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Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer behind the conductor

by Antti Häyrynen

"It may sound a bit crazy, but I actually think of myself more as a composer than a conductor. It just so happens that the conducting side has outweighed the composing," says Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1998.

Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958) began his musical career as a French horn player, and it was in this capacity that the public first came to know him. Then came the day when he decided to concentrate on being a composer and sold his French horn. The fine grounding in musicianship he received from the great Finnish horn player Holger Fransman was nevertheless to prove invaluable. Salonen’s teacher of composition at the Sibelius Academy was the visionary Einojuhani Rautavaara. He then went on to spend a year in Italy with Niccolò Castiglioni. The year was 1980 and it was to mark a turning point in his career.

In the early 1980s Salonen was one of the leading lights of his generation, chairman and rank-and-file member of the Korvat auki (Ears Open) association, a bundle of energy never at a loss for words and always ready to throw himself into the fray at the first hint of an aesthetical debate, plus a composer and conductor. He was in fact driven to conducting only out of sheer necessity: the new works by the new generation needed people to perform them. This also explains why Salonen was one of the founder members of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra and the Toimii Ensemble.

The early works by Salonen dating from the late 1970s drew on all sorts of influences. Horn Music I and II (1976, 1979) are the displays of brilliance of a composer-musician. The Cello Sonata (1977) and Aubades for flute and orchestra (1978) still inhabited free-tonal and subjective-emotional landscapes. Nachtlieder for clarinet and piano (1978) in four short movements represented a turn towards the expressionism of the new Viennese school and a more tight-knit, angular idiom.

Goodbye for violin and guitar (1980) was indeed portentous, for in it Salonen took his leave of conventionalism and melodramatic neoromanticism. From now onwards he would be looking in a distinctly avant-garde direction, unleashing his desire for inquisitive experiment and bold drama, while always placing himself at an ironic distance.

Salonen has subsequently withdrawn his earliest works, a dozen or so in all. The reason is undoubtedly not that there is anything radically wrong with them, but that they could, if allowed to graze unbridled, confuse the image of a composer who is far too little known in the world.

The composer who returned to Finland after his year in Italy was more mature and determined. One of the features of the Saxophone Concerto completed in 1981 is its dissociation with tradition. “We must remember that tradition today also takes in the finest representatives of serial music and aleatory, electro-acoustic music and instrumental theatre,” as the composer pointed out in a programme note at the time.

Even before his year with Castiglioni Salonen had never had difficulty expressing himself in his compositions, but his Italian sojourn seemed to give his Saxophone Concerto an even greater fluency, a streamlined linearity and quickness to react. The concerto was Salonen’s first large-scale orchestral work and sets out to discover different, juicily percussive effects in contrast to the alto sax, the itinerant explorer of the work. But the original subtitle, “…auf ersten Blick und ohne zu wissen…” (“…on first sight and without knowing…”), from Kafka’s The Trial, also suggests a directness and sensuousness, distance and a variety of levels.


Worlds collide

Salonen’s biggest work so far is still the radiophonic Baalal (1982), a veritable Tower of Babel of ideas and statements made up of scraps of texts, shards of language and musical memories. The absurd yakking, bellowing, hawking and retching of the text combine with flowing cultural-historical allusions all tossed off with joy and a lack of inhibition worthy of Rabelais.

I clearly remember a radio performance of Baalal I listened to one summer afternoon while sitting on a little rock in a lake in Eastern Finland, as the waves lapped around me and the baby gulls at their singing lessons joined in with appropriate squawks. All of a sudden it occurred to me that here of all places, in this end-of-the-world cocktail, Salonen the cosmopolitan was in fact revealing his inherent Finnish quality. The perspective of a small nation and language area on the universal cultural melting-pot is at once that of the amused onlooker and the slightly wistful outsider.

The smaller-scale works by Salonen also combine a lively and uninhibited imagination with sharp irony. In Meeting for clarinet and harpsichord (1982) the two instruments encounter each other in unison, disagree and agree to agree, but for most of the time they are intent on tugging the discourse in different directions: unity is more than unanimity. Whereas Salonen at times appears to be making a study of communication, its conventions and problems, at others he just seems to be enjoying himself, and at guess whose expense!

Many of Salonen’s works comment on previous compositions, and some of them are subjected to a reproduction treatment in the manner of Stravinsky. The one to suffer most is the orchestral work Giro (1981-1997), which Salonen honed and rewrote for a decade and a half. In itself the process illustrates the transition in his expression from a complex and angular to a more controlled and, despite its fullness, economical orchestral idiom.

An excellent example of this trend towards objectification is Yta (referring to the Swedish word for a surface or plane), a set of solo works akin to Berio’s Sequenzos in terms of virtuosity but with a cool control that has its origins elsewhere.

Yta I for alto flute (1982) is the only one in the set to exploit unconventional performing techniques, but in Yta II for piano (1985) Salonen’s objectives are underscored by the well-known programme note: “I have tried to learn something from flakes and crystals, snow and ice.”

The Yta works differ in their intellectual focus from the Renaissance-like profusion of ideas characteristic of Salonen, and in the Yta for cello (III, 1989), particularly, the texture is dominated by furious energy, a head-on collision and overflowing anguish.

Salonen writes brilliant programme notes, though he never fails to point out how much he dislikes verbal explanations. In the case of Yta III he made an exception and wrote a Programme containing much that also applies to his other works: “These little pieces all depict Angst in a situation that is hopeless and bizarre and from which there is no way out.

The morally doubtful inspiration for the cello piece (Yta III) was the image of a dragonfly that flits and swoops around until it encounters a candle flame and is burnt to a char, though it does not die immediately. Five sixths of the piece consist of hysterical fluttering, various attempts to fly on wings burnt to a stub. As the piece progresses the insect’s movements become more and more fragmentary, until the end is like a deliverance.

“There is in all of use a pinch of the sadist and the peeping tom. At least there is in me (Prague 27.1.1989).”

Thus every young man has the makings of a little monster ready to pull the wings off flies.

The narrow path of conducting

Salonen did not forget all about composing on being launched into orbit as a star conductor in the early 1980s, but the rate with which new works appeared inevitably grew slower. In 1985 he took over at the helm of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and as chief guest conductor of the Oslo and Philharmonia orchestras. Then in 1992 he became Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

A kindred spirit to Baalal is Floof for coloratura soprano and chamber ensemble (1988-90), one of the most epigrammatic works so far written by Salonen. It was inspired by the sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lemin Kyberias and his description of an attempt to develop a poetry machine. This poetic juke-box was premiered in 1988 and in its revised version in London.

Floof has travelled a long way, from the technological optimism, the zealous applications of information theory and the romanticism of electrical machines of the 1960s to the 1980s world of the Alien and Blade Runner where sci-fi visions are two a penny.

In his programme note Salonen discards any relics of a belief in progress he may have had but nevertheless avoids becoming cynical: “Homeostaattisen Homeroksen lauluja (Songs of a Homeostatic Homer) is the story of a machine that learns to become a poet: onomatopoeia becomes poesy. The machine coughs and splutters and never runs for long without getting confused – a smart kick helps the electro-troubadour just as it does any other domestic appliance. The work was composed in a grimly cybernetic spirit at a synthesiser in summery Sipoo where, it was reported, certain susceptible species of birds suddenly and inexplicably decided it was time to migrate.

Despite all attempts to prevent it, I could not stop a clot of genuine nostalgic blood from finding its way in among the machine’s muddle-headed verses. We are only human, after all. Or should I say, we are only machines, after all.”

Meeting for clarinet and harpsichord (piano) was followed up in 1992 by Second Meeting for oboe and piano, later rescored at the request of the Finnish Broadcasting Company for oboe and orchestra. Mimo II was premiered in December 1992.

The oboe in Mimo II soon finds itself whirling about in dizzy Immelman turns and death spins, but nothing can disperse the vast empty space yawning beneath the soloist. Meanwhile the orchestra has decked itself out in glittering finery that reveals the experience accumulated by Salonen the conductor.

Again there is no better commentator on Mimo II than Salonen himself: “The name refers to a pantomime: imagine, say, the chalk-white face of the virtuoso whose expressions shift as shadows. It’s all acrobatics: the improbable movements of the body and the highly expressive positions of the hands. Nothing is true: the joy is the epitome of joy, and sorrow does not exist. Tightrope walkers are among the greatest of artists. They have only one chance to ‘almost make it’.”

There are undoubtedly traits of the composer himself in both Floof, with its cyber-spinner pulling in all directions, and Mimo II, with its acrobat holding his breath behind his mask as the crowds cheer him on. Salonen’s strings have almost certainly been pulled by many apart from the composer Salonen, but his turn will come again.

The composer strikes back

Mimo II was followed by a long silence and something in the nature of an aesthetic crisis that blew itself out in what is so far the biggest orchestral work to be composed, L.A. Variations of 1997.

L.A. Variations is clearly the work of a new Salonen, open and readily approachable. As if in reply to the problems of communication previously studied, Salonen now seeks to find a common denominator, to cross cultural and social borders, to speak to the masses like a classical orator. He has not, however, lost the dialectic approaches that keep recurring in his works, the contrasts between the deeply spiritual and the utterly wretched, the sharply analytic and intuitively poetic, tragedy and comedy.

This is not the first time Salonen has turned to variation form, but L.A. Variations is a set of variations pure and simple, conscious of the tradition. It also seamlessly incorporates music hovering in a modal-chromatic domain, a veiled serialism that is reduced to just one possibility among many. The different characters of the variations also reflect the diversity of the multicultural megacity, the ethnic varieties and cultural contrasts – the sham and charm of Hollywood, Arnold Schönberg playing tennis with the Marx brothers.

The work is, naturally, a virtuosic piece for a large symphony orchestra with which the composer feels completely at home: “I wrote L.A. Variations specifically for the players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I am extremely proud of the power and virtuosity of my orchestra.”

Characteristic elements of L.A. Variations are the contrasting timbre constructions in the manner of Lutoslawski, the concerto-like handling of the instrument sections, and the colourful percussion palette. The overall conception is dramatic, ranging from playful, mischievous episodes (Salonen describes one variation as “the most cheerful music I have ever written”) to wild, volcanic eruptions, and from tranquil beauty to the violin motifs climbing higher and higher at the end.

L.A. Variations is undoubtedly a pointer to the way that lies ahead. And indeed, it has already been joined by a revised version of Giro. In June 1998, Salonen was working on an orchestral work called Gambit to be premiered in Amsterdam and to be performed at the Avanti! Summer Sounds Festival as a return tribute to composer Magnus Lindberg, who was likewise celebrating his 40th birthday and had composed a tribute to Salonen. The sound seems to have become even clearer: it is scored only for woodwind, a wide selection of percussion instruments, piano and harp.

Also in the pipeline are a work commissioned for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a piece suitable for a song recital. In the year 2000 Salonen the conductor will be taking the sabbatical written into his contract and Salonen the composer will have a chance to strike back. His plans include an opera based on a novel by Peter Høeg scheduled to receive its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Music Festival in 2001.

It is easy to see from Salonen that he is first and foremost a composer out of an inner necessity and only then a conductor out of an external necessity – something that cannot be said of all composing conductors. And Salonen the conducting composer undoubtedly still has many surprises in store for us.


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 3/1998
Featured photo: Katja Tähjä