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Wisdom of Salonen: Finding a California style of composing

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Photo: Nicho Sodling

By Dennis Polkow

Sipping on a cappuccino in his Gold Coast hotel lobby, Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen makes a startling admission: “You know, I was seriously considering stopping conducting altogether,” he says, “or at least limiting it to a minimum. I thought I should take up a teaching position at some university in this country or in Europe and just write.”

So much for the issue of whether Salonen is a composer who conducts, or a conductor who composes. “Composing is intensely non-social,” he says. “If I’ve had a long composer period and then try to go back to conducting, the first couple of days are fairly hopeless because I get so exhausted by having all these people there and having to relate to a hundred faces in front of me rather than just sitting in my studio essentially on my own. There is no way I can make that transition easier and it became so difficult, I was ready to retreat from it.

“But there’s this one thing about conducting that I really miss when I am not doing it: working together with musicians. There is that very unique sense that you have managed to focus the energy of a hundred talented, dedicated and skilled individuals and you are witnessing this focus from the box, and all the sound, feeling and energy comes out to you. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The other reality that makes itself clear to Salonen is that he is a different composer precisely because he is a conductor. “The actual process of becoming a conductor does change you as a composer,” says Salonen, who disagrees when I point to Pierre Boulez as a possible exception in that conducting takes time away from his composing, but that what he composes remains stylistically unaltered.

“There is no question that if you look at the Boulez works—his big pieces from the fifties—the conducting side informs the composing side. And why wouldn’t it? His new versions are based on the experience of performing hundreds of scores in the meantime and what is an unnecessary complication, when you should and must adjust to practicalities, is a given.”

In Salonen’s case, he sees his stylistic development as a composer having been altered as much due to the fact that he lived in Los Angeles for such a long time—becoming music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 until his retirement from that position in 2009—as being a conductor.

“Coming out of Europe, from very Boulezian circles—with all due respect, of course—and coming to LA with this somewhat arrogant Eurocentric idea that, ‘Okay, I’m from Europe, I’m going to show you guys what culture is and what we should be thinking.’ To my credit, I got quite quickly this is not the way to deal with this situation. Better to actually try to learn the identity of the local culture and how a symphony orchestra as an institution could have this unique identity of a Southern California arts organization as opposed to trying to plug in the Vienna Philharmonic clone somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. I luckily saw the light quite quickly.”

The change for Salonen came from the fact that he made the decision to actually live in Los Angeles and assimilate the local culture. “My first daughter was very little, so we started a new family life in a new country and on a new continent. She went to school there, and you get to know people in a completely different way as opposed to being a conductor who jets in and stays in a swanky hotel like this and flies out after the last show.

“Somewhere in this whole process I started to realize that we were very far from Europe and the European polemics about the supremacy of serial music in postwar avant-garde music. All that started to seem like fairly useless huffing and puffing when I was sitting out in Santa Monica.”

Was Salonen a die-hard serialist, an actual twelve-tone composer? “That was the way that composition was being taught in my early days,” he admits, “and in my early years, I was encouraged by Boulez himself, as well as by people like Ligeti and Lutoslawski. I felt that was my cultural and spiritual home. I still have a great deal of respect for the achievements of that school; however, I don’t see myself belonging to it anymore.”

Salonen says that he began to discover what he now calls, “the third way.” “On the one hand,” he says, “there was the towering influence of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but Stravinsky was also a towering figure with a lineage of Debussy to Ravel to Stravinsky and from there to Lutoslawski, who then in his later production chose a different way and of course, the Darmstadt police decided that he was persona non grata and he was dropped from the canon. They made very swift decisions in those days. Another composer completely ignored in all of this was Bartók, which was a crime.”

Bartók committed the sin of tonality. “True, but everyone, including Schoenberg, Berg, Webern were at a point where they felt there had to be new material and a way of organizing that new material. Of course, we know that Schoenberg chose to organize that new material in a mathematical way with a book of rules that he didn’t follow himself.”

Nor did Berg or Webern. “Yeah, but a lot of lesser talents did. Bartók’s quest for new material was to look around at what had already proven its vitality and longevity and he started collecting folk music material. You can imagine what a dreadful idea this was to the German postwar intelligentsia because collecting folk music material smells of nationalism and they had seen what nationalism can lead to in the worst-case scenario. They ignored—or never understood—the fact that Bartók did not limit himself to Hungarian folk music by any means. He collected music from all the Balkans and went all the way down to Turkey, so he was essentially familiar with the Arabic influence and went all the way to North Africa, so he was very far from nationalism. He managed to create out of all of this a very flexible, very rich language that incorporated elements of pop music, sometimes making up music, sometimes using actual quotations, sometimes creating those almost scientific structures, sometimes flirting with atonalism, but always in his own way.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leila Josefowicz/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Certainly listening to Salonen’s Violin Concerto, which he performed here last week with Leila Josefowicz, there is the sense that he has learned a lot from Bartók’s transformation of traditional material, though from an ecumenical and genre-free musical base. How many violin concertos, for instance, use a drum set for a cadenza? Salonen smiles broadly at the observation, revealing he still has signature apple cheeks and boyish good looks, even post-fifty—not to mention a disarming charm. With a straight face and serious slow tone, he adds, “It may be the first. I hope it doesn’t start a trend.” Actually, played as well as James Ross played it, it would be a fine trend indeed. And indicative of the journey that Salonen has taken from academic serialist to eclectic California composer.

“I woke up very early and everybody else was asleep and it was one of those classic California mornings: extremely bright sunshine, humming birds hovering outside my house, it’s quiet and I had this inexplicable happiness, which for a Finn is very rare and scary. I thought, ‘What’s going on? I feel very happy, profoundly happy,’” says Salonen, ironically looking and sounding increasingly serious as he says this. “And I made a cup of coffee,” he says, glimpsing and stirring the cup in front of him, “and I thought, ‘Okay, it has to do with freedom, being free.’ I’ve come to a point where I can do what I want, and I don’t have to worry about belonging to this or that school or continuing this or that: I’m in California, I can do whatever I like. It’s not a coincidence that people like John Adams and Peter Sellars ended up in California. There is an openness, a kind of open-mindedness of the people and the landscape.”

Perhaps a case of a Finn getting out in the sun? “Well, Finland is not exactly in the center of Europe. For a young Finnish person, the goal always was to be part of European culture, what is important in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and it started a long time ago. Young Sibelius felt isolated and hung out in places like Berlin and Vienna for long periods just to be connected with what was going on.”

The freedom Salonen felt was being connected on a larger level than being a member of a particular school of music afforded him. “The whole thing is based on the idea that I, myself, am not dramatically different from the rest of mankind. There’s more in common than that which separates us and therefore if something excites me, moves me, irritates me or offends me in some vulgar way, then there’s a good chance that that reaction will occur with other people as well.”

As such, Salonen became increasingly interested in what he terms, “the physical properties of music. That sounds silly, it’s like saying, ‘During my career as a chef, I became increasingly interested in how food tastes.’ But there we go. It shows you what kind of hole music had dug itself into at that point. It’s a profoundly different starting point because ideological composing is like serving a medicine that might taste bad, but it’s very good for you. And I thought that this was actually a little mean position to be in permanently: I don’t see myself as a fascist family doctor who knows what is best for everyone.”

What is even more liberating for Salonen is that reactions to his music are now far less important to him than they once were. “I just got back from Paris where the French really played almost all my works. The reactions were typically very divided: some people said out loud, ‘Okay, this guy is a total sellout and has been completely corrupted by the US, and by LA, especially.’ Others would say, ‘Okay, he has found his voice,’ which at least is how it feels to me.”

This is not unlike the dilemma that Salonen felt when he, as a composer, began conducting, and “the conducting thing took off in a way that I could scarcely imagine.” He admits that was a nice problem to have, but “I had no plans for that and was not ready by any means. In a period of maybe six, even, eight years, I had to learn the trade while doing it and I had to learn not only the repertoire, but how to deal with a hundred individuals. I was very lucky to have a gentle, good spirited orchestra. That was only part of the dilemma: the other part of it was that I didn’t know quite what to write, even if I had time to write it.”

Salonen also found a wider and wider gap between the music that he was conducting and the music that he was composing. “I was desperately trying to bridge the gap, but I didn’t have the tools. I loved—and still love—music with big resonance that uses the full sonority of the symphony orchestra: long lines, strong pulse, a lot of expressive color. The rule book that I came from didn’t allow any of that, with harmonic language, especially. With twelve-tone music, as you know, it’s very difficult to have the orchestra sound rich and expansive because you are not allowed to double things and this and that. You’re left with very limited choices. For me, it was such a waste: you have these hundred people there, and I am not doing anything with them. Finally, I got to the point—in fact, it was in Paris—in the mid 1990s I was there with the LA Philharmonic for a month during a Stravinsky festival—and I started sketching something that became ‘LA Variations’ later,” which remains Salonen’s most popular piece of music, still widely performed by others.

The piece was completed back in LA, and it was a game-changer for Salonen the composer: “I remember the first run-through, and I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing in terms of this being my music and that all of my old hang-ups were completely gone. What I set out to do, namely free the big resonance, really worked. For me, it was the moment where the pleasure principle came into composing and has been part of it ever since.”

Yes, it remains a challenge for Salonen the conductor to compose. “What I am doing in practical terms is to try to avoid ‘the blank page panic’ that we all know so well. When you have the day when the composing period starts, I don’t want to face that kind of anxiety, ‘Okay, today something is supposed to be born.’ Instead, I collect material all the time, even when I am conducting: just jot down some ideas without being discriminating, whatever comes to my mind. Most of it has no potential whatsoever but there might be something that through development, modification, can lead to a piece. That to me, is the way to ease the transition a little bit from conducting to composing. The energy level is so very different. Conducting is very high-energy, it’s socially very intense and the span is quite short. From the first rehearsal to the last concert is usually a week or a couple of weeks whereas composing, of course, is incredibly slow, intensely unsocial and the energy level is different.”

One thing that is keeping Salonen conducting, he admits, is the lure of Wagner, which is included on this week’s CSO program. Conducting “Tristan” was another epiphany, he says. “I became a hopeless Wagner nut and it opened up a completely new world to me. There is this unique thing about Wagner, and that’s time management. The way he can create and alter time through a couple of hours. Not only create it, but also sustain it and keep it alive with very simple means. And in mature Wagner, the whole idea of constant recycling of material, and very little material. I mean, ‘Parsifal’ has nothing: a couple of chords. And he spins all that out of them.”

Yes, Salonen has fondness for Bruckner as well, which he will also conduct this week at the CSO, but “Bruckner was not on that level and he had a strong archetype that this is a symphony and this is how a symphony goes. The canisters are there as you fill them up. But in Wagner’s case, the form was never predestined. The miracle is that we witness the birth of a new form [the music drama] as you go along. And that’s pretty unbelievable. I mean, look at the end of Act III, ‘Walküre,’ Act II, ‘Tristan,’ the end of ‘Götterdämmerung.’ These are some of the highest achievements of mankind.”

Yet surprisingly, Salonen turned down the opportunity to conduct a “Ring” cycle at Bayreuth because he spends his summers with family in Finland. “That would have been five summers,” he says, “and the numbers were so ridiculous: the full ‘Ring’ would have been 2017! For God’s sake, where will the world be, let alone me, by then?”

2 Responses to “Wisdom of Salonen: Finding a California style of composing”

  1. salonen on the conductor and the community | NobleViola Says:

    […] an article from the Chicago arts blog Newcity Music [emphasis mine]: “Coming out of Europe, from very […]

  2. Food for thought. | The Mouth of the Beast Says:

    […] Esa-Pekka Salonen: “[I became increasingly interested in] the physical properties of music. That sounds silly, it’s like saying, ‘During my career as a chef, I became increasingly interested in how food tastes.’ But there we go. It shows you what kind of hole music had dug itself into at that point. It’s a profoundly different starting point because ideological composing is like serving a medicine that might taste bad, but it’s very good for you. And I thought that this was actually a little mean position to be in permanently: I don’t see myself as a fascist family doctor who knows what is best for everyone.” […]

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