Colossus of the Swedish electronic scene. Artist, filmmaker and all-round legend in his own lifetime. Ralph Lundsten‘s musical output throughout his decades-long career has been prodigious. And he has done it all in some style
For 45 years, Ralph Lundsten – the undisputed granddaddy of electronic music in Scandinavia – held court in a pink 19th century palace near Stockholm. At the core of this confection was the Andromeda studio, the source of over 100 albums, where custom-built synthesisers responded to gesture, facial expression and sexual energy.
Since the late 1950s, Ralph Lundsten’s career as a musician, a filmmaker, a visual artist and a writer has followed a resolutely self-determining course. The superlatives in his biography are dazzling. He’s held the world record for the most played recording in history and received major international awards for his sound and art work. He has produced symphonies, space jams and meditations, as well as film scores and music for ballets and exhibitions. As a composer of global renown, he’s acknowledged as “en av världens skönaste tongenier” (“one of the world’s loveliest sound geniuses”).
Up long before dawn on the day of our interview, I’m speeding through the Swedish countryside to meet Lundsten, thunderstruck by exposure to his early works and the rare treasures they contain. Rather than keeping you at an arty distance, these experimental and often raw records draw you in. After months spent immersed in his output, I’m prepared to unashamedly lobby for his inclusion in the annals of musical history.
As Lundsten’s talent blossomed, he built electronic soundscapes evoking joy, wonder and horror. Based on talent, if not worldwide recognition, he bestrode the Swedish synth scene of the 1970s like a colossus. He forged on into the 1980s and way beyond with his own brand of new age, but I’m halting my investigation in 1979, when he was cutting futurist breakbeat joints that pitched his arsenal of machines against a crack team of session players.
If you’re aware of Lundsten, you may have been blown off course by the halo of space-chintz surrounding some of his later oeuvre. Yet rewind to the early days and you’ll witness him ploughing a starker furrow. It’s easy to believe that, if he’d been born German, you’d already know this story. Krautrock fans would be reverently slotting his records next to Popol Vuh, Kluster/Cluster and Klaus Schulze. Scandinavian artists, however, live on the remote edge of a continent that often cuts them adrift. Never fitting into any scene but his own, Lundsten elected to inhabit an isolated galaxy.
Back in the earthly dimension, I arrive at his home well primed. Ralph Lundsten sold Villa Frankenburg, his pink fairy-tale castle in the woods, five years ago and donated his studio to the Swedish nation, so our interview takes place in the garden of his new abode. Curiously, this is right next door to the site of his former glories.
Quizzing this grand wizard of electronic music requires a clear head. I’d been looking forward to hearing his pronouncements of cosmic wisdom, even if they didn’t answer my questions. With Lundsten now 84, I maintain a safe distance, both out of respect for his health and to show due deference. But the distance he wants to maintain is far more profound.
“Have you read my book?” he asks imperiously. “You’ll find the answers to all your queries there.”
I’m here to take him back to the start, but maybe he doesn’t want to go there. It’s easy to forget that our interest in primitive electronics comes with the luxury of hindsight. The generation that struggled with tone generators and tape may see things differently. Standard bearing for a sound revolution is all very well, but in the 1950s Lundsten was yearning for something better.
“Making this music was physical, often frustrating, work,” he says. “The early albums are brutal and noisy. The later equipment opened other doors.”
By the 1960s, Lundsten was a titan of experimental electronics. Along with notable contemporaries Daphne Oram and Morton Subotnick, he not only pushed the envelope musically but imagineered future-facing instruments, many in collaboration with the pioneering Finnish designer Erkki Kurenniemi. Their Andromatic was the world’s first solid-state polyphonic synthesiser and also the first to feature a digital sequencer, while the Dimi-S reacted sonically to skin-on-skin connections between those plugged into it (hence its alternative name, the Sexophone).
Five of Lundsten’s early albums were recorded at his fledgling Andromeda studio with fellow composer Leo Nilson. But before exposing yourself to their fizzing brilliance, here’s something to consider. What makes one collection of plinkety-bloop art tracks more worthwhile than any another?
In the mid-20th century, the conceit in classical circles was that if a piece of music didn’t try your patience, it wasn’t serious. ‘Elektronmusikstudion Dokumentation 1’ from 1966 and ‘MUMS: Musik Under Millioner Stjärnor’ (‘Music Under Millions Of Stars’) from 1967 are made of the same stuff as other experimental soundtracks of the era, with one key difference. They don’t drive you nuts. Instead of seeking theoretical kudos, Lundsten was aiming to evoke complex states of being. Consequently, his output avoids that then-hip element of extreme irritation.
“I had no musical training, so I didn’t make those mistakes,” he deadpans. “It was my curiosity for life that led me to electronic music. I was never one of those academic composers. I love life. Maybe they didn’t.”
Back at home, I flip my copy of ‘MUMS’ and remind myself of the sleeve notes. “Music acts as a photograph of personality,” they read. “It deals with a feelings transfer…”
As far back as this initial phase, Lundsten’s music ran contrary to the theory-heavy work undertaken at university research labs. He doesn’t offer any positive impressions of his time at the highbrow Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm, either.
“There were too many rules about the ‘right’ way of making music,” he says simply.
‘Vintermusik’, from 1968’s ‘Elektronisk Musik’, advanced his skills by soundtracking a personal experience.
“As a boy, I delivered newspapers in the far north of Sweden and saw the northern lights,” he recalls. “Even though it’s not measurable, I felt they were emitting sound. It was this powerful experience I was trying to recreate.”
With only the warbles and scronks of primitive synths, ‘Vintermusik’ has you feeling the wonder.
After signing with EMI in 1969, Lundsten could seemingly follow his every whim and release as many records as tickled his fancy. He must surely have struck an unusual deal?
“The albums sold well and they kept asking for more,” he states flatly.
When I ask him about 1960s psychedelia and its sense of boundless possibility, he ventures nothing more than, “A door closed in 1966”.
Lundsten’s early career saw a wealth of contracts, including those from ballet director Ivo Cramér. I’m curious to discover if this enhanced his ability to sculpt sound around specific subjects and contexts, but he’s quick to scotch any theorising.
“Working with Cramér was a natural progression, but there were no constraints on the music I wrote for him, he says. “The commissions were financially rewarding, though,” he adds with a twinkle.
The interview continues in this staccato vein. It feels like being repelled by a protective force field. Although seasoned artists often develop a repertoire of stock responses, I wonder if 60-odd years as an otherworldly outlier have become tiresome. How many electronic pioneers have ended up living on Eccentric Avenue?
I’m not easily dissuaded, mind. The records Lundsten produced between 1969 and 1971 – ‘Erik XIV Och Ristningar’, ‘Ölskog’ and ‘Gustav III’ / ‘Nattmara’ – seem to have expanded his range exponentially. They push beyond spacey themes and atmospheric conditions to tackle sagas of murdered Swedish kings and, in the case of ‘Ölskog’, which was partly commissioned by a brewing company, the interface between beer and sexual love. While I’m sure we’ve all had some experience in this area, the album includes some stunning head music. The sleeve describes the track ‘Cosmic Love’ as “one of the most uninhibited erotic pieces ever composed”.
From 1970, when the Andromeda mothership landed at Villa Frankenburg, Lundsten became the enigmatic playboy of Swedish synth music. His former retreat is in a breathtaking spot, with the sunlit roofs of Stockholm gleaming from across the water.
“Why don’t you ask some difficult questions?” he mutters.
I take this to be an opaque reference to the parties that were regularly thrown at the big house on the other side of the fence. Back then, Lundsten didn’t come to you, you were summoned to appear before him. As the Sun King of the Synthesiser, he presided over all manner of sexy rave-ups, I’m told. A voice inside me whimpers, “But Ralph, I am here from Electronic Sound, not Penthouse”.
With palace life in full swing, superstar visitors beat a path to his door.
“ABBA used to pop over to borrow equipment. They thanked me on one of their LPs. Benny wanted to check out my Synclavier because he thought it was way too expensive. I always had the best synthesisers.”
At the height of their magisterial pomp, even Led Zeppelin touched down to cop a feel of his futuristic gizmos.
Throughout the decade, he expanded his scope ever further, releasing the electronic prayer ‘Fadervår’ (‘Our Father’) in 1972. By this point, he was giving his compositions opus numbers – think Mozart rather than the Factory catalogue – and had begun a series of symphonies in praise of Nordic nature.
You can follow the grandiose ideas in his 1970s albums or just absorb the sound. They work either way. He also found time for a collection about fear and laughter. ‘Shangri-La’ from 1975 feels like a “Best Of”, despite most of its tracks being previously unreleased. Janus-like, it looks forward and back and features a cover image – a kind of robotised version of ‘Froggy Went A Courtin’’ – by renowned illustrator Hans Arnold.
The late 1970s saw Lundsten steering his starship in the direction of dance music, his recordings featuring sessioneers called The Andromeda All Stars. It might be the case that everyone made a disco album in that strange era, but his efforts transcend mere dalliance and point a prescient finger way beyond ‘The Hustle’.
The best moments of ‘Discophrenia’ and ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ have a warped hybridity that flashes you forward 20 years. It’s not clear what he was channelling then and he’s unwilling to reveal it to me now. He barely seems to remember the stellar track ‘Horrorscope’, but if it had pitched up on a Mo’ Wax compilation, no one would have batted an eyelid.
As I’m driving home from my encounter with The Dream Master – if you’re feeling strong, check ‘The Dream Master’ film, available on his YouTube channel – I ruminate on some conclusions. Underneath all the hyperbole and celestial glitz is a singularly talented composer, whose dazzling chops created evocative and enduring music in a time of theoretical knob-twiddling.
Few musicians have enjoyed the privilege of following their own erratic path for more than six decades. Could it be that Lundsten’s deal-making skills also helped him? Take his haunting ‘Out In The Wide World’, for example. Used by Radio Sweden International as a call signal, it earned him a steady income stream from royalties every time it aired – more than six million times over a 25-year period.
Ralph Lundsten’s vast, diverse discography hasn’t necessarily done his legacy any favours. Unfortunately, abundance can create a false impression of mediocrity. But venture into his universe and you’ll soon discover jewels that should see him elevated to electronic Valhalla.
For more on Ralph Lundsten, visit andromeda.se