Esa-Pekka Salonen

»Wow, so that's how it can sound!«

Composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen about the »Multiversum« in the Elbphilharmonie, swarm intelligence in orchestras and the difficulties of the classical repertoire.

A composer who conducts or a conductor who composes: however you look at it, Esa-Pekka Salonen  is one of the true »double talents of the music world«, as the trade press regularly says. In this interview he talks about what an orchestra has in common with a school of mackerel, how it feels to conduct one's own compositions, and why this is a good time to be a composer.

»I had my best experiences with my own works when other people were conducting them.« :Esa-Pekka Salonen talks to Bjørn Woll.

Mr Salonen, which Salonen came along first – the composer  or the conductor?

Definitely the composer! I started to write music at the age of eleven. With serious shortcomings, it's true: I didn't have such a good command of the rules. But even then I noticed that composing came naturally to me. I think every composer enjoys creating new worlds: a universe of his own, boundless and full of possibilities . As a young lad, composing was a source of refuge for me from the real world, which I sometimes found challenging. Later on as a professional composer, you're preoccupied with commissions or deadlines, and you tend to forget what originally prompted you to write music.

How do you see things now, do you define yourself first and foremost as a composer, or as a conductor?

As a rule these two sides of my personality coexist peacefully. But sometimes conflict arises, for example when I have a series of concerts to conduct and start thinking that I could make better use of the time to compose. What's much trickier is the moment when I switch from conducting to composing, which has to do with the different energy levels of the two activities. Conducting involves the release of adrenalin and requires intense interaction. A concert places immense social demands on a conductor with regard to both the musicians and the audience. It's not easy to wind down from this level of agitation to the peace and tranquillity of composing: apart from writing novels or poetry, composing is probably the only discipline where the artist is completely alone. It always takes me a little while to adjust, but then I feel very much at ease with this seclusion.

Esa-Pekka Salonen Esa-Pekka Salonen © Minna Hatinen / Finnish National Opera and Ballet

»I find it liberating to not have to fit in with the mainstream. In that respect, this is a good time to be a composer.«

Your colleague George Benjamin retreats into complete isolation when composing, and avoids any contact with the outside world. What is your favourite environment for composing?

George is really extreme! He has a little shed in his garden with nothing in it except a table, nothing that might distract him. I'm different, I tend to work in bursts. I spend a while writing, then I do something else – drink coffee, go for a  walk or do some training. I can't compose in total isolation, I need outside stimuli. Isolation can mean that you are not aware of every possibility because being focused on yourself narrows your field of vision.

As part of the Hamburg »Multiversum« you are conducting two of your own works: »Gemini« and »Karawane«. How do you experience the change in perspective when you switch roles from being the composer of a piece to conducting it?

When I'm conducting my own works, I have to take a step back and look at them from the outside, as it were. The first rehearsal is particularly odd: everything is mezzoforte somehow, as nobody knows where things are headed, no context has been established yet. Often enough, for instance, the dynamics aren't right yet. As a young conductor I used to think I had made a mistake when writing, and corrected it accordingly. But as I've grown older I've learnt to wait and trust the musicians: the fact is, musicians are remarkable people – even with a complex work,they intuitively grasp the structure, and in the second rehearsal at the latest, they unravel the threads of the individual parts and the music comes to life and starts to breathe. It's like a school of mackerel that consists of hundreds of individuals but seems to move like a single organism, although no-one knows who the leader is. This kind of swarm intelligence exists in orchestras too, and as a conductor I need to trust it! Not only as a conductor, either, but as a composer as well. Contemporary music in particular suffers from excessive notation: several articulation marks appear above every note, to no obvious effect. I prefer to take a risk and go in the opposite direction:  the results can be remarkable if you give the musicians a bit of leeway, if the composer doesn't try desperately to control everything.

Are you the ideal conductor for your own works?

Not necessarily, no. Even though I do prefer to conduct the first performance of a piece myself so I can make any corrections directly.  Above and beyond that I willingly admit that I've had the best experiences with my own works when someone else has been on the rostrum. Sometimes this brings out aspects of the music that surprise even me. These are positive moments when I realise: Wow! So that's how it can sound!

As a contemporary composer, how strong is your connection with tradition? Your Cello Concerto, for example, is a contribution to a traditional genre, following the traditional three-movement sequence fast-slow-fast.

I have just conducted a concert with works by Hannah Kendell and Unsuk Chin plus a Beethoven symphony. My next session on the rostrum will feature Debussy, Messiaen and a flute concerto by Kaija Saariaho. In other words, I carry music around with me all the time. That doesn't necessarily mean that I want to follow a particular tradition in my own compositions, even if a work like the Cello Concerto is reminiscent of tradition in its outer form. But tradition is also part of the eco-system that we live in. The very idea that I could write a new work and start at zero, as it were, is crazy. How could I act as if I had never heard certain music? It's inside me and it influences me. We are constantly surrounded by music, often even without noticing it, e.g. in a shop or a bar. I was recently sitting in a restaurant in Paris where there was a song by a post-grunge band playing in the background. Without really thinking about it, I jotted down the bass line on a napkin – and later made use of it in »Pollux«, which became part of my work »Gemini« together with »Castor«.

Esa-Pekka Salonen Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela

»As a young lad, composing was a source of refuge for me from the real world.«

If we look back in history, we find plenty of composers who responded to their time with and in their works. How is that in your case?

That's a difficult question. First of all we need to define just what »our time« actually means. If I was going to describe it in a single word, I would choose the term »fragmentation«. In my opinion, this development started several decades ago – with cable television. Up to that point, public broadcasting services had a monopoly in Europe – in Finland for instance, we just had two TV channels. When a play was shown on TV, obviously lots of people watched it, and talked about it the next day at the supermarket, at work, with friends. These shared experiences create a sense of mutual identity. But when everyone has access to 200 different programmes, our cultural experiences become more and more fragmented. But at the same time I also find it liberating to not have to fit in with the mainstream. In that respect, this is a pretty good time to be a composer in the sense that there are no longer these strict schools like the Darmstadt School whose rules you had to obey if you wanted to be successful. Today there are much more varied ways of addressing people through music. If I find something that interests or moves me as a composer, there is a good chance that it will interest or move others.

It could be helpful that many of your works are sensuous-sounding. Is that important to you?

Absolutely – I want my music to appeal to the senses, and I set store by physicality as well. I love the resonance of a big orchestra and the massive intensity that this can produce. Back in the strict avant-garde era, which lasted well into the 60s and 70s, we had almost lost the feeling for sensuousness. That was a genuine dilemma for me: as a young man, I loved conducting Strauss, Bruckner and Stravinsky, while in my own music such lavish sound was more or less »forbidden«.

At the »Multiversum« in the Elbphilharmonie your »Wing on Wing« is on the programme, a work that you originally wrote for the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and which, in turn, used the same acoustician as the Elbphilharmonie: Yasuhisa Toyota. How much influence do the acoustics of a concert hall have on your work as a conductor?

As artists we are dependent on a concert hall's acoustics. The best-case scenario is that the auditorium becomes our friend, or even assumes the character of an additional instrument. In the worst case, we have to play against the auditorium – that sometimes happens. The sound of the Disney Hall became something of a yardstick for me because I spent so much time there. When I'm sitting at my desk and I imagine an orchestral sound, it's the Disney Hall that I hear. The first time I walked into the Elbphilharmonie, I felt at home straight away since it resembles the Disney Hall in many respects.

Composers don't often have the chance to hear their works played at different venues. In most cases, the first performance of a work remains the only one, so that these pieces have no opportunity to get established in the canon of standard works.

That is a serious problem! But I resist the term »canon«. It signifies something that is complete, but this isn't actually true: the canon of classical music is constantly changing! Another term that bothers me is »masterpiece«: a work that was regarded as a masterpiece 150 years ago may long since have disappeared from the repertoire, such as the symphonies of Raff or Goldmark. As interpreters we need to play new music and at least give it a chance to enter the repertoire. This enrichment is the only way to ensure that music remains alive. If we insist on an inflexible, finalised canon of classical music, sooner or later it will be impossible to bridge the gap between the historical relevance of these works and ourselves.

Is it an advantage to you that you can be the advocate of your own works by conducting them yourself?

Well, that's true of course. But I  always try to proceed with caution and not exploit my position. I conduct a lot more music by other living composers than I do my own. Where my own works are concerned, I tend to take a back seat and let my fellow conductors mount the rostrum – here in Hamburg, that means Alan Gilbert und Dima Slobodeniouk.

Bjørn Woll interviewed Esa-Pekka Salonen. Last updated on 5 January 2022.

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