Lindberg: EXPO

Magnus Lindberg was born on June 27, 1958, in Helsinki, Finland, where he currently resides. He composed EXPO in 2009 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, where Lindberg was serving as the Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-residence, to mark the beginning of music director Alan Gilbert’s inaugural season. Gilbert led that ensemble in the world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on September 16, 2009. These performances mark the work’s West Coast premiere. EXPO is scored for a large orchestra including piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two percussionists (whip, tamburo basco, bass drum, medium and large suspended cymbals, triangle, wood block, tenor drum, crash cymbals, and large tam-tam), harp, and strings. Duration: about ten minutes.

When asked to name a major composer from Finland, many music lovers have a hard time coming up with an example besides Sibelius—even though he stopped composing long before the Second World War. Yet the past few decades have witnessed such a diverse and exciting outpouring of creativity from Finnish composers—along with their Scandinavian and Baltic neighbors—that this once-marginalized region is now recognized as a hot spot from which significant forces in today’s new-music scene have originated.

Magnus Lindberg, now fifty-four, belongs to a revolutionary generation of Finnish composers, currently in their prime, whose work has re-established their native country on the international musical map—even if their names are not yet as immediately recognizable as that of Sibelius. And they’ve enjoyed repeated success, as if to make up for the intervening years of neglect with a vengeance. At the same time, Lindberg, along with such compatriots as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, has evolved a strikingly individual language that defies old-fashioned temptations to assign to it a “national” character. This language fuses elements and outlooks from the postwar avant-garde with the far-ranging expressive palette (and corresponding awareness of the listener) that is coming to define the twenty-first-century composer.

Indeed, the very individuality of Lindberg and his peers reveals the inadequacy of the “geography is destiny” equation—a notion that has become passé in its backward-looking emphasis on Romantic notions of nationalism. As Lindberg sees it, one advantage conferred by his background, when he was first exploring his identity as a composer, arises from Finland’s geographical distance from the European continent. Such distance allowed for a different perspective on trends and expectations.

Although not from a musical family, Lindberg recalls beginning to compose on an accordion he had been given at the age of seven. In the 1970s, Lindberg and Salonen were classmates at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki. There Lindberg studied with Einojuhani Rautavaara and Paavo Heininen, two chief figures of the preceding generation. In 1980 Lindberg and Salonen joined forces with Saariaho and other adventuresome young composers to shake up what they considered a complacent musical scene in Finland and promote an appreciation of modernism. They formed a society with the commanding name Korvat auki! (Ears Open!). A related undertaking was the founding of a group of players to bring the music they were writing to life, with Lindberg on percussion and at the keyboard, and Salonen conducting. This they named the Toimii Ensemble, which periodically continues to perform. (As if to emphasize the actual over impossible ideals, Toimii means “It works!”) Lindberg meanwhile augmented his academic musical education in Finland with a period of study in Western Europe, basing himself mostly in Paris (a city to which Kaija Saariaho gravitated as well), but also studying with several new-music pioneers in Italy and Berlin.

Lindberg thus put himself in an excellent position to assimilate a stimulating range of influences: vestiges of the once-dominant postwar serialism (based on a radical extension of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory), state-of-the-art electronic music as it was being researched at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM studios in Paris, recent developments in computer modeling of sound and how it works (his father worked for IBM, triggering an early fascination with technology), and even Berlin’s punk rock scene, which at the time celebrated the exhilaratingly assaultive noise of bands like Einstürzende Neubauten. Inspirations from other artistic disciplines also played a role in Lindberg’s developing style. He has mentioned an attraction to the great Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance (an influence that can be sensed in his finesse as a colorist and orchestrator), the fiction of Bulgakov, and the films of Buster Keaton.

It’s a rather extreme spectrum of impulses, representing the composer’s “omnivoraciousness”—to borrow a term associated with yet another key influence, Luciano Berio. But if all this sounds like the recipe for a messy, cluttered eclecticism, Lindberg began at an early stage to forge a persuasively personal style characterized by flowing energy and vibrant, swirling patterns of color. These traits were already apparent in the aptly named Kraft (Power) from 1985, which first brought Lindberg into the international spotlight. Kraft consolidated his position as an iconoclast, deliberately inoculating Lindberg against facile associations with the “Finnish heritage” of Sibelius. The piece fuses raw, primitivist noise—generated by ad hoc instruments fashioned from scrap metal and electronically amplified soloists—with hypercomplex processes. (Lindberg used software programs to spit out rhythmic tangles and massive chord clusters.) The result elicited descriptions of Kraft as a Rite of Spring for the late twentieth century.

After a long break, Lindberg tempered this “bad boy” image and re-emerged with an updated musical persona in a series of what might be called more “moderate”-sounding orchestral scores. These incorporated elements pioneered by the French spectralists, who focus on the transformation of sonic textures over a gradual process, alongside more traditional musical sources from the Baroque, such as the chorale and chaconne, with its recurring harmonic pattern. “Earlier I used to hack away at stone,” the composer has remarked of this shift in his sound world. “These days my approach has been softer, gentler, as if I were molding in clay.”

Lindberg continues to evolve through periodic self-reinvention. “Only the extremes interest me” had once been his motto, but in an interview with Joshua Cody and Kirk Noreen (directors of the Ensemble Sospeso), Lindberg declared that composers of his generation desired to be free of the avant-garde’s self-imposed taboos. The goal was to create an environment encouraging “options that were allowed.” Through all this, an exciting current of energy remains a constant. Anssi Karttunen, for whom Lindberg wrote his Cello Concerto (1999), recalls a visit during which he noticed that the composer’s kitchen was “littered with a mound of empty instant espresso bags, energy drink cans, vitamin pill jars.” The intensely caffeinated brio of a score like EXPO has become a signature of Lindberg’s music.

In a sense, Lindberg has come full circle in reckoning with the inevitable, if long-avoided, presence of Sibelius (even winning, in 2003, the coveted Wihuri Sibelius Prize). He believes each of his compositions is part of a larger whole, and this conviction has a distinctly Sibelian echo. Simon Rattle once observed that Lindberg represents a “one-man living proof that the orchestra is not dead,” and the composer himself has called the orchestra “my favorite instrument.” The San Francisco Symphony co-commissioned Seht die Sonne, his colorful “sequel” to Schoenberg, which was heard here in 2008. Between 2009 and 2012, Lindberg served as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic. His tenure produced several new works, including a new piano concerto introduced last year by Yefim Bronfman.

EXPO marked the beginning not only of Lindberg’s residency with the New York Philharmonic but of a new era for that distinguished ensemble. He wrote EXPO as a program opener for the first concert of Music Director Alan Gilbert’s inaugural season in 2009. In fact, not since 1962 had the Philharmonic started a season with a new composition on the program, when Aaron Copland’s Connotations did the honors. Lindberg clearly tailored his score to the occasion, following a long tradition of celebratory pieces that cleverly encode references to the parties involved. The abbreviated, capitalized form EXPO is an apt title for a piece that showcases the possibilities of the orchestra in such concentrated form. It also involves a word play on the musical term for the presentation of a work’s basic materials, an “exposition.”

“I gradually approach form once I have lots of material around,” says Lindberg. He compares the potential compressed in the first notes that set a piece in motion to launching a rocket, “where the very first inch uses up half of the fuel.” Despite its relative brevity as a concert curtain raiser, EXPO’s score requires constant shifts of tempo, alternately slowing down and accelerating more than a dozen times. The result, according to Lindberg, is to generate “a feeling of great tension and energy in the orchestra.” The challenge of writing for a symphonic ensemble remains as fascinating as ever: “It is amazing how 100 players, focused by their conductor, can convey such excitement to the audience. It’s fantastic!”

The music begins with the crack of a whip—perhaps a nod to the famous opening of the Piano Concerto in G major by Ravel. Lindberg has the strings play a unison G, signifying the first initial of Alan Gilbert’s last name. The “fuel” we hear in the opening minutes sustains the rest of EXPO. In fact it’s a multi-part exposition that contrasts the feverish whirling of the violins and violas against a harmonically opaque chorale in the brass, colored by low woodwinds and percussion. In effect, EXPO is a mini-concerto for orchestra, featuring episodes that growl in the nether regions and scintillate high above. Suspense is the subtext that emerges from these pictures at an exhibition, with their interweaving of colorful sonorities and tempo fluctuations.

Lindberg inscribes a hidden “message” in his score about four minutes into the piece, to another brass chorale statement, this time noble and boldly spacious: “Alle gute Dinge sind drei” (German for “All good things come in threes”), spelling out three names associated with the New York Philharmonic during his tenure into equivalent musical notes (Executive Director Zarin Mehta, Alan Gilbert, and Director of Artistic Planning Matias Tarnopolsky). As the music reassembles all these elements to drive toward its conclusion, triumphant and reflective impulses blend into something more complex than celebratory grandstanding.

—Thomas May

Thomas May is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
Recordings: EXPO has not been recorded. Some other works by the composer that are available in recordings: Feria, coupled with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic (NY Philharmonic)  |  The Music of Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)  |  On the Cutting Edge: New Music from Contact!, with Lindberg, Gilbert, and the New York Philharmonic (NY Philharmonic)  |  Magnus Lindberg: Orchestral Music, a four-CD anthology of the composer’s work, including the seminal Kraft with the Toimii Ensemble (Ondine)   

Reading: After Sibelius: Studies in Finnish Music, by Tim Howell (Ashgate)  |  Website of the Finnish Music Information Centre,  |  Risto Nieminen’s profile on the website of publisher Boosey & Hawkes (