John Fritzell is a Swedish pianist and composer who has an interesting musical background. He started out loving rock and metal music in his early years, and later got into classical music. But the has always stayed with rock and metal –– you can clearly notice the metal sound in his music.
Bergström Brorsson: Who are you, John? Were are you from and were did you grow up?
Fritzell: I’m a Swedish musician and composer. I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden.
Bergström Brorsson: What kind of profession do you have, and do you do anything else you do for a living?
Fritzell: I have been working as musician and private teacher of music for most of my life, but occasionally during shorter periods I’ve done other things for a living.
Bergström Brorsson: Do you play any instruments, and if so what made you play them? Was it a person, or a random source of inspiration?
Fritzell: I play guitar, bass and piano. I got interested in the guitar when i was twelve years old, bass guitar a little later. I only took up the piano when I was 25.
I became motivated to start playing after hearing various progressive hard rock and metal bands in the 1970’s, but also from punk. Classical music came later.
Bergström Brorsson: Why did you start playing music?
Fritzell: Probably because I intuitively felt that I could express myself through music, although I wasn’t thinking too much about that when I started out. I became inspired by the music I liked and listened to back then.
Bergström Brorsson: Have you always been a musician?
Fritzell: Pretty much, yes.
Bergström Brorsson: What kind of musical genre do you like and have you changed your perspective on music during your career?
Fritzell: I grew up with progressive music – King Crimson, Rush, Captain Beyond, Univers Zero… some of it rock pretending to be classical. I’m not escaping that any time soon.
I liked the energy of punk when it came in the late 1970’s, but it was a passing thing for me. Later I started to listen to and like some classical music; that was much of the reason I took up the piano. My perspective certainly changed over the years, it still does. I’m pretty curious and like to find new music that stimulates me. But basically, what motivated me when starting out is still with me today.
Bergström Brorsson: Who was your music teacher or teachers?
Fritzell: I didn’t really have any teachers. Music classes in regular school were pretty awful and utterly uninteresting to me. I didn’t study with any teacher or going to music school when starting out. I took only three private lessons from a couple of people, and I didn’t learn anything of value.
I learned by myself and used my ears. Much later, I did study with Dafydd Llywelyn, a composer and pianist living at the time in Munich, Germany. And also with the composer and pianist Ronald Stevenson, from Scotland. But his was all on a private basis, and not really what you could call lessons. To give you an example, a ‘lesson’ with Dafydd could start at midnight and go on until five in the morning. I did however learn a lot both from Ronald and Dafydd, not only about music.
Bergström Brorsson: Do you have a favorite artist, or something you recommend?
Fritzell: That could potentially be a very long list! But as for progressive rock – check out Captain Beyond’s first album from 1972, still awesome. Also the contemporary bands Dysrhythmia and Behold… The Arctopus, both these bands are really inventive. Classical piano music – you could try late Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, Gino Tagliapietra, K.S. Sorabji, Ronald Stevenson, Vsevold Zaderatsky…. all of them created some inspiring music, not much heard or played.
Bergström Brorsson: Was there anything that made you change genres in the music world, and if so, why?
Fritzell: I went from rock/punk/metal into classical music, then back again, you could say. I wanted to learn as much about so-called classical music as I could. And I did. But tradition is pretty inhibiting for true creativity, as tradition always hold things from the past to be more supreme, especially so in classical music. I don’t agree with that at all. There are no rules. Who could for example say how Chopin’s music is supposed to be played? It’s all based on an idea, and usually not your own!
Music is the most abstract art form humans know about. It’s foolish, and boring, to place it in the straight jacket of tradition, or what it’s supposed to be like. Then it becomes dead.
Bergström Brorsson: Have you compoesed anything?
Fritzell: I have composed many works, mainly for the instruments I play. I consider myself to be a musician who plays piano, guitar, and bass, and I’m also a composer. These days I gravitate towards playing mostly my own music.
Bergström Brorsson: Is there anything you regret during your career as a musician?
Fritzell: Not really. Maybe I was a bit lazy. I should also have learned more about the recording process earlier in life. To be able to record, mix and even master your own music is extremely helpful.
Bergström Brorsson: Do you have an extra important music experience?
Fritzell: Hearing Ronald Stevenson play his Passacaglia for piano in his small music room, three times! – on a slightly out of tune Steinway model B from the 1930s – that was pretty cool.
Bergström Brorsson: Is there anything else you’d like to say that we’ve missed?
Conductor Daniel Harding has done many things in his life. He started his musical career playing the trumpet from age five or six. And he has worked with orchestras all over the world from age of twenty-one, when he first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic.
At the time of our interview, he has just finished the morning shift rehearsing Brahms’s Requiem. We meet up at the concert hall Berwaldhallen and I ask him about when he realised he wanted to become a conductor.
Harding: Very early! Even before I went to boarding school, when I was still at a normal school in Oxford, I asked if I could conduct the wind band, the school orchestra, anything. Since I was the only one interested in doing that, they often let me. In England at that time, everybody like me who played an instrument played in a youth orchestra. But as a ten year old playing the trumpet, they often told me: ”You just play the very loud bits, and wait.” So I sat there for three hours in the evening, just counting the rests. Because I was bored, I used to bring along the score. The least I could do when sitting there was to read it. Then I started to become interested in why the conductor did what he did. I started to understand the job a conductor has, and what difference it makes. By the time I went to Manchester, I was sure that I wanted to be a conductor.
Everyone at the boarding school played an instrument, so in order to get in, you had to play something. The students were there because they chose music as the special thing in their life. It was a slightly strange atmosphere to be in a school just with other ‘crazy’ people, but I was surrounded with people who had the same obsession as I did. Our conversations were brilliant. As fifteen or sixteen year olds, we all had ideas about the world, and we were convinced our way of seeing it was right. This led to a lot of interesting arguments, and I learned so much at that time. It played a big part in cementing my interest in music and conducting.
Wall Ströberg: I know that you were an assistant to the famous conductor Claudio Abbado, as well as Simon Rattle. Did you learn anything from them you want to share?
Harding: So much, it’s hard to just mention one thing. But there were differences in my relationship to them because they are two very different people with very different conducting styles. I met Simon Rattle when I was sixteen. He’s a guy who uses a lot of practical thinking. 27 years later, he and I still discuss technical solutions to conducting problems, or how to get the orchestra to understand what you want from them. I often watched him rehearse and his way of taking a problem apart, fixing it, and putting it back together had a huge influence on me.
I knew Abbado a bit later, and his mind was very different. He didn’t like to talk about music in a very clear way, he didn’t feel comfortable describing what he did. He had an unbelievably good conducting technique which he learned when he was studying in Vienna. It was very precise and classical, and he developed it throughout the years to his own unconventional technique. But he didn’t want to talk about it, so the way I learned from him was by watching him conduct and trying to understand.
Wall Ströberg: What do you think makes a great conductor?
Harding: I believe if you take ten great conductors, you would find ten different reasons for calling them great. There are so many parts of this job, not just waving your hand physically to make something happen in the orchestra. For a great conductor, I think the body language is only ten percent of what you are trying to achieve. Instead, the most important thing for a conductor is awareness. A conductor could have great hand motions that can describe everything they want, but if they aren’t aware of what the orchestra is really doing, nothing the conductor wants to do will work. Even if they only have decent hand motions but are able to hear and understand why something works or why it doesn’t, they are still able to make magic happen. Conducting happens above the neck, and not so much below.
Wall Ströberg: Do you ever regret working with music?
Harding: All the time! I mean, it’s an emotionally expensive job. I look at my brother and sister, they both work in offices, and when they leave their jobs for the day and get home, that’s two different situations for them. They get their private lives back as soon as they come home again. That’s both the benefit and the drawback of working with music. You’re living and working with the thing you love most. When there’s a problem, you can’t escape it. If you have a bad day as a conductor, you feel like your whole life is bad. Still, because my personal life and my work is the same thing, I see it as a balance.
Wall Ströberg: Do you think it was beneficial for you to start conducting at such a young age?
Harding: I’m happy with what I’m doing now, so in that sense yes. It would be very ungrateful for me to say I wish I had a different life, because I love doing what I do. I can sometimes look back on decisions I made and wonder what would have happened if I’d done things differently, but in the end it’s pointless. I did learn a lot from starting to conduct early, partly from making a lot of mistakes, but you have to make them. Conducting takes a very long time to learn, and if you start at a young age I believe you have the ability to take risks because you have the time for it.
Wall Ströberg: Do you get to spend as much time with your family as you’d like?
Harding: No. It’s tricky. In the few last years, I decided to conduct less and spend more time with them. But I have to say, part of that decision is not saying I want to escape from music, it’s saying I want to give more space for thinking about music so I can do it better. Music is not in conflict with my life, it’s the traveling. That’s just an inconvenience of doing what I do.
Wall Ströberg: Do you have a special memory from a concert you were conducting, good or bad?
Harding: I have so many good memeories, but there was one very famous bad one from when I was chief conductor in Trondheim. It was a very important night for the city of Trondheim because that night Rosenborg Ballklub would meet Real Madrid in the Champions league. This small town in Norway had a very strong football team and were going to play against the most famous team in the world, you can imagine the pride! We had a concert at the same time as the match. Before the concert I had some food, and then the concert started. The first half was a contemporary piece of Norwegian music. During the intermission, I started to feel tired but didn’t think much about it.
I went up on stage again to conduct Brahms’s Third symphony, and suddenly it felt like the whole world had stopped. My hands were still moving but my brain had frozen. And then everything I’d had for dinner came out of my mouth again.
I’ll never forget the silence in the concert hall, the utter shock. After the concert I went to bed because I was so sick, but the musicians took that opportunity, and ran from the concert hall to be able to see the match. I used to joke about that, to this day I still don’t know if someone put something in my food just so they could leave early!
For years afterwards I had anxiety going on stage, but I’m never nervous before a concert anymore unless I feel the orchestra and I are not prepared enough. I feel pressure, but that’s different.
Wall Ströberg: What are your thoughts about continuing as chief conductor for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra?
Harding: I’m very happy about that. As a conductor I have the joy of using other people’s skills, ideas and abilities to create music, and that’s a gift. The problem is, I have to depend on other people because I can’t practise on my own like a musician can. With the Swedish Radio Orchestra, I feel like I’m comfortable making music because we understand each other so well. To continue that twelve-year-long collaboration makes me honored.
Wall Ströberg: You have worked in several orchestras, all over the world. Are they any differences?
Harding: Yes. Orchestras are as different as people. We have these ideas about national stereotypes, but the more we get to know a person from another country we realise that that’s not true, of course. However, with many orchestras it’s almost true!
I have encountered Italian orchestras that play like we think italians play, with great passion and emotion. They love to play at concerts because they play like every concert is the most important thing that has ever happened. Generally the Germans like everything organized and prepared before they feel ready to play. So even though people are different, orchestras have a little bit of the cliché characteristics. That’s very healthy for a conductor, to learn to deal with the different ways.
Wall Ströberg: Have you ever encountered an orchestra where the musicians didn’t want to cooperate? What do you do then?
Harding: I have about twelve orchestras that I’ve continued working with throughout the years, because I love to create music with them. But five or six times maybe, I’ve encountered orchestras where the musicians and I didn’t understand each other. Some of it happened when I was very young, so maybe if I were to go back twenty years later it would have worked. Sometimes it’s just because your idea of what music is and how it should sound are so different. Then the only thing you can do is move on, to try to find an orchestra you get along better with.
Wall Ströberg: Why do you think classical music is important?
Harding: I think that complex discussions on important issues are essential for any society. Classical music is one of the expressions we have for our thoughts about things we see as important. The abstract part of music gives us an opportunity to try to reflect and understand things that we don’t know how to put into words.
Some people ask: ”But what about pop music?” And sometimes a pop song can express a simple message with lots of power behind it. But it tends to be just that – simple. “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or “I loved him and he’s gone”. Then you look at the way Schubert deals with the same things, and you realise that the complexity and the emotion is far, far greater. It’s like an onion, it takes time to peel off the layers and you just find more and more greatness in the music. Human beings are extremely complex. We need something to reflect that.
Wall Ströberg: Do you have an upcoming event or a concert you’re excited about?
Harding: We have had a big tour now with the orchestra, which always is exciting. I like to introduce the orchestra to new audiences, as well as getting to play in different concert halls with different acoustics. You feel inspired by the surroundings. And as you play the same piece of music again and again, you get the chance to make the music come alive and develop even more, not just play it twice and move on. Touring is for me very special in that way.
Wall Ströberg: Do you have any advice for young musicians or people who want to become conductors?
Harding: For the conductors, there is one key thing. You have got to find a way to do it. And you have to make your own opportunities. If you want to be a conductor, you have to persuade people to play while you learn to conduct. You don’t need many people, but nobody can teach you how to conduct in an empty room. You need at least four string players and four wind players. Before you have a career, you have no practise at all.
Then it’s just about noticing how the way you move affects the orchestra, and which shapes, sounds and colors you can bring forth.
The second thing is to go and see other people conduct. Go to a rehearsal and ask yourself: “What do I like? What don’t I like? What would I do to make it better?”
For people who wants to be musicians, I say yes! That is a wonderful thing to dream about being. It’s hard work and it requires an enormous amount of self awareness and self criticism, and you will have to know which people will really listen to you and give you advice that will help you to grow. But it’s a profession where you’ll never get bored or run out of inspiration in your life. If you have that thought in your head and you are ready to work hard, you will have the happiest job in the world.
I interviewed Marcus Fagervall about his musical career and the choices he’s made in life.
Storbjörk: How did you chose to apply to the TV show Idol?
Fagervall: It was a pure coincidence, I was at a dinner with my friend when he asked if we should apply to the show Idol and I said, “Yes, why not?” but that’s when he surprised me and said that he’d already applied, but not for him –– it was for me. And then I said okay, and that’s the way it all began, the story of my life.
Storbjörk: How does it feel to win Idol, and how did you feel when you won?
Fagervall: It was amazing, when I won. I felt totally overwhelmed, it was a big event in my life and I am so incredibly grateful to all my relatives who were there and supported me. At the same time, it was a relief when everything was over because it lasted about a month, and there was a lot of pressure going live every Friday. You could get nervous just because it was live.
Storbjörk: Wasn’t it a very weird, to go from nobody knowing you –– to everyone in the country knowing you?
Fagervall: Yes, it was a really hard time when I couldn’t leave my house, no private life at all. To be recognized whatever I went, especially in the beginning. A specific event I remember, I thought it was very stressful when me and my brother were going to have dinner at a restaurant. There was one person celebrating his birthday that suddenly recognized me and wanted me to sing, which felt very hard because it had not been long since I’d won Idol, and I wasn’t even into the feeling. There was a lot of stress, being unable to control the situation –– when do you want to be seen, and when do you just want to take it easy? Of we solved the problem by just going to another restaurant, but it was tough and stressful.
Storbjörk: Where were you born? And what is your mother tongue?
Fagervall: I was born in Kiruna and my mother tongue is Finnish.
Storbjörk: I’ve heard that you won Stars on Ice?
Fagervall: Yes! It was very fun. And that is also how I got to know the professional swimmer Lars Frulander. The program itself lasted four to five months. It was a pair-skating in figure skating, which was exhausting for the body but incredibly good for my body. I also thought it was a fun thing to do because in my younger years I played a lot of ice hockey, therefore I took it as a fun challenge.
Storbjörk: Where have you studied?
Fagervall: In Kiruna. But since then I have moved around in the northern of Sweden, for example Boden and Umeå.
Storbjörk: Aren’t you making a new album? What has given you the inspiration to write the songs?
Fagervall: The album I’m writing is inspired on my own life, so the lyrics consist of adventures and thoughts.
Storbjörk: What else gives you inspiration composing music?
Fagervall: I usually start by just sitting down on the couch with my guitar and then starting to hum something, and see where it takes me –– not playing old songs but being very foreward-thinking.
Storbjörk: Do you do anything else besides being a music teacher at Broskolan?
Fagervall: Yes, I’m a sports teacher at the school for two classes in the 7th grade, but otherwise my job as a music teacher takes a lot of time, with late hours.
Storbjörk: What made you apply for a job as a music teacher at Broskolan? Has this been a source of inspiration for your new album?
Fagervall: I felt that I lost inspiration and wanted some sort of change in my life. When we had moved to Upplands Bro municipality, I saw that there was a job as a music teacher in the Bro school and I got the job! This job has both given me inspiration, but also taken incredible amounts of energy because of the long work days, so when you get home in the evening you’re usually tired, and it’s not always easy to find the inspiration and motivation to play music.
Storbjörk: How do you avoid stage fright, and what do you do if you get it?
Fagervall: Stage fright is something I think all artists sometimes experience. If it happens, I try to visualize that everything is fine, visualize how I want things to go, and hold on to that thought. I am in-the-moment and focused on enjoying the music I play. Thinking of crisis scenarios doesn’t help.
Storbjörk: What age were you when you began to be interested in music, and felt that music meant something special?
Fagervall: I was around eight or nine years old when I started listening to my sisters’ shellac records on the turntable in her room, and I was fascinated by the deep bass, the beat, and the magic in the music. Now I listen to faster music, but in my childhood, I used to listening to more classical music, and the Finnish tangos my mother and dad listened to.
I was fascinated by the guitar in eighth grade. And it was only then that I noticed how I could play and play, for two hours or more, and it felt like only about ten minutes. With music, I felt I was sitting in a bubble and the whole world disappeared, I just forgot about everything. And that’s when I started to get interested and wanted to start playing more.
Tora Hillerud is twenty-one years old and currently studying math at a municipal adult education program in Sweden. Her plan is to apply to university. Tora is one of seven sisters, and each started playing cello from a young age. But after studying at Lilla Akademien, and after playing cello for fourteen years, she decided to quit. She is, at this moment, the only child in her family that doesn’t play the cello anymore.
Blanka Hillerud: Can you tell me when you knew you wanted to quit playing cello?
Tora Hillerud: When I quit practising, I never really knew I wanted to stop playing the cello. I ceased practising in December 2015, during my last year of upper-secondary school. I thought it was boring to sit for hours and hours and just practise techniques; I felt I would rather read about other subjects instead. My interest in the cello had always come and gone, there were times when I really wanted to practise and times when I didn’t. I remember during my first year in upper-secondary I came home and told my parents I wanted to quit the cello and transfer to Cyber Gymnasium high school instead, but I continued to play until my final year. Nowadays I don’t feel like I wasted my time practising, I felt that I was good at playing the cello and that was important to me, since school was very hard. It made me feel like I was good at something.
It was an easy decision to quit cello, even though I thought it would never happen. When I was little, I sometimes wanted to become a cellist. The moment I decided to quit, I just knew I really didn’t wanted to practise, or spend the rest of my life in a practise room. I thought it was extremely boring, and I still do. I don’t regret my decision.
Blanka Hillerud: Can you tell me about what happened after you decided to stop playing the cello?
Tora Hillerud: When I quit, I had no idea what I wanted to do. During the summer of 2016 I got a job in telemarketing. I hated it, so I quit that as well. I almost questioned myself, wondering whether I had stopped playing cello just to wind up doing something worse. That’s when I started to search around on the Internet for other jobs and degrees. I found a program for hairdressers that I thought seemed cool, so I applied and got in. But when I finished the course in December 2017, I felt that I didn’t want to become a hairdresser either. It resulted in me starting to return to certain subjects at Municipal Adult Education. And that’s what I’m doing at the moment, right now I’m studying mathematics. It hasn’t really impacted my life much, as I still live at home. Every day I hear my mother helping my youngest sister with her practise, or my other sisters when they give me all the latest details about what’s going on with their playing. The only difference is that I’m not playing anymore.
Blanka Hillerud: Can you tell me about your plans for the future, in terms of music?
Tora Hillerud: It’s difficult to say whether I’m going to play again, maybe as an amateur musician. I would like to work closely with music, perhaps teaching an academic subject in a music school. And I will always be able to listen to music. I think that thanks to having played the cello, I have I great appreciation for classical music, which I’m very thankful for.
Blanka Hillerud: Do you have any advice for anyone in a similar situation, about whether they should continue playing or not?
Tora Hillerud: Yes, just try something new that you’ve never done before! Whilst I played the cello, I tried out both judo and pole dancing, which had a positive impact on my playing. Just try out something completely different. I don’t regret having played the cello, I’m actually very happy that I had my cello for so many years, but I don’t miss it and I don’t regret any of my choices so far!
There is something special about singing in a choir. You may agree, if you’ve tried it. I have been a member of Uppsala Cathedral Girls Choir for almost eight years. Of course it can be tough sometimes, but I love the choir like a family. Sometimes I ask myself: has it always been like that? Have the choir members always been “sisters”? How can one stay in a choir for many years without getting bored? My thoughts led me to Alex Pfeifer, the idol of all us choristers who stayed with the group for sixteen years and saw the choir transform into what it is today.
by Smilla Bjurbo, Gy1
There is something special about singing in a choir. You may agree, if you’ve tried it. I have been a member of Uppsala Cathedral Girls Choir for almost eight years. Of course it can be tough sometimes, but I love the choir like a family. Sometimes I ask myself: has it always been like that? Have the choir members always been “sisters”? How can one stay in a choir for many years without getting bored? My thoughts led me to Alex Pfeifer, the idol of all us choristers who stayed with the group for sixteen years and saw the choir transform into what it is today.
Bjurbo: What was your first time in the choir like?
Pfeifer: I was eight years old (1996) when I became a chorister. One of my first impressions was how it felt walking upstairs to the rehearsal room. We didn’t practice at Domkyrkomusiken, as you do now, but at the place in Odinslund where the Villa Anna Restaurant is today. You walked up a stone staircase and through some white, thick doors. There we sat and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as a warm-up exercise.
For those who don’t know, the choir today is divided in three groups called Anna, Maria and Lilla flickkören. During that time there were no particular groups, only the girls choir. There were two other choirs called Ungdomskören and Koralkören which many of the older girls were in. They were teenagers and they never spoke to us. I remember that me and my friends were scared of them.
Bjurbo: Tell me about your memories from the first few years.
Pfeifer: I have one strong memory from a Christmas concert, I was about thirteen. We didn’t sing Handel’s Messiah on Christmas morning the way you do now, but there was a concert with a short play about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I was supposed to play Mary, and that day, I had my first solo. I remember how great it felt.
One other time, a couple of years later, we actually sang Handel’s Messiah. This time I also had a solo, “He shall feed his flock”. Another girl sang “Rejoice”, the one that’s so hard, and I can still recall how good she was. I really wanted to sing like her, and I was so upset that I broke down before the concert. I was really sad, but as I sang the solo I felt better, and now I see this as a positive memory. It made me understand how important the choir was –– and is –– to me.
Bjurbo: You started in the choir seven years before our current conductor, Margareta Raab. Who was the leader before her?
Pfeifer: We had lots of leaders before Maggan. First there was a woman called Maria Schildt, if I remember correctly, then had a stand-in teacher called Richard. Then we had another new director called Cecilia Martin-Löf, then a temporary teacher called Niklas, and then Maggan. I was in high school when Maggan came.
Bjurbo: What was that like?
Pfeifer: Before Maggan, we had a relaxed attitude towards the choir –– of course it was serious, but not in the same way. You could miss a rehearsal and it didn’t matter. When Maggan came, I understood quite soon that she was not strict just to be strict, she was an artistic director who wanted the choir to develop as much as possible. The choir was her instrument.
Bjurbo: As a director, was Maggan similar to the way she is now, or has she changed?
Pfeifer: I think when she began to get to know us, she could joke and make us laugh during rehearsal. In the beginning she needed to be strict and tell us what to do so we learned.
Bjurbo: How has the friendship between the girls’ and boys’ choirs changed since then?
Pfeifer: From the beginning we were separated, since we had different conductors – the boys’ choir had the organist Andrew Canning. It was later, when both choirs got Maggan, that we started to work together. Many of the girls asked why we never did anything together with the boys, and then Maggan started to arrange projects for us. First we had some small concerts. One thing led to another and after a few years, we went to The United States. Then it really felt like we belonged together.
That tour was 2010. I was twenty-two and much older than the others. Personally I was more like a friend to the boys, but I remember that the younger girls often teased them and called them “gåskören” (“goose choir” instead of “boys choir”, a play on words in Swedish). Back in the years when we practiced at Odinslund, some of my friends knew some of the boys, although we never sang together. They thought it was cool to hang around with the boys. But I didn’t.
Bjurbo: Was the boys’ choir famous than the girls’ choir, due to tradition?
Pfeifer: Yes, indeed, and for a long time they were even better than us, because they were more invested. Actually it was Maggan who gave us more popular exposure. We got badges, our colors –– green and white –– and hoodies. We changed to surplices vestments in our own colors. Earlier we’d had red surplices which we borrowed from the church, but now we had green ones with white collars. We also set up a blog, and now there’s a website and an Instagram account.
Bjurbo: You have told that there was no connection between the younger and the older girls from the beginning. How did that change?
Pfeifer: I don’t know why, but I remember when the small ones started to speak to us. Maybe that was also thanks to Maggan; it became better when she came. We understood that it was okay to hang around with the nine-year-old girls, and they were less afraid of us. Soon we grew tighter, and no one cared about age.
Bjurbo: What was it like to be the oldest chorister?
Pfeifer: It was pretty fun to be like an older sister to the younger, but sometimes I missed being a teenager, like all my friends. When the other choristers my age left, I started hanging out with the younger ones, and actually it’s those I’ve kept in touch with. But because I had grown up and they were still teenagers, we gained a different kind of friendship than we would have if I’d been like them.
Bjurbo: Did you have a stronger relationship to Maggan, since you were a grown-up?
Pfeifer: Yes, but Maggan has always been a very important person of my life. I had a tough period when I became open with the fact that I like girls. I was together with one of the choristers Alva, for three years, but my family did not accept it. Maggan supported me very much. She promised I could always come to her, she let me stay in her house during Christmas if it was too hard at home. She was a saviour in all areas. She still is. Three years ago I separated from my wife, and it felt like everything had broken down, but she was there. I was so afraid of being alone, especially at Christmas. Maggan welcomed me to her home again, but then I met Gina, my current girlfriend, so I was not in need of it. But the fact that Maggan still supported me although I was not in the choir anymore, that meant so much.
Maggan is not a cuddly kind of person, she’s authoritarian and people have great respect for her, but she beams out so much love. That is what I appreciate about her.
Bjurbo: Many of the choristers do not like that everything is so strict in the choir, what do you think?
Pfeifer: Society today does not accept that kind of strictness, but sometimes you need to work hard. I have learnt to behave, to listen and respect others –– why shouldn’t that be positive?
I also studied violin for a few years, and I had Russian teachers who told me “You don’t practice enough, you’ll never get anywhere,” and I couldn’t take it. But now, in hindsight, I understand them. You must practice. The teachers do not want to harm you, they just want you to be as good as you can. Maybe it is a little tough, but the important thing is that you have a goal, and I know that Maggan has one for the choir. As I have said, the choir is her instrument.
Bjurbo: During your last year, you played the ikon-of-peace Mahalia Jackson in the musical Good Enough which the choir produced. How was that like?
Pfeifer: That was one of the last things I ever did in the choir. It was so amazing to get that opportunity, to represent and sing the songs of Mahalia Jackson in the cathedral. I remember a few days later, I was on my way home –– I lived in Gränby –– and I passed Kvarngärdeskolan. There were some kids outside, and as I walked by they said “Wasn’t that you in Good Enough?” and I said “Yes!” and they said, “Wow, why can’t you sing a song for us?” I remember that I stood right on the bike path in front of the kids, and sang “Bä bä vita lamm” (Ba Ba Black Sheep).
In a choir you work together, but the privilege of having a solo has also sometimes been important to me.
Bjurbo: How does it feel to think about the choir in hindsight?
Pfeifer: I miss it so much. My girlfriend’s daughter Celia has joined the choir, and I often accompany her to rehearsals and concerts. Sometimes it feels a little awkward to come back, because I want to be a part of it again. But one day I’ll learn to accept that.
There is a picture in your rehearsal room –– a girl chorister, painted on a piece of cardboard. I was the one who made it, together with my grandma. It was for a game, we had some kind of open house in the cathedral, and the choir had a table. It was something like “pin the tail on the donkey” but instead “put the collar on the chorister”. My grandma who helped me died one and a half year ago. She was actually the one who led me into music, we often sang together when I was a child. When I see that picture on the wall, I think, there is the one who was the music to me, and there is also a piece of me, and that feels so amazing.
I wish people could understand, as we understand it, what a huge part of your life a choir can be. Sometimes you’re doing well and other times not, but the choir is there through thick and thin, like a family. And now, even though life goes on, the choir is inside of me, it makes me who I am. That’s crazy. The girl choir will always be a part of me.
I’m sitting in the brass room at Lilla Akademien, together with my teacher, Mikael Oskarsson. We’re surrounded by the sounds of someone practicing in the next room. We’re actually supposed to be having a trombone lesson right now, but I’ve decided to use our time to talk about his musical career, and his path to the job in the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as a trombone teacher here at Lilla Akademien. I think Mikael Oskarsson is a great example of how one should try to be as a musician, and most importantly, as a person. Mikael is an incredibly warmhearted, kind, and humble person who’s really come a long way in his life, and I want to share the story behind this incredible musician and teacher.
Stjernfeldt: All right then, let’s begin! Could you tell me a bit about how you came to be a musician? Was music always a part of your life, or did you develop this appreciation over time?
Oskarsson: Well, my parents were both very musical; they both sang in the church choir, and my dad played the accordion and the piano. I was born into a sort of farmer family, both of my grandparents were farmers, and we lived way out in the countryside. I think my dad wanted to pursue a musical career, but didn’t really get the chance, though he played a lot at dances and parties, both accordion and piano. My parents always sang to me, and I guess music just became a natural part of my life that way.
Stjernfeldt: How did you decide to start playing the trombone?
Oskarsson: Actually, I decided to play the trumpet first. I remember the specific moment. We were at my uncle’s house, and he had a bugle hanging on the wall. My dad took it down and tried to play it. He didn’t get a sound out of it. And after a while he gave up, and put it on a table. And as they continued with their conversation, I grabbed the bugle and…. BAAAP!! I got a sound out of it right away! And of course my relatives turned around and looked at me with surprised on their faces. My dad tried it again, and still couldn’t manage to make a sound. I think I realized something in that moment, because I was so proud that I could do something my dad couldn’t. And when it was time to start at the municipal music school, I chose the trumpet. And after a while I noticed that I, as opposed to some of my classmates, had a pretty easy time with the trumpet. After a couple of years, when the wind band I played in had a severe shortage of trombonists, euphonium players and tenor horn players, my teacher slowly tricked me into playing those instead. And in the ninth grade, I started playing the trombone exclusively, which is pretty late in my opinion.
Stjernfeldt: Do you remember your first trombone lesson?
Oskarsson: No, but I do remember my first ”real” trombone lesson. It was in my second year of high school, and got the chance to go to Stockholm and meet Sven-Erik Eriksson, a trombone professor who taught a lot of great musicians with jobs in orchestras all over the globe. I’ll never ever forget that lesson. I went out to his house in Tyresö, and we went down to his basement. He placed a magazine on the floor to catch all the water from the trombone. I remember the parquet floor, and the fireplace, and the harp that stood back in the corner of the room. He asked me to play, which I did for a couple of minutes, and I remember him walking around me, watching my playing from every perspective. After I played, he nodded his head in confirmation. I’ll never forget that. I left with a pile of homework from him, exercises I’d never been exposed to. Before that my homework would have been, you know, one song, or something like that. But this guy put me on a hard practice routine, things like Bordoghni etudes and Arban studies (basic trombone methods that every trombonist knows about), and I was supposed to practice for three hours a day; six half-hour sessions a day. And I knew that this was the teacher of Christian Lindberg, an incredible trombonist famous all over the world for his outstanding technique and musicality. So I just got to it, and started doing all these sessions every day.
Stjernfeldt: And after that, I assume you proceeded to study music at a university right away?
Oskarsson: Exactly. I actually did the auditions the week before I went to do my military service. The first audition was in Gothenburg. The first round happened the first day there, and the second round was the day after. I really didn’t have any idea what kind of competition I was facing, just being a kid from the countryside. I was really nervous, because i didn’t know if I was among the best players, or one of the worst; I had never met any trombonist from outside of my little town, Malmköping. So when I saw the note on the wall listing the five people that had passed the first round, and I was one of the five, I was really happy. In fact, I figured I’d misread it, because that there was another guy called Mikel Claesson who’d also auditioned. I was so nervous I had to go back and check. Anyway, the list said Oskarsson, and I went on to the next round in the morning, and won the audition. However they didn’t accept anyone that year, so I went to Stockholm to audition at the Royal Academy of Music, and got accepted there instead.
Stjernfeldt: Tell me a bit about your experiences at that school.
Oskarsson: Well, there had been a really good trombone class before me; Christian Lindberg had studied there, and then there was this trombone quartet called the Lamina Quartet, with Åke Lännerholm, Jonas Bylund, Peter Rydegren and Lars Westergren, studying there at the same time as me, and they studied in the diploma program as a quartet. Later on Jonas travelled all over the world and won competitions in both Geneva and Munich. So it was an incredibly competitive environment to be in, so to speak; I practiced so incredibly much, just to survive. Or at least that was what it felt like. We motivated one another, and I got really inspired by these guys, because they were so incredibly good at playing. I really looked up to them a lot, which i think made me a better musician in every way.
Stjernfeldt: Rumour has it that you also studied in Chicago for a while, the brass capital of the world! Would you tell me a bit about that?
Oskarsson: Well, during my final year of my studies at ”Ackis”, we all went to see the Chicago Symphony on tour in Gothenburg, and we got to participate in a masterclass with the low brass section. They played some pieces, and of course it was all very impressive, and then they all talked a bit about their individual views on things. You know, Jay Friedman, Charlie Vernon, and then Michael Mulcahy, who was pretty much new at the job. I really liked his way of thinking, and the things he talked about, so I contacted him via E-mail, and asked if I could come take lessons from him. I had recently won a couple of scholarships, so there was a bit of money to work with, something like 60,000 SEK. Back in 1992, that was quite a lot of money. So I went to Chicago and spent four months there, studying with Michael Mulcahy two hours a week.
I also took a lesson with Charlie Vernon, and one with Arnold Jacobs. (One of the greatest brass instructors ever) Michael arranged for me to go see him, and it was absolutely incredible.
Stjernfeldt: Tell me more!
Oskarsson: Well, there was a specific problem I had, that Michael couldn’t really fix. So he talked to the famous Jacobs about it, and asked if he could meet up with me to see what it was about. When I got there, he brought me into the room, and said ”Oh, you’re Michael’s student!” And he patted my shoulder and said, very confidently: ”We’re gonna fix this”. He asked me to play something where this problem occurred, so that he could see what it was. I got these ”split notes”, which means that you kind of get two octaves in the same note, and they crack a bit. He just said ”All right”, and asked me to put the trombone away. We spent the next twenty minutes doing all kinds of different breathing exercises and vocal exercises, blowing in tubes and other things like that. He never told me what he was looking for; he just told me to do different things. Afterwards he told me to try the excerpt again. I played it, and noticed that the problem was literally gone with the wind. He had helped me blow my problems away. It was not until now that he explained what he had tricked me into doing. That was really cool. Then he told me that the problem would occur again, but if I did a couple of exercises that he gave me, every day for three months, it would be gone. And that was of course true.
Stjernfeldt: What was he like as a person?
Oskarsson: I had read all about him, and I knew that this guy really was a legend. So I was of course nervous as hell to play for him. My legs were really shaking when I got in that room. But he was really warm-hearted, and even though he was firm, I felt really safe with him in that room. Simply a nice person! He didn’t say anything mean, or anything like that. I felt like I could relax and be safe with him. On the other hand, there was really no space to question what he said, or have your own opinion about things; you just did what he said.
Stjernfeldt: Alright, let’s move on. Right now, you’re working in the Swedish Radio Orchestra, and as an instructor att Lilla akademien (The Junior Academy, Stockholm). These are two very different jobs. What drives you in these different tasks?
Oskarsson: Really, it’s the same thing –– to get better. To get better at what i’m doing. Improving my trombone playing, and getting better at teaching people. I try to never stop developing as a musician, pedagog or person, for that matter. Always be curious for new ideas. Never get stuck in one place, but to keep moving forward every day. That is what drives me. And I’d also like to add that I think that these two tasks are connected in many ways. I’ve noticed that ever since I started teaching, my playing has drastically improved. I’ve found a new kind of focus on myself when I’m standing in the practice room, because I’ve developed this ability to really listen for things to improve through my teaching. The brain is switched on in a different way when you’re teaching.
Stjernfeldt: How do these two jobs differ from one another?
Oskarsson: I think they differ a lot in the amount of energy that they require. For example on a day like this, or any other day when I teach students, I feel like the orchestra is a time for rest and relaxation. And then I get here, and suddenly a different kind of energy is required from me, because I constantly need to provide my students with something useful or valuable. They’re all expecting to go from the lesson a little richer than before, and that puts a lot of pressure on me because it requires absolute focus all the time. When playing trombone in a symphony orchestra, a big part of the time is just sitting and waiting, with some intense periods here and there, but it’s not this kind of consistent work.
Stjernfeldt: Would you tell me about your educational ideas?
Oskarsson: I have a philosophy that builds on the expression, ”Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown”, meaning it’s great to have talent, to be naturally gifted, to have perfect pitch and stuff like that. But if you want to become really good, it requires a lot of hard, concentrated work towards a clear goal. I want to convey that message to my students, that if you want something really bad, you can get it. But as I said, you need to be willing to apply your whole soul, and a lot of hard work. My teaching demands a lot from my students. And if you’re gonna be able to do that, you need to really want it. Otherwise you won’t achieve much, and that is fine of course. You can do music as a hobby, but if you really want to become a great musician, it’s a different thing. It’s important that students learn to be their own teacher, to always have their ears open for opportunities to improve in the practice room. They need to take responsibility for their own development. The greatest gain is obtained when you, as a young person, have very clear goals about what you want to achieve, and really go for it with your entire heart. A teacher can of course help, but it’s you who has to be the driving force.
Stjernfeldt: Wow, well spoken, I must say. I’d like to thank you for a lot of interesting thoughts and stories, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you! Do we have time for a quick duet?
This is an interview with my organ teacher Mathias Kjellgren. He used to work as an organist at St. Maria Magdalena Church in Stockholm, and now works at Mariakyrkan Church in Sigtuna. He also teaches organ at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and at the music school Lilla Akademien also, in Stockholm.
Johnsson-Arvids: Why did you start playing organ, and where did you study?
Kjellgren: The organ was the most interesting instrument to me because of the excitement of varying its sound. When I began at age eleven, it was mostly all the different buttons you could press that made it fun. I started to play at my local church. Then I attended music college, and I continued my education in France, and later in Barcelona where Montserra Torent was my teacher.
Johnsson-Arvids: Was your family musical?
Kjellgren: Both my parents were musicans, and my father’s grandma was also a musican. She worked as a concert pianist, and also worked as a cinema organist at Röda Kvarn. In the past it was actually very common to play music during films, often with a piano and an orchestra, but at Röda Kvarn it was usually with an organ. So music has always been a part of my life.
Johnsson-Arvids: Do you compose music?
Kjellgren: When I was younger I composed for the piano, choir and organ. I don’t compose anymore, but I improvise a lot. I call myself a lazy composer since I don’t write my improvisations down.
Johnsson-Arvids: You said you also played piano. Have you played other instruments?
Kjellgren: Yes, I actually started playing violin, and it was my main instrument until I was eighteen. Then I had to choose. I continued to play violin occasionally until I was around 25 or thirty years old. I stopped because it was hard to do such completely different things and maintain a high quality –– my violin playing became worse since I didn’t have time to practise, so it wasn’t fun anymore. The piano has always been with me as well, and I played all three instruments in school. So I did a bit of everything except being diligent in school, unfortunately. School went fine, but could have gone much better because I just wanted to practise my instruments. Nowadays I encourage my students to also focus on their other subjects in school.
Johnsson-Arvids: What is advice for an aspiring organist today?
Kjellgren: First and foremost I would like to congratulate you for playing such a fun and diverse instrument –– the organ –– that has a rich repertoire from so many different time periods. The advice I give to my students is to play many different styles, try multiple possibilities with the repertoire, play modern music, and also to play a lot of Bach. I also encourage them to play piano along with the organ, as both instruments enrich each other a lot. Later as a professional, be picky! There are lot of jobs for organists, and it seems there will be for at least the next twenty years.
Johnsson-Arvids: What would you say is the best thing about playing the organ?
Kjellgren: For me the best thing is that there’s such a huge repertoire from so many different eras. One day I might play on an old instrument with music from the 16th or 17th centuries, and a week later I might play on a different organ with music from the 19th century or from our time. Then of course there’s the joy of teaching organ and passing that joy on to others, which is tremendously fun.
Johnsson-Arvids: Who is your favorite composer?
Kjellgren: My favorite composer is of course Bach; he’s always a companion, because there’s so much fantastic music written by him. Then I like to play a lot of French music. I play a lot of Ceasar Franck and also Louis Vierne, who mostly wrote music for the organ. You could call him the Ravel of the organist. They actually both died on the same year ––1937.
Johnsson-Arvids: How come you started working at Lilla Akademien, and why did you become a teacher?
Kjellgren: I became a teacher because I really like to share what I’ve learned, and also the joy of seeing students develop. How I started to work at Lilla Akademien was pure chance. Unlike today, seven or eight years ago there weren’t many students at the school playing organ. But suddenly there were two students who wanted to play. Since I had taught at several other music schools, I the school contacted me and I got the job.
Johnsson-Arvids: What do you like to do when you don’t play music?
Kjellgren: I get so much joy out of playing, so mostly what I do is just play music. I do however try to take a break for two weeks every summer, and do something else. Which I failed at last summer, it only lasted about one week. However when I’m not playing music, my hobbies are nature and boats. I am also interested in motors, and own of a few classic cars. I’m also interested in culture. I like to travel around and look at old castles and churches, and sometimes I combine that interest with music, if I find a fun old piano or an organ.
Johnsson-Arvids: What does a typical day at work look like for you, including your practise routine?
Kjellgren: On a normal day I practice from eight o’clock until eleven o’clock in the morning. After that, it varies. Sometimes I have students to teach. It can also be called on to play at funerals, or to practise chamber music with other musicians.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: Where does your passion for music come from?
Peter Pontvik: My interest in music started during my early childhood. My father was from Germany and my mother is Swedish, but I was born in Denmark. After my birth me and my parents emigrated to Uruguay where I grew up and lived for 23 years. Because we lived in the countryside with no electricity, it was actually very difficult to get access classical music. A few times I remember I went with my father to the opera house Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. I have a special memory from when I was five years old. I saw the ballet Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.
It was certainly at that moment I decided I’d like to work with music. I also got input from the radio, listening to classical music concerts. Sometimes I stayed up all night, so I wouldn’t miss a program, because they were so special. I tried to find ways to use my creativity, but I was limited by the rather poor conditions we lived in. We had no phone or toys, so my siblings and I were obliged to be inventive. Thus I started to write and perform “operas” at home, improvising the melodies and lyrics. I even “forced” my siblings to act in my stage works, haha.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: What were your dreams and hopes, as a child in Uruguay?
Peter Pontvik: I’m pretty sure I wanted to become a composer. What I absolutely didn’t want was to be was a pianist. I really hated the piano. I actually dreamed of playing the violin, but there was only a piano teacher, so I had no choice.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: What made you leave Uruguay and move to Sweden?
Peter Pontvik: I had a natural connection to Sweden through my mother, so for me it was obvious and logical to go there first. Thanks to retroactive child-support, some of my brothers and I got the opportunity to buy airline tickets to Stockholm. At this point I’d already studied composition, musicology, and choir-conducting for three years in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, but I felt that it was time to move to another place, partly because of a lack of infrastructure for artistic activities, and in part because of the poor level at the university. But the main reason to leave was that people didn’t consider musicians or artists professionals. A dialogue could sound like this:
“Hi, what’s your profession?”
“I’m a musician.”
“Great, and what do you work with?”
Of course I couldn’t accept that! It was quite different in Europe, where people respected the arts and music as normal professions.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: Where did you study, and how did your education help you start working in your current field?
Peter Pontvik: I studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Unlike the music school in Uruguay, the Swedish system had (in my opinion) more effective pedagogical approaches. In Uruguay they follow the so-called solfeggio method, a French-based tradition. You read the notes without connecting them to any pitch, which I experienced as problematic. In Sweden you’re more anchored in sound. I was also able to develop my composition skills and techniques. Later I completed my composition studies with a masters degree in Germany.
In Stockholm, my criticism of the school was they didn’t prepare you enough for real life. You were in a bubble, but I already had professional experience and wanted to continue working that way. I’ve spoken with current students, and it seems not much has changed.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: After your years of studying composition, what did you do next?
Peter Pontvik: I realised that I am in fact a social person, and as a composer you often work by yourself. You work with a piece of paper, or a computer, far from the audience.
I needed a clearer connection to the public, so I started to work as a conductor and
singer. That’s when I got into early music.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: What made you start your yearly event Stockholm Early Music Festival?
Peter Pontvik: I felt that I needed to create a platform where professional early music players could meet each other and perform. Also I wanted to bring foreign musicians from other countries to Sweden, who otherwise never would have played here. And finally, I wanted to create a forum for early music with high quality concerts. Early music needs a space in Sweden.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: Is there anything musical you’d like to do in the future?
Peter Pontvik: I usually have to many ideas, and too little time to implement them –– but one vision I have is to form a national scene for early music and dance in Sweden. It’s something we’re missing here in Sweden, and there are such stages in England, Germany, France and Spain. When I created the Stockholm Early Music Festival I had to recreate the relationship between the Swedish audience and the early music. A national stage would push that process forward. At the opera, people can listen to opera; and jazz audiences can go to the jazz club Fasching in Stockholm. So why can’t we have a permanent stage for early music and dance?
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: What advice would you give a student striving to become a musician?
Peter Pontvik: Be devoted to your ideas and not compromise with society. Culture is something we experience every day, and something we’re a part of. People who put years of their lives into becoming fantastic violinists, composers, or singers should be aware of their skills. I myself have never compromised with these things, I’ve never taken another job even when times were hard. Because I believe it’s worth fighting for the things you want to do.
Adrian Pontvik Zvejnieks: What is music to you?
Peter Pontvik: Music is a life decision. It’s all about creativity, and we need more creative people. Music is also a bridge from our time to creative people who lived in other epochs; it’s their heritage.
Sven Hirdman is a retired diplomat with a lot to say about his professional career. I called him up and asked to interview him. He sounded delighted, so we sat down together and discussed my questions.
Künstlicher: Can you tell me about how you decided to become a diplomat?
Hirdman: When I was around fifteen, I became interested in foreign policy. In fact, my whole family was interested in foreign policy, and we talked a lot about it at home. My mother was a communist from Germany and had fled to Sweden just before the Second World War. Surprisingly, she lived in Moscow in the Thirties, and I have often thought afterwards that that might have contributed to my interest in Russia. I liked to read in the newspaper about other countries’ foreign policies and history. After I finished high school, I underwent military service, but instead of becoming a soldier I joined the army’s interpreter school, which was created 1958. There I studied Russian, which led to my interest in Russia.
Künstlicher: What is required to become a diplomat?
Hirdman:To apply to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs you need to have an academic degree, speak at least two European languages, and have had an internship for six months abroad. Then you have to pass examinations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs –– ten people were chosen, and I had the best results. Most of those who applied were men.
Künstlicher: What did you do as a diplomat?
Hirdman: After I began at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, I provisionally became an attaché. Later on I was summoned by the staff manager at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and was sent to Moscow for two years. This wasn’t voluntary, you had to go where they requested. Another person was being sent to Kongo, there was a civil war in Kongo. He didn’t want to go, but you had to do what they told you, so he quit.
After two years I was sent to London, but I wanted to go to Beirut. When a new ambassador was appointed in London, I was sent home. When I got home they didn’t have any interesting things for me to do, so I started to write analysis papers about foreign policy.
Künstlicher: What did you do when you were not stationed abroad?
Hirdman: Celebrating the centennial of the end of Sweden’s union with Norway, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institution (S.I.P.R.I.) was created in order to handle weapon export and disarmament issues, and work for peace throughout the whole world. The director of SIPRI was international, but the assistant director was supposed to be a Swedish civil servant with good experience, so they asked me if I could go to SIPRI from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. There I made sure that the administration worked, the employees and the budget. That was one part of my work, the other part was to write research-reports about disarmament. Then after three years I went back to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs because I still belonged there, and it was time to be sent out again. However this time you were allowed to request countries you wanted to be sent to. I wrote Paris and Peking, and because I was the only one who wrote Peking –– and as it was well-known that Peking had a very angry ambassador and was undergoing a cultural revolution as well –– the administration was happily surprised that I had made Peking my second request, so they sent me there.
Künstlicher: What was it like in China at that time?
Hirdman:My wife and I were a little worried because we had three children, and in Peking there were no Western schools. It was quite primitive. China was a very closed society, so we used to say: ”We don’t know what will happen today, what we are trying to figure out is what happened yesterday”.
I was in China for four years, and what I learned was the importance of having a long perspective. In China you live more collectively, the family is much more important and you are not as stressed. An important task as a diplomat is to know what’s happening in the country you’re stationed in. For example, journalists write about things that happened today or this week, and historians write about things that happened a hundred years ago, or fifty years in the future. Diplomats on the other hand have a perspective of six months, and when I wrote my analysis I tried to make an assessment that would stay relevant for a couple of months.
Künstlicher: What did you do after China?
Hirdman:I was sent back to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and later to Tel Aviv as an ambassador.
After Tel Aviv I was appointed to Warsaw. After one month in Warsaw I met the Swedish Minister of Commerce and Ministry for Foreign Affairs and both wanted me to become Sweden’s military equipment inspector, to deal with weapons-export problems. This was a high-pressure job. Several times, I had to go to parliament and explain what we were doing. Actually it was a very useful education; I know several great and experienced ambassadors that aren’t good speakers and can’t handle journalists, which I do pretty well. I thought that I would work with this job for about three years, but the government considered this very important, so I had to stay for seven years.
(The years in Moscow) After this, both the government and I though I should go to a bigger embassy in the ranking of Embassies. I wanted to go to Washington, Paris or Moscow, but because so many wanted to go to Washington and Paris I was sent to Moscow. Normally you’re in a country for four to five years. But I stayed in Moscow for ten years, because I knew the country very well and the government thought it was useful to have me in Moscow. It takes time to get to know a country and its language, and establish yourself. It also takes time for a country to get to know you, so I think that an ambassador should stay about six years in every place. In my case I was in Moscow for ten years and that meant that I really knew Russia, could give good assessments to the government and handle questions directly with a Foreign minister or Prime minister, which was pretty unique. The retirement age at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs was 65, so they said: now that you’re 65, you have to leave the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, but you can come home and work for two years at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. But I wasn’t interested in blithering around in the corridors, or doing investigations, so I took my hat and walked out.
Künstlicher: Were there any advantages and disadvantages to working at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs?
Hirdman: The advantage is its stable framework. For example an administrator at the statistic central office sits there with statistics their whole life, while at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs you’re sometimes working with politics, other times trade –– or else you’re sent to different parts of the world. You change areas, and are still flexible within this frame.
The disadvantage of working as a diplomat is that if you have a family, it can be strenuous because you travel around the world a lot, working everyday. If you have children they have to change schools and leave their friends. Another disadvantage is that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is a big organisation, and hierarchical. Everyone can’t be ambassadors or secretaries. The world isn’t always fair.
Künstlicher: Would you recommend others become diplomats?
Hirdman:If you are interested in foreign policy, it’s a very useful job. Foreign policy is also domestic policy, and it gives you an opportunity to have some influence. If you are skilled and have strong areas of knowledge, you can influence policy via your reports from other countries. But as I said before, it is a very demanding job. Things can happen anytime, and you have to be ready. The most important thing is that you’re interested in foreign policy and that you are interested in other countries. Then it can be very fun and stimulating. Also if you want to become a diplomat, it’s good to prepare early. Start studying languages at high school, or choose the right program at your university.
(There was not much room for me to ask my grandpa questions, as he was so eager to tell me about his career. And here I have only recounted fragments of our interview. For me it was inspiring to hear my grandpa telling me about his long life, and the demands of working as a diplomat. When listening to my grandpa, I started thinking that our careers start taking shape earlier than we realize.