Music as Sound – Magnus Lindberg Interview

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

With Finland now such a major player on the international cultural scene, it seems astonishing that, barely a quarter of a century ago, Lindberg’s generation became the first to define
itself outside the Finnish musical mainstream. “The climate then was such that any Finnish composer saw themselves in relation to ’the Sibelius tradition’. But why should you be standing alone in the forest when there was a whole world around you?”

One of the factors in shaping Lindberg’s independence of thought was his period of study, in the mid-1970s, with the composer Paavo Heininen, who, along with his contemporary Usko Meriläinen, introduced serialism and the post-war avant-garde to what was then a hostile and uncomprehending musical establishment. “It is a great shame he is not better known outside Finland because his music is really important, and yet it has never travelled. There is a body of music here that deserves a wider public, whereas the wider context of contemporary culture is inevitably a filtering process – only a fraction of what is created at any one time will survive its period. It’s a complex algorism that determines what is or isn’t heard, and it doesn’t always follow a logical or consistent path.”

The other significant aspect in this demonstration of independence was the sense of a common mission that existed between Lindberg and his contemporaries – including composers Kaija Saariaho and Jouni Kaipainen, and conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. “As students in the late 1970s, we were very concerned with the ’plight’ of contemporary music – of how far its seeming alienation from society could go before the whole process faced extinction. This, in addition to getting away from the Sibelius ’myth’ and confronting what was going on in the wider world, without going down the populist or ’new simplicity’ routes, were what concerned us at this time.”

Remarkably, the ’solidarity’ that developed between them continues right to the present. “Composing is a solitary process and you have to make your own decisions, but by sitting down and discussing our concerns, we came up with solutions useful for us all. We had a genuine interest in trying to understand music better – in relation to ourselves, each other and, hopefully, our audiences. Two decades on, though each of us has pursued our own path as a composer or musician, the kernel of people supporting each other in this way is still intact.”

A composer who has long made use of computer programming in the preparatory stages of his compositions, Lindberg is fascinated and excited by the rapid evolution of communication and information technology, but aware of the difficulties this can present to the creative artist. “In a society where opportunities to access and consume have never been greater, how do we
create things that have actual worth and lasting value? Of course, if the value of things were just about numbers, contemporary music would have died a long time ago.”

Although he has written across a range of media, Lindberg is most identified with the orchestra – with a steady stream of new pieces over the last fifteen years. More than perhaps any other composer of his generation, he is in a position to consider just what ’the orchestra’ has been and what it could yet become. “The orchestral machine isn’t what it is out of chance. There’s a fundamental imbalance to its combination of types of instruments, and how you solve that imbalance determines your way of composing for the orchestra. By the early twentieth century, the effect of the orchestra was out of proportion to its size. If you had one-thousand rather than one-hundred players, the range of possibilities wouldn’t grow in proportion. So for much of the last century, what you might call the ’critical mass’ of the orchestra has tended to be dismissed as an institution belonging to the past. I don’t share that view, above all because there’s no real equivalent for the mental and physical energy you get from an orchestra playing at its optimum level, and creating its own collective ’sound image’.”

And writing for the orchestral apparatus feeds into Lindberg’s own concerns for evolving a musical language sustainable in the future. “You have to be very aware of registers and spacing – also space as a concrete and metaphorical element. One of the greatest assets of the tonal system was the emphasis it placed on the expressive ambiguity of functional harmony, how a chord sounds in its tonal context. Today, working with sound objects, things can get isolated to the point that though the beauty is there, you don’t necessarily feel the ambiguity. So restoring something of that ambiguity is something I’m continually working on. I can’t go back to the tonal system as it was, that is essentially a closed chapter, but trying to find a long-term replacement for tonal harmony is what really matters now. Finding new sound-objects is one thing, identifying those that can be perceived as belonging to existing ’types’ of sound is something else again, and much more difficult.”

The Related Rocks project, under the joint artistic directorship of Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen, takes place between 27 November and 9 December, and between February 7-10 next year. Lindberg’s music, including the Clarinet Quintet and Related Rocks itself – intriguingly scored for two pianos, two percussionists and electronics – as well as the orchestral epics Kraft and Aura, will feature alongside composers as diverse as Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Berg. Taking the series as a whole, does it give us all of Lindberg the composer and his musical sympathies?

“Not necessarily. The works of mine we’ve included don’t add up to an inclusive overview of what I’ve done so far. Certain works that would need to have been included weren’t, purely out of programming considerations. Another aim in devising the series has been to include works that were and still are important to me. For instance, while certain of Lutoslawski’s later works have found their way into the repertoire, his earlier mature pieces are rarely heard now, so I was keen to feature Livre pour orchestre [only in Paris and Brussels] – one of his finest pieces but rarely played
now, and for no good reason. So the concerts are designed to work well in themselves, and the whole series is designed as a festival featuring my music rather than a retrospective as such.”

Audiences can look to forward to the UK premieres of the Cello Concerto, a subdued and unusually rhapsodic score written for Anssi Karttunen, and Cantigas, written for the Cleveland Orchestra. There will also be the London premiere of Parada, commissioned specially for the Related Rocks project. At
around 17 minutes each, these latter two pieces would seem to continue the line of ’high-impact’ orchestral works in progress since the early 1990s.

“Actually, Cantigas belongs with Feria and Parada in a large-scale trilogy of autonomous orchestral works, after the model of Debussy’s Images. How well they work as a triptych I’ll know next year, when they are performed in Belgium. Cantigas is technically the most demanding score I’ve yet written, in terms of individual responsibility within the greater whole. On the other hand, Fresco [only in Brussels] is a stand-alone piece and musically an amalgam of Kraft and Aura. I don’t see my work as moving towards a more traditional or ’classical’ manner of expression: rather there’s an organic development, with elements from the past constantly recurring in new guises and new contexts.”

Despite having a presence in the concert-hall enjoyed by few of his contemporaries, Lindberg is realistic about the workings of the ’concert mechanism’. “Of course, 15-20 minute concert-opening pieces have become the norm for contemporary composers. If you enjoy the advocacy of a major soloist, you can sometimes get the concerto slot, but second-half commissions are rare. I’ve been fortunate in having had Kraft performed in the mid-1980s and Aura in the mid-1990s, and there’ll be a major new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra later this decade. So my composing over the last two decades has been of one major piece surrounded by smaller satellites, which themselves often coalesce into larger units.”

One work we will have to wait for a while longer is Lindberg’s first venture into the medium of the string quartet. “The String Quartet is an unclosed chapter because I wasn’t able to write it. This August, having spent nearly a year working on the project and with the premiere only two months away, I realised that the piece I was in a position to complete wasn’t the one I wanted to write. I spoke to Irvine Arditti about it and reaffirmed my commitment to the string quartet as an ongoing medium. Ongoing to the extent I may need another ten years to write the work. But it will happen!”

  • Related Rocks – The World of Magnus Lindberg (Part 1)
  • 27/11 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • 30/11 – Arditti Quartet (Purcell Room)
  • 2/12 – Lindberg Study Day (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.)
  • 2/12 – Philharmonia/Salonen
  • 7/12 – Bulgarian Voices, Moscow Art Trio (QEH)
  • 8/12 – Toimii Goes Opera (QEH, 3p.m)
  • 9/12 – London Sinfonietta/Salonen
  • Lindberg CDs

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