''Being a composer today is like a permanent balancing act between expressiveness and technology. I have a rather sceptical attitude towards this Neue Schönheit trend. I find the calculation of processes and structures an immense source of inspiration, and the development of increasingly sophisticated and multi-layered progressions is a must if we are to assimilate ever richer and more developed means of musical expression. The translation of musical problems into a computer programme is a way of extending one's vision and understanding the basic laws of music, and it places the composer right there in a new interactive situation."
In all his works Magnus Lindberg's approach to music is severe, almost harsh. Those looking for Romantic pathos will go away empty-handed, there are no songful melodies, no thick, bulging texture. Everything is bright and clear, marked with small neat notes. In 1980 Lindberg remarked: "I feel a great attraction for theorising, I want to condense things, clear up situations and problems". He'd probably still go along with this view today.
Stockhausen evenings and trips abroad
Looking at Magnus Lindberg's early compositions, one might almost imagine he had always been working with music, that he was another of these child prodigy characters. But for one who wrote his first orchestral work as a teenager Magnus Lindberg was something of a late-starter: piano lessons at 11, off to the Sibelius Academy for more serious study at 15. Still, only three years after starting this formal training, he was performing in public the compositions of his fellow students, and of course his own pieces.
A ready gift for taking in new ideas has been typical of Lindberg's later career, too, and he takes a delight in getting to grips with tough challenges. At the end of the 1970's Lindberg was active in the Korvat Auki (Ears Open) music society, whose members were drawn from the country's young composers and contemporary music enthusiasts, and he was responsible for several Stockhausen performance projects, which confused and perplexed concert-goers in Helsinki at the time.
With his student colleagues and Paavo Heininen, his composition tutor at the Academy, Lindberg got to know music by playing, listening, and reading. In spite of the fact that Finland sometimes misses out on material about new works, even those by composers of note, Magnus Lindberg was able to more than hold his end up in discussions on all the various shapes that music has taken during the 20th century.
In 1980 he was already in a position to write: "The prime mover behind this change in my style was getting to know the music of Luciano Berio from a new angle. Previously I had been fascinated by Berio's music in the same sense as Boulez's, starting from the structural properties of the work. The experience I got on discovering the incredible granular variations which are an important element of Berio's music, the ability of the musical texture to take shape according to the graininess of the surface, the extraordinary expressive richness and sense of drama which is associated with the music irrespective of its structural properties, it all changed my approach to musical thinking in general."
And when Finland seemed just a little too sleepy, Magnus Lindberg set sail for new horizons abroad. At the end of the 1970s he visited the EMS Electronic Music Studio in Stockholm, investigating the formulation of his musical ideas with the aid of computer technology and sound synthesis techniques. At the beginning of the 80s he made for Siena and the summer academy there, to Franco Donatoni's masterclasses, and visited Darmstadt for one of the summer "Ferienkurse", where he met the English composer Brian Ferneyhough. The annual Young Nordic Music festivals for up-and-coming composers also added a Scandinavian perspective to his music. In the spells between these brief digressions, Lindberg continued his studies at the Sibelius Academy under the stern gaze of Paavo Heininen, and emerged with his diploma in the spring of 1981.
Since then it would be fair to say that Magnus Lindberg has spent as much time abroad as he has in Finland. His main base has been Paris, where for a couple of years he met regularly with Vinko Globokar and Gérard Grisey, and on a few occasions with Iannis Xenakis, whose ideas seem by the mid-1980s to have become increasingly important to him. During a spell in Germany he visited York Holler, but now he has again returned to Paris, where he is completing a work commissioned by the IRCAM studio.
Magnus Lindberg has never felt a need to "lock away" his works from the public gaze, even his earliest offerings. He has no regrets even about those pieces which have remained unperformed owing to playing difficulties of one kind of another. If we go back to the 1970s we can find several such examples: Espressione I for cello, and his only vocal works Jag vill breda vingar ut for mezzosoprano and piano and the wordless Untitled for twenty solo singers - although the latter work is icluded almost in its entirety in the 1981 piano quintet ... de Tartuffe, je crois, which was for some time Lindberg's most-played composition, a hit, insofar as such a term can ever be used about contemporary music.
From his later output, however, "impossible" works are much harder to find: nowadays when he is engaged on the impossible, he covers his bets by booking Toimii, the laboratory ensemble he helped to found. Toimii - the name could loosely be translated as Acts - can set aside sufficient time to rehearse for a performance, and Lindberg is well aware of the extensive resources it has at its disposal, since he plays in the outfit himself. The only newer work not yet to have found a performer is the harpsichord work Ground, from 1983.
Lindberg regards as his Opus 1 the Quintetto dell'estate, completed in Siena in 1979, which is scored for a Pierrot-like line-up: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. In connection with this work Lindberg has spoken at length of Sibelius's 7th Symphony, from which he has found the same kind of interesting features, bearing on the compositions of today, as have certain of the younger generation of French composers, such as Tristan Murail.
Quintetto dell'estate is energetic, virtuoso music, which in a compositional sense is built up of five puzzle-pieces - small musical ideas with all their relevant parameters defined - which are set up in different relationships with each other. In characteristic Lindberg fashion each instrument has its own cadenza, and the overall form is shaped of short passages, the climaxes of which each have a different dramatic intensity. The grandest climax is arranged such that each instrument marks time repeating its own rhythm, and gradually notes disappear from each rhythmic figure, until the situation reaches its simplest possible form. The intensity is raised not by stepping up the degree of complexity, but rather by its elimination. This feature can be found, given different treatments, in several of Lindberg's works.
The cadenza passages in the Quintetto dell'estate also subtly exhibit Lindberg's use of open form principles. Four different possible arrangements are offered for combining the cadenzas and interludes, with the performers at liberty to choose whichever they prefer. Lindberg has elsewhere gone much further in his investigations of open form, a topic which seems in the late 1970s to have interested several of the Korvat Auki group of composers, for instance in his Play 1 for 2 pianos from 1979. The mode of composition and the names he chose for the movements would seem to suggest Lindberg had taken a close look at Boulez's 3rd Piano Sonata. The players have varying degrees of freedom in the different passages, and some idea of the degree of freedom involved can be gained from the fact that there have been both 10 and 20 minute versions of the work.
Thus far the latest and perhaps most workable of Lindberg's excursions into open form is his first real orchestral work Drama (1980-81), which in the composer's own words is "a concerto for conductor and orchestra". The conductor is allowed - following certain predetermied rules - to choose from the score the passages to be played, but on the other hand all the players' parts - that is to say whatever the conductor has picked out - must be played exactly as written. Lindberg has compared the idea of Drama to real-time composing with the aid of a computer: "Isn't playing together between computer (the orchestra), programme (the composer), and interpreter (the conductor) already of itself drama?"
Lindberg's output contains one clear orchestral/ chamber orchestra line of compositions, taking in works such as Drama, Ritratto, Sculpture 2, Tendenza, and Kraft. Nevertheless, the interspersed chamber music works are not simply spin-offs from his orchestral experiments or practice-pieces for them, but they do also have their own independent weight.
In the wake of Quintetto dell'estate Lindberg wrote the work Sonatas for violin and piano, one idea of which was to abstract out elements from classical sonata principle. When talking about the form of his Sonatas, Lindberg has compared it with the technique of Mihail Bulgakov's novels, in which various roles are presented, and each follows its own chain of events. In musical terms this means that several development lines can be carried forward simultaneously. Bulgakov's name comes up again, much more directly this time, in the 1981 piano quintet ... de Tartuffe,je crois, the material for which comes in part from Lindberg's only venture into incidental music, written for the Bulgakov play Moliére, or the Conspiracy of Pietists (1980).
Tartuffe is not a very typical example of Lindberg's work, in the sense that it is made up in great measure of quotations - even allowing for the fact that most of these are from his own music. The outside borrowings, modified but clearly distinguishable, are a couple of fragments of French baroque music from the time of Moliére: from Jean-Philippe Rameau, who provides the harmonic progression in the march-like section which climaxes the work, and from Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose music provides the ingredients for the piano's serene mourning music on Moliére's death.
Tartuffe also contains a snatch of text from Bulgakov's play. Before the players arrive at the actual recitation, they deliver a series of carefully marked phonetic symbols. With the exception of a couple of early - and unperformed - pieces, Lindberg has not written any vocal music, but as if by way of compensation he has slotted into his instrumental works such phonetic symbols to be recited by the musicians. The human voice is one instrument among the others.
Phonetic expression has an even greater part to play in the 1981 quartet Linea d'ombra, written in Rome, which has a special place in Lindberg's oeuvres in the sense that it was his first composition after coming out of the Sibelius Academy. "When I was writing this piece I felt a great delight in no longer having to keep explaining what I was doing", noted Lindberg some time afterwards. The odd instrumental line-up (flute, saxophone, guitar, percussion) of Linea d'ombra is a product of the work's being a commission from the Finnish Cluster ensemble, and the central connecting thought is one of the sounds of different instruments being interwoven one with another and with the spoken voice.
The piece begins with a predominantly wood-based sound, which gradually begins to change shape. Later the human voice comes in, revealing its significance at the close: out of a mass of incoherent phonemes emerges a message in the form of an enigmatic fragment on an Italian verse: "Sorridi, sospira, sospendi la morte, giura che un melo di freddo da fiori stasera" (Laugh, sigh, keep Death at arm's length, know that the apple tree of coldness blooms in the evening).
According to Lindberg himself, the idea behind Linea d'ombra is to create continua between various different means of producing sounds. The instrumental forces are not treated as an ensemble but as a macroinstrument, the harmonic spectra of which are put under the lens in the piece. The mode of progression could be likened to a strip-cartoon in which separated, still images are used to create an illusion of continuous movement. The complex rhythmic models in what is all in all a highly virtuoso work derive from the fragment of text to be heard at the close. Truly an organic fusing of words and music!
When a concert of his works was arranged in 1983, Lindberg wrote Ablauf, a piece for clarinet and two primitive percussions ad lib to be played during the interval. He explained his choice of rather noisy back-ground music by declaring that "a concert is not a neutral social situation". This kind of thinking would seem to point a finger in the direction of his teacher and friend Vinko Globokar. For all that, the influence of Globokar's ideas on Lindberg's music has ultimately been relatively scanty.
On the other hand, however, the music of lannis Xenakis does offer some clues; one can find common features in his compositions and the solutions adopted in certain of Lindberg's works, If it is after all really necessary to search for such so-called influences. Xenakis operates with masses and great numbers, not with individual notes. This mode of thought has its place with Lindberg, too, albeit not in quite the same form. Paradoxically enough, one could say that Xenakis's thinking is more theoretical and rational than the theoretical speculation and searching for patterns that lies behind Lindberg's composing work. The real difference emerges in that where with Xenakis there is a long irrational leap between the thinking and its translation into music, so with Lindberg the ideas are translated more directly into musical notation. Even in his treatment of large sound-masses Lindberg marks down minute changes in details accurately on paper. Looked at from the point of view of timbral image, the listener's thoughts drift in the direction of Xenakis for example on hearing the glissandos in the first movement of Ritratto, or in the solo cello section of Zona from 1983, where the extreme limits of virtuosity are combined with primitive energy and power.
Zona differs from practically all other Lindberg compositions, in the sense that when viewed from a distance it progresses evenly, without any great ascents, boundary marks, or changes of texture. Written for cello solo and a seven-piece ensemble, Zona approaches the soloist as if the thorny issue of technical difficulties had never been invented. The cello part is written continuously on two staves, almost as if the composer had penned it for piano or at least two "monophonic" instruments. But the performance produced by cellist (and Toimii stalwart) Anssi Karttunen and Holland's The New Ensemble goes to show that the realisation of the impossible brings its own emotional bonus to the listening process. Expressionist thought is far from Magnus Lindberg's compositions, but if it is to be found anywhere then it is here in Zona, although to be sure even here it is abstracted, as if raised to a higher power.
The line drawn by the previously mentioned orchestral compositions leads us to 1985 and Lindberg's major work to date, Kraft for symphony orchestra and soloist ensemble. In Ritratto the orchestral treatment is realised by means of a group of 18 musicians. The piece initially took shape as a chamber concerto, but during a four-year composition process it metamorphosed into a work in which many of the principal factors found in Lindberg's output to date are brought together and adopt their final form. While the mooted 30 minute chamber concerto may have wound up as a work of some ten minutes or so, the actual number of notes has not tangibly decreased: what was initially in the form of consecutive events now becomes a superimposed, simultaneous series of overlays.
Drama (1980-81) represented the opening of Lindberg's assault on the world of the symphony orchestra, and the end of 1981 saw the arrival of Sculpture 2, in which the orchestral techniques were taken still further. By chance I happened to be visiting Lindberg in his Paris base at the time when Sculpture 2 was taking shape. I saw a roll of music paper, somewhere around 15 metres of it, which contained superimposed and sequential rhythmic figures. There was not a single melodic or harmonic idea in the whole work, at least not set down on paper, when its entire rhythmic skeleton had already been put in place.
Some idea of the rhythmic diversity of Sculpture can perhaps be gained from the fact that at the first performance two conductors were required to realise the necessary exactitude between the overlapping events and different instrumental groupings. The central tension in the work grows out of the overlaying of different and sharply contrasting textures, even entirely different music.
The conversion and variation of the tensions takes place through processes which drive different materials either together or apart from each other. The states of tension deriving from the contrasting of opposites seek to find their own point of equilibrium, but the situation is generally shattered into smithereens before the actual point of release, which generates the overall impression of aggression which hangs over the work. He seldom brings his small forms to a close, there are no clear divisions or turning-points in the material. On one occasion only does the almost monochromatic chord which dominates the work shrink down into a single note, as if this chord, whose look is changed by altering its internal arrangment, should have fallen over itself to come to rest on one note. Already earlier we have spoken of Lindberg's typical trait of climaxing a complex rhythmic pattern with a machine-like pulsing. This process of simplification through changes in pitch at peak moments is another which is found in many of his works. It appears in Tartuffe, in Quintetto dell'estate, Sonatas, and in Ritratto.
Sculpture 2 - the number refers to a series of works to be realised from the same basic ideas, the other parts of which remain as yet inside Lindberg's head - was one stop along the road towards the orchestral thinking reached in Kraft. Another event of importance from the perspective of this later work was the 1982 composition Action - situation - signification, written for the Toimii ensemble. In this unusually large composition (upwards of 30 minutes in length) Lindberg is trying to create continua between instrumental sounds and the sounds of nature. When working on the piece he came across Elias Canetti's Masse und Macht, which goes into the analogies between natural phenomena and the behaviour of masses. Another model for the organization of concrete sounds was offered by Pierre Schaeffer's Traite des objets musicaux. Lindberg was not interested in imitating natural sounds on instruments per se but rather in creating continua between these two different types of sounds and translating instrumental patterns so as to confront the laws governing concrete sounds. In addition to instruments (horn, cello, piano, percussion) and the human voice, the performance employs live electronics and concrete sounds (fire, waves, rain, wind) from tape. This combination helps to explain the name of the work: the natural sounds are static situations, the instrumental music generated actions. The third term in the title, Signification, hints at what may be conjured up in the listener's mind on observing these processes, continual crossings of the boundary-lines between the two sides.
The third work that directly prefigures the world of Kraft is the 1983 composition Tendenza, written for 21 musicians. Tendenza was one of Lindberg s first comprehensive ventures towards brutal and primitive expression, a massive boulder-like block of sound, where the experience for the listener lies not so much in tie dramaturgy created by the overall forill. as in following the threads and lines shaping themselves inside the sound-mass. '
Kraft - Power - is the first large composition in which Lindberg has made use of a computer in his writing. The first year of the two spent on the piece was devoted largely to the preparation of the necessary software. The special programme he wrote facilitates the job of handling the large amounts of material involved, and above all it offered help in those transition periods in which one musical situation gradually alters shape.
When one looks at the score for Kraft, a metre high and littered with small notation-figures, the immediate impression is inevitably one of extremely complex music. Oddly enough, the sound-image produced is surprisingly easy on the ear. Lindberg says:
"It was exciting to discover that the computer had opened up a perspective on my material, and it has also given the strength to dare to use simpler solutions than previously. In earlier works one of the demands I have set on the functional quality of the ideas has been that they should be sufficiently complex, but here in Kraft there are a lot of strikingly simple things. There are places where this simplicity has been taken to extremes. This is justified, since the processing of the material with the computer has been a very plastic process, like modelling in clay!'
In Kraft the orchestra is backed by a six-piece soloist ensemble - naturally Lindberg's own Toimii laboratory-band - which features clarinet, cello, piano, percussion, a conductor, and an array of sound-shaping equipment. In addition to his own instrument, each of the soloists has a splendid array of various bizarre percussion instruments, which help to generate the work's hard, metallic sound. The soloist ensemble moves around the concert hall during the performance to certain predetermined places, and in addition to their perambulation's, the sound is shifted around in space by means of a bank of loudspeakers.
Jouni Kaipainen had this to say in his review of the Helsinki Festival performance, writing in FMQ 3-4/85: "Orchestration is one of Magnus Lindberg's strongest areas, and so it is not surprising that Kraft plays in dazzling colours and contains just about everything imaginable from chimes and gong pianissimos which bring to mind oriental ritual ceremonies, right the way up to rock-inspired electric drum orgies that set the old spinal fluids shaking."
It is hard to point a finger to any particular tradition of Western music behind Kraft, or even to any individual work with which it might be compared. It is no more closely akin to Xenakis's music than to the atmosphere of raw power which can be tapped from a West Berlin punk club, or to Japanese kodo drumming, which Lindberg heard in Paris around the time he was composing Kraft. The composition blends rational Western thinking and primitive Bruitism in a more clear-cut fashion than any of his earlier works.
Many of Magnus Lindberg's compositions derive their dramatic quality from the interlocking of differing, contrasting ideas, in much the same way as the two conflicting forces which act inside his own character as a composer. Paavo Heininen, who was Lindberg's teacher at the Sibelius Academy and should therefore have a shrewd idea of his pupil's persona, has had this to say about him: "The interesting thing about Lindberg is that these two approaches (that of the systematic composer and the musician-cum-composer) have met in him. This brings both functionality and life to his compositions. The system element has its significance in expression, the music-making one in control of the guiding thought."
The search for parallels between the artist and his work is seldom a particularly fruitful one, but in the case of Kraft one cannot help but note the way in which Lindberg described himself in an interview a few years back: "I realise myself through my music. I suppose I am a little like it in that way. I have a lot of energy in me, I'm not afraid of people, I guess I'm a little nervy. My compositions have always been accused of excessive complexity. Complex they are, I would accept that, but I can't swallow the word excessive. I am a child of our time, I like complicated things and high-tempo events."
Kraft was thus far Magnus Lindberg's greatest effort in the composing line, and it must have been difficult in the wake of this to sit down and start writing again. The work which followed was again something completely different. Commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), he set about putting together a radiophonic composition with the Finnish writer Juha Siltanen. The project was given the working-title of Faust before even a single note or word had been penned. Faust can be categorised as a Hörstück in the basic meaning of the word.
The working methods employed here diverge completely from any of Lindberg's earlier compositions. Things got under way with no careful preliminary scheme, gathering and collating material. At first sounds were collected from shipyards, power stations, printing works, and other such places where work is done and noise is generated in doing it. After this phase, Lindberg moved into YLE's Radio Experimental Studio, where the instrumental sections - you guessed it, he used Toimii again - and the vocal parts were recorded. When the final work of bringing all the material together got started some six months after collecting the material, the programme's makers had over 100 tapes of varying lengths, out of which the 26 minute composition gradually took shape.
In a musical sense, Faust has something of the static quality of Zona, lacking clear climaxes and steadying sections. Going on from one of the fragments of text in the piece, it could be compared with rays of sunlight, glittering on the waves, always the same basic situation though never quite still. In the style of his Action - situation - signification, concrete, taped material is combined on an equal footing with speech and music. Thus the "given" and the "created" show themselves to be equal partners in the final outcome.
The theme of Faust is a journey. The journey is made on the ship being built at the opening of the piece, and the vessel eventually arrives at Venice, a city burning on the water. The fusing of impossible ideas - fire and water - is one of the central ideas behind the verbal and aural content of Faust. The piece was chosen to represent YLE in the 1986 Prix Italia competition.
Over the horizon
At the time of writing this article, Faust is Magnus Lindberg’s latest completed work. In the pipeline is a composition commissioned by IRCAM in Paris, which will be for violin, cello, double bass, clarinet, piano, synthesizers, and microcomputers. The project is connected with research work into the use in music of digital synthesizers and microcomputers, of which Lindberg has had prior experience from the time he was working on Kraft. The composition currently goes by the name Ur, and will be given its first performance in Paris in October of this year. Next March it will be heard in Helsinki as part of a European Broadcasting Union concert.
The combining of digital synthesizers with traditional instruments seems likely to be a subject close to Lindberg's heart in the future, too, as he is planning to make use of them in the orchestral work to follow Ur, as a means of extending the sounds at his command.
Translation: William Moore.
Featured photo by Risto Nieminen: Magnus Lindberg outside the Hanasaari power plant where the material for the Prix Italia winner piece Faust was recorded in 1986.
This article was first published in FMQ 3/1986 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.