Madeleine Isaksson

Madeleine Isaksson is a Swedish/French composer living in Paris. She is coming to Bodø with the piece “Terre de l’absence”, performed by Vocal Art.

Isaksson studied piano and composition at Nordic Music Conservatory and Royal College of Music of Stockholm. After Diploma (MFA) – in piano education and composition – she continued her studies abroad: in Amsterdam for one year’s studies with the composer Louis Andriessen, and further in Paris. Meetings with composers, their different traditions and aesthetic features – Brian Ferneyhough in Stockholm and at the composition courses at Royaumont in France, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and Emmanuel Nunes – have all contributed to Isaksson’s development as a composer. The exposure to the music of Giacinto Scelsi in Darmstadt 1986 came also to play an important role.


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Her music is highly concentrated, characterised by a wealth of detail and considerable variation in the treatment of phrases and sonorities and well-integrated processes which are held together by an almost physical movement in flucturating meters. Her basic frameworks can be described as forms of space: those of interval, register, and time where the material is developed through different time levels and contrasting terms.

Madeleine Isaksson writes for various ensembles, instrumental as vocal, and for orchestra. Among her compositions, some titles can be mentioned: the septets Sondes (2009) and Isär (2012), for vocal ensemble, Ciels (2010) and Terre de l’absence (2012), for countertenor and baroque ensemble, Hemligheten (2013) text Tomas Tranströmer, her first string trio, Traces (2017) and for improvising pianist and ensemble, Springkällor (2018).

During 2016-2017 she was Composer in Residence at Gävle Symphony Orchestra with two new compositions: Bridges for brass and percussion, and Ljusrymd for orchestra.

In 2005 her CD Failles appeared at the swedish label Phono Suecia. and other CD:s with her music have followed during the years. She received the Järnåker Award 2012 for Les sept vallées, solo recorder.

The music of Madeleine Isaksson is regularly performed by prominent international musicians and ensembles at concerts and festivals across Europe, Asia and overseas.

You seem to have a very strong connection with fluctuating meters in your musical thinking. Can you say something about this?

Fluctuating meters permit me to precisely control the musical breathing, phrases and events in an organic way, concerning weight- and lightness, and far beyond the organization of pulse.


Do you have any thoughts on music’s role in our identity? Do you think of your self as a Nordic composer?

Everybody bears profound traces of their geographical roots: a country, a language, a specific nature, culture or history, which are more or less obvious in who you are and what you do. I emigrated from Sweden to France thirty years ago and it has probably changed something in my music: I hear and use another language, the society in which I live has it’s special relations: to time and space, and between people, etc. But fortunately, there are no geographical borders in music. For me, it’s quite confusing to be classified as a Nordic, Swedish or French composer: the borders in between and beyond are surely more vague, fluid and perforated.

The lyrics on your piece “Terre de l’absence” is by Adonis. Can you tell us a bit about him and how you worked with his texts?

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber) is a Syrian poet. After serving in the military and being imprisoned, he left Syria for Beirut, Lebanon. Later, after studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and being a professor in Arabic literature in Lebanon, he escaped the Lebanese civil war in the ’80s and emigrated to Paris. “Terre de l’absence” is the french translation of a poem included in “The Songs of Mihyar of Damascus”, published in 1961. Adonis writes in Arabic, but my composition for six vocal soloists uses the French translation. I wanted to use the text in a very phonetical, instrumental manner where the sounds can easily melt together. The french language is very useful in this timbral aspect. Lamentation, the theme of the commission from the International Church Festival 2013, brought me to Adonis’ “Songs”. The text has for me a strong connection to the immense human catastrophe and tragedy in Syria and abroad, starting with the Arab Spring in 2011 about which Adonis immediately predicted a very difficult and dangerous future. The chosen poems follow the errancy of King Mihyar in the Middle East through titles such as the “Land of Absence”, over “The Bridge of Tears”, and ending with “Island of Stones”.

The festival theme is “Truth?”. Can music be true? Is this something you are struggling with in your compositions?

To be true to oneself is a life project; my activity as a composer takes part in this aim entirely.

Terre de l’absence

for six solo voices: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alt, tenor, baritone, bass


Texts by Adonis, from Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (Chants de Mihyar le Damascène), translated from arabic to french by Anne Wade Minkowski © Editions Actes Sud

Terre de l’absence (Earth of absence) is a commission by the norwegian vocal ensemble Nordic Voices for a concert during Oslo Church Music Festival 2013, on a given theme, Lamentations. I searched for a contemporary text and found the french translation of the vast collection of poems Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (1961) by the syrian poet Adonis.


The titles of the chosen poems are telling: Earth of Absence / The bridge of Tears / Island of Stones … Some extracts from the “Psaumes” in the same collection are written in the beginning of each part in the score and gives a mental image of the wandering king Mihyar through the Middle East: “he has no ancestors and his roots are in his steps… He walks in the abyss and has the silhouette of wind… Thus I’m living in the memory of air… I move towards the distant and the distant remains… ”

The piece is composed in six parts, linked by floating transitions or separeted by short and dry pauses. The singing parts develop towards extrem tessitures through whispering sough, harmonics, glissandos, rythmical speech, and singing.



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Mihyar, glas des égarés
dans cette terre de Galilée
Il tombe entre rocs
et rames et rencontre les errants
dans les jarres des sirènes
dans le murmure des coquillages
Voici la terre de la douleur
terre sans lendemain
qu’aucun vent n’illumine
Quelle voix parviendra
mes bien-aimés
à cette terre de l’absence?
Un pont de larmes chemine avec moi
se brise sous mes paupières
Dans ma peau de porcelaine
un chevalier d’enfance
attache ses chevaux avec les cordes du vent à l’ombre
des branches
“Ô vents, ô enfances!
Ponts de larmes brisés
derrière les paupières!”
Ô foudre, foudre verte
Ô mon épouse dans le soleil et la folie
Le roc s’est écroulé sur nous paupières
Change alors la carte des choses
Change alors la carte des choses
ô mon image dans le soleil et la folie
ô foudre, foudre verte
Une île des pierres
et d’étincelles
prend naissance autour de mes pas
Ses vagues sont figées
ses rives en partance
© Adonis, 1961 from Aghani Mihyar ad-Dimashqi (Songs of Mihyar of Damascus) translated from arabic to french by Anne Wade Minkowski © Editions Actes Sud