When I first saw Johannes Möller perform, he was backlit in the oldest church in San Jose, CA, with a halo of golden curls. He was positively angelic. Ethereal. Other-worldly. His music is like that, too.
Photography by Alicia Chester
Introduce yourself. Who are you, where are you from, what makes you an Indoor Boy?
As I grew up in Sweden, it’s too cold to play the guitar outside for most of the year. And as music and the guitar have been my biggest passion since I was a young child, I certainly qualify as an Indoor Boy.
It appears you come from a very musical family.
Yeah. My grandfather was a viola player that worked in orchestras all his life. My father, too, was a musician all his life—a flutist.
When did you get started in music?
I seriously started when I was around ten. My father used to play with some guitarists, so I knew the instrument, and we had one at home so I thought it would be fun to start learning it. When I was younger I used to make my own little pieces on the piano, without really playing. I was really stubborn—I didn’t want to learn how to write music, so I would make little numbers on blue tack stuck to the keys. Of course, it’s a problem if you want to repeat the same note a few times—it gets kind of cramped up. So it didn’t last.
So you made your own musical notation system?
Sure. I was always attracted to making my own things, creating my own music. And quite soon after I started on the guitar, I starting writing my own pieces.
There’s a lovely photo of you composing music around age 14. What was it like to have your music played professionally at so young an age?
That was, of course, a luxury. I was lucky enough to be born in a musical family. If I wrote something, the friends of my father could play it for me. It was great—then I would really know what it sounded like, for real. That was super, fantastic! That’s partly why I was so into it, because I had that immediate stimula, rather than just having written a lot that wasn’t played.
So I feel very fortunate for that. Absolutely.
When you’re composing, do you “see” music? Or “hear” it? Or “feel” it?
I think some people think, “Ah, so do you sort of hear it? Do you hear music in your head?” And, of course, one can do that, but it’s kind of flow of consciousness. If you’re gonna write poetry, you can’t just write whatever comes to your head. You can, but then it becomes fairly unstructured and so on.
Music, at least to me, is a representation of something more than just a sound. It can be a feeling, a type of intuition. Often I have some kind of intuition or feeling I’m trying to express. I might be trying out or imagining different types of sounds, or what I’m going to build the piece on.
It’s a process of making that happen. It’s a process of crystallization, of what actually becomes the real sound.
What one doesn’t think about so much is that what makes a piece of music beautiful and attractive and unified is that it has an overlapping structure. It’s not just one thing after the other. So, in a sense, one could talk about almost all pieces of music have cells the rest is built upon. And that’s very much when the creative process of the composer really comes in.
Maybe that’s when one has the idea that the composer sits alone in a room and suddenly hears a theme in his head. And that can very much be so, it can be very mysterious how that happens. Or how one comes about to what is, say, the seed of the piece. But then there’s a certain amount of work to construct something from that, something that’s unified in form, something that’s telling a story, that has a dramaturgical development.
In my mind, the image of classical guitar is lovely, pretty. I want to know if there’s a seedy, dark side. Do classical guitarists succumb to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll the same way mainstream musicians do?
Ah, you mean in our lives?
Well, the problem is, if we do too much of that we’re not in good shape… I mean, a classical guitar recital is a very demanding thing to do, actually—the concentration. There’s also the question that one needs to keep practicing, and I don’t say that the rock guys don’t need to do that either, but maybe it’s a more forgiving atmosphere if they, you know, don’t do it all right. I don’t know.
You need to try to keep yourself in very good shape. Which, of course, with touring and traveling like I do, is already a challenge.
But we all need to live a little, no matter whether you’re a musician or not. I think we all need to have a balance and take care of ourselves.
How is your musical style evolving?
I think it’s changing all the time. One may not say that all the time it gets better, but it gets different. I’m hoping what I’m doing is becoming more crystallized. I know more now what I want I want to achieve, both in my interpretations and in my composing. Ideally, I would look at it in a sense that one is always trying to do the same thing, but with time I’m becoming more and more sure, more clear about what I’m trying to do.
There are also times when one becomes more unsure, more confused. That’s a process, too.
If one wants to get very philosophical about it, music really is the expression of the moment. Of whatever is genuine and real, right now. Whatever is going on in that concert, whatever is going on in that time. So, in a sense, it’s always going to be the same that it’s always the present moment, but the present moment is always new. It’s always going to be new.
The name “classical music” automatically makes me think of the past. What’s it like to work in a genre that’s contemporary, but makes one think of something already gone by?
It could have a negative connotation. You could say, “Oh, that’s something from the past.” But, for me, it’s very important to feel a part of that tradition. To be a part of something that’s built upon the history of music. That I’m building upon the history and the techniques that are all there for us to use, to stand upon. There’s a large body of tradition that’s great to work from.
Are there any composers you’re particularly fond of or inspired by?
One from the classical guitar world would be Agustín Barrios Mangoré. He’s an important inspiration for me. And, outside of guitar, without mention of the obvious like Mozart and Beethoven, one of my greatest idols is Mahler. He had the vision that a single piece of music should express everything there is in human experience. I also have a special interest in the music of the Frenchman Debussy and the Russian Scriabin, as they both tried to expand the very language and sonority of music into dreamlike soundscapes.
You’ve won some awards that are a pretty big deal for a classical guitarist. Can you talk a bit about that?
The most recent is from what’s most likely going to be the last competition I ever do. Because it was such a prestigious award it really doesn’t make much sense for me to enter another competition. It was the Guitar Federation of America’s international soloist competition, which is sort of the big deal in the classical guitar world. And that was the third time I entered it, too. It’s been something I’ve been working on. It changed a lot of things for me. In terms of really gaining recognition, in my career. So that was a great achievement for me.
If I go back, I’ve also won competitions that have been non-guitar competitions. There I felt more rewarded as a musician in general, competing against ensembles and soloists on different kinds of instruments.
It looks like your wife is also a musician.
Yes. We both studied in London, at the Royal College of Music. We fell in love. And we very much enjoy having a life sharing music and performing together, working together. It’s a really wonderful thing.
It’s difficult being separated for such a long tour, and normally she would be traveling with me, but she’s pregnant at the moment. We’re actually expecting our first child at the end of April.
Well, I’m finishing the tour in April and after that I’m taking some time off to be with the baby.