Magnus Lindberg: being self-critical is the main challenge of being a composer
11-31 October 2019 marks the Festival of one of the most important figures in modern composition scene – a Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. The Festival is taking place in Helsinki and features Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Tapiola Sinfonietta, Helsinki Chamber Choir, Music Centre Choir and many distinguished performers. Magnus Lindberg takes an active part in all its concerts – firstly as a composer, but also as a conductor and a pianist, and a programme-maker. The works spanning Lindberg’s career (Kraft (1983-85), Aura (1993-94), Kinetics (1988), Related Rocks, Triumf att finnas till (2018), First Violin Concerto and First Piano Concerto, The Shadow of the Future (2019)), as well as the ones that he considers influential for his composing (Stravinsky’s Les Noces) are featured in the Festival. Magnus Lindberg was born in 1958, and have studied in Helsinki and Paris, working with various experimental music collectives such as Korvat Auki, Toimii (Finland), IRCAM and Ensemble Intercontemporain (Paris). He has been a Composer-in-Residence with New York Philharmonic (2009-2012) and London Philharmonic Orchestra (2014-2018). In this interview Magnus Lindberg delves into specifics of his profession and analyzes his methods in composition.
Yulia Savikovskaya: I know that you were born into a family of non-musicians – when did you get this feeling that you wanted to become a composer and what did it mean to you – this process of creating previously non-existent music from your head?
Magnus Lindberg: The funny thing – as you said, I was born into a family of non-musicians – but I started with the accordeon at the age of 6 (my father bought me an accordeon) – and my first compositions date from when I was 7 or 8. So for me it was a natural way of expressing myself. Evidently, the first things I did were small polkas, walses and tangos, but anyhow I composed, so that was a natural way of expressing myself, and I’ve been doing it ever since. So even in the early teenage years I shifted from accordeon to piano as my instrument, but I continued to compose and I soon discovered more complicated music – contemporary music, like, say Xenakis, and I was very interested in complex music. So some of my early pieces date from that time – 1974, 1975 – when I was 16-17 years old, I wrote a big piece for orchestra which has never been played. That was still a blend of some Stravinsky and Bartok, but from that point on – in 1977 – I wrote some of the first pieces that was very serious and complex in expression.
As a young person, as a teenager – did you feel that you were soaking up all the richness of previous music and experience of other composers?
For me it was always an important way of coming into the world of composition. Of course, there are always exceptions – they don’t want to know about other music that had been written and they want to do their own thing – that wouldn’t have worked for me. I need to know what has been done, and as some fantastic work exists out there, I would regret if I didn’t know this music. So during all these years I’ve always been trying to follow what has been written – you can’t keep up with everything, but I’ve been trying to learn quite a lot. And still today I meet with my colleagues, with my composer friends, and I’ve also been reading thousands of scores in various competitions, and it is always very interesting, because you get a window into what is going on in the world. So yes, I have a huge appetite for what is going on in music.
Is it usually enough for you to read the score only? Can you imagine soundscape of a piece only by reading it?
It depends on music, of course. With some piece you can predict at some level how they will sound. Of course, it is always nicer to have a recording and a score, and sometimes even only a recording is enough. But on some level yes, I can read music and see what it is about. But when people use non-standard and extended techniques, you can always make mistakes in imagining how their pieces will sound. Something that looks like this comes out like that – it is not always one to one. It is the same when performing it – I’ve been playing contemporary pieces for years – and sometimes a piano piece looks easy and turns out to be complicated, and the opposite happens, too – something that looks difficult is not that difficult. That’s the beauty of music – it is unpredictable.
Kaija Saariaho once said that she could hear the music while sleeping – when lying on her pillow, she was dreaming her music up. In the meantime you are being, if one cay say that, more rationalistic with sounds – you insist that each sound has a meaning, even the sound of traffic on the street could be ascribed one. So my question is – is composition process something that comes from a dream to a finished work, or, on the contrary, youryou’re your compositions while listening to what happens outside your inner world?
It is not so much about dreams for me. Of course, I can have nightmares about music – typically it would be a dream about a rehearsal where you can’t play a part that you were supposed to play (laughs) and those things. But meaning of a sound... yes, traffic has a meaning, the noise in the space where we are now to some extent has a meaning... I think you can turn listening – and this is of course something very subjective – you can turn listening into forming a composition. All of a sudden what is happening now could become a future composition if you only tune yourself into listening in the right way. You can insert logic and connections into sounds that are not strictly logical, and actually haphasard – this process is always interesting, it gets us to the world of John Cage. Things you hear might change depending on the inner perspective you might take when listening... I am not so much into that kind of philosophical thinking anymore. I would say that it is something that comes when you are young and you try to find your own position in the world and ascribe meaning to your life and work – why you are composing this.
Of course, it remains one of those mysterious questions to answer – Why do we do this? What is the purpose of it? Does it have or make any meaning? Does it communicate any meaning? I think music is communicating meaning, and the concentration of listening to music is a very total experience for our brain and even body (thus, in pop music, when the volume is loud, the physical aspect of it is present). I also think that we have no culture on this planet that exists without music – we can’t be sure if we all possess a music gene, if it is in us on genetic level, but music is something that normally occurs in time, and when you repeat something in time or make variations on it in time, the rhythm is created. And even just tapping on table (taps on the table), you immediately create some meaning, as time created in-between taps can mean something. And of course a proof of music having cultural and perhaps genetic meaning on our small planet is that when you play music to a small child, he or she immediately starts moving (smiles), so the fact that we have a highly sophisticated body that can be moved and can be controlled – all these things go very well with the existence of music and sound. It is astonishing to think how little of music history we know – its past still remains unclear to us. We know roughly what music was played 2000 or 3000 years ago, but if you go back 30000 years, nobody knows what was going on.
Can I come back to your composition teachers and what influence they had on you. Einojuhani Rautavaara, Paavo Heininen, and you also mention Lutosławski as your mentor. How did you influence you? Did you at some point have to break out of their frame of influence to find your own way?
My first composition teacher was Rautavaara. When I came to Sibelius Academy – I came there studying piano first – but then when I came to contemporary music and composition, it was Rautavaara. But actually there was another teacher – also at Sibelius Academy – Osmo Lindeman – the name that nobody knows now, except those in inner circles, but he was much of a pioneer of electronic and computer music in Finland, so he influenced me a lot. I came to study with Rautavaara, and I always regret that I did it in that order, because Rautavaara was a big artist and he has his own vision of music, wrote a lot of operas and symphonies, and he was always like an idol for us. At that time I wanted to have a more method-oriented approach, a teacher that would be critical, precise, and focusing on the method in compstion, and Heininen was the perfect teacher in this regard. In Sibelius Academy I made some kind of scandal by asking to be downgraded from being a student of a professor to that of an ordinary teacher – that was not a good thing to do, I should have done it the other way round, of course (laughs). But Heininen indeed had a method, he had been a student of Bernd Alois Zimmermann in Germany, and he was a student of Vincent Persichetti, who was the great man of 20th century harmony – his book is still used today, it is one of the milestone books in teaching 20th century harmony. And Heininen had a school and a method teaching exactly this, and that was fantastic to work with both of them – Rautavaara and Heininen.
Then, after finishing Sibelius Academy I moved to Paris and there I got in contact with two very different composers. I studied with Vinko Globokar, a Yugoslavian-French composer - he is and old man, but still active, living in Paris, and I also studied with Gérard Grisey, and those two composers were of course very different in their approach to music. Globokar was very much into the social aspect of music, the social impact that music has on us, and his approach to instruments was very physical – it was him who in many ways established a modern way of playing the trombone. For him the trombone was the extension of the body, so it is an amplifier of your body and you can do any kind of physical achivement with your body and the instrument amplifies them and creates music. His music is very advanced in using all kinds of non-standard techniques and very physical in its approach. On the other hand, Grisey was one of the founders of spectral music school, where the sound itself became a decisive parameter. So, typical Gérard’s music was about recording a double bass drum and then extending it in time and looking into what is happening in that sound. One of his beautiful pieces for choir called «Les Chants de l'amour» is a sentence ‘I love you’ stretched into 40 minutes (tries to show how it sounds with unnaturally long vowels). So it is the analysis of a spectral process of what is happening when we say a phrase like that. He opened up a very different way of viewing music and sound. It was a very important period in my life – I had finished academic studies and was living as a freelance composer in Paris, and I had access to these two great teachers.
As for Lutosławski – I never really studied with him. I met him and studied his music a lot, so he became an important figure of influence.
You mention in one of the interviews that he established a new relationship between form and content, and that was important for you.
Yes, he definitely influenced me very much in both thinking about music from a dramaturgical point of view and in terms of his language. I can’t say that I share it, but his way of working with 12-tone harmonies is something that I’ve been influenced by and respect a lot. I was also studying at Franco Donatoni’s summer classes – I never really was his student, but went to Sienna for two summers, and his was a true inspiration in seeing how music could be done in a different, new way.
I remember Esa-Pekka Salonen saying that your generation had to break from a modernist, intellectual tradition – was that something important for you as a composer?
Well, yes, of course, I have academic background, and there it was all about explaining what you were doing, how things belong together and where they come from, etc. So there were moments when we wanted to break out of this canon and just say that we do exactly what we want. However, I would still say that I have never abandoned music – I was too interested in it, so fascinated by what is being done around me, so I am always curious to learn and happy to look at other composers and open to them influencing me. I am not afraid of admitting the influence of certain composers belonging to certain traditions and schools. For instance, I can easily trace the influence of Luciano Berio in my own music - at certain points, at least. Today it is not obvious what one has to do in this respect as a young composer. How does one find one’s own voice? I would still think – and especially remembering different music I’ve read over the years of working as part of composition jury – of course, I am still looking for a certain level of craftmanship... If there is a score which is terribly off-track in terms of its organization and structure, and nothing is foreseen in the right way for instruments, occasionally I can still see an interesting intention that makes it worth hearing. But the case when a composer with great visions, original pictures and utopies in his or her world wouldn’t have a composing technique is very rare. So craftmanship is something that I pay attention to. But personality is always independent of aesthetics – I don’t choose any particular kind of aesthetics, I can enjoy music that is far away from the one that I personally like the most. Music is a blend of so many elements.
I would like to ask you about the relationship of mechanical construction, a structure that a composer forms in his or her head and final, hopefully organic result that he or she is aiming at. When you were working on Kraft, I know that you envisioned some of its harmonies on a computer. However, in critical writing you have been praised for an ability to create music that develops in an organic way. Additionally, here comes to mind the juxtaposition between inspiration (organic way of creating music) and planned calculation (analytical work) in compositional process. So, how much mathematics and inspiration form that final result that we call music?
Music, at least the kind of music that I am trying to do, is the music that is based on music theory of the past. And by music theory I mean the way we organize harmonies, the way we organize time and the way we notate rhythm and instruments. All this has a long history, and thus the aspect that fascinates me the most in the end of the day is in fact music theory. Why do we put certain notes together, and why are certain notes better than others? Why do certain passages make more sense than others? What is the theory behind that? It is not a language in the way that spoken or written language will be, but it definitely follows certain rules and is bound by certain constraints. So I am definitely interested in trying to find what these rules are, and I am working hard on trying to establish certain rules for myself that will enable me to work and to have something to lean back on. In my early works I was working in a very systematic way of organizing music material, and then I tried to relax this approach. But total freedom doesn’t exist. You need certain restrictions in order to have freedom, and I like to apply this self-restriction to my music-making my having certain rules. Of course, it is of course also about being rational about how you work, knowing where your notes come from and trying to put them together, understanding your structure in advance and being aware of how you make decisions when composing. It is only rarely that I have worked with computer-oriented compositions where a computer would actually compose something. It is more about using a computer as an analytical tool and using it as a good assistant in sorting out music theory ideas that come to your head.
You said once that when you start to work on a composition, you always want to be on the top of the chosen genre. I was wondering whether with every new work you build up on your previous achievements or do you feel that you start a new chapter, a new mountain with every work you are embarking on?
That’s a good question. I couldn’t start over with a totally new rhetoric in every piece I am composing – that is not my way of working. In that sense each new work hopefully leads me into something that I want to continue working on. So they do link together: you can definitely see how earlier pieces influence those that I composed later. Yet, of course, you have to be very aware and very self-critical, and this is one of the challenges in being a composer. You work alone all the time – then how do you establish a dialectics? How do you establish a dialogue with yourself? How do you know that you are not repeating yourself, that new work is not the same as you have done before? When do you fall victim of your own mannerisms? How do you feel that you need new material now that you have repeated the same thing? So the discipline of this particular profession is learning to survive from crisis to crisis. (laughs).
Do you mean a crisis of self-doubt?
Yes, and those moments when you feel that this material is not producing any new things and you need something else, something new. Then you try to push yourself forward to go somewhere. You try to force yourself into something, then very often you find yourself in some dead-end where nothing moves on, and then you have to come back or turn into a different direction, and then hopefully you finally find a certain pattern – now I know something about this and can work in this way. But it is always going outside of your comfort zone, otherwise it would be repeating the same thing and that would be boring. My music has changed over the years, and I am always asked the same question: ‘Why am I not writing the same kind of music – the one similar to Kraft?’ And I always answer: ‘It is fortunate that I do it differently now, since it is 35 years now since I wrote Kraft’. If I would write the same music today, I would be the first to get bored.
You always said that the group ‘Korvat auki’ always supported you in forming the exchange and dialogue between different musicians: it was formed of conductors and instrumentalists. How exactly did it work then, and how do you still maintain this dialogue? Do you all still come together and share your work?
Very typical for us would be – Kaija Saariaho was living a nice suburb of Helsinki, and very often we went there on Fridays and all of us stayed there for three days. And we chose a theme – for example, we prepared a three days seminar on Zimmermann’s music, or Ligeti’s music, or Cage’s or Stockhausen’s music. And everybody had to make a lecture after having been researching that composer’s music, and then each of us told others what he or she found. That was something which was very important and stimulating, and nobody pressured us into doing this, it was our free initiative.
Do you still organize similar things and meetings now?
Not in the same way, no. But at the time if we had composed something in-between those seminars, we presented it to each other, and everyone was proud to show what he or she had been doing. And this practice still exists within our circle of colleagues – whenever I meet my composer friends – this would be typical for our meetings with Esa-Pekka Salonen, for instance. Once a year we meet – just the two of us – and we listen together to new pieces each of us had composed that had been played or recorded during that year.
Are you usually honest with each other? Can you openly say if you don’t like what you hear? Or mutual support of friends comes first?
That is of course a very good question – how do you give critical feedback. I think to some extent we manage to do that. When a colleague has a premiere, then it is dangerous to be honest with opinions. When a piece is heard for the first time, I try to be very optimistic and find good things to say. If something disturbs me, it is not the right moment to say it. I will find the right time to say some things, and I’ve been giving some critical opinions about certain things to my colleagues over the years. Sometimes I point out that a certain thing has appeared in his or her music very often, and can they think about changing it. Yes, opinions can be critical, and my friends have been doing it to me, too. And there are moments when you can feel hurt by that, but when you hear it from someone who really has insight into your music and knows it, it can be very healthy to get critical opinion. I also listen to what my friends – even non-musicians – say. In the end of the day the music we write is meant to be listened to, not to be analyzed. It is perfectly fine to analyze it and to deconstruct the way it is being done, but music is still meant to be listened to. Hopefully it brings some emotions or feelings – whatever you want to call it – to your listener – and my biggest fear is to bore my listeners. That is what I am really afraid of.
What do you think of sessions of work with conductors? When attending rehearsals of your new work ‘Triumf att finnas till..’ with Vladimir Jurowski in London (2018) and Hannu Lintu in Helsinki (2019), I realized that they didn’t venture their opinions of your work but worked on details on interpretation with the choir and orchestra. Do you also have individual sessions with conductors where you two discuss your work as a new composition?
Yes, I have these talks with conductors, but they prefer not to say it in front of the orchestra. (laughs)
Then, conductors of your pieces are also potential channels of constructive criticism of your work?
Yes, and of course, as we are working on putting together a totally new piece, destructive criticism wouldn’t come down very well, as they don’t help at this point, thus only constructive remarks are usually productive. Constructive would mean – ‘could we change something, as this is too difficult for a certain performer?’. As long as we can enhance and improve things, it is absolutely perfect, and is a normal part of my work with a conductor. Also in the piece like ‘Triumf att finnas till...’ there is a choir and a big orchestra, and to a certain extent you can still do certain corrections, but it is a big ship that is already taking some course in its movement, so you can’t really change it radically. Substantial changes should be saved for the next performance, and that had happened to me, as well.
But often you have also written your works for certain performers – like your Clarinet Concerto and your Cello Concerto – and as I understand, these particular people have influenced you?
Oh, yes. In both cases, with the clarinettist Kari Kriikku and the cellist Anssi Karttunen – they received my drafts of the piece as I had been writing it, and then I got feedback from them. This is the luxury of working with people you know and trust, as in this case their vision of performance is developing simultaneously with you creating the final version of your piece. You can take the risk here, you can push their experimental expression further, and then with their feedback you can go back and see what should be fixed. I like the process of writing a Concerto, as it gives me the luxury of a dialogue with someone else who is not yourself.
You also mentioned that you tried to go back to tonal music, to take something from it that still could be used on the modern level, and you also have been maintaining that you are a romantic in music. Thus one would think you are interested in keeping connection with old traditions, and then you obviously want to innovate and not to repeat yourself. What is the relation between tradition and modern approach in your compositional process?
That is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. When I say that I’ve been including the elements of tonal music into my music, I do, yes, I use them, because I think they are an essential part of expression and we (at least I) shouldn’t forget that our instruments were built for tonal music. All instruments that we use in an orchestra today – except maybe for some percussion instruments – were built for tonal music. So one of idiomatic ways of playing them is fitting for music based on traditional tonal harmony. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how these elements could be included in my own language so that it would not fall back to tonal music. I don’t consider myself as a composer who thinks tonally, but I don’t see why the triad C-E-G would be only classical and forbidden elsewhere, while C-C#-D would be modern and favoured by composers. I like them both. I am trying – and that is something that I’ve been working on all the time – I am trying to find a way to move between these tonal and atonal elements within the same language so that they blend together. And as for acoustical properties – as long as we work with acoustic instruments, the sounds they produce are typically acoustical – we have electronic instruments also, but that is a totally different task... But tonal instruments work in the way that the more consonant intervals you play on them, the more sonorous they sound, because the way an instrument creates waves in a space is based on acoustical rules, and an octave produces a more consonant sound than a dissonant chord. It’s all a big kettle with different elements...
But why then do you say that you don’t like melodic thinking when brewing something in this kettle?
It is not that I don’t like it, I am afraid of it...
And you also said that this is what kept you from writing an opera, is it correct?
So far, but I am getting there, I am getting there. The trouble with melodies is that we already have so many fantastic melodies written by great composers of the past and they continue to be written today, so this is one of the elements of composition that I’ve been afraid of. It is one of the most complex aspects of music making – the simple question of what is a good melody. It is not evident what makes a good melody, but it is evident when you hear a good melody that this is a good one (laughs).
But if music contains good and easily recognizable melodies, does it make it worse in your opinion?
No, not at all...
Then, being afraid of melodies, how did you work on two choral works of yours – ‘GRAFFITI’ and ‘Triumf att finnas till...’? Did you do orchestration first or did you write vocal lines first?
My melodies – such as they are in my music – they are definitely side effects of harmony. Harmony is there first – I like to compose harmonies, I like to construct harmony – and out of harmony I then find my way to melodic expression. This is very much the way that Wagner was composing. And another, opposite way of thinking in music is Puccini’s when melody came first and then he harmonized it. I couldn’t set a melody and then harmonize it, that wouldn’t have worked for me at all. That is not my way, but may be I should do it in future.
What are the areas you want to tackle in future?
The task that I’ve been thinking about since 1990 is to write an opera one day. Possibilities exist – opera houses would eagerly take my opera on, but I am waiting for the time when I will feel that it is something that I am ready to do. Thay is one of the chapters that I hope will come to fruition in my future career.