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Magnus Lindberg – Changing style

by Tomi Mäkelä

Barely having finished Joy, the last part of his orchestral trilogy to which his earlier works Kinetics and Marea also belong, and also the Piano Concerto, which is a synthesis of the three, Magnus Lindberg is already planning an “opera spectacle” for Brussels. He is also in the process of writing a large scale orchestral work for the BBC which will be premièred in November.

In spite of having developed a highly sophisticated computer environment for composition, his ideas on composing, tradition, genre and the goals set by the art of composition in general are nevertheless very classical. Well aware of his relationship with the past and the traditions of European music and Western art music in general, he dislikes post-modernism and studies Stravinsky instead. His BBC commission has led him back to the primal style of Ur and Kraft.


Magnus, which aspects of your music are actually influenced by the computer?

The computer is part of my everyday life. I have a huge two megabit environment which I have been programming since 1979. All the same, I use the computer in a very rudimentary way: basically for the organisation of musical time. The first projects I did, back in the eighties (Kraft etc.) were entirely based on time structures. I was able to work with time in a very elastic way, transforming certain rhythmic patterns in various ways and quantising them with the computer. These kind of transformations are ideally suited to computer realisation. Compare these processes with film animation: imagine a hat and a rabbit and the possibilities of creating any number of different intermediate versions between these two objects!

Since 1985 my main interest has been to work on harmonic concepts, partly based on the ideas of set theory, i.e. the idea of grouping pitches into classes and working with the computer with regard to using chords as partials of some fundamentals, for example. Whatever pitches are played together simultaneously as chords can always be perceived as belonging to a fundamental, and this is easy to analyse with the computer. So I think I have a very basic level of approach to using the computer. It does not invent any formal structures for me, and the “old school” way of working with stochastic processes is not at all my domain.


What about the problem of formal sections and their organisation?

A musical object always has its own rhythmic behaviour, harmonic behaviour, some timbral aspects and the related question of how these objects get transformed into other objects. In my case, the larger sections of a piece are based on the kind of objects with which I am working and the process of transformation I am applying. I assemble blocks of completely different characters, and create strong tensions between different materials. I am working with quite clear material archetypes, rhythmic qualities like ritardandos and long durations contrasting with very rapid passages with some ametric, arhythmic, aperiodic rhythms or periodic rhythms: very clear labels in their own way. And then I work with the transformations of these characters. The same goes for harmony. So I try to create a union regarding this way of viewing the musical material. Today, we are much too focussed on the parametric way of thinking about music. Many composers still try to split music into different parameters, whereas they would be better trying to put them together.

Take Joy for example, which is a large piece: half an hour is a long piece, at least in my vocabulary! I see Joy as the final part of a trilogy which I started with Kinetics. The second part was Marea, and Joy is the final step. They all represent more or less the same aesthetic, a similar approach to working with materials, and in writing Joy I really wanted to extend the processes and give them time to evolve. In Kinetics, however, the processes are extremely rapid throughout the piece: it is more kaleidoscopic. In Joy, on the other hand, I spread it over a long time: the processes really shape the music and the evolution of the sections.


Joy already makes use of a piano. Is Joy perhaps not only part of the trilogy but also a kind of preparation for your first piano concerto?

In a way I would say “yes”. The first piano concerto is a resumé of the orchestral pieces. Whatever view other composers take today, I still think that the combining of soloist and orchestra is something that still needs to be solved. I oppose the anti-concerto concept. If I have a soloist I will give the solo an important role to play. I will not work against the soloist – that does not make any sense. When I started to work on Joy, I took the attitude at the beginning that this was a piano concerto. Later I needed more soloists and expanded it to form a concertino group of six soloists. But the dream of writing a piano concerto – after all the piano is my own instrument – had been with me since 1983.

In spite of the wonderful modern piano concertos which have been written during our century, I still felt that what was missing was the use of the instrument more for its sonorities. Schönberg, Bartók and Prokofiev – like Stravinsky – all treat the piano as a percussion instrument. I spoke with Pierre Boulez about this one evening and he said, “If you start to write harmonic music for the piano, you get back to Debussy and Chopin.” And I said, “Yes, but it is a pity that we miss and actually give up the opportunity for doing things that really sound on the piano.” So I wanted to work against the martellato aesthetics of the piano. And once I appreciated the wonderful qualities of Paul Crossley, to whom the piece is dedicated, it felt very natural to ask him if he wanted to do the first performance, since he is a specialist in French piano music: Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen.


You ponder a lot about technical matters and software. Do you give weight to reflecting on the ethics and the meaning of your music?

Of course, whatever anyone says, we are all part of a society. But music is very abstract artform, so I do not want to see a one-to-one relationship between ethics, politics or other concerns and my musical language. Music is part of today, but I am just a little opposed to the idea of finding a programme for musical ideas and pushing the music towards extra-musical analyses. I think music should remain abstract. Just now, we live in an incredible age – in Finland, in Europe and in the whole world. But how does it affect our writing? I just can’t tell.

To give an example, in the post-modernist approach I dislike the fact that you say that things have a meaning and that by making combinations you infect your own meanings into them. I am not so sure whether the musical materials really have meanings in that sense of the word. Therefore, if I do not regard music as having any proper meaning, it then becomes silly for me to think in terms of post-modernist concepts and of making combinations or putting meanings into things. It goes without saying that music is a means of communication, but does that mean we are putting a significational meaning into sound objects?

If one really has something to say in that sense, words are a much stronger vehicle. I don’t think that music should carry a proclamatory message or try to speculate. Music should be honest. But post-modern composers often speculate with their musical material, which is something I dislike.


What about tradition in general? Is the Western tradition worth taking notice of any more?

The Darmstadt people made the decision to start from scratch. I don’t think this was ever a reality, even though the first music they produced did not represent in the short-term-perspective a continuation of tradition. It is ridiculous to give up the idea of tradition in Western society, since we have to live with it anyway. Music-making today is part of the continuing process which comes out of the past and no composer can avoid that.


You have planned your first opera project for Brussels. In view of the fact that you feel uncomfortable with the idea of semantics, what is your opera going to be, or are you perhaps still attracted by the idea after all?

Absolutely I am, but it is a very long-term project. Evidently, this won’t be a typical opera project. Like Stockhausen in Licht, I will do something special with the theatrical layout and scenography, where everything is possible anyway. I consider the opera to be the ultimate place to do a megalomanic project, with a multimedia kind of approach; involving voices, lights, video, computers, electronics, orchestra, the whole works. My approach will be very spectacle oriented. The point I am starting from now is chaos, trying to organise the thing and not start from the concept of arias, recitatives or narratives. But it is dangerous to say too much for the moment, since I don’t have a precise concept of the production as yet. But if I am to do the project, it has to be like that. Otherwise it would be ridiculous for me to do an opera at all, because so far my experience with melodies, voices and singers is virtually at freezing point…


Your next large-scale project is a piece for the BBC orchestra, which will be played in London in November. Is this going to be an important work for you?

This is a piece going back to the more primitive sound world of Kraft and Ur. I am getting back to puritanismé: the idea of working with more percussive orchestral sounds and combining them with extra electronics. I came to a point of conclusion with the polished surfaces I used in the piano concerto and Joy. I cannot go any further in that direction than I did in some of the sonorous passages in Joy. The next step would be Hollywood! I want to take a step in a different direction now.

Quite clearly, the pieces I did ten years ago, or five years ago, or just recently all differ from one another: at least I hope they do! But the concepts are the same. It is always a very expressionist approach to work with tensions and a very directional way of modelling one’s musical language. So those ideas in my music still remain, even though I view them from different angles. Some people say that Stravinsky’s pieces differ from one another so very much. I would say that his pieces from the late fifties and the pieces he wrote in his teens and the 1920s have lots of aspects in common: the musical language is the same. The surface changed, and his way of treating materials changed, but nevertheless I always find Stravinsky’s signature behind the different pieces. In Argon and Les noces – which interest me very much right now – you find many things in common, even if they are very far apart from one another. I also view my musical language as a flow – a continuation.

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1992 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.