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