Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a Finnish composer and conductor of classical music. He was the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, during which time he was responsible for the building of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. He is currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra.

Immortality Guaranteed

Reflections upon creating masterpieces

The history of Western thinking is full of fanatical and heroic searches for the ultimate truth, a single concentrated formula that would forever solve the fundamental riddle of our existence: the whys and wherefores. I’m tempted to believe that this need to distill the overwhelming complexity of what we call the world into simple rules is indeed one of the very basic human instincts.

This yearning for clarity and predictability manifests itself in all levels of human activities. Alchemists wanted to find the formula for creating gold from non-precious metals; countless hopefuls have over centuries tried to create a magic potion for eternal life; the greatest trophy in today’s quantum physics would undeniably belong to the discoverer of the theory-of-all. The list is endless. Yet there is something that unites all these pursuits: the urge to control the frightening, the uncontrollable, by the power of beauty. The beauty of clarity, simplicity, and transparency. To fight chaos with aesthetics.

And yet the history of these heroic projects is one of failures. Ultimate failures despite some encouraging moments and temporary victories. Think of Newtonian physics, for instance: a beautiful, complete, perfect system that has been replaced with hopelessly elusive and utterly incomprehensible new cosmologies, string theories with 17 dimensions and counting.

This kind of thinking is by no means alien to the arts. There have been periods of all artistic creation being subjected to rigid rules as a divine or magical guarantee of quality, alternating with times more relaxed, more individualistic. Just think of the miniature painters of the Ottoman empire so beautifully described by Orhan Pamuk in My Name Is Red: the best of them were blind, and thus not tempted by the physical reality around them. A blind painter could concentrate on depicting the eternal truth, obeying the rules.

All composers share the dream of writing a perfect and therefore immortal piece of music at some point in their lives. We all know that only a frighteningly small fraction of all music enters that category. It is statistically utterly unlikely that anyone in this room would ever achieve that towering but elusive goal. Why elusive?

Just look at the canon. What do the B-minor Mass and Petrushka have in common?

Why “Greensleeves” and “Yesterday”? Why not some other of the thousands or millions of songs sung by somebody, somewhere? Very clearly, if there is a magic potion for musical longevity, its recipe must be frustratingly complicated. Or maybe it is something so simple we just can’t see it. Columbus’ egg, anyone?

Is there really a riddle to solve?

All of us who studied Palestrina-style counterpoint at some point can relate to this: I remember my complete astonishment when my teacher declared one melodic line good and another one dismal. Just like that, categorically, off the bat. This judgment had nothing to do with what I, the “creator,” tried to convey, nor was it based on my teacher’s emotional or physical reaction as the “audience.” It was simply a function of a melody more or less successfully following the rules of the style. How frustrating and liberating at the same time! Quality in music no longer elusive, but clearly within reach through hard work and willingness (and ability) to follow rules.

This “Palestrina-style” is of course a construct. The master would have been astonished by the rigid but simplistic matrix which he himself did not follow as he did not know such a thing existed. The same thing can be said of Bach-style choral harmony. And the sonata form. The list is long.

These systems are nevertheless innocuous and useful as they are respected tools in learning and understanding the way that “real” music works. Herein we encounter the very topic of this little speech of mine. It is generally understood that during study we are supposed to analyze and sometimes directly copy or at least imitate established masterpieces. Later we must break all rules, develop our own individual voice, and create art that has value and integrity without the straitjacket of an artificial value system. Sound familiar? In reality things are a lot less simple.

There seem to be two kinds of mechanisms that define “good” music at the moment or directly after its creation. The first one is clearly visible and easily understandable despite the complexity of its inner workings. It could be called fashion, trend, fad, dernier cri, Zeitgeist, or anything that denotes the peculiar phenomenon of some things being “in” and some “out,” as if a gigantic collective mind were making global decisions apparently randomly. The child emperor with unlimited psychic powers. Now that’s a scary thought. This child controls the world of commercial music with a dictator’s mandate, but it would be naive to claim that we, creators and interpreters of what uncomfortably is still called classical music, would be free of its massive influence. Things might work a little more under the surface in our world, but immune we are not.

Whatever the laws of this mechanism are, they are well beyond my abilities to explain or even describe, so let’s concentrate on the second category, which is more topical and easier to analyze, although not completely independent of the first.

There have been moments in history when a group of ideologically and aesthetically like-minded composers have decided to write a new book of rules, to promote it aggressively and create clearly delineated categories of “right” and “wrong.” These categories are mostly synonymous with “good” and “bad,” but not always. Sometimes the ideological value completely eclipses the aesthetic one, mostly when music is being used as a tool for propaganda in totalitarian societies. But when reading statements by Boulez from the fifties one can also see that the idea of truth as an overriding artistic value sometimes is appealing to (mostly) young people even in free societies. “Since the Viennese discoveries, any musician who has not experienced - I do not say understood, but truly experienced - the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is useless. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time!” That is an actual quote from Boulez. If you replace “any musician who has not experienced the necessity of the dodecaphonic language” with something like “any composer who does not accept the importance of educating and motivating the masses” you get something which is very close to the criteria that were used to criticize Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian for formalism in the Zhdanov decree at the infamous congress of the Soviet Composers Union in 1948.

Today many of the rules and taboos of the Darmstadtians seem absurd and often downright funny. Octaves and major and minor chords are forbidden. Regular pulse is forbidden. Melody is forbidden. What is not funny is the fact that in many places in Europe there still is a certain blind faith and adherence to the principles set by the young composers directly after the war. In Germany, France, Italy, and Austria, “good” and “serious” new music as understood by large parts of the establishment still springs from the legacy of serialism. With some local color, for sure, but the no-nos seem to be the same.

Some years ago I conducted a programme in Munich with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with music by Anders Hillborg, Steven Stucky, Magnus Lindberg, and me in the venerable Musica Nova series. There was a highly intriguing review in the Süddeutsche Zeitung saying that while this music was basically ok, it was more “ABO-Musik” than “Neue Musik.” This was an absolutely baffling distinction. ABO-Musik means music that can be played in subscription concerts for a generally older, well-heeled audience, while Neue Musik is something these people would not pay for hearing. This resembles the fractured tribalism of the rock/pop/hip-hop world!

One of the fundamental axioms of the modernist project in music was that a rigid, “scientific,” (i.e. something that can be proven true or false) organization of all or as many as possible parameters of music would almost automatically elevate the composition to a higher level by the unbroken chain of evidence. What a naive and simplistic thought. What on earth is a parameter in music? Pitch and duration, yes, but timbre and dynamics? A chef needs a piece of fish and tomatoes, not molecular formulas. All research is potentially good, but to simplify the complex and deep experience of music to parameters! Give me a break.

The quest of the Darmstadt boys (very few women, if any) was essentially the same as always for at least a millennium, to find a shortcut to value and greatness. And they failed, but not without some compelling results on the way. Just think of Stockhausen’s Gruppen or Berio’s Epifanie.

Lutosławski told me once that he had discovered a set of simple rules that allowed him to write good music. I was young then and wanted to know them right away. He was very amused by my excitement and promised to reveal the secret some other time. He passed away before we had that conversation. I now understand that he meant a simple matrix for organizing pitches. That’s all. The other big questions of rhythm, color, and form were not dealt with by this neat little machine. Those were left for Witold “himself” to solve. And how beautifully he solved them!

It is tempting to think that the artistic value of music would be somehow governed or at least related to the laws of nature. There are numerous attempts to organize musical material according to the Golden Ratio, both the macro form and the pitch and rhythm material itself. Bartok reputedly arranged the formal structure in his later works according to this fascinating irrational mathematical constant. Not everybody agrees. The Finnish Bartok scholar Ilkka Oramo is not convinced about that. He thinks it is an after-construction, not based on Bartok’s real intentions. The evidence is tautological, as practically every whole can be represented as a division by the Golden Ratio. It is always easier to create a system that adjusts itself to reality than to create reality itself, as the creator of the system can choose which aspects of reality will be included. Very useful, not only in music, as we have seen.

The Danish composer Per Nørgaard has used the Golden Ratio formula sometimes very successfully. He also devised a never-repeating series which he called infinity-series, which produced pitches in forever new constellations. One of my favourite pieces from Nørgaard’s early oeuvre is Voyage into the Golden Screen, which is one of the first examples of any music (consciously) structured strictly according to universal, natural ratios.

Perhaps the most obvious natural phenomenon that can be used as a structural foundation in music is the harmonic series. Half of our beloved and deeply hated tonal system is based on it. I say half, as the problem of the minor chord, which cannot easily be explained based on the series, has given a great deal of trouble to musicologists for centuries.

The movement that was to be called Musique spectrale, spectral music, much to the irritation of its creators Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, began in Paris in the seventies. The starting point of each piece was a more or less complex harmonic series, which would dictate all elements of music. The best examples of spectral music managed indeed to create a fascinating, organic feel, as if the music really was something not man-made but organic, objective, and often beautiful. Sibelius was one of the heroes for Grisey. That was a very unusual position in France those days. It still is.

All this was a manifestation of the dream of finding some universal principles to ensure validity. As always, the best, most talented (dare we say musical) composers wrote important works, whatever the guiding principle was. And the lesser ones: how many times have we witnessed new music where the process has been confused with content, the rule of law with quality, and the system with expression!

As the aesthetics of mainstream new music started to get more diffuse both in Europe and on the East Coast of the US a new magic formula appeared on the stage: world music, globalism, the use of material way beyond the composer’s own background and culture. This was nothing new in itself. Debussy was deeply impressed by a Gamelan group at the Paris World Expo 1889, and orientalism has been a fixture of French music ever since.

It is easy to understand reasons behind the renewed interest in ethnic material at a point where modernism has run out of steam. The Internet changed everything: a vast number of sound archives were available to everybody, just a few clicks away. Using folk music as source material for composition was not only an aesthetic choice. I’m convinced that subconsciously or indeed fully intentionally the global approach seemed to offer some kind of validation again. Folk music must be “good” as it is created spontaneously, without any external commercial or political agendas.

There is an interesting dualism between Western and Asian composers in this respect: while many Asians are emphasizing their ethnic and cultural background by using folk material and sometimes instruments from home, Europeans tend to seek alien folklore. Either way, the risks are the same. It is very difficult to create syntax where the “other culture” becomes more than just a spotlight to draw attention to itself. We know that for many composers a sudden intense contact with “otherness” has been a decisive moment in their development, but only the best ones manage to create an organic language from the clash and conflict with alien material. The lesser ones produce some kind of tourism, musical postcards, amusing collages at best.

Almost twenty years ago I heard Simha Arom’s recordings of the music of West African Pygmy tribes. I was very taken and moved by the hypnotic quality of the chants, the tenderness of the lullabies, and the energy of the off-beat rhythm, and set out to transcribe some of that music into Western notation. I was planning to use the transcribed songs in an orchestra piece. It turned out to be an impossible task. Not the transcription itself - it was very easy to write down the simple melodic patterns and harmonies that were not functional but seemed to come from simple parallel movements. The problem was that our standard notation captured nothing, absolutely nothing of this beautiful stuff. It was a completely wrong tool for the job. What I had on paper was clumsy, square, and utterly uninteresting, devoid of any expression, any identity. Everything powerful and arresting about this music was between lines, hopelessly beyond reach.

Transcription between cultures is incredibly difficult, in many cases impossible. Composers are left with the copy-and-paste option, inserting “other” music as-is. This works rarely, as we have seen and heard. There is also a disturbing post-colonialist aspect to all this. We might use South Indian Carnatic music as material for our composition without appreciating and understanding its own history, grammar, and syntax. In this case the world music approach produces a souvenir, a plastic miniature of the Taj Mahal, which is good for nothing else but throwing at a crook of a prime minister. [I’m referring to an incident in 2009 when the Italian prime minister was hit in the face when a statuette of Milan cathedral was thrown at him during a political rally.]

I’m tempted to say that to some degree a true, accurate and honest translation between cultures is impossible, or at least highly unlikely. And in any case, it does not provide automatically added value to our artistic endeavors.

You might be asking yourselves at this point: if none of these recipes can offer the desired result, what can?

There is of course no magic spell. Composers are artisans, makers of aesthetic objects. There are no Harry Potters among us. Value and relevance has to be earned as Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schonberger write in their refreshing book Apollonian Clockwork. You have to sweat over every note, agonize over every minute detail and decision. That’s what composing is: making thousands or millions of micro-level decisions that eventually produce this wondrous phenomenon we call music. It’s worth it. There is no shortcut.

I want to end this speech by simply quoting my late Italian teacher Franco Donatoni.

Lavorare, lavorare, sempre lavorare.

Work, work, always work.

Speech at the Thornton School of Music, USC, California, May 14, 2010