Composer Karin Rehnqvist: ‘I simply had to address global warming in Silent Earth’

Karin Rehnqvist (c) Ester Sorri

Saturday 18 April 2020 was to see the first performance of Karin Rehnqvist’s Silent Earth in NTR ZaterdagMatinee. Yet, as all concerts, this premiere fell prey to the measures taken to prevent the further spreading of the Corona-virus. Rehnqvist had written this large scale work for the Dutch Radio Choir and Philharmonic Orchestra, who would present it in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

I had written the programme notes and was to interview Rehnqvist (1957) previous to the concert. Since the new season had already been planned, the premiere of Silent Earth was rescheduled for 29 January 2022.

Rehnqvist feels sad, but remains placid: ‘These are strange and scary times, we must simply accept the situation.’ She even cherishes some hope: ‘Silent Earth was co-commissioned by the Swedish Radio, who have scheduled it for the Black Sea Festival in August. Let’s hope that will work, though nothing can be taken for granted.’ Fingers crossed! In February 2020 we talked about Silent Earth over Skype. (The Festival was cancelled after our interview, TD.)

Human voice

Karin Rehnqvist has a great affinity with the human voice and for many years led the Swedish Stans Kör. She became famous with compositions such as Puksånger-lockrop for two singers and timpani (1989) and Solsången for female voice, two female speakers and orchestra (1994). In these she makes use of the so-called kulning from Swedish folk music, a shrill, vibration-free way of singing with which shepherdesses drove their cattle together. To this end she worked closely with the folk singer Lena Willemark. – There’s no kulning in her new piece though, says Rehnqvist: ‘I didn’t want to use solo voices.’

The self-evident way in which Rehnqvist combines the ghastly cries with modern compositional techniques and special timbres earned her many prizes. Exploring the intersections between art and folk music runs like a thread through her oeuvre, in which folkloristic elements are never used for a nostalgic effect. Thus she developed into ‘one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music since Ligeti and Penderecki’, as one critic wrote.


Recently she made a big impression with the monodrama Blodhov (Blood-hoof) in which she once again collaborated with Lena Willemark. It is a bloodcurdling story from the Edda, about the God Freyr who rapes the female giant Gerður more and more brutally for nine consecutive nights. – However this time the tale is told from the perspective of the woman, who tries to exorcise her pain and powerlessness in fearful words and a primal scream that pierces through marrow and bone. Blodhov was awarded the 2019 Järnåker Prize.

‘The story gripped me so much that it took me years to complete the piece’, says Rehnqvist. ‘When the #MeToo affair broke out in 2017, I couldn’t even compose at all for a while, because so many authentic contemporary stories came up.’ At its premiere in 2019, Blodhov thus proved to be a perfect match for current events. As was Day is Here for eight voices and string orchestra composed a year earlier: ‘The last part is a prayer for rain from the Navajo Indians. I wrote it in spring, but then came that incredibly hot, dry summer. So we really needed that prayer!’

Asking the music

Were these two compositions more or less engaged by chance, in Silent Earth Rehnqvist deliberately reflects on the effects of global warming. ‘I am shocked that people still fly and eat meat carefree. The problem is life-size, this winter barely any snow has fallen in Sweden. We have to change our way of life. As a grandmother, I feel this responsibility all the more strongly.’

The piece was commissioned two years ago by NTR ZaterdagMatinee. ‘Before I started composing I asked myself: what needs to be said today? What do I need to express? Climate change is a big worry in our society, so I thought I had to address this in some way. My approach is always to ask the music questions: how will it be? What will happen? I trust the music to show the way. And in this case I also had a beautiful  text to go by.’

Kerstin Perski wrote the poems for Silent Earth. ‘We had collaborated before, on the children’s opera Beauty School in 1999, after which we made the opera Stranded. This is about a woman surviving a volcanic eruption, but it is still awaiting its first performance. The opera is in Swedish and the music is totally different, but the last poem “Burning Earth” is related to my new piece. So I had it translated into English and am reusing it in Silent Earth.

After the catastrophe

Rehnqvist recounts how ‘Burning Earth’ came into being: ‘One evening Kerstin and I were talking about climate change. In our fantasy we were sitting on another planet, looking down at Earth, that had been destroyed by a catastrophe. We asked ourselves: what is there? Is there still life? Are there any human beings? What is it we are seeing? In one way this was comforting: to sit there, on another planet and still be alive, looking at Earth. It’s a bit comparable to today’s situation: we have no idea how to handle it. We just have to wait, not knowing what will happen. After this talk I made some improvisations with my voice and the piano, which I gave to Kerstin.’

‘Then she came up with the first two poems. I think they are absolutely wonderful! They describe so precisely what’s happening at the moment. I threw all my improvisations away and started composing all over again. Though “Burning Earth” describes the catastrophe and comes last, in a sense it is also first: we find ourselves looking over the silent, devastated landscape and talk about who we once were. The text builds up towards a huge climax, describing the catastrophe when the world is swallowed up by fire and water.’

The piece opens with ‘Silent Earth’, from which the title is derived. ‘This describes an empty world, after the catastrophe, where the wind is blowing and the lakes have been fished empty.  Therefore I created an icy atmosphere.’ The hornists play with their hands in the bell, the trumpets use mutes, the harp ripples descending and ascending glissandi against a foundation of chilly sounds from cymbals. The choir softly sets in dissonant harmonies and only sings briefly, ending with the ultra-soft and repeatedly whispered word ‘fishless’.

Glimmer of hope

The following ‘We, Who Once Were’ is a confession of guilt: we praised the beauty of the Earth but destroyed it with our greed. The orchestral fabric condenses somewhat and the choir sings the opening line in unison, with an interval jump up on ‘once’ and an elated forte on ‘loved you’. Vibrations and dissonant harmonies dominate.

When the fabric thins out again, the choir loudly chants ‘Save yourself from us!’, repeated on the same tone, in changing variants and languages. ‘Each singer must choose another language alongside English. I want it to be really global, so you understand it concerns us all.’ Hereafter sopranos and tenors conclude on pitifully moaned ‘ah…’s in descending minor seconds, like seufzer.

In the concluding ‘Burning Earth’, Rehnqvist builds up a climax of frenetically churning strings, ominous percussion and fortissimo shouted phrases from the choir. ‘This is the most violent part, but at the same time I see it as a lamentation.’ In a long coda silence gradually returns and the female voices sing softly, and in unison, a single note on ‘ng’.

Rehnqvist: ‘We are still here: there’s a glimmer of hope…’.

On Sunday 5 April 2020 I played Rehnqvist’s ‘Salve Regina’ in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ Concertzender. You can listen back any time through this link.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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