The Significance of Electro-acoustic Music in the Space Opera Aniara

Johan Stenstrøm

The 1950s was a decade of tensions. Europe was divided into two separate areas by the Iron Curtain. The Warsaw Pact and NATO were formed, and peace was maintained by the balance of terror. The threat of nuclear war loomed large. At the close of World War II, the first atomic bombings had been conducted by the United States. A few years later, the Soviet Union too demonstrated its ability to produce and detonate nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the 1950s were a decade of oblivion. Hundreds of millions of people were afflicted by memories of World War II, memories they desperately wanted to forget. However, forgetting was difficult; knowledge of the systematic killing that had gone on in the extermination camps became widespread at the end of the war as the news media spread reports of the atrocities that had taken place there across the world.

The 1950s were also the decade that witnessed the beginning of the space race between the two super powers. At first, the Soviet Union took the lead when Sputnik 1 was launched in October 1957, soon followed by Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika on board. A few months later, in January 1958, the American satellite Explorer 1 was successfully launched and was able to transmit data continuously back to earth.

The incidents of the 1940s and 1950s form the background of Harry Martinson’s (1904-1978) verse epic Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, published in 1956 (Martinson 1956). In its 103 poems (or ”songs”, as they were called) Martinson depicts the fate of mankind in a remote future when space travel has become part of everyday life. However, it was just as much a story about the contemporary threat of nuclear war and about the recent past and, in particular, the brutalities of World War II. In spite of being set into space in a distant future, Aniara can be seen as an allegory of contemporary human life and human hubris.



The Verse Epic Aniara


The plot of Aniara is based on the idea that, as a result of nuclear war, the Earth has been contaminated with fallout and has been made uninhabitable. A fleet of spacecraft ferry people to Mars and Venus, where the population of the Earth must be evacuated. Aniara is a spaceship that routinely transports 8,000 emigrants to Mars. Soon after take-off, she is involved in a mid-air collision that renders her steering gear non-functional. Consequently, she veers off course, setting out on a journey into space with no possibility of ever reaching her destination. The reader follows the passengers’ fate during the next 24 years as they try to adapt to life in the space ship. The epic ends with a description of how Aniara continues her 15,000-year journey in the direction of the constellation Lyra.

The verse epic comprises 103 poems or “songs”. In spite of their lyric nature, they form a distinct narrative. The first 29 songs were published in an earlier volume (Cikada, 1953) as a separate poetic sequence entitled “The Song of Doris and Mima” (Martinson 1954).  Martinson has described how he received the inspiration for this sequence when, on a clear night in August, 1953, he was able to see the Andromeda Galaxy through an ordinary pair of binoculars. The effect was so overwhelming that he had a vision of being on board a space ship. Between 1953 and 1956, he continued to expand the story of the spaceship Aniara (Wrede 1966: 17-40).

One of the main characters is the Mimarobe. He is a member of the crew on board but also acts as the poem’s narrator. This is how he describes what happens when the space ship, or “goldonder”, Aniara takes off from the Earth, or “Doris”, as Martinson calls it:

Goldonder Aniara’s locked, the siren gives the wail

for field-egress by the old routine,

and then the gyrospin commences towing

the goldonder upwards to the zeth light

where magnetrinos blocking field-intensity

soon signal level-zero and our field-release occurs.

And like a giant pupa without weight,

vibrationless, Aniara gyrates clear

and free of interference out from Earth.

A purely routine start, no misadventures,

A normal gyromatic field-release.

Who could imagine that this very flight

was doomed to be a space-flight, like to none,

which was to sever us from Sun and Earth,

from Mars and Venus and from Dorisvale. (from song 2) [1]


This example is typical of the new, quasi-scientific language that Martinson developed in order to suggest the space technology of the future. The most salient feature of Martinson’s poetic idiom is the occurrence of neologisms, which through their affinity with established scientific words (often of Greek or Latin origin) have an authentic-sounding ring despite being invented by the poet.

In a story about a spaceship that has gone astray in outer space, the description of space and the effect the monotonous environment has on the passengers is central. As the years pass by, space becomes increasingly terrifying:


The empty sterile space provokes our horror.

Glass-like its stare encircles us

and the systems of stars stand immobile

in the round crystal windows of our ship. (from song 10, p. 21)


Emptiness, darkness, and sameness are words that recur as the Mimarobe tries to describe the infinity of space. Every occasional sign of change outside the ship is noticed with interest:


In our eleventh year we saw a vision,

the leanest and the meagrest of visions:

a spear travelling through the Universe. (from song 53, p. 91)


Another example is the sight of an annihilated supernova:


At the telescope we shrink to see

a coal-black sun extinguished namelessly,

a black-clad sun in space’s burial ground

both blackened corpse and solar funeral mound

which first in firestorms blazed along time’s Cape

and shot flames where the jaws of darkness gape (from song 77, p. 126)


The most elaborate account of Aniara’s situation in space is delivered by the chief astronomer. He gives “a lecture on the depth of outer space”. In an effort to illustrate his reasoning he holds up a bowl of glass.


                        In any glass

that stands untouched for a sufficient time

gradually a bubble in the glass will move

infinitely slowly to a different point

in the body of the glass, and in a thousand years

the bubble makes a journey in its glass.


Similarly, in an infinite space

a gulf of light years’ depth throws a vault

round bubble Aniara as she goes.

For though the rate she travels at is great

and much more rapid than a rushing planet’s,

her speed as seen against the scale of space

exactly corresponds to that we know

the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass. (from song 13, p. 25-26)


The chief astronomer, who is supposed to be possessed of superior knowledge about space, admits that “the space / we’re travelling in is of a different sort / from what we thought whenever that word ‘space’ / was decked out by our fantasies on Earth” (from song 13, p. 25-26). Instead of giving a scientific explanation of the phenomenon “space”, he refers to metaphysical entities like “God and Death and Mystery”.

[1] Martinson, Harry (1956, 1991) Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space. Translation by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg. Södra Sandby: Vekerum, p. 11. All quotations in English are from this translation. Page references will be given in brackets in the running text. The translation has also been published by Story Line Press.

The Mima – A Symbol of Creativity and Art 


On board the spacecraft is a marvel of technology, the mima, a machine unconstrained by limitations of time and space. After the collision, the images she shows on her screen provide the only means those on board have of being in touch with life beyond the spaceship Aniara. The passengers congregate in the mima hall to see and hear the mima, whom they venerate as a goddess.


Through the mima we could pick up signs of life

spread far and wide.

But where, the mima does not tell us.

We pull in traces, images, and bits of language

spoken here and there, but where.

Our faithful Mima does all she can and searches, searches, searches.

And her electron-works pull in,

electro-lenses give the screening-cells

their coded programs and the focus-works collect

the tacis of the third indifferent webe

and sounds and scents and images arise

from lavish fluxes. (from Song 6, p. 15)


The Mimarobe describes the impact the mima has on the people on board:


I tend the mima, calm the emigrants

and cheer them up with scenes from far-flung reaches,

of things in thousands which no human eye

could ever dream of seeing, but the mima tells no lies.

And most could understand that: a mima can’t

be bribed, she is unbribable.

They know that the mima’s intellectual

and selectro-acoustic sharpness in transmission

is three thousand eighty times as great

as mankind’s could be if it were Mima.

As before an altar they bow down. (from Song 6, p. 15)


However, Mima is possessed of both soul and conscience and expires when she is obliged to display on her screen the ultimate destruction of the Earth by war.


Darkened in her cellworks by the cruelty

man exhibits in his hour of sin

she came, as long expected, to the point

(as mimas do) of finally decaying.

The indifferent tacis of webe number three

sees a thousand things that no eye sees.

Now, in the name of Things, she wanted peace.

Now she would be done with her displaying. (from Song 28, p.47)


The name Mima is derived from the Greek word mimos (“imitator”) and is symbolically related to man’s creative imagination and the arts. During the 1950s very few people fully realized what the functions of a modern computer could be. But Martinson did. Mima was described as something similar to a modern super computer.

When Aniara was published, Martinson was an established author with a substantial body of poetry and novels to his credit; he was also a member of the Swedish Academy. Presenting a vision of the future in the form of an epic was regarded as a bold and innovative approach. Few modern Swedish literary works have been accorded as much attention as Aniara. Its success was largely due to the topicality of the subject matter. Like many other visions of the future, Aniara provides a picture of our own time. Allusions to events during World War II and the threat posed by the atomic bomb were other features that made Aniara an important contemporary poem. But Martinson also noticed signs in his time that were not seen by many others. Who spoke in 1956 – six years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – about environmental pollution? (Carson 1962) Through his poem, Martinson expresses a warning against mankind’s different ways of destroying the earth: “by pollution, by destruction of chemicals, clear-felling, the extinction of plants and animal species, everything that upsets the natural balance […]. Against all this Aniara wants to be a Cassandra warning.” (Jannes 1957: 14) In his vision of the future, Martinson turns himself into a vates, a seer in the original sense of the word.

In spite of the very pronounced criticism of civilization found in Aniara, Martinson’s poem is at the same time an elegiac reflection on the achievements of human culture. Intertextual references abound: not only does the reader encounter a very large number of voices from the literary tradition, but she also hears voices representing scientific, technological and philosophical knowledge and ideas derived from many of the world’s religions. The magnificence of the whole project – to give expression, in a single work, to contemporary humanity’s knowledge of physical reality and at the same time add metaphysical and moral dimensions – brings to mind works like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Milton’s Paradise Lost.



Blomdahl’s Path to Aniara


An important event that contributed to the attention that Aniara received in Sweden at the close of the 1950s was the decision of the composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968) to write an opera based on the epic. The poet Erik Lindegren (1910-1968), Blomdahl’s friend and collaborator, was asked to write the libretto. [2] The composer had long been looking for a suitable theme for an opera when he was struck by the operatic potential of Aniara, thus initiating the most interesting collaborative project in the history of modern Swedish opera.

Blomdahl’s interest in astronomy and science, demonstrated in several of his works, can be traced back to his youth. Initially, he intended to become an engineer. He moved from his small hometown to Stockholm to study biochemistry. But soon his interest in music took over and he started to take lessons from the composer Hilding Rosenberg, who at the time was considered a controversial modernist. After being called up for national service, Blomdahl continued his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm.

Blomdahl was one of the initiators of the “Monday group”, a gathering of young composers and musicians who met on Mondays in his small apartment to discuss new music and debate principles of composition. Hindemith’s Unterweisung im Tonsatz was subjected to a thorough study. In his early works, Blomdahl put “emphasis on the formal structure and linear action of music” (Tobeck 2002: 408), as the musicologist Christina Tobeck has noted.

Throughout the 1940s, Blomdahl’s musical sphere of interest gradually broadened. He was attracted to the music of Stravinsky and Bartok and took a growing interest in twelve-tone serialism. The structural unity of twelve-tone technique appealed strongly to him, but it was not until the end of this decade that Schoenberg’s music began to receive attention in Sweden. Always willing to incorporate new ideas into his own musical practice, Blomdahl partially applied the twelve-tone technique in his third symphony, Facetter (Facets), which was performed for the first time at the ISCM festival in Frankfurt am Main in 1951.

Towards the end of the 1940s, Blomdahl made friends with the poet Erik Lindegren and the dancer Birgit Åkesson (1908-2001). Blomdahl had so far been an advocate of pure music, but Lindegren made him see its limitations. A series of collaborations ensued. Lindegren’s poetry served as the textual basis of the choral work I speglarnas sal (In the Hall of Mirrors, 1951-52), performed at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. A few years later Blomdahl composed an oratorio, Anabase (Anabasis, 1956), based on Saint John Perse’s original French text. As Lindegren had translated Perse’s work into Swedish, Blomdahl initially intended to set music to a Swedish-language text. However, Lindegren convinced him not to do this, persuading him that the international impact might be much stronger if the French original was used.

With Birgit Åkesson as choreographer, Blomdahl created two ballets on mythical themes: Sisyfos (Sisyphus, 1957) and Minotauros (Minotaurus, 1958), both performed at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. Lindegren’s role here was that of inspirer and discussion partner. Birgit Åkesson had studied under Mary Wigman, the founding mother of modern German dance, and developed a dance idiom of her own, characterized by a sculptural style and a suggestive slow pace.

The gradually widening perspectives that Blomdahl developed from his collaboration with Lindegren and Åkesson prepared him for his big challenge, the opera Aniara. [3] 


[2] The transformation of Martinson’s Aniara into an opera by Lindegren and Blomdahl is the subject of my doctoral thesis: Stenström, Johan (1994) Aniara: Från versepos till opera. Malmö: Corona.

[3] For a comprehensive description and analysis of Blomdahl’s works until the beginning of the 1950s see: Tobeck, Christina (2002) Karl-Birger Blomdahl: En musikbiografi (I-II). Göteborg: Skrifter från Institutionen för musikvetenskap, Göteborgs universitet, nr 73. Shorter surveys are to be found in several reference works: Wallner, Bo and Åstrand, Hans. In: Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2, (1980) London, p. 801-803.

Aniara Adapted into an Opera


In 1957, about half a year after the publication of the verse epic, Blomdahl wrote a letter to Martinson:

For several years I have been searching high and low for an opera libretto. This evening lightning struck in the form of Aniara […]. I had already read your epic with admiration and was gripped by it, but had not associated it with music of any kind. Tonight I was suddenly ‘struck’ by the work’s latent possibilities as a basis for music drama. (Wrede 1965: 17-40)

Martinson was favourably disposed to Blomdahl’s proposal and had no objection to Lindegren writing the libretto.

Work was begun on the libretto in the spring and early summer of 1957. The original text was called “the cut-up version”, as Lindegren and Blomdahl had cut up Martinson’s epic and then pasted it together again as a new entity. The libretto was presumably given its final form in the autumn of 1958. As is always the case when a novel or a drama is adapted into an opera libretto, Martinson’s text underwent drastic compression. The verse epic comprises 218 printed pages, while the libretto consists of only 16.

The late 1950s was a very successful period for the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. A highly competent opera director was at the helm, and a group of prominent personalities in Swedish cultural life were more or less permanently attached to it. Cooperation and a will to widen the limits of the idiom of opera and ballet characterized many of the productions of the 1950s. The opera Aniara would be the climax of a series of new, innovative projects. In addition to Lindegren, Martinson and Blomdahl, Birgit Åkesson, who was in charge of the choreography, deserves to be mentioned. The conductor responsible for the musical interpretation was Sixten Ehrling (1918-2005). The stage design and the costumes were the work of the painter Sven Erixson (1899-1970). The director and coordinator of the entire project was Göran Gentele (1917-1972).

The immediate success of Aniara was due to the relevance of the subject matter and the many unconventional solutions opted for in this modernist opera, which premiered at the Royal Opera: a bold musical idiom with serial streaks, allusions to everything from popular music and jazz to contemporary symphonic works, the Morse distress signal was played by a solo violin using flageolet tones: “S-O-S, A-N-I-A-R-A, S-O-S”, an expressionistic staging:


and a solo dancer has one of the principal parts. [4]

[4] The photos are published with permission of Enar Merkel Rydberg, Stockholm. The enclosed sounding examples are with permission of the record company Caprice, Stockholm.   

Blomdahl’s Sonic Interpretation of the Mima and Outer Space


Since Aniara underwent such a drastic reduction when it was transformed into a libretto, some of the content was conveyed through the other arts that form part of the totality of opera. Music’s ability to narrate has been studied by scholars such as Carolyn Abbate and others (Abbate 1991). And even though Blomdahl is considered to be a musical constructivist, several features of Aniara show kinship with 19th-century opera.

One of the devices reminiscent of an earlier tradition is the Leitmotif, a recurring musical phrase often connected with a person, a thing, an event, or an idea. The aforementioned Morse signal (S-O-S, A-N-I-A-R-A, S-O-S) is such a motif. The way it was written and performed – by means of a thin, high, yet piercing tone – was intended to suggest cold, empty space. The motif was repeated at crucial points throughout the opera, for instance in the orchestral introduction and at the end, when the spotlight sweeps over all the dead passengers.

Aniara opens in “Galactic Space”.

First, the piercing, high Morse signal is played. Soon, sequences of twelve-tone series, .delivered in outbursts by the brass section, are heard. A range of six octaves is created to give an illusion of infinite space (Tegen 1970: 106). This is the first of many examples reminiscent of 19th century opera’s expressive-emotive conventions.

One of the features that appealed to many viewers was the Mima tapes – i.e., the taped electro-acoustic music and the musique concrète used to represent the sound sequences emanating from the mima.

“As for the Mima section, I knew right from the start that I would use electro-acoustic music in it”, Blomdahl said in an interview after the première. [5] There was as yet – at the end of the 1950s – no electro-acoustic music studio in Sweden. Composers who wanted to avail themselves of the possibilities of this new art form needed to go abroad. But Blomdahl was averse to the inconvenience and the extra cost of going to Cologne, as some of his colleagues had done. Instead, the Swedish Broadcasting Company put a studio and two sound technicians at his disposal, and a provisional electro-acoustic music studio was created. With the help of the two technicians, Blomhdahl created three Mima tapes (I, II, and III) for the opera. In what follows, I will concentrate on Mima tape I, since it is the longest and the most elaborate of the three. The means by which the three Mima tapes were produced seem rather basic by today’s standards, consisting, as they did, of only a few tape recorders, the broadcasting company’s archive of sound effects, a number of sinus tone generators and a control table.

To create Mima tape I, the composer and the librettist used certain key phrases from different songs in Martinson’s epic.


1.   Cosmos and the Light Year’s Song

2.  “I saw the key now but as if through walls of space-clear glass and crystal sheaths miles deep” (33)

3.   “Through space the evil tidings ever stream (20)

Its storm of dark rays from the back of yonder” (30)

4.   “Flashes of the light of perfect grace” (9)

“We rigged us out a screen for dreams” (65)

5.   “Playing the infinite in mortal chess” (99)

6.   “Unto the last projection fire and death” (26) [6]


Except for the first phrase, all the other ones derive from specific songs in Martinson’s work. Below I will show how these phrases and key words were transformed into electro-acoustic music. One of the engineers made a detailed documentation of the work process. [7] This documentation and the statements by Blomdahl are the main sources of the following account.

In the production at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1959, the Mima tapes were played in front of a fictional audience of passengers.

The representation of the mima was metonymical. Only the pedestal was shown to the audience. The course of events visualized on the mima’s screen was conveyed to the real audience indirectly – indexically, in Peircian terms – by the reactions of the passengers in the Mima hall. The real audience had to base their interpretations on different operatic sign systems: acting, stage design, lighting, and sound.

1. The first part, Cosmos and the Light Year’s Song, is also named “the Milky Way”. Blomdahl explained that he “wanted to give an impression of a huge engine being started. Five tone generators were used”, engendering a frigid sound rising upwards, ever faster and higher. A series of ricochets or projectiles were added – creating the illusion of other space ships quickly whizzing by Aniara.

2. In the next section – “I saw the key now but as if through walls of space-clear glass and crystal sheaths miles deep” – the key word is “crystal”. To form a sound picture of crystal, Blomdahl and his engineers gathered all kinds of crystal objects – bowls, lamps, glasses. The different crystal sounds were filtered and mixed, and a web of crystal music was created. But Blomdahl also wanted to add a dimension of humanity, and this was rendered by the sound of a beating heart, which was played back at at half the normal speed. The effect is that of a dull, echoing, somewhat threatening sound.

3. ”Evil” is the key word of the third part of this Mima tape: “Through space the evil tidings ever stream. / Its storm of dark rays from the back of yonder”. Blomdahl wanted to create an atmosphere of evil and agony. This was achieved by the use of different human voices. The section starts with the peaceful voice of a Sami. This sound is mixed with the voice of a Hebrew-speaking man, played backwards. “They are both ancient languages”, Blomdahl commented. Since the Mima is not constrained by the limits of time, the composer felt that these voices were adequate expressions of the Mima’s unique ability.

The voices of the Sami and the Hebrew-speaking man were mixed with fragments of authentic speeches by Hitler, Mussolini, and Khrushchev. The section ends with the roaring of a crowd, stereophonic transmission giving the impression that the sound web is surging across the stage.

4. The fourth section of the mima tape is based on the quotation “Flashes of the light of perfect grace / We rigged us out a screen for dreams”. The process of making this “screen for dreams” can be described as follows:

The composer wanted to create a connection between the Mima tape and other parts of the opera. He therefore made a recording of one of the parts sung by The Blind Poetess, a role created by the coloratura soprano Margareta Hallin. Nine different recordings were made. This material was copied four times and then mixed. Five new copies of this mixed material were made and then mixed again. A multilayered irregular yet homogeneous tone web was created

5. “Chess” is the key word of the fifth section: “Playing the infinite in mortal chess”. Blomdahl chose a well-known game of chess between the American Samuel Reshevsky and the Russian Michail Botvinnik, played in Moscow in 1955, as a pattern for this piece of electro-acoustic music. Blomdahl explains: “We made 64 different sounds, referring to the 64 squares of the chessboard. We also created different combinations of sounds for the different pieces, and then recreated every move of the game. We even calculated the time needed for thinking between every move. A radical abridgement of the whole game made this possible.”

6. The phrase “Unto the last projection fire and death” refers to the 26th song of the epic in which the final destruction of the Earth is described. This central part of Martinson’s vision of the future is described in the epic as transmitted by the mima to the passengers. In the opera this episode forms the finale of Mima tape I. The voices of the dictators and the roaring crowds are heard once again. After the culmination of this tumultuous sound, a sudden moment of silence is followed by a detonation. Blomdahl has produced this effect by mixing different sound effects: explosions, cannon fire, atom bomb explosions.


[5] Interview with Blomdahl by Friberg, Gunnar (1960) “Nya musiken syntetisk: Tekniken tongivande i rymdåldern”. In Teknikens värld 42, p. 16. The quotations by Blomdahl derive from this article.

[6] L 105/655, The Lindegren Collection at The Royal Swedish Library, Stockholm


[7] Fogelberg, Staffan, ”Manus till Mimaband I-III” (S 160a: 2). MS at the Royal Swedish Library, Stockholm.

The Mima Tapes as Adaptation and/or Appropriation 


An informed audience knows how to “read” an opera and is able to naturalize its conventions. Opera, like theatre and film, has a close relationship to literature since it involves plot, characters, and dialogue. The difference is of course that in opera everything is communicated through music. The dialogue is sung, and so are the monologues, that is arias allowing individual characters to express their feelings to themselves (without being overheard by anyone else within the frame of the operatic fiction). The orchestra also plays an important role in transmitting information.

On its way from verse epic to opera, Aniara has undergone profound alterations. First of all, the generic shift has changed the systems of production and reception completely. A much wider range of semiotic channels is activated. And even though the lyrics and the story to a certain extent remain the same, the text as a whole has been drastically abridged and the discourse – the way the story is conveyed – is different.

The history of the arts is also the history of adaptation. The mutual traffic between the arts has been going on since antiquity. In her influential study Theory of Adaptation Linda Hutcheon notes: “There must be something particular with adaptations as adaptations.” Her explanation of the pleasure derived from telling the same stories over and over again “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon 2006: 4).As everybody knows, we may like or dislike a film based on a book we have read. For many years the concept of “fidelity” was a main issue in academic cinema studies when film was analysed in relation to its source text. Since then, scholars like Brian McFarlane (1996) and Robert Stam (2005) have moved from this narrow perspective, preferring to emphasize adaptation’s theoretical aspects. Today, the notion of fidelity is seldom discussed. Julie Sanders, author of Adaptation and Appropriation, demonstrates how far the discussion has moved from yesterday’s contentious issue: “it is usually at the very point of infidelity that the most creative acts of adaptation and appropriation take place.” (Sanders 2006: 20)

An adaptation generally signals its relation to the source text by bearing its name. It is also usually assumed to follow the original text closely. However, more than two thousand years of adaptations show that we are talking about a sliding scale. The “infidelity”, as quoted above, may indicate a vast distance between the two “texts”. The relation may be so blurred that it takes a thorough analysis to uncover the relation between the two. Thus, the concept of adaptation has been complemented with that of appropriation. Julie Sanders describes the phenomenon as follows: “But the appropriated text or texts are not always as clearly signalled or acknowledged as in the adapted process. They may occur in a far less straightforward context than is evident in making a film version of a canonical play.” (Sanders 2006: 26)

The editors of the anthology Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation, Pascal Nicklas and Oliver Lindner, argue that Sanders is still moving within the boundaries of the old “fidelity” discussion: “In these attempts of definition, adaptation and appropriation are held against each other and defined in mutual respect to each other as two different strategies like pastiche and parody. […] In some ways, this is reminiscent of the traditional concepts of adaptation in which the degree of fidelity was used for establishing intricate typologies of adaptation.” (Nicklas and Linders 2012: 4) Even though Nicklas’ and Lindner’s criticism of Sanders seems exaggerated, they have a point when they stress that appropriation “can be understood as part of the process of adaptation” (Nicklas and Linders 2012: 5). Building on this distinction, I will discuss how the Mima tapes relate to the two concepts adaptation and appropriation.

In its totality, the opera Aniara must be classified as an adaptation of Martinson’s verse epic. On the other hand, there are certain elements in the opera that lean towards the notion of appropriation. The clearest example is to be found in the final scene of the opera. Instead of letting Martinson’s own poetry express the gradual death of mankind, the librettist has inserted excerpts from poems by the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran. Furthermore, the mima tapes can be considered in the light of the concept of appropriation.

Certain elements in the Mima tapes are more or less extraneous to the verse epic. Even though a majority of the six parts are based on key words derived from Martinson’s work, the associative manner in which they are used is rather free, yet at the same time congenial. Since the electro-acoustic resources that Blomdahl had at his disposal were limited, he was obliged to use an archive of recorded voices and sound effects. Mima tape I’s mimetic sounds of an engine going faster and faster and whistling ricochets may suggest the start of Mima, but most listeners will probably relate this particular sound to the start of the spacecraft. The first interpretation seems more adequate to the discourse, while the second one at this point of the opera’s plot seems more foreign.

Although several parts of the verse epic are associated with World War II, this connection is never overtly stated. The voice of Hitler and the voices of some other dictators are recognizable from the tape. Clearly elements such as these make this part of the Mima tapes slide towards the pole of appropriation.

In the printed programme to the opera, the key words and their associative meaning are explained. The famous game of chess between Reshevsky and Botvinnik is also mentioned. But what if the audience had not had this information prior to watching and listening to the performance? Then this allusion to the cold war and the competition between the super powers would be lost. As it is, both the programme and the performance pointed in a certain ideological direction. While Martinson’s political references are abstract and connotative, Blomdahl’s seem more concrete and denotative. This also goes for other aspects of the staging of the opera and may have to do with the straightforwardness and immediacy of the genre.

If the notion of appropriation is understood as part of the process of adaptation, as Nicklas and Lindner propose, then it is possible to understand the opera Aniara as an adaptation to which, in addition, the notion of appropriation is applicable in certain parts, while the discourse can be said to oscillate between the two.



Electro-acoustic music and musique concrète were not well-known art forms in Sweden at the time of Aniara’s premiere. Concrete music was presented for the first time in 1952 when works by Peter Schaeffer were heard in Stockholm at Fylkingen, a society for experimental music. This event was later followed by concerts featuring electro-acoustic music from the studios in Cologne and Milan (Bodin 1985: 5). This new type of music was considered extremely futuristic. By using such a device in an opera about mankind set in a remote future, Blomdahl was able to create an affinity between music and subject matter.

It is obvious that, with the exception already mentioned, the sequences of Mima tape I are not to be interpreted as sound illustrations of the different songs of the verse epic. Instead, it seems that the key words served as a source of inspiration for the composer. At the same time, the Mima sequences seem to narrate something. Since Martinson’s verse epic is fraught with allusions to occurrences in the immediate past, it seems natural that Blomdahl included references to this context in his music. We are reminded of the mixed voices of the dictators, the roaring masses, and the detonations. The voice of Hitler and the sound of the masses were probably associated with World War II. This goes for the detonations, too, but they might also be connected with the threat of nuclear war.

There are only a few statements by the composer or the librettist as to why certain phrases have been chosen as an associative basis for the creation of the Mima tapes. However, it seems that poetic phrases connected with space have had a strong appeal and that this explains why they were selected. This goes for Mima phrases 2 and 3 – “Space-clear glass” (2), “Through space the evil tidings ever stream” (3) – but also for number 1, though it does not derive from the verse epic. On the other hand, a closer look at the songs from which the quotations originate indicates that a majority of these songs are about the mima. This goes for song 33 (phrase 2), song 20 (phrase 3), song 30 (phrase 3), song 9 (phrase 4), and song 26 (phrase 6), which seems quite natural since the sound of the Mima tapes is supposed to originate from the mima. At the same time, the mima is itself a kind of messenger. She transmits to the people on board whatever messages she picks up from outer space: “and all the cosmic tidings reach us all” (from song 20). She is the connection between the cosmos and the passengers. Her expression is the expression of space, or what is believed to be the sound of space, a convention-based notion of the sound of space. One is reminded of the high-pitched, jingling crystals of Mima (phrase 2), the patchy, echoing sounds of the chess game (phrase 5), or the multi-layered, howling sound web of Mima (phrase 4).

The totality of the six parts of Mima tape I seems to tell a story, albeit a somewhat fragmented one. The narrative starts with a sound that reminds us of an accelerating engine and whizzing sounds that may indicate space ships, meteors, asteroids or any other flying object passing by (1). Then there is the sound of jingling crystals, associated with ice, frigidity and empty space (2), followed by the voices of the Sami and the Hebrew-speaking man, the dictators and the roaring masses (3) which can be interpreted as the passengers’ haunting memories or a simultaneous account of what is happening on the Earth. The wailing, high-pitched tone web waving to and fro (4), followed by the patchy sounds of the chess game (5), are both associated with cosmic distances and space, while the final cacophony of dictators, masses, and detonations (6) relates to the previous phrase 3; at the same time it is also a musical expression of the final destruction of the Earth. The different sections of the synthesized tone web refer to the fictional world of the epic. It also widens the means of expression of modern opera.

At its première in 1959, Aniara was praised by the press in Sweden, the other Scandinavian countries and West Germany. Other foreign critics were more reserved in general, though very enthusiastic about certain passages. Until it was dropped in 1970, Aniara was one of the principal items of the Royal Opera’s touring repertoire. Performances of Aniara abroad include those at Edinburgh in 1959, Covent Garden in 1960, the world exhibition at Montreal in 1967, and Munich in 1969. In addition to Stockholm, the opera has been produced in Hamburg in 1960, in Brussels in 1960, and in Darmstadt in 1963. Aniara is the only Swedish opera which enjoys international fame, and it is the first opera to include electro-acoustic music.

After the success of Aniara, Blomdahl and Lindegren created one more opera, Herr von Hancken (1966), based on a novel by Hjalmar Bergman, a renowned Swedish author. This work was not received enthusiastically, neither by the critics nor by the public. During his last years Blomdahl was making plans for a new opera called The Story of the Big Computer. As was the case with Aniara, this was an expression of his interest in technology and science. He had come to know the physicist Hannes Alfvén, who was to become a Nobel Prize Winner a few years later, in 1970. Alfvén had written a futuristic vision in which he predicted what will happen when computers are in control of humanity. Blomdahl’s plan was to build the music for this opera more or less exclusively on electro-acoustic music. His intention was for the sound to be controlled by a computer. He had just begun planning this work when he died of a heart attack in 1968.

Blomdahl was the dominating frontman of the Swedish music world in the 1950s and 1960s. He was among the first to introduce twelve-tone music and electro-acoustic music, and he managed to convince Swedish Radio to establish a permanent electro-acoustic music studio (EMS, 1964).



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