in From the Archives

Magnus Lindberg: A voice from the 1980s

by Magnus Lindberg

Eversince I became familiar with Stockhausen's tempered tempo scales and the organization of time in his 1950s pieces, the rhythmic element has been assuming an increasingly prominent role in my music...
Eversince I became familiar with Stockhausen’s tempered tempo scales and the organization of time in his 1950s pieces, the rhythmic element has been assuming an increasingly prominent role in my music. Stockhausen perceives time as an interval divided into impulses, rather like the Talea in Indian music; for me, however, time’s function in a piece is more like that of an energy generator and framework. In many of my compositions, I have accorded so much priority to rhythmic organization that I have devised the whole “back-bone” of the work like a long papyrus roll with nothing but rhythms. I prefer the word “rhythm” to “duration” – in my view, duration is associated with articulation of tones and is thus controlled, in conjunction with instrumentatism, by the rhythm material.

Already in Zona (1983), I was interested in the continuum between different rhythms, a gradual transition from one character to another. I calculated these so-called interpolations of rhythms manually and, naturally, soon became aware of the need for a computer program capable of accomplishing such processes more flexibly. My preliminary work for Kraft (1983–85) consisted of a program written in Forth on an Apple II microcomputer. Its purpose was to facilitate the “translation” of proportional rhythms into metric rounding-offs, with interpretative aspects allowed for. This program was also to prove important on a more general plane as well. In fact, it was the first step in a direction leading away from superserial, exact aesthetics; the friction and the morphology in the material could now be avoided by processing the material. There was no longer much difficulty in transcribing elastic characteristics like logarithmic proportions into metric notations. Bricks had been transformed into malleable clay.

This also had consequences for my thinking on form. My former ideal had been to strive for as blocklike forms as possible, as in Sculpture 2 (1981), Tendenza (1982) and Ground (1983). The material now suddenly acquired continuous characteristics and I began using processes which gradually changed and transformed characters. The title Kraft (which means force or strength) reflected this characteristic – similarly to fire’s ability to liquidate materials of the most different kinds, the micro structural level in Kraft was built up on a compression of highly disparate characters to one and the same point. This form of simplification rather than a development of ideas is actually the only form of process that I accept. Ever since Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X, with its gradual progress from disorder to order, I have felt that evolutionary thinking on form is impossible for me personally.


My contact with Vinko Globokar in the beginning of the 1980s also made me aware of the necessity of extreme polarities as the basis for thinking on form. Only the extreme is interesting – striving for a balanced totality is nowadays an impossibility. An original mode of expression can only be achieved through the marginal (a romantic perception?) – the hypercomplex combined with the primitive.

In my earlier works (Sonatas (1979), etc.), I was still optimistically searching for an expressionist form of statement. In Sculpture 2 and Tendenza, I distanced myself from the aesthetics of culmination and focused on a new dramaturgy – a multidimensional and heterogeneous assembly of structures grouped without the orientation and connection which the aesthetics of culmination require.

Action-Situation-Signification (1982) is the furthest reaching attempt to work with timbre as the structurally guiding element. The German composer Helmut Lachenmann has enormously inspired me by his grouping of sound objects into categories, which are determined by the mode of origination and the production material.

Timbres of the most opposing characters can be grouped under the same heading – sound produced by blowing, scraping, etc., or, for example, various metallic sounds, which become unified because of the physical material which is the source of vibrations.

I have never felt particularly attracted to Varèse‘s idea of a continuum between pure sounds and noise. This grouping appears altogether too vague to me. In my view, furthermore, the only pure sound that exists is a sinus tone, which I do not regard as particularly interesting. An unharmonic spectrum is a description which does not specifically define a sound. For me personally, a grouping of timbres in Lachenmann’s spirit remains (at least for the present) more relevant, and makes it possible to accomplish a more exact separation of complex heterogeneous sound phenomena.

A distinction of sound objects on a primitive and tangible level appeals to me, although I am fully aware of the limitations of such a subjective and discrete classification.


It may have been fear or the limitlessness of electronic music that repelled me from it – the only tape pieces I did in the EMS studio in Stockholm in the 1970s were superstructured constructions lacking flesh and blood. The concept “timbre” did not appeal to me then. It was only with the advent of MIDI and digital synthesizers with a personal “instrumental approach” that I again became interested in electronic music.

A computer has long been an active component of my composition work, but it has been used only to prepare material and control structures and forms.

I saw the Yamaha DX7 as the first real electronic instrument whose potential lay in the interpreter’s skill with and understanding of the instrument. In our century, Western music has not been interested in manufacturing new instruments. The DX7 is one of the first major orchestral instruments since the saxophone. Although the manufacture of digital instruments is strongly anchored in the needs ofrock music, it is still important for today’s composers to keep abreast of what is happening in the development of new instruments.

In Kraft, I used electronic drums for the first time, and UR’s (1986) ensemble consisted of acoustic instruments combined with digital synthesizers.

Collaborating with Juha Siltanen and Juhani Liimatainen in the radiophonic piece Faust (1986) radically changed my attitude to recording techniques and studio work. The distinction that rock n musicians have long drawn between live concerts and studio recordings also applies well to classical music. A recording of a piece does not necessarily have to be an exact copy of a concert performance. The possibility to use multitrack recording and effect equipment gives a studio version of a piece completely new aspects and potential. Stockhausen’s division of the building blocks of music into pitches, durations, intensities, timbres and spaces could be accentuated by means of the “effect” parameter. Complex passages which remain more or less diffuse in a concert performance can be made more pronounced in a studio by using stereo techniques, digital echo devices, etc.


Composition with twelvetone rows has never actually satisfied me. Control over the harmonic course of events coupled with colour without repetition of the pitch sequence became more important to me already when I was working on Sculpture 2. In the same way as Lutoslawski directs the aleatory counterpoint according to strict harmonic principles, I constructed harmonic successions which divide the range into different formations, diagonals, zig-zag patterns, etc. In this way, every vertical moment can be controlled according to the range. Articulation of the melodic sequence does not follow a strict order, but is done to match the specific requirements of each situation. This technique resembles Hauer’s trope thinking insofar as the pitch order is given a certain degree of local freedom to arrange itself.

This vertical harmonic system with its division of pitches in the range without twelve-tone series – a kind of expanded chaconne technique – has made it possible to guide masses with a broad range division and a large number of pitches. In Kraft, certain chords encompassed 72 pitches – something in between timbre and harmony (in the spirit of French composers).

The control and establishment of harmonic successions is guided not only by its bond to the range and the timbral control which this involves, but also on a more structural plane. The chord should be capable of being classified according to specific characteristics, symmetry, interval content, shape, density, emphasis, etc.

My contacts with Allens Forte‘s theories gave me a new angle of incidence, because it makes an objective grouping of the pitch material possible. The set theory has been criticized for too one-sidedly analyzing tile pitch content of music in our century. But Forte’s theory is, despite everything, objective and consistent; chords are grouped into different classes according to pitch and interval content.

The principles of set theory are eminently suitable for a global control of the harmonic material which I long tried to group and classify using various methods. I wrote a computer program, which I called “Rules and Representation”. It is written in LISP, and serves as an interface between rational and structured material, on one hand, and the intuitively harmonious material, which I myself “experienced”. The main outline of the principle is that subjectively selected chords are fed in and then analyzed and classified with the computer’s help. The results of the analysis can then be organized and the intuitively composed material processed structually and justified to obtain a more coherent final result. The program also accumulated knowledge and “learns” to point out remarkable features in the material fed in.

The purpose ot the program is to gradually build up a database containing all the tone material that I have used and expand the harmonious palette from work to work.

In UR (1986) I developed, in close collaboration with Lee Boynton at IRCAM, a program which “comments” on the musical situations fed into the computer.

The material is refined and filtered and the syntax of the musical language is summarized on various levels of rules and constellations, which the computer subsequently combines in different ways. The composer’s role alternates between noting and experiencing the mechanically produced result – the final choice of a musically satisfying course of events always remains the composer’s privilege.

In the same way as the fascination of “musique concrète” lies in the discovery of hidden structures in sound material fed in, the computer produces drafts of a course of events with a structure which the composer can discover. What is involved is not actually the creation of an automaton for producing music (which could also be an enticing venture), but mainly a constant need to broaden the repertory of ideas and for confrontations with the unexpected.

Translation: Gregory Coogan

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1987.