Mikael Karlsson: A Classical Bad Boy

Mikael Karlsson: A Classical Bad Boy

By Anne Miller


This is not your grandparents’ Beethoven. 

By Anne Miller

The vocalist stutters. The chamber players sound like a honking streetscape. The composer, explaining a new opera that debuted last year, says he and his co-writer composed while drunk.

Buttoned-up classics, this isn’t. 

And yet, Mikael Karsslon’s musical rethinking of the second half of a modernized Swan Lake ballet is part of what’s making the performances a sold-out phenomenon in Oslo this spring – so in-demand that there’s plans to make a movie of the performances. Next year he’s on tap to debut A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Royal Swedish Opera and Ballet. 

My love is melody and noise.

But it’s not all classical gas. Karlsson has penned scores for blockbuster video games, Battlefield: Bad Company I and II, thanks to a buddy of his from back in his liquor-store retail days (natch). He contributed to a Lykke Li ballad a few years ago (see below), and today will accept an American Academy of Arts and Letters award for mid-career composers (worth $10,000).

“Ideas don’t come in categories, and they usually span wider than just the one direction,” Karlsson told a video game soundtrack site a few years ago. “I can’t imagine that soundtrack composers only get soundtrack ideas, and new music [contemporary classical music] composers never dream of a great pop progression.” 

Karlsson is a Swedish expat 30-something re-homed in New York City, teaching theory and composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music and performing at creative spaces like the downtown Le Poisson Rouge club – where he debuted “Chamber Works” earlier this spring (again, see below) – among others.

“My love is melody and noise,” he has said. “To find beauty in something that’s ugly, or to distort something that’s beautiful, until it is almost no longer beautiful.”

The American Opera Projects , a non-profit Brooklyn organization aimed at revitalizing American opera, staged Karrslon’s drunken opus, Decoration, last year.  

Director Charles Jarden explains Karlssons’ appeal. “His use of electronics and mixing live and playback results in a heightened sense of life on the stage,” Jarden said in an email. “You feel Mikael is influenced by today’s world and stimuli … and lives and creates in the present … as opposed to some composers who lean on influences from the past.”

Karlsson has said he didn’t listen to classical music until his childhood had passed. Some traditionalists might swoon at that, but maybe that’s part of what makes his original compositions so captivating. Stroll around New York or Moscow or Tel Aviv, and listen. His works don’t float on high but rather, elevate the cityscape.