A guide to Magnus Lindberg's music

The Finn has become a concert hall staple – but his best works predate his embrace of colour and hyper-romanticism

It’s a long way from here to here. The first is from Magnus Lindberg’s 1985 piece Kraft (Power), a work that one commentator called Lindberg’s Rite of Spring, scored for huge orchestra, a group of perambulatory soloists, an assemblage of junkyard percussion, and live electronics; music that’s one of the great sonic brouhahas of the late 20th century. Kraft is the aural result of what happens when German metal-merchants Einstürzende Neubauten meets Xenakis (two of Lindberg’s most important inspirations at the time) filtered through an iconoclastic twentysomething Finnish composer’s imagination. The second is from Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto, a piece composed 17 years later, and which sounds – well, completely, utterly, totally different. The concerto sounds more like what happens when Gershwin meets Sibelius and Stravinsky, perhaps on some convenient Icelandic ice-floe in the mid-Atlantic, in a voluptuously melodic crossing of cultures. The question is how Lindberg got from one to the other – and how and why this music has come to be one of the definitive sounds of the 21st century orchestra, as ensembles from the New York Philharmonic to the Finnish Radio Symphony and the BBC Symphony champion Lindberg, making him one of the most-performed composers of new orchestral music.

One of the reasons is simple to understand: Lindberg, who was born in 1958 in Finland and trained at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, is now a not-especially-gris eminence of that astonishing generation of Finnish musicians who have the musical world as their collective plaything: composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, clarinettist Kari Kriikku, cellist Anssi Karttunen, conductors Sakari Oramo and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and many others besides. A prodigiously gifted teenager who was writing gigantic orchestral scores before he turned 20, Lindberg was also the founder of the Toimii Ensemble, along with Salonen, Kriikku, and Karttunen, and he was and remains a virtuoso pianist to boot. Kraft’s power comes from the way it juxtaposes – smashes together is a better of putting it – the soloists of Toimii (who perform the piece in all-white sportsgear when I’ve seen them play it) with the orchestra. The energy released by these explosions of personnel and of musical material define the piece’s chaotic but unstoppable momentum, and it’s one of the jaw-dropping feats of contemporary orchestral gigantism if you’re lucky enough to hear it live.

But that’s only part of what makes Kraft work. Its dynamism really comes from the way all this surface sound and fury is underpinned by Lindberg’s harmonic thinking. In Kraft, that dimension of the music is based in this piece on the principle of the chaconne, repetitions of small-scale harmonic cycles. And for all its in-your-face energy, Kraft’s language was developed, in part, by Lindberg’s use of computer software to create sophisticated matrices of pitch material.
Which all sounds like a science experiment (an atmosphere that’s weirdly conjured up by those white clothes, too; outfits that have a disturbing retrospective cinematic referent in the all-white murderers of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games), but Lindberg’s music fuses the ultra-rational with the restlessly dynamic.
Even if the Clarinet Concerto sounds as if it could have come from a different musical universe to Kraft, there is a creative connection across the whole of Lindberg’s output. His music – so much of it written for his favourite instrument, the orchestra – is always searching for the greatest possible structural energy, propelling his listeners through the whole of his pieces. Sounds simple? It’s anything but in practice (try this in-depth essay on the harmonic practice of his short solo piano piece Twine to see what I mean). Yet the effect that Lindberg wants to have on his listeners is immediate, direct, and accessible in the best sense. He wants the music to grab your ears and your body and not let go until you’ve been variously pulverised, pummelled, or pleasured into submission. For the pummelling, try Engine; for Lindberg at his most sensual, here’s the orchestral Arena.
There’s an irony, though, about Lindberg’s developing harmonic sophistication. Lindberg’s goal is the creation of a self-sustaining harmonic world that’s capable of similar kinds of large-scale structure and patterns of tension and release to what old-school tonal music could do, but which breathes new life into those ideas and forms. (Listen to his voluptuous, iridescent Violin Concerto to see what I’m on about. But increasingly, his music has found a way with melody and orchestral colour that is not just reminiscent but positively redolent of references to the music of the past, and late-Romantic repertoires especially. Lindberg has described himself as a Romantic, since he’s an unashamed expresser of emotion and of doing things on a large-orchestral scale. But if you listen to Graffiti, for choir and orchestra – one of his rare pieces for voices – or Seht die Sonne, composed for the Berlin Philharmonic, you’ll hear sounds of Wagnerian opulence, Stravinskian rhythmic drive, and Sibelian textural richness. To my ears at least, Lindberg’s most recent works open up a Pandora’s box in which so many styles and references are available to him that it’s difficult to know where his own voice lies, unless it’s in a grand hyper-Romantic fusion of the totality of orchestral techniques. (And that’s the reason he’s so popular with orchestras around the world: his most recent pieces are well-written, sumptuously colourful and approachable showpieces that work, efficiently and effectively, for players and listeners.)
But for me, Lindberg’s most successful works come from the period before he had fully opened up that compositional box of tricks. If I had to choose one piece, it would be 1994’s Aura, a four-movement symphony-in-all-but-name. Aura has all the variety and richness of his later music, but it’s combined with an unfailing sense of momentum that compels, surprises, and above all sustains you over its almost 40 minutes. Aura is a genuine realisation of Simon Rattle’s assessment of Lindberg: that he is a “one-man living proof that the orchestra is not dead”.

Five key links

Ur
Engine
Aura
Clarinet Concerto
Graffiti

Contributor

Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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