Britta Byström is an orchestral composer of distinction whose boundless imagination is tethered by fastidious care. Her work list already contains a string of focused and beguiling scores for orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. She is also known for engaging ensemble, vocal and stage works.
Byström was raised on Sweden’s east coast where she played the trumpet. She was soon drawn to writing music and was lured into the universe of orchestral sound by her local professional orchestra. At 19, she became a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, graduating six years later with Sera (2002).
Sera, a seductive journey through assorted landscapes under the light of an Italian evening, adumbrates key elements of Byström’s voice and method. After a speculative opening, the music grows out of itself, a stern playfulness wheedling circular, weaving melodies from within. The work hangs by its high tessituras, a sign of the composer’s interest in upper registers and textural luminosity.
Soon Byström was demonstrating a minimalistic tendency to spin out entire works from a single entity (shape, chord, theme). Farewell Variations (2005) and Invisible Cities (2013) both pivot on a single feature (the latter won a Swedish Grammy when recorded) but the technique proved as liberating as it did contentrating.
As in the prizewinning song for viola and orchestra A Walk After Dark (2014) her titles frequently refer to walks or rambles and her music sets out on unplanned journeys too, spurred by an improvisatory spirit. Seglende Stadt (2014), inspired a Paul Klee painting, lets rhythmic shimmying coax a thread of melody along. Picnic at Hanging Rock (2012), which won the 2012 Christ Johnson Prize, sought to capture the atmosphere of Peter Weir’s film and took Byström’s music to the point of disintegration and disappearance.
Byström is as open to inspiration as she is aware of the power it wields. Her bijoux existential opera If You Lose Your Luggage (2003) hits big themes with Nordic directness and fresh psychological insight. Gállábartnit (2015) reflects on the challenges facing the Sami population of the northernmost reaches of Europe.
Byström won the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award in 2015 and became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music the following year. Her works have been performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra and more. They are built without compromise or cushioning, and their sparse elegance has been compared to that of a Japanese Garden.
Andrew Mellor, 2019
Critical AcclaimByström creates an atmosphere which is both mysterious and enticing - Lars Hedblad, svd.se
... Britta Byström has a real orchestral flair and has succeeded in creating a sound-world all of her own - Hubert Culot, musicweb-international.com
...Can music be observational? With Britta Byström’s music, you are occasionally arrested by the feeling that her music register, and observes its surroundings – much like a curious being - Tony Lundman, STIM
...A seemingly recurrent feature of many of her works is a shadowy, minor mood built on phrases that almost worm their way through the orchestra - Tony Lundman, STIM
It took a decade of trial and experimentation before Britta Byström felt she could harness the symphony orchestra in the service of her own sound. In taming the beast, she has become an orchestral composer of distinction whose boundless imagination is tethered by fastidious care. Her work list already contains a number of focused and beguiling scores for orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic while she is known for engaging ensemble, vocal and stage works too.
Byström was raised in Sundsvall on Sweden’s east coast, equipping herself with the fundamentals of musicianship as a trainee trumpeter. She was soon drawn to creating music as well as playing it, writing ‘a lot of trumpet duets’ to perform with her teacher before being lured into the universe of orchestral sound by her home town’s professional chamber orchestra. ‘I was lucky to be able to hear my music being played professionally from an early age,’ she says.
By 19, Byström was a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm where her principal teachers in composition were Pär Lindgren and Bent Sørensen. She graduated with the orchestral work Sera (2002, revised 2007), a seductive journey through assorted landscapes imagined under the light of an Italian evening.
Sera launched Byström’s career while adumbrating key elements of her voice and method. After a speculative opening, the music grows out of itself, its stern playfulness wheedling thread-like melodies from within. Rather than sprouting from roots dug deep beneath, the work hangs as if from above, induced by altitudinous tinkling and a floating violin – an early sign of the composer’s interest in high registers and the luminosity they can evoke. Her ear for colour and texture would lead her to consider how both are more than details, and potentially drivers of the music itself.
By the time of Persuasion (2004), Byström was refining her music’s textures, shaping themes more distinctly and lengthily, and sharpening focus with a minimalistic tendency to spin a work’s entire discourse out from a single entity (shape, chord, theme). Farewell Variations (2005), inspired by Haydn, mines a single curly-tailed melody for all its potential. Invisible Cities (2013) is built on a fragment of Lutosławski – the recording of the work won a Swedish Grammy – while the first of Byström’s trumpet concertos, Delusions (2005), is a clear-cut gallery of temperaments in which the dusky song of the central movement ‘Calmo’ finds so much in so little.
‘I have a feeling that anything can happen in my works; I don’t always know where the music is going,’ Byström has said. As in the prizewinning song for viola and orchestra A Walk After Dark (2014) her titles frequently refer to walks or rambles and her music sets out on unplanned journeys too, spurred by an improvisatory impulse.
Tight controls remain, however – clearly defined parameters of tint or texture, narrative or mood. Symphony in Yellow (2003) is a miniature triptych for piano trio that restricts itself to one colour label but wanders free within it. Seglende Stadt (2014) responds to a single Paul Klee painting, letting subtle rhythmic shimmying coax a thread of melody along. Picnic at Hanging Rock (2012), which won the 2012 Christ Johnson Prize, sought to capture the atmosphere of Peter Weir’s film and took Byström’s music to the point of disintegration and disappearance. Many, Yet One (2016) charts a gravitational pull towards emptiness and back from it; the score is a tight tapestry of individual voices but remains susceptible to naturally lapping waves (another hallmark). The score was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, after Byström won the institution’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award in 2015.
Byström is as open to inspiration as she is aware of the power it wields. In addition to color, painting and landscape she has been inspired by philosophy, politics and literature. Her bijoux existential opera If You Lose Your Luggage (2003) hits big themes with Nordic directness and fresh psychological insight. Her next major theatre piece, the opera for choir, soloists and percussion Gállábartnit (2015) draws on Nordic sources, musical as well as mythological, to reflect on the challenges facing the Sami population of the northernmost reaches of Europe. It was first seen at Soundstreams Fesival in Toronto.
Byström has been a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music since 2016. She was the subject of a Composer Portrait at the Stockholm Concert Hall and in 2014 was the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Spring Composer. Her works have been performed by the BBC Symphony, Helsinki Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony and Cologne Gürzenich Orchestras. Large or small, they are built without compromise or cushioning and have a noble beauty and could be said to carry a residual Scandinavian melancholy. Their sparse elegance has been compared to that of a Japanese Garden.
Andrew Mellor, 2019
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