Dreams and music: Jacob Mühlrad

Mark Seow
Thursday, November 11, 2021

The composer's first orchestral work - a Royal Stockholm commission - reconstructs the very sounds from his sleep

In 2020, Jacob Mühlrad begun a multi-year collaboration with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. This includes the commission of two large orchestral works; REMS is the first. Mark Seow talks with the composer about his dreams, both when sleeping and awake.

The plan was to watch the world premiere of Jacob Mühlrad’s REMS in the Konserthuset Stockholm, performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado; I would meet the 30-year-old composer afterwards for an interview. The Border Control Police at Stockholm Arlanda airport, however, had different ideas.

For various reasons I was denied entry to Sweden. Stripped of my passport, I was to wait a small eternity – 18 hours – in a specially prepared gate until the next flight back to London. It was, in some ways, perfect preparation for my interview with sleep-obsessed Mühlrad (which would now take place on Zoom). For 2am arrived, and with eyelids unable to keep out the glow of an airport kept in eternal florescence, I had never wanted sleep more. To pass time in this purgatory, I even listened to the opening three hours of Max Richter’s Sleep, during which slowly morphing piano chords and cello song mixed with the omnipresent beeping and hum of the airport. I was ready to talk sleep.

REMS receiving its premiere by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (photo: Yanan Li)

REMS – rapid eye movement sleep – is Mühlrad’s first large orchestral work. It enters a genre that is practically cliché, ranging from Chopin’s Nocturnes to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from Anna Meredith’s Four Tributes To 4am (2011) to the slumber scene in Lully’s Armide (1686). But REMS isn’t music for sleeping or music about sleep; rather it is of sleep. In REMS, Mühlrad sought to reconstruct the very sounds from his dreams.

'When I fall asleep, I can almost hear two clarinets, they are going one microtonal tone above each other … those are the usual sounds that I feel when I’m just falling to sleep, going from consciousness to unconsciousness – that dissonance in my ears.'

If I eat breakfast or take a shower, the magic is gone. I need to go straight from bed to desk or piano

Other instances took some figuring out. 'When I woke up from the dream I wasn’t thinking "oh, it sounded like 80 strings playing molto sul ponticello or molto sul tasto simultaneously doing polyrhythmic downwards glissandi" – that was something I needed to compose, needed to create'. Even up until the first play-through with the orchestra, Mühlrad was full of trepidation. 'I had no clue how this will actually sound,' he confesses. Yet his apprehension does not stem from a lack of preparation, but rather out of respect for the capaciousness of music itself. 'Music always surprises me, sound always surprises me'.

The process of notating his dreams challenged Mühlrad the most. This included dealing with one recurring anxiety dream – Mühlrad eschews my use of the word 'nightmare' – that began during his applications to study at the Royal College of Music in London. He describes the sound as a 'glissando zzzhum, zzzhum, zzzhum', and despite the almost omnipresent use of glissandi in the work, I immediately know which bit Mühlrad is referring to – it’s an anxiety-inducing section, beginning at 14 minutes in, an orchestra trapped in a space part-jungle, part-metropolis in crisis.

There are, of course, peaceful moments too. Mühlrad’s compositional process was influenced by Judaisitic notions of sleep. 'I remember the rabbi telling me how the body and soul split into two different parts', and how it was during sleep that the soul 'refuelled' itself with spiritual energy. 'If I eat breakfast or take a shower, the magic is gone. I need to go straight from bed to desk or piano.' In the early stages of composing REMS, Mühlrad experimented with trying to write down the sounds of his dreams immediately upon waking, though 'with not such good results'. Eventually Mühlrad found greater success notating the memory of stronger, more persistent dreams.

When it comes to lullabies, suddenly everything is more like each other. It’s the point where all the traditions, for me, seem to meet

Woven through the tapestry of Mühlrad’s dream-transcriptions are the threads of actual lullabies. 'Everyone has a relation to someone trying to sing them to sleep'. For Mühlrad, this was his mother singing Yiddish songs. His research also included looking at lullabies from different cultures, ranging from Albanian to Japanese song. Though he admits that these musical traditions are very different, Mühlrad claims that 'when it comes to lullabies, suddenly everything is more like each other. It’s the point where all the traditions, for me, seem to meet'. Universality is a theme throughout Mühlrad’s output. His choral work TIME, released on Deutsche Grammophon in early 2021, looks at the word ‘time’ in 27 different languages.

'There is such a common expression, which is very universal – very human actually – to sing your child to sleep; there is a way to do it. There is a universal, human way to do that'.

Once he gets going, sentences tumble out of Mühlrad like wine from a jug. He is most excited when talking about instrumental technique. In the process of composing REMS, Mühlrad met with every principal of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Totalling more than 80 meetings over the span of two years, Mühlrad boasts about his Excel sheet put together without a secretary.

It was in these meetings that he experimented with players, often struggling with communication: 'I tried to imitate, to sing or make with my voice the sounds'. It was also in these sessions that Mühlrad learned the limitations of each instrument. 'OK, you can’t make such a large glissando', Mühlrad would coach his flautist, 'but try to bend the pitch'.

'I was extremely obsessed … Everyone needs to play glissando'. Faced with a percussionist who expressed the impossibility of making a fixed piece of metal change pitch, Mühlrad became obstinate: 'No, there is a way. Physically, there is, of course, a way'. And so among the many other extended techniques, tubular bells are sunk in water. [15:33-] The effect is remarkable: of a percussionist at the forge, the bending and reshaping of metal in real time.

Jacob Mühlrad taking the applause with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado (photo: Yanan Li)

You can expect some glissandi in Mühlrad’s next work too, a choral piece called Pi named after the transfinite number. It’s a co-commission that stretches five continents. Participating choirs include the Vancouver Chamber Choir in Canada, Kampin Laulu in Helsinki, SYC Singers in Singapore, Vox Chamber Choir in Pretoria, South Africa, and covid-permitting, a choir in Canberra too. Mühlrad is particularly taken with the idea that the piece 'wraps' the globe.

'I talked to a mathematician, a friend of mine, as I was writing a phrase. There is one part where they sing the decimals, this combination "77921" in an ostinato. And I asked, do you think that this combination of numbers will occur in Pi?' Mühlrad learned that because Pi is a transfinite number, eventually the combination of those digits will occur. 'This is very beautiful – whatever they sing, that will be correct [depending on] where in the series you geographically are. I love that idea. That is extremely inspirational; I get goosebumps just talking about this.'  

Mühlrad’s mind is so preoccupied with big things – time, language, the soul, eternal mathematics – that I wonder what plans he has for the future. How can it get bigger than a piece that wraps the world, music about a number that has no end? Using our shared age as a platform for confession, I try to push him a bit further. But entering his 30s doesn’t faze him. 'I do not want to climb', he implores, 'I don’t want life to be that linear'. He has a quietly intelligent answer for everything: 'I want to remain focused; that is my ambition … I just wish to keep focused, and to keep writing music'. Then after listing inspirational musicians he adds, with total sincerity: 'Doing meaningful interviews, like talking to you who actually really knows music; that also gives me meaningfulness, and that for me is important'.

Flattery aside, this is perhaps not the only dream we share. That evening, with head on pillow, I swear I can hear two clarinets.

You can watch the premiere of Jacob Mühlrad's REMS here at konserthuset.se 
To find out more about Jacob Mühlrad and his work, visit


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