“Improvising with nonclassical musicians definitely opened me up to the fact that you can use violin in almost any scenario, almost any genre.” -Anna Olsson
Anna Maria Olsson is a Swedish violinist and composer currently based in the UK. Her work is particularly known for its unique use of multitrack violin, with her two studio albums — ‘Crossing Lines’ and ‘Circles’ — releasing in 2016 and 2019 to critical acclaim. Anna has also performed live with BBC Radio 3 and Sofar Sounds, and written music for Flatpack Festival and Emulsion V. Anna spoke to PRXLUDES about the concepts and origins of her soundscapes, her relationship with technology, and her experiences with cinematic scoring.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Anna! Thanks so much for joining me today — I’m such a fan of your records.
Anna: That’s lovely to hear, thanks for inviting me!
Tell me about the writing process for your most recent album, ‘Circles’. What concepts inspired it? What were you trying to achieve?
One of the things that I was really thinking about at the time was the study of time. I was very into time, as a concept, and time being a circular entity; time is infinite, there is no beginning and no end, as in a circle. If you think of a normal day, you wake up in the morning, you go through to night-time and then it’s morning again; it’s [like] this constant loop that is never-ending.
The first piece on the album, ‘Morning Haze’, plays on this idea in the way that I build up the [violin] loops. In this one, you’ve got this riff that loops, and I add some delay, [which] blends the barlines and distorts the metre, so it changes the rhythm. It elongates the phrase, in a way. It adds to this sense of it being a long, never-ending loop; I keep adding even longer, melodic loops on top of that, so it becomes this meditative, ongoing thing.
There’s definitely a meditative quality to that track, I can totally see that. How does the theme of circles develop throughout the rest of the album?
I also wanted to incorporate [the] idea of having cycles from the natural world; for example, the water cycle — the water in the sea evaporates, becomes clouds, and rains down, and that also, in itself, is a circle — [and] the circle of life. The second and third tracks on the album [are] called ‘Celestial Rain’ and ‘Sunset At Sea’, and they both reflect the water cycle. I write a lot about water for some reason. -laughs-
The last piece on the album, ‘Cosmic’… That one is more about space. In space, you’ve got the Earth, [which] rotates around its own axis and circulates the Sun. And that’s our definition of a year. That, again, relates to how time is circular, and it goes in a loop; I wanted to connect that idea as well to the whole album concept. The whole first half of [the] piece is in free time; there’s no metre, it’s very very still, in a way. I think this one was a little bit inspired by the soundtrack to Avatar… -laughs- I was listening a lot to the soundtrack at the time — I really like the film, it’s one of my top three films — and I noticed there’s the Dorian mode in the main theme. I’m also using the Dorian mode in [the] little melodic themes that come in and out in that first, very still part. So yeah, there’s definitely some Avatar in there, somehow.
What inspired you to start using violin loops in the way you’ve done with your records?
It enabled me to improvise with myself. I think the inspiration came from when I was living in Austria; I was improvising a lot with other musicians from non-classical backgrounds, and I found this really great hub of musicians that I really liked jamming with. I really enjoyed that; I’d never really done that before as a classical musician, and it felt very free in comparison. But I was moving between countries, so I had to leave this nice hub of musicians that I’d just found… and I was back to square one again. That’s when I decided [that] I still wanna keep improvising and creating things, so I started experimenting with loops and recording myself, so I could carry on doing that anyway. That’s how I discovered [that] I really like this idea, I’m gonna save this, I’m gonna develop this. And that’s how it started, really.
When you first started composing solo, what advantages and what challenges did you have initially, working just with yourself and the violin?
I think the biggest challenge was the technical part of it. I was an absolute newbie to technology — like, the [first] loops I recorded, I recorded in Audacity. Good old Audacity… -laughs- I wrote most things by hand, just because it was easier, but it was hard to piece things together. Eventually, after I had some composition lessons, my tutor recommended I use Ableton, and I was like “ooh, this is cool!” So I started using that and I never looked back since. -laughs-
Fair play. It’s definitely good you moved away from Audacity… -laughs-
Yeah, that was a huge learning curve, definitely. But it was really good, it’s been so useful, [and] it’s allowed me to work more instantaneously. I can just record instantly, and loop it back, and record on top and loop [that] back, and so on. It [became] more of a quicker process.
Your first record, ‘Crossing Lines’, really seemed to encapsulate that well. I know you’ve mentioned on your website that the album was looking to break the conventions of the violin as a “classical instrument”; how did your background in improvisation affect that?
Improvising with non-classical musicians definitely opened me up to the fact that you can use the violin in almost any scenario, almost any genre. It’s really versatile; it works with many different kinds of instruments. I was also part of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Folk Ensemble for a few years, and that also influenced [me]. I was quite inspired by folk music when I wrote that first record; I think it comes across in a few of the pieces.
With [Crossing Lines], I really wanted to experiment as much as possible with different genres, different sounds, trying out different techniques [and] creating as much variation within that as possible. But it still felt genuine to me.
That definitely comes across in the album — many different sound combinations and concepts, filtered through the lens of “you”…
I think there’s so much that you can do with a violin that you don’t normally explore in standard violin repertoire. You only use a certain part of the violin most of the time, but there’s definitely much more to it.
Tell me a bit about your minimalist influence in your work…
I like Steve Reich a lot. I think ‘Morning Haze’ is quite inspired by Steve Reich, and one of my tracks from Crossing Lines — ‘Enchanted Forest’ — was also [influenced] by Steve Reich. I like his ‘Violin Phase’ a lot; when he uses phasing, he really plays with the time element, distorts the feeling of the metre and rhythm. It’s all so gradual [as] it changes to something completely different. It’s quite amazing how you can do that.
I know you’ve done some music for film in the past. What was your approach to writing for film; was it different to the way you approach your records?
That was quite a different approach. That was [a] collaboration with Chloe Knibbs, who is an alumni composer from [Royal Birmingham Conservatoire] — we were on the masters course together. We wrote [a] piece for moving image, an experimental film, that was gonna be a part of the Flatpack Film Festival in 2017. It was really fun to work with Chloe; it was a really different approach to how I would write something by myself. It was much more collaborative and intuitive. We [would] break the film down and discuss different parts of it; “what character do we want here, what do you think, let’s try this and that”… We tried [a lot of] different things. It’s about analysing the film and [creating] your interpretation of it.
The first [film] that we worked on had a lot of different colours in it, so we used the colours as a way to guide our sound world, the character. That was leading our interpretation of the piece, how the music would evolve accordingly. We performed it live with the film going, and it was received really well, they really liked it! So they commissioned us to write another score the following year, for a completely different film. We had a lot of fun working on that as well. It was quite a free process; we never notated anything down specifically, but we’d always discuss things like “what do we want here? What kind of character do we want?” It was a lot more [of a] philosophical discussion; it [wasn’t] a straightforward film where you have background music, this was totally weird and experimental, and really fun at the same time. We could really go crazy. It was almost like we were collaborating with the film, and reacting to it, reacting to each other… it was a very free process.
What role does improvisation play in your work at the moment? Do you tend to write things out or go with the flow?
Nowadays, I rarely write anything out. I only really write things out if I need to harmonise melodies [or] chord progressions. If I need to harmonise several parts, then I like to write it out so I’m not creating weird intervals, but in general, I don’t really; I barely wrote anything out for any of my pieces. I like to keep [things] free, [to] not focus on the visual notes, but the sound. That’s really important to me — the sound comes first.
That’s why I like to work with Ableton — where I can record myself playing — then I can play exactly how I want it to sound; for example, if I’m using a playing technique that sounds really weird [that] I can’t notate, and I want to capture that sound, it’s going to be more instant and effective than writing. I tend to just record as much as possible. I record myself on my phone, as well, when I’m not with my computer — I’ve got lots of voice memos on my phone, which [are] just really random noises and things, all little themes… -laughs- So I try and record first and structure my ideas [out] later, try and make some sense out of them.
It’s always fun seeing what these little voice note anecdotes end up transforming into.
Actually, the track ‘Celestial Rain’ has a riff that goes through it, which is a pizzicato riff. I had that idea as I was walking down the road — I was going to the gym, and I was thinking about music — and I had this idea in my head, and I was like “I have to save this idea”, so I had to stop in the middle of the road, get my phone out, and sing it into my phone in the middle of the road… -laughs- But it worked, because then I could remember it, [and] when I got back home, I recorded it into Ableton. I’m glad I did that.
How does that work in a live setting? Are your shows just as free as your writing process?
No — I would say the writing is what I enjoy the most. I just like coming up with ideas, and finding ways to structure them. I always get stuck, at some point, when I come up with all my ideas; I get really stuck for ages until I find a solution for how I’m going to structure [them] all, and then it’s fine.
But in a performance situation, it becomes quite technical quite easily, because you have to decide “what can I play live? What can I not play live?” I can’t always play every single part live, because sometimes you want loads of parts to come in together, and then you can’t play all of them at [the] same time. You have to work out what’s possible; how do I structure this? Do I want it to sound like on the record, or do I want it to sound different? You have to make these decisions beforehand, and then you might leave some room for [improvisation]. And then I might have those pieces where I’m completely improvising, they’re completely free, but then I also have to structure how I’m gonna technically be really free when I have [these] technical buttons? -laughs- So you’ve gotta work it out, somehow; how you’re gonna work with the technology and allow yourself to be free at the same time.
That’s the million pound question, I guess. -laughs-
Yeah, exactly. I think at some point, when I was writing my first record, I was thinking a lot about “how am I actually gonna perform this live”… But when I started thinking in those lines, that kind of restricted me in [a sense] like “oh, well then I can’t do this, I can’t write that”. So I decided I [was] gonna not care about how I’m gonna perform it, and write whatever I want to write, and work it out later. I’ve kind of adopted that philosophy since.
Do you use Ableton when you’re performing live, as well?
Yeah, I’ve always used Ableton. It’s easier for me to completely structure my pieces and be in control of what’s happening, just [because] I know the software well, and because you have a higher element of control in Ableton than you’d have with a loop pedal. I’ve tried using [a] loop pedal before, and it didn’t really work for me, because it’s restricted in the way it works; I know that a lot of people are really amazing at using loop pedals, [and] it works really well for them, because that’s part of their “instrument”, if you see what I mean — they’ve got specific pedals which they use as part of their sound, I know some violinists who do that that are absolutely incredible — but I went into Ableton from very early on, and I’ve adapted my way of making music to work with Ableton. I like to structure things in detail, so that works for me.
Let’s talk about what’s coming next; what sound worlds have you been focusing on lately?
Lately, I’ve been going into this more cinematic sound world. I’ve been tiptoeing into this world of music publishing, which is kind of exciting. I’ve been working — for the first time — with virtual instruments, which was totally new to me. But it was awesome… suddenly, there’s so many different sounds I can make. -laughs- Like, cinematic percussion is amazing. I love it, I’ve been using a lot of that. Electronic synths, [as well]… I’ve been exploring a lot of sounds that are not just strings, [and] that has been really fun. It adds a lot more variety to the music, I think. But also, I want to carry on having the violin and the strings at the heart of the music; I still love strings, and I want to keep writing for strings, but I also like being able to use other instruments and other sounds in addition to that. It adds a bit more to it.
How do you see yourself incorporating that kind of sound into your work?
I like using percussion, I think that’s what I enjoy the most about VSTs. I tried to do violin percussion before, which has kind of worked, but I wanna have more “oomph” to it, you know? That’s where the cinematic percussion really adds something more. I’m also very interested in the combination of acoustic violin effects and electronic effects; there are so many endless combinations you can create with that. If I were to write a new record, that’s something I’d really like to explore further — how these two elements can affect each other, and how they can work together.
Tell me about your favourite show you’ve played so far…
This is a really hard one, because I’m so lucky to have played so many amazing concerts and gigs and shows, that I couldn’t pick one that’s been the “best”. There [have been] so many really nice memories I’ve had thanks to music. I’m really lucky in that way. I think also that the most prestigious shows that you play — the biggest ones — are not necessarily the ones that you enjoy the most. If I’d say one that I enjoyed the most, one I can think of is [one] that I played in the summer of 2019 at The Spotted Dog. That was for Shanty Town — a local music event that happens every now and then in Birmingham. I really love these events, because they have this really nice atmosphere. The people who go are so warm, so friendly, and so enthusiastic and supportive; every time I play there, I never feel nervous or anything. You can really instantly connect with the audience, and that’s not always an easy thing to achieve… But at this gig, it felt like everyone was really with me, and everyone was enjoying it so much, and that’s what we want in music, when we perform, when we go to a gig. That’s what we’re aiming for.
Anna’s work can be found at:
- Steve Reich – Violin Phase (1967), performed 1969 by Paul Zukofsky.