, and I orchestrated some of their electronic effects for string quintet. They recorded texts on top of my music, and so on. Again, it was just a playful thing that we had to look at seriously, and see what emerged. The album which is called Phantasmata Domestica, which means “household ghosts” turned out to be this really sad and dark album about loss and separation, and their own break-up turned the album into something really dark.
‘The collaboration was incredibly fun to do, and I was honored to get to work with them.’
Another collaboration came out of a chance meeting with photographer Francois Rousseau.
Mikael Karlsson: ‘In 2007, I was included on Out magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people that year. I doubt that I was but they decided to put me in it. The sent out the famous French photographer, Francois Rousseau, and he asked to hear some of my music before he took my picture. I sent him stuff and thought that was that.
‘Now, Francois also takes photos for Cedar Lake, the contemporary ballet in New York, and Francois told the artistic director to listen to my music, which he did and he said some nice things. Then two years later, the artistic director called me up and asked if I wanted to score a piece. Of course, I wanted too. Who wouldn’t?
‘I really composing for ballet because it is kind of the perfect medium for me, because it is abstract and concrete.
‘But I’m learning still, and things have fanned out from that. I am working with several really fantastic choreographers, which is all good fun because in dance you can be poppy when you want too, and you can be Avant Garde when you want too.
‘If you stay in one idiom for too long it gets really boring.
‘A dance piece that only has microtonal cluster music to it gets uninteresting really quickly. The need to switch it up, to change the texture fits perfectly with how I had learnt music. I don’t only have Avant Garde ideas, and I don’t only have Pop ideas.’
Paul Gallagher: How did you start working with Anna Österlund?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘The way I met Anna was through an email she sent. She had seen a track I had made for Cedar Lake, and it had been on this TV show called So, You Think You Can Dance?. It was a 2-minute track and she really liked it. So, she emailed me and asked if she could use it for a fashion show she was doing in Sweden.
‘I said “Sure, why not?” What could possibly be bad about that? I saw the clothes that she was making and I felt a kindred spirit, as she didn’t seem to care what people thought. Anna is clearly an explorer who wants to communicate. Her clothes are awkward but they are beautiful.
‘So, we kept talking through Facebook and emails, and eventually I think I just sent her the track and asked her if she would be interested in doing something just by chance because I liked the way that she thinks and the way that she reasons, and her aesthetic ability is incredible. And Anna said, “Yes.”
‘Then Anna came up with the idea of doing a piece called Breathing, which has my talking over-and-over it and the Sirius Quartet playing under it. I told her I didn’t want her to just illustrate the words, I wanted her to add something to it, rather than explain it through a video. That was the only thing I asked of her. And then Anna made this incredible video and I was just blown-away by it. I felt so honored. And I feel the same way with the music now – it doesn’t work without her film.
‘So, this piece became something else, and that is of course incredibly interesting to me: Anna took my music and transformed it into something that only works with her art. That’s cool.
‘We keep collaborating on things – she takes photos of me, sometimes when I’m in Stockholm, which I use for the promotion and things like that. And she made a second video for me, and the next thing to do is Anna starts making the video first and I will have to score it.
‘You’ve seen what she makes and I have no idea what she’s going to make, but I know that it’s not going to be pointless. It is always interesting to me to see what happens with her.’
Paul Gallagher: There’s an aria, ‘Entropy’ from an opera you’re writing, can you tell me about it?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘The aria is called “Entropy” and the opera is called Decoration. It’s still under development.
‘I started developing it with a friend David Flodén, who is an architect and he’s not in music at all. I just really enjoy the way that he thinks.
‘One late night, when we had been out, we did not want to go home, we thought, “Why don’t we write an opera?” With no prospect of ever having it realized. But, you’ve got to start somewhere, so why not have it before anyone asks for it. So, we decided we would only write the story while being drunk, because we wanted to be sure we couldn’t really control it.
‘In short, and this is a weird, weird, synopsis: it’s an opera about pointlessness; and about lying and about covering-up the larger picture.
‘If we really think about the Universe all of the time, without covering-up all those truths with religion and things like that we keep around for comfort, then life would be awful. We have to lie a little. It’s the way we decorate our lives.
‘In the opera, this main character, we call her “She”, treats her atheism, or her love for science the way an incredibly religious person would treat their faith.
‘She goes a little overboard, and She starts talking to the Universe, as if it were her god. And we don’t know if she’s crazy or if she isn’t. Why is talking to the Universe stranger than praying?
‘Then, the Universe talks back, and that’s the aria “Entropy”. The Universe promises She entropy. If the universe stops expanding, so will She. So She has to find the perfect balance for the universe to see if She will be saved or not. And that’s the aria – “Fall forward and lose, fall backwards and regain all that was lost.”
Justin Hopkins performs “Entropy” by Mikael Karlsson and David Flodén, piano played by Jeanne-Minette Cilliers.
Paul Gallagher: Who inspires you?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘Before I started composing, my inspiration was always Michael Nyman. I love the simplicity and directness of his soundtracks to Peter Greenaway’s films, and the way that his “poppyness” can live in something so strange.
‘But since I started writing music myself, I would say Diamanda Galás - she always inspires me.
‘I don’t always listen to her, as she is very much one thing, but I love that she has fun and she is not afraid of going places that are uncomfortable and trying to make them beautiful. And, of course, he voice is just extraordinary.’
Paul Gallagher: What’s a typical day like?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I would say it is divided into 2 camps. One is making money, so I can do the other stuff. Because when I work for big dance companies, I get paid. When I write chamber music, there’s no money in it. So, I need to make sure I make money somewhere else. I do that through teaching. I do that by scoring things that are more commercial. And I don’t feel bad about that, for that way I can do whatever I want, and be in control of it.
‘In terms of how I sit down to write, this is an awful reference, but Stephen King, of all people, wrote this excellent little book called On Writing, and in it, he talks about discipline, about sitting down, sitting down for 2 hours everyday writing - then something will come out.
‘Most of it is going to be shit, but unless you allow for that, then you can’t get to the good stuff.
‘The way that I get inspired in the moment is just by doing it. And the fun thing is you suddenly notice that “O, my god, that thing that I wrote there, well it actually fits with this thing that I wrote over here.” And then it naturally starts to grow.
‘By doing so, the process is exciting, and is fun. If it can’t be that then why would you do it?’
Paul Gallagher: How do you keep track of your ideas?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I have about 6,000 really short memo recordings on my i-phone. Most of them are from when I’m on my bike. It’s me singing an idea and trying to capture it that way.
‘I may not use those ideas so much, it’s just knowing that they exist in some kind of permanent form. You just jot down in whatever way you can.
‘I seem to get my ideas when I cycle.
‘If you are suddenly inspired, you have no choice but to sit down, because it is so rare. But most of what I do is a graft. I really should be able to write something good even when I am uninspired. When inspiration hits, you better obey it.’
Paul Gallagher: What’s next?
Mikael Karlsson: ‘I probably should have more of a game plan than I do, but it seems through collaborations that I’m being drawn into bigger-and-bigger projects, which is very satisfying.
‘In 2 years, I’m doing a full evening orchestral score for the Norwegian National Ballet, with Alexander Ekman. So, I have to learn how to do that. How do you make orchestral music work for an hour-and-a-half? I’ve never written something on that scale. So, those things seem to be progressing.
‘I try not to repeat working the same way, but I keep returning to the same people because they are so flexible in how they work.
‘Also, this idea of writing an opera, which is a thing you shouldn’t be doing until your in your final stages of your career, when you understand everything about music. I’m doing it do early, but why not?
‘It seems all these large-scale projects are becoming the skeleton by which I pull myself along.
‘And in the meantime, I do anything I have the time or the energy to do, just to keep things interesting.’
Mikael Karlsson has made a special sampler of his music for Dangerous Minds readers, which you can download here or click on the image below.
Find out more about Mikael Karlsson here.
Photographs of Mikael Karlsson by Niklas Alexandersson and Anna Österlund.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
With thanks to Mika!