Born in 1985, the Swedish composer Lisa Streich writes music of engrossing timbral and dramaturgical subtlety, often using traditional instruments prepared or modified by small, homemade, motorized devices. Listening to her pieces, I sometimes feel like I’ve been shrunk down to molecular size and placed inside a music box where noisy mechanics blend with pitched sounds of great fragility to create an unsettling, touching whole. (Full disclosure: Streich and I took ear training classes together at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, around 2008.) In 2017, Streich won Germany’s prestigious Ernst von Siemens music prize, and two years later, she received the RicordiLab award for young composers, which, despite her initial unwillingness to change the “thin, beautiful” look of her scores, gave her more time for concentrated work. She lives with her three children on the Swedish island of Gotland, where I reached her on a recent afternoon on video chat. We talked about the beauty of imperfection, the quirks of European audiences, and musical hate mail.
VAN: We were in ear training in college years ago. How did you go from traditional conservatory ear training to being able to hear microtones clearly? Your pieces include really small intervals like eighth-tones.
Lisa Streich: I think it comes just through working with them all the time. I never had super-great hearing, but doing it now, every day, it feels very natural.
One of the things that strikes me about your music is the beautiful timbral combinations between pitched and noisy sounds. Those aren’t mixtures that you can learn from an orchestration book…
I don’t actually have so much noise in my music. It’s more that I have really spectral chords, and in the end they sound noisy. To make these chords, I go on YouTube and search for choral clips: amateur ones, so they’re not perfect. I’m looking for special timbres, faults in the chords. Then I [spectrally] analyze those, and I get these [spectrograms] where I see which notes are the loudest, and then I amplify them further in my work. I extract what I find most interesting.
Do you have a philosophical reason for leaning into those wrong notes, or working with samples from amateurs—or is it just because you like the sound more?
I think it’s a general interest in the beauty of imperfection, letting things happen which are not perfect and amplifying their beauty. I’m very interested in the tonal system, but I think it doesn’t work anymore. At least for me, if I hear something that’s new and tonal, I want to get swallowed up by the earth. I get ashamed somehow. But I still love the chords. So I have to re-compose them, so you can hear the beauty of them again in a new light.
Why do you think you feel that shame, though? There are plenty of composers who write those chords without feeling the need to re-compose them.
I don’t know. I just hear the history. Especially in Sweden, you have a lot of composers who write romantic music, and it feels inappropriate. It’s like, “Haven’t you studied? People composed like this in the 1900s.” You have to add a new perspective to it as well. It’s just a feeling I have. If [romantic-style pieces] are wonderfully made, they can still be very interesting, but they don’t get to me.
In one interview, you said you put the piece into its final form at the very end of the process. How does that work?
Because I’m not interested in transformation or evolution, it’s rather easy for me. I’m really interested in the contrasts. I basically collect a lot of contrasts that don’t fit together, and when I’ve collected all of them, I know them very well. And I try to find the biggest contrasts to clash with each other. Or even put them on top of each other and see what happens. It’s always an experiment. I’m so curious: How will this contrast work? What will come out if I layer three contrasts on top of one another? Will it still be three contrasts, or will it be one new thing? In a way, I’m not trying to write a perfect piece. I’m just very curious to hear things together that have not occurred to me.
So you compose different textures or blocks of sound and then put them in different orders?
Yeah. But they can and do have a little bit of transformation. Let’s say you have a sweet waltz, for example—to be very concrete. It can still evolve, from being very fragile, almost inaudible, to something that you can grasp. But it will never evolve all at once. Maybe you hear it at the beginning in one form, and then at the end in a different form. That has to do with memory. Sometimes you remember things that happened to you that actually didn’t happen that way. You remember them as more beautiful, or as worse, than they were.
When you’re working in this way, how can you tell when the piece is finished, or that a certain form is the right one?
It’s just a feeling. I know exactly when the piece is done. If that doesn’t happen, then I rearrange it again, put it in different orders.
Does that feeling of the piece being finished come along with a particular emotion, like sadness or satisfaction?
I’m very happy when the piece is done. I’m always fed up with it by then. [Laughs.]
In one interview, you mentioned that you didn’t know that women composers existed until you went to Berlin to study music. Did you start composing on your own before you realized that women wrote music, too?
When I was young, I loved piano music. I’d play the piano the whole day. And I listened to so much music on CDs. But it was always only men. There were sometimes women as interpreters, so my natural way of thinking was, I have to become a professional pianist first. And then I thought I could become a composer. That was the image I had, so I mostly I practiced. I composed a little bit, but I thought it was a waste of time.
[When I went to Berlin] I heard music by female composers. I was so struck. I was like, Why didn’t it occur to me that this was a possibility?
Your pieces often make use of homemade, motorized, extra-musical devices which are added to the instruments. When and why did you start experimenting with these modifications?
It started around 2010 or 2011. It had to do with [sculptor Jean Tinguely’s] Stravinsky Fountain in Paris. It was an early morning, and the first frost had come. The city turns off the machines in winter, but they hadn’t done so yet. The machines were turning and singing. I was all alone there at the fountains. It was so simple, but so beautiful. It was something universal; somehow, the sound belonged to everybody. And I want to make music that’s accessible to everybody.
Also, you think machines are brutal and ugly, so it was a play with expectations that I liked. Your expectations aren’t fulfilled, and you’re confused or surprised. Maybe humans are much more brutal than machines. A change of perspective.
What are some examples of places in your music where you made a compositional decision with accessibility in mind?
Early on, I got to know the different audiences of Sweden, Germany, and France. These are very different audiences. Swedish audiences have a certain education, and I have a feeling for what they’re used to and what they can relate to, and how far I can go beyond that. It’s not to please them, it’s just to be able to communicate with them and get my ideas across within that context.
What’s an example of something musical you would do in a piece for a Swedish audience that you wouldn’t do for, say, a German audience?
In Sweden, I’m much more rebellious, because I’m so annoyed at society here. I’m almost always more avant-garde, just to mock them a little bit. [Laughs.] In Germany, it’s the other way around. I try to mock them by being too pretty.
So you know what their expectations are, but instead of playing to them, you play against them.
Yeah, but I hope in a sensitive way. It’s not supposed to be brutal, I don’t want them to be terrorized for the whole 15 minutes.
Have you experienced sexism in your career as a composer? Artists like Olga Neuwirth talk about that frankly, but I’m curious if you’ve encountered it as well.
I have to say, I’ve been so lucky. Of course, when I was younger, I was never sure: Is this not-nice situation because I’m young, or because I’m a woman? But I have never experienced something terrible.
Still, recently, I was at the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden. They chose new members, and they were all 60-plus white men. It was so offensive. But it’s also Swedish ignorance, that they only chose more white guys–who haven’t even accomplished anything. If they achieved something really important, then yeah, sure! But why? There are great women in Sweden. And then I know we’re not there yet, of course.
When in your career did musicians start really devoting serious energy to your music?
I feel like musicians were always serious. Of course when you get a prize or something, people think you’re worth more. But that’s so stupid.
I don’t really know where to draw the line. But I still feel like I always have to convince an orchestra. It’s not like I show up and everybody’s like, “We’ll do what you want.” I still have to give everything, 100 percent, to get them. It’s a nice psychological challenge. Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don’t.
Do you have specific techniques you use to “get” them? A lot of people like to say, “you’re a quarter-tone sharp here,” or something.
[Laughs.] No, I don’t have any tricks. I just try to make music, and be as present as possible to help the musicians. I try to work a lot with eye contact, even with individual players in the orchestra. To save time, I also give some signals. It’s good to be positive, because for orchestra musicians it’s the worst if you say something like, “Hey, you’re a quarter-tone too low.” You can’t point at a single player in the orchestra.
Could you pinpoint a piece, or a couple of pieces, that felt like the first works in your true voice?
“Segel” was very important to me. It was the first time I successfully worked with these [spectral] chords. That was a breaking point for my music, and I’m still developing this technique and working with it. I find it so rewarding. “Segel” has the chords, but also choreographic conducting in it, which I haven’t done so much lately. I’d like to do it again, but then you kind of have to have a residency to try out all these things. You can’t do that in an orchestral situation with six hours of rehearsals.
You’ve gotten many residencies around Europe. Does being in so many different places for short periods ever feel unmooring, like you’re not sure where home is anymore?
Yeah, there were times when I’d had enough. Mostly because it was physically tiring to be traveling and organizing things all the time. But otherwise it’s been very fruitful. I feel like I have many homes. I need to go to Paris from time to time, and I need to go to Rome. It’s my fifth home, or something. [Laughs.]
One profile of you makes much of the biblical references in some of your titles. Are you religious?
I am religious, and that was very important to me at a certain point in my life. Now it’s like music is my religion. It’s important to have something that is not objective in your life, which is what music is.
I do feel that music is always about life. What is life? How can I get to know this weird thing? Religion is also very much a part of that. It includes all the possibilities that are and that we can’t see.
When I was listening to your music I noticed that many of your pieces have sections with very regular, almost mechanical rhythms. Is there a reason why you’re attracted to that kind of effect?
Yeah, I’m very interested in the physical part of music, like going to a techno party, when you can feel music in your body. I would love to give that experience to classical audiences as well: Turning up the volume really high, dancing, feeling it physically–it’s so interesting.
I have this part in “Augenlider” where it’s so loud and so high. It’s like the room is spinning. For me, that effect is pure relaxation. It’s a space created by music, and in it, you somehow don’t feel the other people around you anymore. When you sit in a classical concert, you always have these people around you; you’re always aware of them. When the music gets so loud, you feel like they’re gone. Like you’re alone with the music, even though there are people around. I want to have that in my pieces.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece you wrote that’s fast.
I just wrote one. It’s called “Jubilhemd,” and it has so many fast tempi. But that’s actually not true: I always have fast passages in my pieces. It’s like, people always remember that I’m the quiet composer. [Laughs.] But that’s not true. There are always loud parts, too. But somehow people remember the words quiet and slow.
I understand why people remember your music as quiet and slow, though–maybe just because there is more of that music than of the loud and fast?
But the loud and fast parts are so extreme. Once I got hate mail from somebody because the piece was so loud. He was complaining how terrible it was, how much his ears hurt, and that he will never go to a concert again where my name is on the program. The letter was quite long and very not nice. [Laughs.]
“Jubelhemd” was a co-commission by four Swedish orchestras. One of the directors asked, “Can’t you write something light?” Of course I had to hit back on that. ¶