The maths teacher looked across at the 14-year-old boy: “And what do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?”
“I'm going to be a composer,” replied Salonen, and that’s what he did become. Composition studies under Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy brought undisputed professional competence, although he did not walk out with a composition diploma to go along with his French horn and orchestral direction certificates. Post-graduate work with Niccolo Castiglioni in Milan added an important extra dimension to the composer-Salonen persona, but Esa-Pekka Salonen has also said that “I don't want to see life as a groove that leads one ineluctably on in some chosen direction,” and thus Salonen currently leads a life in which composing plays only a walk-on role. “At the moment conductor-Salonen pays the bills for composer-Salonen.”
The marketing machine of the music business of the 1980s has constructed an almost mythical figure out of Master Salonen. His face appears in full-page ads, on record sleeves, even in glorious colour on the cover of February's The Gramophone, now here as powdered cherubic mummy's pet, now there in stern macho pose. Salonen himself looks upon his new public image with amused understanding; he has known from the start that the conductor's work has a public relations component built into the job. Of course, the more artificial the shop-window image of Salonen grows, the more interesting becomes the question of who he really is. Would it be too romantic to believe that our man might show his real self through his compositions?
From aesthetics to handwork
Life is ever constructed such that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Esa-Pekka Salonen currently jets around the world full-time as a highly sought-after conductor, but amidst all this rush and bustle he holds an image of composing as representing for him “maximal intellectual freedom,” an illusion of independence.
“Composing looms in my mind as some kind of lofty, sublime form of human activity,” observes Salonen. The other side of this idealistic coin is more purely practical: “In my relationship towards music and music-making I have moved from aesthetic considerations towards handicraft ones. I’m not tremendously interested in theories of beauty, or for what it's worth, in theories of anything.”
In an interview given some years ago, Salonen described his composing work by saying that he first sketches out the overall shape of the piece, and that the actual composition process was one of filling in the empty spaces. These days the situation appears to be the reverse. Salonen now works from the collection of material. “When there are enough scraps, shavings, and other little building blocks, I start assembling the whole according to the overall vision that my mind has created of what my music should be like.”
Nowadays one often comes up against the idea that a composition becomes a vehicle for taking and “researching” some particular aspect. Certain types of texture are put under the microscope, certain acoustic phenomena are investigated, and so on. Esa-Pekka Salonen, however, sums up his conception that a work should be more like an answer to a question, and not a research report or the manifestation of some given problem. “Ultimately the issue is maybe more one of what light you want to see yourself in. One composer says he creates, another that he composes, another investigates, and then again there are some who just turn out product, in musical form. Whatever label you put on it, it’s the same sort of activity.”
Conservative - radical
Conservativism and radicalism as phenomena, and concepts are bound to one another by a thousand ties. During his student-days Salonen composed works which were strongly linked to a variety of “neo-“ styles. Hornmusic I is in many respects a neoclassical work, and neo-Romantic is about the only word that fits for the Cello Sonata. Goodbye for violin and guitar (1979) is as the name suggests a kind of re-orientation realised in part through mixed media instrumental-theatre methods, and many of Salonen's later works can be regarded as pretty avant-garde or radical offerings. The same goes for several experimental projects carried out with the Toimii ensemble (see also the article on Magnus Lindberg in this issue), in which Salonen the all-rounder has served as singer, instrumentalist, composer, and conductor. And yet in Salonen's own view music history does not know any examples of purely radical phenomena - purely conservative ones we can find in abundance. “In the great innovations that have taken place the innovators have generally also turned themselves in one way or another towards traditional values. For instance Schoenberg, when he was sketching out his dodecaphonic theories, shifted over to more traditional solutions of form. The same kind of alliance of tradition and renewal also serves for such great reformers as Haydn or Beethoven,” postulates Salonen. “I see no direct polarity between radicalism and conservatism.”
At 28, Esa-Pekka Salonen is already able to examine his development as a conductor with a measure of perspective.
Among the most important stepping-stones along the way, Salonen points to the 6 months he spent in Italy, in Siena and Milan. ”A person growing up in Finland lives at quite a distance from the intellectual atmosphere of Central Europe. In Italy I found myself envying the local composers for their virtuosity, a sort of intellectual and artistic agility and lightness of touch.”
This admiration of the light and even the light-hearted shows up in Salonen's work in his radiophonic composition Baalal (1982), which leads one's thoughts strongly in the direction of some of Luciano Berio’s pieces.
Another important stage in Salonen's development came with the Concerto for saxophone and orchestra from 1981. Before the Concerto, Salonen says he was “married to language”. He had approached the construction of a composition through language, had defined passages as words or pairs of words, had explained certain solutions adopted in the composing work by sentences, out of which were generated other sentences. “The Saxophone Concerto was the first of my works where the description of the music beforehand took place in musical terms. For this, the Concerto is an essentially better work than its predecessors - at least to me.” Of his present situation, Salonen tells that the wind quintet which is currently in progress will probably turn out to be the end of the road as far as his present aesthetic-technical thinking goes, as his musical vocabulary is looking for somewhere new to plant roots.
In his guise as a conductor, Salonen has given the first performances of a great many of the new Finnish orchestral works to emerge in recent years, and his repertoire in any event contains an exceptional amount of contemporary music. Salonen observes that the constant studying and presentation of the works of other composers has actually left remarkably little trace on composer-Salonen at the aesthetic level. In his practical work with orchestras he has naturally learnt an enormous amount about the potential such a body offers, and about constructing scores, but (he says with a sigh) “The conductor's gypsy lifestyle is not exactly ideally suited to getting that long-term planning quality you need for composition ..."
"Composing looms in my mind as some kind of lofty, sublime form of human activity.''Esa-Pekka Salonen
“I try to keep myself amused, too”
One characteristic feature of Salonen's composing to date is a pretty sovereign ability to slip from one type of work to another. He has written small solo instrumental studies and duos, radiophonics, electronic music, incidental music for the stage, and orchestral compositions for a traditional symphony orchestra line-up. This is of course in part a result of the type of commissions he has had, but to a great extent it is also a question of persona and type. “I try to keep myself amused, too. I don't see myself as the sort of person who would set about constructing a series of symphonies, although that doesn't mean I have any great dread of the word 'symphony'. I'm not trying too leave behind me a mass of product with a capital P, but I just have a go at whatever problem is uppermost at the time, without thinking too carefully about its relevance to my life as a whole. Of the composers of this century I suppose the closest to me is Stravinsky - perhaps that gives you something useful to go on.”
Salonen wrote his radiophonic work Baalal for the Prix Italia competition in 1982. In rather un-Finnish fashion, the piece is mercurial and chameleon-like, funny and in places compelling in all its shameless ugliness. The fundamental thematic material revolves around speaking and talking, human sounds. Salonen has not screened out of the work any of the possible sounds of the human body. Baalal proceeds as scenes on an imaginary stage. The text embraces snatches from Da Ponte's libretto for Don Giovanni and lines from Huxley's Brave New World, and others, and includes a dialogue written by Salonen in which an agitator harangues an excited crowd. The agitator's speech crystallizes into the following rather striking concluding lines: “Yes Prosit Joyce on Goethe Jeans. . . Disco Deus Spaghetti Off. . . Öylätti Venus Io Fallos Proust ... Memory Telefon Parole Text Coitus No Ketchup No Money ...” For the material to be played, Salonen makes use not only of the music he has written for vocalists and varying instrumental ensembles, but also borrows pieces from his own orchestral composition GIRO (1981).
If the resources on show in Baalal are characteristically heterogeneous, then the series of solo works begun in 1982 under the name YTA (Surface) represent concise, coherent music, composed as if through a microscope. Thus far there have been two offerings: YTA I for alto flute and YTA II for piano. Of the flute composition it has been said that it has the surface of a jewel, but that in the deep structure there are dramatic processes at work. In his programme-notes on the first performance of YTA II Salonen has contented himself with saying: “I have tried to learn something from crystals, from snow and ice.”
These poetic comments do in fact catch something of the essence of the two works. Both shape up in many ways as objects, and in both pieces Salonen has thought seriously about the exact amount of musical material which will suffice for each. The YTAs don’t pause for breath for a second. “I like music which has drive,” notes Salonen.
... auf den ersten Blick und ohne zu wissen ...
Salonen regards as his most important work so far the Concerto for saxophone and orchestra. He wrote it in Italy in 1980 and did the fine-tuning work in Finland during the following year. The title of the work and of the movements in it are borrowed from Franz Kafka.
The choices of instrumentation used are original to say the least. The primary atmosphere is created by an airy, grasshopper-like sound from harp, celesta, piano, vibraphone, and marimba. The string sections have been saved until the closing stages. The attacca shift into the string field which opens the third movement is an effective element in the overall dramaturgy of the concerto; the passage is one of the most attractive and significant in Salonen's entire output.
The harmony and melody of the composition hark back perhaps above all to Italian examples, but the persistent fixation with certain gestures and themes also leads one to think of American minimalism.
Timbre has an exceptionally upfront role in the factors bearing on the form of the Saxophone Concerto. All three movements have different instrumentation, and as well as the signs of “Italianate influences,” one could point specifically to the beginning of the second movement, where the beehive-like unisono of solo saxophone and four percussion instruments is splintered piece by piece like a view through a kaleidoscope: this is a solution which one can recognise as coming from Esa-Pekka Salonen and no-one else.
There is a lot of spirited kinetic energy, too, in Meeting for clarinet and harpsichord, written in 1982. On this work Salonen has commented that “Meeting is a reaction against slow, explanatory music,” and also that “It sometimes makes a change to have a bit of joy instead of moping.”
It's not what you say, it's what you do
Salonen takes a rather jaundiced view of what he can get done by speaking out in public. “I've never achieved anything by smiling for photographers.” As a realist he knows that what is traditionally called high culture is increasingly being squeezed where it hurts by “crappy but well-marketed throwaway kiosk culture.” Still, Salonen feels a desire for his part to awaken interest in new music and modern art in general.
In the final analysis it is only deeds that count. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a composer and a conductor who has already managed to record works by names such as Nielsen, Lutosławski, and Messiaen. The title to the opening movement of his Saxophone Concerto gives us more than an inkling of the composer's thoughts: “Ich habe zu reden. Ich hebe die Hände” - I have something to say. I raise my hands.
Translation: William Moore
The works of Esa-Pekka Salonen
Works for orchestra
flute, soprano, strings
version without soprano (1980)
available on disc: Tactus TA 8109
Apokalyptische Phantasie (1978)
brass band with tape
violin, cello, piano, orchestra
... auf den ersten Blick und ohne zu wissen ... (1980-81)
concerto far alto saxophone and orchestra
Horn Music I (1976)
horn and piano
available on disc: Sibelius Academy SAOLP 101
Sonata (1976-77) cello and piano Publisher: Seesaw
clarinet and piano
Publisher: Edition Fazer
2 trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba
Horn Music II (1979)
6 horns, percussion (2 players), tape available on disc: PANLP 005
oboe, violin, cello, percussion
violin and guitar Publisher: Jasemusiikki
clarinet and harpsichord
Two Songs to poems by Paavo Haavikko (1978)
soprano and piano
Works for solo instrument
YTA I (1982)
YTA 2 (1985)
Featured photo: Music Finland
This article was first published in FMQ 3/1986 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.