The Composer and the Machine

Justin Davidson is the classical music critic at Newsday

The Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is 39, but like his conservatory comrade Esa-Pekka Salonen, he has the look of a perpetual boy, with sandy Nordic hair grazing a smooth forehead and traces of baby fat still clinging to his cheeks. Time and jet lag have left a delicate webbing around his eyes, but even so, it is easy to imagine him some 35 years ago, sitting on the floor of his family's Helsinki home, playing with the broken computer parts his father, a systems analyst at I.B.M., used to bring home from the office.

Computers are less mechanical now, less fun when they don't work, but they are still an important part of his life and his music. Even when he retreats to his rural house on Finland's frozen coast, an hour or so from Helsinki, the PCs go with him. It's at this sort of keyboard, and not the piano kind, that his compositions always begin, with a database of chords, rhythms and rules that Lindberg has been inputting and storing for decades--the RAM of his imagination.

His newest orchestral work, "Fresco," which Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will give its world premiere on Thursday, is made from materials left over from the construction of "Engine," a 1996 piece Lindberg describes as "based on rules--machine-made, in a way."

It would be a mistake, though, to think of Lindberg as a composer who has relinquished the creative privilege of his craft to soulless circuitry. "When it comes to production and making decisions," he says, "I still have a handwritten manuscript on paper, and I check it with an ordinary piano. Then when I have finished the manuscript, I recopy it again on the computer. It's not very efficient, but then efficiency is not a quality as such in composition."

If the internal workings of his compositions are rigorously engineered, Lindberg's outward style, too, has a computer's high gloss and frenzied pace. It moves along at Pentium speed, a cascade of gestures, rhythms and harmonies all whirling together in a synchronized orgy of multi-tasking. We experience Lindberg's music the way we do the quick-cut images of our cyber era: as the dizzying, kinetic surface of a rigorous and logical substructure.

"Magnus' music is tremendously exciting, with a lot of energy and lots of brilliant ideas," says Salonen, who arranged for the Philharmonic's commission of "Fresco." "But also, I tend to admire professionalism and he's one hell of a professional composer. He's one of the best orchestrators in the world."

Much of Lindberg's music has a centrifugal energy, as if the composer's inspiration were always threatening to spin out of control. "Feria," which the New York Philharmonic gave its U.S. premiere late last year, begins with a blinding fanfare and then explodes into a hyperactive sequence of brief, bright motives that jostle and grind. No sooner has the ear begun to grasp an event than it is gone, tossed into the maelstrom of sound. And yet, compared to earlier works of Lindberg's, "Feria" is almost leisurely, even graced with a sad, sweet passage of chords cannibalized from "Arianna's Lament," by Monteverdi, that emerges out of the thundering notes like a rainbow in a waterfall.

Lindberg is nervously aware of the tension in his music between anarchy and discipline, and the computer is one way to keep the composer's superego in constant surveillance over his id.

"The point is to find and define a syntax for contemporary music," he explains. "Then there are those moments when you have found a syntax and you enjoy staying within it and playing around, and then, in very rare moments you can play with it in a very irrational way."

Only when the boundaries are understood and internalized, Lindberg suggests, should the composer lengthen the leash on his inspiration. "In Beethoven, for example, you feel the rational substructure and then on top you feel the dramaturgy, the unexpected qualities of the music."

But Beethoven had inherited a slowly evolving groundwork of rules that went back centuries and that his musicians and audiences took for granted. Even a slight tremor in that foundation was volcanic. Lindberg, on the other hand, has the misfortune to be a composer in a time of total stylistic freedom, and so he must build his rules from the ground up. He treats the stuff of his own invention like an architect suspiciously examining the properties of some unfamiliar type of stone or steel.

"One aspect of working with computers is creating material from which you might even feel alienated," he remarks. "Gradually, you get to know the material and you get to like it. It's a way of training your own aesthetic approach." Composition, Lindberg believes, can no longer be a natural process in which creativity and convention are intertwined: Today, the products of one's mind must always be held up to the light and inspected for logical flaws, and one way of doing that for Lindberg is to run a piece he has already written back through the computer, analyzing it according to new parameters, like a lab technician testing a blood sample for a disease.

"You can get rid of certain mannerisms using the computer," he comments. "Of course, the ultimate dream is to be able to write things on paper without any constructions, but I don't think this really exists without all these intermediate steps."

Lindberg and Salonen met in the early '70s when they were students at Finland's only conservatory, the Sibelius Music Academy and discovered a mutual interest in a musical avant-garde that had swept through Europe and occupied American universities, but had barely penetrated the Nordic countries.

"We were tired of the cultural dogma of Finland," Salonen recalls over breakfast in a Manhattan hotel during a recent East Coast visit. "There were a couple of symphonic composers who were canonized: Aulis Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen. Modernism was not an important part of Finnish musical life."

So Lindberg, Salonen and their classmates, composer Kahia Saariaho and conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste (now music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) addressed the problem in the venerable way of youths dissatisfied with the way their elders are running the world: They went to a restaurant and decided to form a society.

The society was called "Ears Open"--Korvat auki, in Finnish--and it was a loose association of zealous musicians burning with the urge to educate themselves and their countrymen in the musical revolutions taking place beyond the Baltic Sea. Every Friday afternoon, a fluid cohort of "Ears Open" members would shut themselves into someone's house--usually Saariaho's, since hers was the biggest--with a blackboard, a pile of scores and a generous supply of vodka, and devote the weekend to analyzing pitch aggregates and techniques for the serial control of timbre.

"There was a tradition in Finland that you did things alone," Lindberg says. "The ideal picture of the composer was that you sit in a forest and compose. We wanted to say, No, we will die if we do that. Ours was a very nonromantic approach."

Soon, their fervent intellectualism edged into an ideology of rebellion. "We wanted to play new music to the people," Salonen recounts. "We played Stockhausen's 'Kontrapunkte' in remote villages to completely astonished audiences--which might consist of one human being and the building caretaker's dog. We would have our own composition seminar before lunch, then we'd drink a few beers and go into the official seminar not exactly sober. This, of course, was the ultimate humiliation for the teachers."

On this point, Lindberg corrects the record: One teacher, Risto Vaisainen, had Salonen and Lindberg sit together at the piano and run through stacks of scores by Stockhausen and Boulez. Two others, Paavo Heininen and Einojuhani Rautavaara, encouraged the gang to go abroad--not as a way of getting rid of them, but as a way of guaranteeing that they would bring back the modernist gospel from the places where it was being preached.

And so they dispersed: In the early 1980s, Saariaho went to Germany, Salonen to Italy, and Lindberg to Paris, then to Berlin, then back to Paris, where he eventually wound up at IRCAM, Pierre Boulez's center for techno-musical research and experimentation--heaven for the computer-fluent composer.

Lindberg's pieces in those years were dense, brambly, unbendingly complex works. He gave his compositions studiously abstract, Boulez-style titles like "Action-Situation-Significatio" (1985) and made such Boulez-style pronouncements as: "Only the extreme is interesting."

As he traveled, he collected influences: the French spectral music of Tristan Murail and Gerard Grisey, the staunchly atonal modernism of Britain's Brian Ferneyhough and Italy's Franco Donatoni. Whatever else Lindberg's music was, it was emphatically un-Finnish and determinedly international. Instead of Sibelius' tundras and frozen floods, Lindberg's thronged, busy compositions describe craggy cityscapes more suggestive of L.A. than Helsinki.

"As a Finnish composer, you involuntarily get compared to other Nordic music," Lindberg says (meaning Sibelius), "so from the very beginning you start thinking in terms of being part of the Western European and American music scenery, of liking complexity and structures and systems. That was for me a very clear goal in the early '80s."

His efforts to shuck the burden of Finnish musical nationalism worked: "Ours is the first generation for whom Sibelius is not a problem," he declares.

Now married (to the television writer and theatrical dramaturge Gunilla Hemming), with two children--Veronika, 10, and Rebecka, 4--Lindberg has moved back to Finland, where he collects a modest tax-free stipend from the state. But the bulk of his performances take place in other countries and whenever the subarctic begins to close in on him, Lindberg always has Paris. "Having spent so many years abroad, I have gotten to like that feeling of being slightly alien at home," the composer says.

He has no choice: Lindberg comes from a family of fishermen rooted in the archipelago of islands off the country's southern coast, members of Finland's small Swedish-speaking minority. "My ancestors were sailors, my grandfather used to sail around the world. It's in the blood to wander."

* "Fresco," Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Thursday to Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2:30 p.m. $8-$63. Lindberg will conduct three other works (U.S. and West Coast premieres) with the Philharmonic New Music Ensemble, Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Tuesday, 8 p.m. $15-$20. (213) 850-2000.

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