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The KTH Alum of the Year 2023 is opera’s tech rebel

Carl Unander-Scharin
Carl Unander-Scharin, KTH Alum of the Year 2023, is a professor, singing teacher and researcher. He is also a composer and soloist with various operas and has played more than 40 opera roles. “I like to be at the intersection between writing music, performing music and exploring new expression by creating new musical instruments.”
Published May 25, 2023

He’s a trained opera singer, composer and church musician. He has invented electronic instruments, become a PhD at KTH and composed 12 operas. And now Professor Carl Unander-Scharin is KTH Alumnus of the Year 2023.

Carl Unander-Scharin  says he has been making music and building his own instruments for as long as he can remember. At 15, he built his own electronic phaser for his electric bass to create new sound experiences, and the following year he made a synthesiser.

Portrait of Carl Unander-Scharin
Carl Unander-Scharin created the opera The Tale of the Great Computing Machine alongside with his wife Åsa in the KTH Reactor Hall in autumn 2022. For the opera, they created an interactive digital instrument called The Virtual Obbligato, where a dancer interacts with the large cinema organ in the Reactor Hall.

“When I was young, my mum used to get quite annoyed as I was always taking toys and electronics apart to see how they worked. I wanted to see what a music box looked like inside. That was when I started discovering patterns in technical constructions, which I then applied in my own creations,” he says.

Carl Unander-Scharin

Family: Married to Åsa Unander-Scharin, dancer, choreographer, director. Two grown-up sons.
Lives: Gamla Stan in Stockholm and Möja in the Stockholm archipelago.
KTH degree: PhD in Media Technology with the thesis Extending Opera - Artist-led Explorations in Operatic Practice through Interactivity and Electronics , in 2015.
Active fields: Professor at Ingesund School of Music, Karlstad University, in classical song, also a freelance singer and composer. Also involved in a wide range of research projects relating to interactive opera. Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and the Swedish Research Council’s Committee for Artistic Research.

His curiosity and interest in technology and structure also applied to musical compositions. At an early age he looked deeply into Bach’s counterpoint to “see what was inside the shell” and learn different methods for making music.

“I grew up with a solid grounding in classical music, but I also listened to symphonic rock like Yes, Genesis, Camel and Joni Mitchell. At age 12 I discovered punk music, and then heavy metal. I then rediscovered a lot of that direct power in operatic pieces – Puccini’s Tosca, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in organ pieces or a Passion by Bach…”

In younger years, Unander-Scharin sang in the Royal Swedish Opera’s boys’ choir after school and at weekends, and wrote his own music in his spare time. According to him, his life looks pretty much the same these days.

By day he’s a professor, singing teacher and researcher at Ingesund School of Music, Karlstad University. He is also a composer and soloist with various operas and has played more than 40 opera roles, including during his ten years as a tenor soloist at the Royal Swedish Opera in the early Noughties.

“I like to be at the intersection between writing music, performing music and exploring new expression by creating new musical instruments.”

As well as writing a total of 12 operas, Unander-Scharin has composed a lot of choral music and “experimental music” – interactive works with electronic and mechatronic elements in what he calls “Opera Mecatronica” , which also include robot choreographies by Åsa Unander-Scharin.
His latest opera work , which he created in collaboration with choreographer Åsa Unander-Scharin, is an interactive opera entitled The Tale of the Great Computing Machine .

Portrait of Carl Unander-Scharin

What are your best tips for fostering creativity in your students?
When I teach, for example I like to prompt discussions about important issues like sleep, relaxation, disconnecting and exercise. A student recently said to me, ‘Please don’t go banging on about more tips on study techniques, I got enough of those at high school!’ So now I tend to ask questions like ‘How are you sleeping?, ‘Are you getting any exercise?’, ‘What do you do to relax?’ Rather than just giving directions, the result can be a productive, educational experience for both people.
“Another tool I talk to my students about is ‘project managing yourself’ and keeping a meticulous work journal through various processes.”

What do you do yourself to establish creative focus?
“One of my personal tricks is to remove apps like email from my phone. If we want to create, live, walk and ponder, we need to be free of digital communication. I can’t listen to anything in my earphones when I’m walking, it’s like there’s too much conflicting information.
“I make sure to only have access to social media and email on a desktop computer, so I have to take the trouble to actually go there and sit down if I need to. I might sometimes install a social media app if I need to temporarily for a project, but as soon as I realise I’m just idly browsing again, I delete the app immediately.”

What’s your vision for the future?
“My main mission in life is to write a lot of good music, to sing a lot of great music, and to explore new possibilities for artistic expression. And music should always have something of the unexpected – unexpected even for me.
“I want to always continue teaching, so I can carry on sharing what I’ve learnt on life’s journey with others.”

Text: Katarina Ahlfort
Photo: Viktor Gårdsäter

Award motivation for KTH Alumnus of the Year 2023

Carl Unander-Scharin (PhD Media Technology, KTH, 2015) is being made Alumnus of the Year 2023 for his diverse contributions to bringing art and technology together.
Carl has enriched the university with his presentation of the opera The Tale of the Great Computing Machine  in the KTH Reactor Hall. As a composer and one of the libretto authors, Carl brings to life and updates the message of the book of the same name, written by KTH professor and Nobel Prize Laureate Hannes Alfvén. The performance in the Reactor Hall brings out the full potential of the venue in terms of stage space, acoustic experience and historic site, focusing on humankind’s relationship with technology. The performance highlights one of the main issues of our age in the field of technology: artificial intelligence. This is conveyed in a completely unique way, combining opera with mechanics, electronics and data.
Bringing together and applying knowledge from a range of different areas to create something new is in the very spirit of KTH.

KTH Alum of the Year 2023 lectures in Reaktorhallen in September

Carl Unander-Scharin will present a lecture he calls "Lecture performance" in KTH's Reaktorhall R1 on September 12.
Alumni, KTH students and employees are invited to attend, and the public can also take part in the event through a live broadcast.
More information and a link to the live broadcast will be published on KTH's website a couple of weeks before the event.

Belongs to: About KTH
Last changed: May 25, 2023