in From the Archives

At my age…

by Erik Bergman

I am approaching the age when you begin to reflect on the fundamentals of life and feel the need to pare away all inessentials. For that reason my opus 110, The Singing Tree, my first opera, is a work I have taken particular pains to shape as clearly and distinctly as possible so that every note in the score can be grasped...

When a soloist comes on stage, it is reasonable to suppose they have something to convey: you should therefore be able to hear what it is (assuming, of course, that the singer has good articulation).

So you have to be careful that the orchestra does not drown the voice. If the soloists perpetually have to fight to be heard as in Wagner, I doubt whether the subtler nuances of thought and feeling will come through. This is not to say that you should orchestrate with the transparency of chamber music from start to finish – you have to run the whole expressive gamut – but, if you operate at full throttle the whole time, you wear out the listener and it soon becomes tedious.


There is a modern tendency to pack a mass of detail into a single score. But the tiresome thing is that it is impossible to grasp everything. It has now been demonstrated scientifically that there is a limit to how much the listener can take in. Of course, it can be fun studying such scores – I myself take great pleasure in discovering all kinds of finesses in them – and after repeated hearings you can discover new things by ear. But scores of this kind are enormously exhausting. Not incomprehensible, merely exhausting.


The tendency towards densely packed scores is symptomatic of the desire for sophistication that typifies our whole century and which is, I believe, a reaction against the unbuttoned emotional flood of the romantic period when every thing was a matter of feeling. Composers react against the preceding generation just as children rebel against their parents. The young form themselves into cliques which blaze new trails. Darmstadt, for instance, came into being as a reaction to the total vacuum that existed in Germany after the Second Worid War. Seen from this perspective, everything that happens is a reaction against something else and, in that sense, necessary. It cannot simply be brushed aside.

Today the sophisticated rubs shoulders with the national romantic, minimalism exists in tandem with new complexity, perhaps in order that some sort of balance should be maintained? Ultimately, much of what is written is also a reaction against the all-pervading influence of popular music. There is still a sharp division between light music and serious music, although a number of composers have tried to bridge the gulf with varying degree of success.

We live in a pluralistic age and I am grateful to be part of it. So much is going on all the time, not least on the political front.


During the time I was professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy, a pupil came to me and said that he wanted to compose modern music – whatever he meant – so I asked to see something he had written. What he showed me was childishly simple and I explained to him that it was a giant step from what he had done to what he wanted. There was no shortcut. Indeed, in general, there are very rarely shortcuts. Naturally, you must begin by studying the music of different periods, written in different techniques. But then you must closet yourself away and think over everything you have learned. You must make up your own mind and thus yourself what it is that you want. It is a huge step and fearfully difficult but it is very, very important.

The formation of your own personality and integrity is a tough process which takes time but which cannot be achieved by any other means, otherwise you run the risk of becoming an ape. And the world is full of apes. Sometimes a particular new work takes wing and flies with lightning speed all round the globe. Then you can be sure to find a thousand pieces in the same vein the following year. But by then it is too late. You have already missed the boat. Not even the original composer can write two works of the same kind. Each time you have to start from zero. It is a question of taking yourself by the scruff of the neck and establishing what you, personally, want to do. In the last analysis, there is no-one to rely on but yourself.

Many composers are paralysed by bad reviews and, of course, it can be unpleasant. But you have to try and see what the critic is aiming at and what insight he might have into what you have written. I usually console people who are miserable by saying that, deep inside, you know whether you have succeeded with a work or not, just as international soloists who travel all over the world are well aware in which town and on what night they were both technically brilliant and totally in tune with the music. They themselves know best, not the critics. It is therefore of crucial importance for every practising artist to be able to view himself, his work and the critical reaction to it with objectivity, to be able to assess what he has achieved and thus to decide where he wants to go next. What is important is to be fully conscious the whole time what you stand for. But this does not mean you should not allow yourself to respond to influences. On the contrary.


Nowadays we are confronted with a plethora of influences which is, naturally, both to the good and the bad. While it is easy to become indecisive, it can also be a great source of enrichment if you take the trouble to investigate non-European or non-Western music a little more closely. The confrontation with what is new and different widens the perspectives. But if you believe that you can just borrow a little of this and a little of that, you are no better than a mayfly.

I myself have had a little experience of this. I have travelled about, collected musical instruments, listened to all sorts of music and made tape-recordings in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal as well as in Bali and Sri Lanka. This has enabled me to view the West from a distance and to realise that what we have is far from being all there is: indeed, there is much that we have no conception of. By this I mean not only different cultures but also different tonal systems. It can be bewildering for a Westerner to hear a mass of micro-intervals without being able to make out the underlying scale which consists, perhaps, of seven notes. There is much you need to elucidate before you can come to terms with the music. There is no point in throwing yourself on the mercy of everything strange and exotic, like a tourist. But many composers are guilty of this and a mass of phoney exoticisms have found their way into our music.

I had had Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in my possession for ten years – knowing that at some point I would base a work on it – before I suggested to Solveig, my wife, that we should journey eastwards to imbibe the atmosphere on the spot. Even so, we spent a further two years preparing for our trip. All your impressions must then be filtered through your own personality and what comes out the other end is quite other and, in fact, completely nothing but yourself, though in a different way.


I have always preached that you must be fully equipped technially and a master of your craft. Anyone who falls under the spell of the new musical methods, a vast field, must know precisely what he is doing. I had a foretaste of the immense possibilities presented by electronic music when I visited RAI’s studio in Milan with Bruno Maderna in the sixties. But my principal contact was when I worked at the Experimental Studio of Finnish Radio with Juhani Liimatainen on In Springtime, a radiophonic work conceived expressively for the Prix Italia. The experience was very exciting and, if I were eighteen today, I would devote far more time to electronic and computer-generated music than I do now, at the age of almost eighty. I have not enough time left. Whatever you do, you must do properly and I have still got a lot to say through conventional music.

Ultimately the number of expressive possibilites is infinite. Everyone has to make his own choice according to his own inclinations and disposition. But developments in the field of electro-acoustic music warrant full attention and much research.


From today’s standpoint it is impossible to see where present developments will lead and which works from recent decades will survive. When you are still involved in time, you cannot distinguish the historically significant from the artistically durable. No-one can deny that the Darmstadt period was important and useful but it is more difficult to know how individual compositions from that phase of development will stand up. If I am obliged to name names, then I would put my money on Messiaen and Lutoslawski.


Another question is how the cultural geography of today will appear from the perspective of the future. I believe that the contribution of the Nordic countries will assume greater significance. More and more often Finland is recognized abroad as an important country for music and, over the years, great investments have been made in new music. Finnish Radio, not least, has nurtured new talents, both instrumentalists and composers, and has continually commissioned new works, especially from young composers. This is, naturally, of great importance for future developments. Then there is the Finnish system of state stipends, which is unique in the world. We live in a young culture that has not exhausted itself in any way and has a real chance to show its paces and shapes its claws. Perhaps we have something to contribute.


When I have come into contact with performers from other parts of the world, I have noticed that my music has been able to hint at something of a new dimension. I am thinking particularly of the New London Chamber Choir or of the Washington Music Ensemble (which premiered Borealis) or of the members of the Leningrad Philharmonic with whom I worked in spring 1989. At the outset the musicians have invariably found my music strange but they have all been total professionals and it has given me great pleasure to see how quickly they have adapted and how eager they have been to expand their own horizons. The score is not always sufficient in itself to convey the atmosphere of the composition and I have therefore valued the chance, and found it immensely rewarding, to be present at rehearsals.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1990 and is republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.