Introduction to Magnus Lindberg

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!

0. Welcome to the San Francisco Symphony’s Inside Music talks, presented an hour before each regular subscription concert.

My name is Ilkka Oramo. I am an academic from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and I am here to introduce to you the composer Magnus Lindberg and his latest composition for orchestra, Seht die Sonne, a co-commission of the San Francisco Symphony that has its West Coast premiere this week.

The first performance of the work took place in August last year in Berlin and the first U.S. performance in November last year in New York City by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, who originally issued the commission.

Before discussing this work together with the composer Magnus Lindberg here present, I would like to briefly outline his development as a composer.

1. In his Harvard lectures from 1993–94, published two years ago, Luciano Berio notes,

The urge to split and divide, which has pervaded the musical world for the last few decades, has also postulated an opposition between the empirical musician (who has no need for ’synthesis,’ and is subject to circumstances) and the systematic musician (who starts with a preconceived idea, and follows an all-embracing strategy)—in other words, an opposition between the composer as bricoleur and the composer as scientist.

If one had to put young Magnus Lindberg in either of these two baskets, the choice would be simple. He certainly was a “systematic musician” who worked like a scientist. He aimed at creating “an all-embracing strategy” for every single composition—an idea that had its roots in the aesthetics of the 1950s, in the thinking of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt, to name a few.

Having an “an all-embracing strategy” for a work to be created would mean: once the rules are set, the piece writes itself, as it were. This approach is a deductive strategy of composition, and the result is a piece that is the only one of its kind—instead of being an instance of a genre, a type, or a class. Therefore, it must have a proper name. Generic names, such as symphony, sonata or concerto, are out of the question.

2. Young Magnus Lindberg loved theories and calculations. In a piece of writing from 1981, he mentions a wind quintet as his “first totally structured piece.” Interesting is that the piece remained virtual, he never wrote it out.

At the age of sixteen, he set out to write an orchestral piece that he called Donor (1974–75). Young composers often take an admired masterwork as model or starting point. Not so Lindberg. The title of this ten-minute piece stems from molecular chemistry and refers to electron donor-acceptor complexes that Lindberg wanted to simulate in music.

In 1978, he wrote a piece for cello solo, Espressione I, in which everything—pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and articulation—changes from note to note, like in Messiaen’s famous Modes de valeurs et d’intensités (1948). The piece proved to be unplayable—until the cellist Anssi Karttunen arranged it for two cellos.

Ex. 1. Espressione I

In its most rigid form, the systematic, deductive way of composition, of which these pieces are examples, proved to be a dead end.

3. Berio’s two types, composer as bricoleur and composer as scientist, are ideal types, to use a term coined by German sociologist Max Weber, and Berio doubts that either of these two types can really be productive.

But creation is simply not available to this unproductive dichotomy: the scientific or systematic musician and the empirical musician have always coexisted, they must coexist, complementing each other in the same person. A deductive vision has to be able to interact with an inductive vision. Likewise, an additive ‘philosophy’ of musical creation has to interrelate with a subtractive ‘philosophy’. Or again, the structural elements of a musical process have to enter in a relation with the concrete, acoustical dimensions of its articulation: with the voices that sing it, and the instruments that play it.

4. In the summer of 1979, Lindberg and his fellow students from the Sibelius Academy attended Franco Donatoni’s summer courses at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. Donatoni’s method of teaching was very peculiar. First thing in the morning he went to the blackboard and started doing permutations. He took a fragment from somewhere, for instance from Schoenberg, and developed out of it a system of transformations to show how to proceed with elementary musical material. “His radically different approach was a stimulating shock for me,” Lindberg told Peter Szendy in 1993.

Donatoni’s “radically different approach” was nothing else than bricolage. Bricolage, by definition, is “something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be available.” In this practice, Lindberg encountered an otherness, another way of doing, that swerved his thinking from a previous course and set his imagination free. He immediately began to write a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello, Quintetto dell’estate, the score of which is dated July 24, 1979, in Siena.

Ex. 2. Quintetto dell’estate

In this piece, he used, for the first time, an inductive method of composition. He designed a number of musical objects he called models. A model is “a situation defined in relation to several parameters.” Models are flexible. They tolerate a certain amount of variation without losing identity. The shape of a model is fixed, but its details are open. Models can grow or decrease, stretch or shrink.

Stockhausen called them moments. For him, a moment was ”every formal unit that can be recognized by a unique characteristic” or simply ”every independent idea” of a composition. Because a ”moment” is a qualitative notion, the constituent parts of it may vary from one instance to another—as long as the identity of the whole remains recognizable. In classical music, we use to speak of motives.

Music based on models has one drawback, though: discontinuity. As models are closed entities, a way must be found to tie them together, to interlock the brick-like material into a continuous flow of music. Here Lindberg could rely on another source of inspiration that was rather unexpected, Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, a symphony in one movement with remarkable, organic continuity properties.

5. Another experience that made Lindberg rethink his former basic assumptions came from theater. In 1980, he was asked to write music for Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Molière, or the Cabal of the devout (1929). Bulgakov was one of his favorite writers because of his technique of parallel development of independent stories. Form in music for a play is a different thing than form in a piece of pure music since it has to adapt to another form that already exists. Lindberg’s starting point here was a selection of different moods the music had to evoke, and he also wanted to create a feeling of the epoch, for which purpose he used a melodic turn from Rameau and a harmonic sequence from Lully.

Later he translated this music into a piano quintet and gave it the name …de Tartuffe. je crois (1981). The origin of this work in the world of theater reveals itself not in its name only, but very much in its character. While all of Lindberg’s preceding works had been extremely unified in style and expression, this one is based on contrasts. Different kinds of music are put next to each other (as in much of Stravinsky), and a drama unfolds that is as clear as if it was a story told in words.

Ex. 3 …de Tartuffe, je crois

6. In April 1981, Lindberg was reflecting on the future direction of his music and wrote down some ideas in his diary. In the focus of his interest were “problems of rhythm, meter, and time-space.” He was dreaming of a new kind of “kinetic art” and noted that impulses in that direction could possibly be found in minimal art, in the music of Elliot Carter, and in Johannes Itten’s “Art of Color.” Thinking in parameters had to be reconsidered: music should be liberated from handling simple parameters such as pitch and rhythm. Instead, a network of complex fusions of parameters should be created. This would imply finding grades of friction. Friction arises when several different aspects contribute to a situation, and this means that friction is not only an entity in itself but a result of lacking balance between ingredients. Several ingredients are necessary to achieve friction.

7. In the autumn of 1981, Lindberg went to Paris to continue his studies with Gérard Grisey and Vinko Globokar. He had met Globokar for the first time at the Helsinki Biennale in the spring of 1981, and, impressed by Globokar’s instrumental virtuosity, he also became interested in his aesthetics. He now felt necessary to focus on the problem of form from a different angle than before. Thinking back at that time some years later Lindberg made one of his famous statements:

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 impossibility. An original mode of expression can only be achieved through the marginal—the hypercomplex combined with the primitive.

8. The most impressive manifestation of this new aesthetics is Kraft (1985), a piece for six soloists and orchestra that became Lindberg’s international breakthrough.

I was living in Berlin at that time. Nights, in the nightclub, I encountered an expression of such violence that I wanted to blow something similar into the symphony orchestra. I felt like Debussy when he discovered the Javanese gamelan music in 1889. In Berlin I was so completely obsessed with rhythm that before having imagined a single pitch I had drawn a score of rhythmic structures on an 18-meter long roll of paper.

The decisive nightclub experience was the German punk rock band Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings). One of their ‘trademarks’ is the use of instruments made out of scrap metal and building tools, and this is exactly what Lindberg took from them. Members of the ensemble who act as soloists in this concertante work play not only clarinet, cello, piano, and normal percussion instruments, but also pebbles, sandpaper, water in a bowl, and all kinds of scrap metal objects found in junkyards, such as buckets, boilers and shock absorbers of demolished cars. This is pure bricolage in its original physical form. But the solid backbone of Kraft is work of a systematic composer who works like a scientist.

Ex. 4. Kraft

9. While Kraft is concerned with rhythm and rough sonority, abrupt contrasts and weighty sound masses, the focus in most of Lindberg’s subsequent works has been in harmony. The method is always the same. The harmony is organized in a series of chords that is recycled over and over again as in the baroque form of chaconne. In most cases there are two harmonic layers: every chord has a “shadow” that is based on its virtual fundament and consists out of the overtone series of which the actual surface-level chord is a selection.

When this chord is supported by its shadow, that is, by other tones belonging to the same overtone series, its sound becomes more rich and resonant. Trying to combine this kind of harmonic thinking with the previous method of interlocking brick-like gestures proved to be a challenge. Lindberg, therefore, soon developed a more goal-oriented formal thinking that never loses its telos out of sight. The chaconne principle, recycling a set of chords, remained intact but was modified to sustain a new kind of large-scale progression and development.

Thinking of form as a process instead of a sequence of block-like sections enabled Lindberg to adopt multi-movement forms in orchestral works of the 1990s. The continuity of form as a process is further emphasized by letting the movements follow each other without a break. The movements, of which the massive 40-minute Aura (1994) has four and Cantigas (1999) has five, incorporate a variety of textures. Characteristic and recurring texture types are canons, loops, chorales, and machines, some of which you will be able to recognize in Seht die Sonne as well.

10. I now invite Mr. Lindberg to join me and answer some questions about his new composition.

Pre-Concert talk at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Saturday, June 21, 2008

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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