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Going strong, going forward

by Takemi Sosa

Composer Magnus Lindberg is constantly engaged in research and development to find new ideas. The passing of time does not make composing any easier – Lindberg intimates that he is more critical now at 50 than he was at the beginning of his career.

“Anything to fix?” asks Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra Sakari Oramo from composer Magnus Lindberg. The orchestra has been rehearsing Lindberg’s recent work Seht die Sonne, which was given its first performance in Finland on 29 August 2008.

Lindberg steps up onto the stage in Finlandia Hall and says: “No, nothing.”

At the end, the composer thanks the orchestra, folding his hand on his chest. This is all the more surprising when we consider that Lindberg says premieres are increasingly becoming nightmares.

“I am more conscious and more critical all the time. The older I get, the more I notice that I don’t know what I am doing. When I was younger, it was so wonderful to even hear a premiere, just to have a piece performed,” Lindberg says with amusement. “Today, I make more changes in rehearsal, because I always find that there is such a lot to correct. Why does this profession have to be so difficult?”

Lindberg turned 50 in June 2008, only a few days before his good friend Esa-Pekka Salonen reached the same milestone. Lindberg and Salonen met in the mid-1970s when both were studying at the Sibelius Academy. Lindberg has been a professional composer for well over 30 years, even if he himself now considers his “opus one” to be Quintetto dell’estate, written in 1979.

Organic evolution

In the late 1970s, Lindberg and his colleagues founded the Korvat auki! (Ears open!) association and the “laboratory ensemble” named Toimii! (See FMQ 3/2007).

“The whole point with Korvat auki! Was ‘Let’s do it.’ We always performed music that no one else would perform. The Toimii! Ensemble was extremely important, because in that ensemble we could execute even the wildest of notions. We tried to explode the music scene, to break down barriers and to experiment with absolutely everything we could not do in our own work. We were like teenagers! I am sure that without that experience under my belt my output would have turned out differently,” Lindberg notes.

Today, Lindberg is continuously being commissioned by the world’s most distinguished orchestras, and he has a busy schedule, sometimes even performing his own works. On the day after the first Finnish performance of Seht die Sonne, he flew to Tromsø for the first Norwegian performance. In the following week, he appeared as soloist in his own Piano Concerto with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and then went on to Milan to join the jury of the Brescia composition competition. Then he returned to Berlin, where he now has a second home. In early October, he returned to Finland again to conduct the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the first Finnish performance of Gruppen by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Chronologically considered, Lindberg’s output is governed by principle of organic evolution. In his breakthrough work Kraft (1985), he constructed rhythmic structures theoretically, using a computer for the calculations. He then went on to explore harmony in what became a trilogy formed by Kinetics (1988–1989), Marea (1989–1990) and Joy (1989–1990), based on what he calls the “extended chaconne principle.” At the same time, however, he came up against the issue of flow and form: how to make the music flow when its materials do not spontaneously evolve and develop in and of themselves?

To solve this problem, Lindberg turned to Luciano Berio, whose phrase structures are shaped so as to allow the music to flow unbroken into each consecutive section. Lindberg finally solved the problem with the endlessly progressing “power vector” of Corrente (1991–1992), and in the 40-minute orchestral work Aura (1994) he created a synthesis of everything he had worked on until then.

Struck by strange structures

Lindberg’s compositional method might be described as “research – theory – execution.”

“I have tried to remain aware of how much work I do on actual composing and how much on ‘research’. For me, research is seeking inspiration in building strange structures. These are the challenges that I then break down into theories. What is important is the idea of ‘constant injection’: I try to bring new ideas into my work all the time.”

Indeed, “constant injection” has characterized Lindberg’s entire 30-year composing career, keeping the evolution of his music going. But just how difficult is it to come up with new ideas all the time? Even though Lindberg has been writing music at a steady pace, one must assume that he has had his share if “birthing pains” and struggles against mannerisms, crises, and also himself.

“A crisis is something that one just has to deal with. I exercise discipline, forcing myself to do new things. I often find myself solving certain things in the same way each time and try to change my habits consciously. Perhaps one attempt in five will be successful. But sometimes it turns out that the old way is the best way. It’s all about striking a balance. The most exciting thing about my job is that sometimes I have done my best work when I am in a desperate rush. In that situation, you have no time to think – you just get on with it.”

Lindberg’s composition process has many stages and demands patience and perseverance. How does he manage his mental balance? What are his working principles?

“I follow organic evolution and try to use whatever works best,” he says of the substance of his works.

This approach dates from Lindberg’s Korvat auki! Period, and it has served him well as a guiding principle. Over the years, he has become adept at picking out the things which work best and which carry his creative work forward.

“It’s what keeps me going – a sort of ‘survival kit’,” the composer summarizes.

A world of more consonance

Lindberg describes himself as a workaholic.

“I find the greatest enjoyment in having a lot to do. If I have a major work on the floor and all my thoughts revolve around it, I have fun. But when I am between projects and do not really know what I am doing, I am bored and frightened. The most dangerous and deadly element in this job is self-criticism. If you let that overwhelm you, you will not be able to write anything anymore. Quashing self-criticism may lead you to create something that is exactly right.”

Lindberg’s precise and uncompromising attitude has kept him in the vanguard of the composer community. In 1980, he wrote about his work in the essay collection Ammatti: säveltäjä (Profession: Composer) thus: “If I were to take always the same approach to my art, I believe I would have failed as a creative artist.”

It is interesting to ask, then, what approach he takes to his art now, almost 30 years later.

In the symphonic triptych consisting of Feria (1997), Cantigas (1997–1999) and Parada (2001), Lindberg aimed at systematic thematic processing in the music. This does not, however, refer to the use of melodies as such but rather the use of cyclical musical structures which are reflected in the clarity of the texture. In the 2000s, Lindberg’s harmonies have also shifted from rougher to smoother, and are increasingly incorporating tonal elements. Has Lindberg’s idiom changed?

“I don’t think it has changed all that much. The dramaturgical solutions that I used back in the days of Kraft – the sharp transitions and the continuity – are still much the same. However, it is obvious that the musical environment or surface, which in Kraft was harsh, is now different. It is a world of much more consonance and sonority.”

Consonance implies tonality, a word that has long been avoided in contemporary classical music. Is tonality still taboo in contemporary music?

“Why not use tonal harmonies? Why should they be consigned to history? I am more fascinated these days with the richness of language rather than the restriction of language. When we use acoustical instruments that were designed with the norms of tonal music in mind, why not draw on their fundamental properties? I have tried to bring this world into my work in an organic way. Instead of using allusions, I am genuinely incorporating these elements into my musical language.”

Away from 1950s Modernism

When Lindberg discusses Modernism, he prefers to look forward rather than back.

“The thinking today is that music should be modern within a certain set of parameters. This is an aesthetic approach that was defined 50 years ago. I find it funny and paradoxical that those who adhere the most severely to the concepts of Modernism and the avant-garde are actually embracing a definition of Modernism that dates from the 1950s. I love the music of the 1950s, but that was a long time ago. Why is something 50 years old modern and something 70 years old traditional?”

Lindberg aims to get away from the aesthetics of the 1950s and the Modernism which emerged from that environment. What is interesting is that, having started from the innovations of post-Serialism 30 years ago, he is now trying to rid himself of their influence and to seek a new kind of “Lindbergian” thinking and harmony.

At the moment, he is principally interested in large-scale chamber music works. A new challenge is waiting in writing vocal music for choir and orchestra.

“Modern vocal music is fantastic at its best and horrible at its worst,” he says with a smile.

Time will tell what Lindbergian vocal music will sound like.

Seht die Sonne is already one indicator of the present and future of his writing.

“My choral music will be characterized by a ‘horizontal’ thinking. Seht die Sonne is definitely written in the same vein. It incorporates melodic material,” Lindberg explains, though in the next breath he emphasizes that for him melody is a by-product of harmony.

At the performance, Lindberg stares at the orchestra with a stony face. When the piece ends, the conductor invites the composer on stage. The familiar smile returns to Lindberg’s face. He hugs Oramo and acknowledges the musicians just like he did in rehearsal.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Saara Vuorjoki / Music Finland

This article was first published in FMQ 4/2008 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.