Jacob Mühlrad performs REMS, The Konserthuset, Stockholm, Sweden, September 16th, 2021 | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 16th, 2022  

Jacob Mühlrad

Jacob Mühlrad performs REMS, The Konserthuset, Stockholm, Sweden, September 16th, 2021,

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The mysteries of sleep continue to confound. Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, it remains a great unknown; “the only wilderness we have left”, says the great American author, Louise Erdrich. Why do we sleep? What happens when we can’t? Are dreams meaningful? Such questions have fuelled philosophy and art for centuries, yet increasingly it’s been of the turn contemporary musicians and composers to explore the topic; Brian Eno, William Basinski, Max Richter. To that list, we can now add Jacob Mühlrad.

The Swedish artist has rapidly become one of Scandinavia most recognised and acclaimed art music composers; premieres at NYC’s Carnegie Hall, collaborations with the likes of Swedish House Mafia and rapper Silvana Imam, and the youngest composer to have a work performed at The Royal Swedish Opera. REMS – rapid eye movement sleep – is his first large orchestral work, and one of considerable ambition.

“The music conveys different aspects of the mystery and energy associated with our unconscious dream states,” says Mühlrad of the work. But unlike Max Richter’s Sleep, REMS is not meant to lull the listener to sleep or describe some dream-like state; rather, it’s representative of the very sounds from his dreams, reconstructed and amplified. “A dreamy, musical fabric of sound with underlying adornments, some of which come from lullabies,” is how Mühlrad frames it. “And when the dreams subside, we hear breathing – in and out.”

The setting for all this is certainly grand; Stockholm’s historic, imposing Konserthuset. Covid-19 restrictions mean only 300 patrons, carefully spaced, are in attendance, but despite the formal attire of The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the performance carries a contemporary air; soft, subdued lighting mirrors the music, while whisps of dry ice float from the back of the stage. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado is a serene, restrained presence, his intelligence and thoughtfulness shining through.

The piece itself is a wonderous, stirring work of many textures and layers. Far from being traditionally “dreamy’, there’s an unease buried in many passages, and a prolonged tension that’s only occasionally released; no gentle lullaby this. It’s anxious and jittery too, constantly threatening to boil into great crescendos; sliding quarter tones flit in and out, while great clouds of sound occasionally rise up. Several times, a great cacophony of frenzied strings and crashing percussions adds a dramatic edge; it’s positively thunderous in places. But the drama subsides as quickly as it blooms, playful piccolos and fretful strings once again taking centre stage.

The tense, edgy tone is a direct result of Mühlrad’s source inspiration – his own dreams. He’s on record as stating how anxious some of these are, and how frequent; “dissonance” is how he’s described some of the sounds he hears. It’s extraordinarily challenging translating such themes into orchestral music, but REMS does a sterling job of offering a glimpse into this semi-conscious state – it’s an ever-shifting, fluid set of movements that confounds and surprises at each new turn.

This is also no accident. “Sleep has always been strongly charged with symbolism,” Mühlrad explains, “and I’ve also been inspired by sleep as conceptualised in the Jewish faith – that body and soul are two separate parts, and during sleep the soul ‘refuelled’ itself with spiritual energy.” Thus REMS has many peaceful, tranquil passages, soft lulls that make the bursts of energy all the more striking. Indeed, the second half sounds brighter, and a little more structured; several parts could be interpreted as a sunrise or waking, particularly with the gentle clanging of bells over the piece’s final few minutes.

Two years in the making, REMS has, says Mühlrad, been “exceptionally challenging”. Yet his talent, his keen eye for compositional details, and ingenuity at expressing the sounds in his head through orchestral instruments, is exceptional. Just witness the extent to which REMS makes judicious use of glissandi, and his insistence that a percussionist’s tubular bells could change pitch – dipping the bell in water, mid note, was Mühlrad’s inspired solution.

It’s a fitting, apt detail for REMS as a whole; just as he was able to bend the pitch of something previous considered involuble, so he seems to be challenging notions of what an orchestra can be or do in contemporary times (see also the above reference to the lighting and dry ice – I’m told his original, expansive plans for these elements were shelved as being somewhat unworkable). REMS succeeds in its ambitions then, and announces Mühlrad as one the world’s best, most imaginative, orchestral composers – it’s a piece that, far from putting you to sleep, causes the listener to sit upright and pay close attention.


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