Sun Song

Music by Karin Rehnqvist for our planet’s ‘source of life and destruction’.

A solar prominence captured by STEREO spacecraft, NASA.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Imagine you’re holding a tennis ball. Some 780 metres away from you – about a five-to-ten minute walk – is another much bigger ball. In fact, at over seven metres high, it’s the size of a two-storey house. These two objects, in their respective scale, are the earth and the sun.

The sun is utterly fundamental to our lives, and yet we can’t even look at it directly. We exist in the balance of its awesome power and vast distance, which even light takes eight minutes to traverse. Too close and we would bake; too far and we would freeze.

But as we orbit, our planet spins at an angle, creating dramatically different effects of light across its surface. The composer Karin Rehnqvist was born over 59 degrees north of the equator, in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Her Solsången – ‘Sun Song’ – sets various texts about the sun from the northern fringes of Europe, with an ensemble of female singer, speakers and chamber orchestra. Introducing the piece on her website, she explains how latitude affects our experience of the sun:

For people who live to the north, the sun represents greenery, warmth, and growth. We turn our faces toward the sun as soon as its rays begin to warm us again in spring, after the long, dark winter. […] People who live closer to the equator celebrate rain instead. Without rain the sun is ruthless, leads to draught, starvation.

Sunset in Oslo, Norway. Copyright Simon Brackenborough.

That mention of the Scandinavian winter is telling – Solsången is far from ‘sunny’ in the optimistic, joyful sense. Its textures and colours are sparse, austere, and often cold. It’s a work of long shadows as much as dazzling light. But Rehnqvist composed this piece for Lena Willemark, a Swedish folk singer with a particularly expressive Scandinavian vocal style. As she explains:

She uses no vibrato, and a technique known as herding calls (Swedish kulning), traditionally used for outdoor communication over long distances and to call the cattle home. It is a highly physical, dramatic technique with a high, straightforward voice quality and strength comparable to that of a trumpet.

This vibrato-free line acts as a pure focal point – as direct and piercing as sunlight itself. And like the wide swings of the northern seasons, Rehnqvist utilises extreme contrasts in the singer’s range – from dusky lows to stratospheric highs.

Her first chosen text takes us to Iceland. Sólarljóð – ‘Song Of The Sun’ – is an anonymous medieval Icelandic poem which combines Christian and Pagan elements. At its heart are a series of stanzas repeating the line ‘I saw the sun’, which describe a sunset of apocalyptic dread, as the narrator is drawn into death. Here’s a sample, from this translation.

I saw the sun,
The true day-star,
Bow down in the noisy world;
And in the other direction I heard
The gate of Hell roaring weightily.

I saw the sun
Set with bloody staves
I was then forcefully tilting out of this world
It appeared mighty in many ways
Compared with how it was before.

The crossing of vast distance is a key theme – between sun and earth, life and death, heaven and hell. And like the cow-herd’s far-carrying kulning, the ‘bloody staves’ of sunset are those frequencies that can penetrate furthest through atmospheric scattering. Rehnqvist sets lines from Sólarljóð in a suitably bleak beckoning: sung in a slow, low monotone, and buffeted by dissonant string chords. Later on, two speakers recite lines from another passage which describes visions of men suffering damnation, their voices overlapping in a stream of confused impressions.

Similarly spooky is when, at various points, words are whispered by the speakers and orchestral musicians. But these are taken from modern scientific texts. They describe those mysterious features of the sun which we might only perceive in extraordinary natural events – the ‘prominences’ made briefly visible in a total eclipse, or the ‘solar wind’ which dances across the northern night skies as the Aurora Borealis.

The Northern Lights by Moyan Brenn, cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

So far, so much Nordic Noir, you might say. But the doom-and-gloom of Sólarljóð soon gives way to a depiction of a summer day flooded with light. Even here the music is reticent and understated, and the soprano’s gently lyrical line could be a lullaby, as she sings words from a Swedish Hymnal:

How lovely to see the fingers of the sun
Deep in the flora of the glades sewing
A lovely frock for the bed
We name summer meadow.

The second movement picks up more energy and motion, with words by Emil Hagström. Inexorably rising chromatic lines suggest the sun’s steady ascent into the sky, set to the airy textures of tremolo violins and tuned percussion, while the soprano sings:

Sun and run and rose and vine
Rose and vine, yours and mine
Hitch and ditch and skirt and bind
Run and sun and high the sky.

But Rehnqvist’s sun is a source ‘of life and of destruction’, and Solsången never fully shakes off the apocalyptic fragility of its Icelandic opening. Thunderous rumbles intrude ominously at key points, fragmenting it with a recurring sense of desolation. We hear the striking of a gong – perhaps a symbol of the sun itself. And at the end of the second movement, the energy is dissipated with a dramatic shout of ‘TURN OUT THE SUN!’.

As night falls, the final movement sets another passage from the Swedish Hymnal – ‘and so one day passes away / never to return again / and once more night of the Lord’s peace / our earth is given to gain’. The singer’s voice hangs in a low chant, shadowed by solo instruments, while others quietly snake underneath. Within the gathering darkness, the music comes to rest in the gentle arms of sleep.

Karin Rehnqvist speaking at the Stockholm Kulturhuset, 2015. By Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons.

Rehnqvist has said: ‘in my music, I seek to express something primordial. Beyond time and trends. The eternal condition of human life of which, in the end, there will be nothing but extinction.’ That rather morbid final point resonates with another aspect of the sun that defies our everyday perception – like us, it has a finite life-span. It is over four billion years old, but in another five billion years it is predicted to enter its death phase.

The video above is a performance with soprano Berit Norbakken Solset and the Arctic Philharmonic, an orchestra based across two towns in the far north of Norway. In February this year, they travelled to perform Solsången on the remote archipelago of Svalbard. Part of the Arctic Chamber Music Festival, this was timed to coincide with the sun’s return after four months of polar night.

It must have been a breathtaking place in which to hear this work, so evocative of the slanting rays and frosty air of the north. Even in this most unlikely location, human life is ‘intimately intertwined’ with the sun, as Rehnqvist puts it. But in the time since Solsången was composed in the 1990s, the polar regions have spoken with an increasingly stark warning of a dangerous unbalancing in this relationship. In recent years, Arctic temperatures have been found to be rising at a rate twice the global average, while atmospheric carbon is at a level never before seen in human history. Meanwhile, recent figures suggest that CO2 emissions are in fact still rising in 2018.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, by Christopher Michel. Cropped. Shared under Creative Commons.

Rehnqvist’s work captures a sense of our vulnerability on this planet, and how dependence on the sun can spell life or death for human cultures. Now we have entered an era of potentially catastrophic man-made climate change, it is worth remembering the analogy of the tennis ball and the house, to better comprehend the scale of the force we are meddling with.

Simply put, the sun is a sphere of nuclear-powered plasma over a million kilometres wide. We cannot turn it out. But we are trapping more and more of its energy in our only home, by choice, and with ample warnings of the consequences. It is strange to think that we owe our existence to a force so powerful that we cannot even look at directly. Stranger still is how easily we blind ourselves from understanding what this really means.

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Find out more:
All English translations are from Karin Rehnqvist’s website.
Listen to Solsången performed by Lena Willemark on Spotify.
Watch more videos by the Arctic Philharmonic on YouTube.