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Sebastian Fagerlund - full speed ahead

by Aki Yli-salomäki, Karoliina Vesa

The music of composer Sebastian Fagerlund has always been characterised by an energetic and effortless forward motion. In recent years, his career has likewise gone full speed ahead.

The music of Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972) is an appealing mix of pulsating rhythmic layers, expansive gestures and undulating extended chords. Sometimes these elements are separate, sometimes blended – but the texture is always intuitively compelling. Brimming with carefully crafted details and elegant transitions, Fagerlund’s music has one clear direction: forward.

Visual associations and mental images

Listening to Fagerlund’s first work for large symphony orchestra, Ignite (2009-2010), or the somewhat earlier Isola (2007) for small orchestra, it is impossible to avoid visual associations. The colours, sudden transitions and fast pace of his writing captivate the listener in a way that is rare for contemporary music. Like some film directors, Fagerlund has created an immediately recognisable style of his own by blending a multitude of influences.

The composer himself is not completely comfortable with the moving picture analogy, although in a carefully phrased comment he admits to “a possibility of similarities”. “I often use abrupt transitions, layering and the evoking of various emotional states, which is what film music does too,” says Fagerlund, sitting on the sofa in his elegantly furnished study in the Kruununhaka district of Helsinki.

Another film connection is Susanna Välimäki, who keeps cropping up in Fagerlund’s conversation. She is a music scholar focusing on audiovisual narratives who has described some portions of Ignite as a “Blade Runner pastoral” and made reference to Lynch-like or Tarantino-like dimensions in Fagerlund’s music. The composer is impressed: “It was as if she were reading my thoughts! I was particularly excited with the notion of a Blade Runner pastoral. It is one of my favourite films.”

But there are more sci-fi references to come. In Ignite, the music hovers in unending space – menacing, aloof and unstoppable. One is reminded of the Borg, the all-consuming cybernetic organisms in the Star Trek TV series. As man and machine merge, all music is one: mechanical churning, massive and tense pillars of sound, and the endless swirls and whirls going on inside the music.

So it would be fair to say that Sebastian Fagerlund is interested in the relationship between visual expression and music?

“Of course. Films are important to me, and many people have commented on the visual nature of my music. But I never have an actual narrative or extra-musical idea in mind when writing music,” Fagerlund explains.

Polishing and change

Sebastian Fagerlund rarely encounters musical ideas beyond the realm of music. Processing material for one work generates further material through what might be described as a continuous process of self-rediscovery. For him, composing is developing and refining materials, yielding new and more interesting stuff to work with. “Raffinera, what is that in Finnish again?” asks Fagerlund, a Swedish native speaker though fluent in Finnish. The verb he uses means ‘refine’, but specifically in the sense of making more elegant or exquisite.

The Clarinet Concerto (2006) is often regarded as a turning point in Fagerlund’s output. It clearly manifests a newly relaxed idiom where many stylistic and conceptual things have finally fallen into place. It is a playfully rhythmic piece that has captivated audiences and critics alike; it has since been identified as a clear step towards Fagerlund’s now well-established and easily identified style. He himself does not quite agree with the notion of a stylistic turning point.

“I see my works as forming a single continuum, although I suppose that a certain type of musical material became crystallised for me in the Clarinet Concerto and I began to use it more freely and with more clarity. I have always been interested in ritualistic and primeval things, and in impulses from other genres of music. All this went into Isola, Partita, Ignite and the Clarinet Concerto and can be found in my chamber music too.”

Alongside all of the rhythmic music that was going on in Fagerlund’s output there is also an anomaly: Partita (2007-2009) for strings and percussion is a predominantly slow work. It has slow flanking movements, the first one being a dramatic and expansive introduction to the middle movement – which is more familiar Fagerlund, fusing a variety of rhythms and cultural influences into its texture. The final movement, Preghiera, is an intensive meditation that may also be performed separately.

“While I was working on Preghiera, I discovered that writing slow music was surprisingly challenging for me. In a slow texture, changes are so exposed and so significant that I had real difficulties in getting anywhere. Perhaps it is partly because I am an impatient person that I like to write music that just keeps rolling forward,” Fagerlund analyses with a smile.

Interaction and continuity

Interaction between performing musicians and composers is a long and venerable tradition. It used to be the case that composers also performed their own works – or, to look at it another way, musicians also wrote music that they then performed themselves. Fagerlund, originally a violinist himself, considers interaction with performing musicians important even today. Many of Fagerlund’s works have received their original impetus from a musician. One of these is sax player Olli-Pekka Tuomisalo. In the early days of his career, Fagerlund wrote him a solo piece named Ground (1999/2001), and their collaboration later led to his Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (2004).

Fagerlund has enjoyed a particularly fruitful collaboration with Christoffer Sundqvist, who plays solo clarinet with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This began back in 1998 when Sundqvist premiered Fagerlund’s work Emanations (1998). Over the years, Sundqvist has premiered and performed many of Fagerlund’s works, and there are more to come. The next one, a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano commissioned by Sundqvist, will be premiered in Stockholm in June.

“I know Christoffer well as a musician, and he is at least as thoroughly familiar with my music. A single comment from him may turn my train of thought from one technical and expressive aspect to something quite different. It is very much a self-sustaining process,” Fagerlund says with enthusiasm and explains: “It is the same thing with conductors. I have been hugely inspired by the energetic and exhilarating conducting of Sakari Oramo, and I have gained a lot from working with Dima Slobodeniouk.”

Challenges and new departures

For many composers, writing a symphony or an opera is a grand career milestone. Fagerlund’s Ignite for large orchestra would qualify as a symphony in terms of its duration and orchestration, but he did not want to call it by that name. “With Ignite, the title was the abstract inspiration for the music from the very first and to such a great extent that I could not imagine any other title for the piece. It is very likely that I will never write a large orchestral work that I would call a ‘symphony’.”

One summer before last, Fagerlund took a significant step towards the stage. His two-act chamber opera Döbeln (2008-2009) focuses on General Georg Carl von Döbeln, a controversial though brilliant Swedish military leader in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Fagerlund says that he was interested specifically in the musical form of a stage work.

“In Döbeln, my major challenge was to create and manage the overall structure for a piece for the stage. I wanted to take the emotional states and suggestive pacing of the scenes as far as possible, even to extremes, yet at the same time keep the overall arc of the music of the opera intact.”

The Döbeln project left a lingering interest, but Fagerlund refuses to describe himself as an opera composer on the strength of one chamber opera. He does admit to being more interested in opera now, though: “It was a long and tiring process, but when rehearsals finally began, I felt born again,” Fagerlund recalls. He also enjoys the psychological dimensions of opera: “It is wonderful to be able to take the listener from one emotional state to another using the same music and to create illusions where time slows down or speeds up.”

Fagerlund used no choir in Döbeln, nor in the cantata he wrote for the 200th anniversary of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig RunebergHöga lågor, stilla vatten (High flames, still waters, 2003). Surprisingly, for all his experience in writing vocal music, Fagerlund sees writing for choir as something of a challenge:

“The sound of a choir is so homogenous. It is the same kind of problem as in writing for a string orchestra. You have to dig down deep to find out how you can sensibly produce different sounds and different ways of realising your musical thoughts,” Fagerlund explains. He has written some choral pieces, though, such as Sinnlighetens fest (Feast of sensuality, 2003) and Teckning (Drawing, 2006) for male choir, and more recently Nocturne (2010) for women’s choir, with a premiere scheduled for March 2011.

Alternatives and choices

For Sebastian Fagerlund, trying out new things has been a natural part of discovering his own voice. At the beginning of his career, he experimented with electronic music, but never felt comfortable with it. “Fiddling with electronics just did not seem interesting or rewarding for me. Besides, studio technology is so advanced these days that it would require a full-time commitment to be able to use it to its full extent,” he says.

A different and more fruitful avenue of experimentation may be found in Sky (2008) for Baroque ensemble. It combines the colours of the Renaissance with Fagerlund’s own, brisk and playful idiom. The sound of the Baroque ensemble lends a deliciously primitive and profound tone to his music. Sky was followed by Sky II (2009).

Fagerlund says that he gradually discovered his working methods and idiom through a combination of technical discipline on the one hand and complete intuitive abandon on the other. His musical influences include Edgard Varèse, Witold Lutosławski and Marc-Anthony Turnage; but we should not forget genres beyond Western concert music such as minimalist techno or heavy metal. The analytical approach of the traditional European avant-garde has never felt right for him, but he is equally uncomfortable with its diametrical opposite, complete freedom. Fagerlund decided that the latter was impossible while studying in the Netherlands in the late 1990s.

“If anything goes, then the end result can be of questionable quality and trite, as technical proficiency is overruled by stylistic curiosities. Technique is just as important as finding your own voice. Generally speaking I have a problem with extremist and ‘One True Way’ ideologies,” Fagerlund says.

Outlook and future

In recent years, many new doors have opened up for Fagerlund. His publisher is now the distinguished Edition Peters, and there are at least four discs of his music in the pipeline with the BIS label. The first of these is the opera Döbeln, to be followed this spring by a disc containing the Clarinet Concerto, Isola and Partita. He has a calendar full of commissions, performances and new musician partners for years to come; at the moment, he is working on a violin concerto for Pekka Kuusisto, to be premiered in 2012. This will be preceded by the aforementioned Clarinet Sonata, a trio for strings, and a solo guitar work commissioned by Ismo Eskelinen.

The freedom to do what one wants brings responsibilities, and responsibilities bring fresh challenges and burdens. As Fagerlund’s catalogue grows, his self-criticism grows too. “Every time I complete a work, the blank paper on my desk screams at me to go even deeper,” Fagerlund sighs. As a listener, he appreciates music that is well executed and is honest and communicative – regardless of what style it is in. Creating such art requires public funding, and Fagerlund is worried about how much importance concepts such as efficiency and quick results have acquired both in education and in society at large today.

“These concepts have nothing to do with a living, pluralist culture or with ambitious artistry. Business models are not applicable to the arts. Are they actually applicable anywhere in the long run, I wonder? Few decision-makers seem to realise this. Long-term efforts, tireless curiosity and craftsmanship are key factors in maintaining and developing a rich culture,” Fagerlund says.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Sirpa Räihä / HS


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/2011

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