Though Sweden’s Matti Bye was born in 1966, it sometimes seems as though the renowned musician and film soundtrack composer spent his entire existence living in a different era. As a child, when he wasn’t avidly practising the piano – which he studied with an old Russian teacher – or dreaming of travelling the world in a horse-drawn caravan, he could be found in his local cinema in front of old black and white Tarzan films. Now, four decades on from those afternoons spent watching Johnny Weissmuller, this passionate reader of literature and poetry, who grew up listening to Schubert and Mozart, is set to release his latest solo album, one that, like its author, seems to exist outside of time itself.
Until now, Bye has been best known as one of Sweden’s most sought-after film composers, working on scores not only for contemporary but also vintage silent movies. In 2014 he received two of the three nominations for Best Original Music Award at Sweden’s prestigious Guldbaggen – his soundtrack for Faro took the honour (as well as a Nordic Film Music Prize) ahead of his work for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window And Disappeared. He’s also provided new music for, among others, Victor Sjöström’s seminal horror The Phantom Carriage (1921) and The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), a landmark melodrama starring Greta Garbo. He’s recorded a number of solo works, too, not least 2010’s Drömt and 2013’s Bethanien, the latter inspired by a two-year sojourn in Berlin working in Kreuzberg’s cultural centre of the same name, once a hospital of suitably grim repute. Collaborations with other musicians include Hydra’s Dream, with Anna Von Hausswolff; Maailma, with cult Finnish songwriter Lau Nau; and his band, Matti Bye & This Forgotten Land, with whom he’s currently working on an album.
Bye was brought up by his mother, renowned Swedish actress Birgitta Andersson, while his father was Norwegian playwright Anders Bye. “I remember he once said, if you play an instrument you’ll never be alone,” Bye recalls. “That made a big impact on me.” Bye tried learning other instruments – violin, clarinet, contrabass – but it was always the piano to which he returned. “Nothing could compare,” he reminisces. “I wanted to sleep near my old piano. It was like a friend, if not so verbal, but still very communicative.” His professional ‘career’ began early on, but his first experience of providing a full score – when he was invited by his school’s Anarchist Club to accompany a screening of Battleship Potemkin – was less than successful. “The performance was terrifying, because I’d never improvised before,” he says. “But the thing was, even if it was a nightmare, after I’d tried it evoked a grand feeling of freedom! I’d got a taste of something I wanted to explore.”
When he was 20, Stockholm’s celebrated Cinematheque contacted Bye about performing again, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to improve upon his debut. “Silent film music was like a blank spot on the music map, but I recognised the freedom I’d have as a musician, and the force of the poetry in these forgotten images. To play piano for these films was like a dream. So I started my own ‘university’ in the cinema, improvising directly in front of the film screen, trying new pieces and styles in front of a live audience. The beauty is that you feel the past through these beautiful films,“ he says of the style that gradually developed in this environment, “but through the music you can add a new layer of something contemporary too.” As his reputation spread, Bye recognised that, thanks to the diversity of his interests, he’d stumbled on a singularly romantic style. “I started out as a piano improviser,” he says, “and suddenly I realised I was composing, and that I’m a composer.”
By the late 1990s, Bye had progressed from silent films to composing for new ones, including documentaries. His own, parallel recordings, compositions, collaborations and solo concerts followed soon after. “Sometimes material I haven’t used in a film starts to form a record, or I make a record that ends up in a film,” he explains, and there is indeed an obvious fil rouge through all his compositions: the instruments with which he works, often employed in an idiosyncratic manner. “I always search for pianos with a unique character,” he says. “I love to play them in special environments outside, in an abandoned place or a flat somewhere. I try to record the moment. The best pieces I create start with an instrument that has flaws or weaknesses. It’s like exploring the voice of various distinct personalities.”
Three decades on from that revelatory experience at Cinematheque, Bye is recognised as composer of vital, visionary, cinematic music. It’s not important in which era it appears to have emerged. In fact, it sounds as though it’s always been here, and as though it always will be. It is, quite simply, timeless.