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Britta Byström

Born: 1977

Nationality: Swedish

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Photo © Lars Skaaning

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

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