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“There is no rigid recipe for this”

Interview: composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen continues to champion new music in a classical setting, turning fossilized institutions to his policy of a mixed orchestral repertoire.

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Photo by Clive Barda

Internationally renowned composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen made a name for himself as the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1990s, far from his native Finland.

Returning to Europe to head London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen continues to champion new music in a classical setting, slowly turning fossilized institutions to his policy of a mixed and ever-changing orchestral repertoire.

Now, as part of the Berliner Festspiele’s MusikFest, Salonen will come to Berlin at the head of his orchestra for the first time with his Violin Concerto, composed for violinist Leila Josefowicz.

How did you go about composing the concerto, in addition to your obligations as a conductor?

My life is, of course, a very careful balancing act between composing and conducting, so usually I write down ideas in a sort of non-discriminating way throughout the year when I’m conducting.

Then when I have my composing time, I start going through the material I have – and at that point I discard most of it, but in most cases there’s also something that I can see has potential. Then I start working on the material I have and things start jelling.

A big part of the process of course was Leila, with whom I collaborated very closely throughout the entire process. Our collaboration was mostly done on Skype – and text messaging and emails – but mostly Skype.

I would send something over email to her while she was on the other side of the world, and she would study it and we would get on Skype and she would play it for me and say, “Well, maybe it would be more effective like this or like that.”

Your Violin Concerto has now been played and conducted by other musicians. What is it like to see a piece you’ve composed when it’s conducted by someone else?

Mostly it’s an inspiring experience and sometimes it’s absolutely horrifying. If I have a piece conducted by good conductors, in some cases, you think about the piece and hear it in a new light… and then of course I’ve had completely awful experiences where I hear a performance of my piece which is not professionally acceptable, a conductor who can’t really conduct, and that’s an experience that one needs several shots of whiskey to deal with [laughs].

What makes a good conductor then?

A good conductor is a conductor who brings music to life and that’s really all there is at the end of the day. Take this abstract thing, which is called a score, filled with symbols, and turn that into physical reality in such a way that it actually moves and attracts people. That sounds profoundly simple, but when you set out to do it, it turns out to be one of the most impossible tasks in music.

Some people approach it from a sort of psycho-physio holistic point of view, and there are some people who have a more intellectual approach, and there are some people who are completely intuitive about it.

There is no rigid recipe for this. That’s part of the fun, because you can also tell how the conductor’s visual psycho-physical language really affects the sound of the orchestra, and how music does sound different with different orchestras, quite dramatically so.

There’s some kind of agreement, between orchestras and their conductors. Conductors make a certain type of gesture, and the orchestra plays.

That’s just like the traffic light: you mostly stop when it’s red and go when it’s green. It’s not a physical necessity; the color of the light does not cause the car to stop. It’s an agreement, and it’s a convention.

Conducting is the same thing: it’s based on some kind of willingness to read sign language.

Where do you see contemporary music’s place in the classical music world?

The whole idea that there would be contemporary music and normal music is kind of ridiculous, because if you think of the short history of classical music, most concerts were contemporary music concerts.

Nobody called it a contemporary music concert, because it was normal to play a new piece, and it was actually less normal to play an old piece by some dead guy.

Then things kind of went weird after the Second World War as it all became so historically oriented. And all of a sudden, what became interesting was Conductor X conducting a Beethoven cycle or recording it – record companies had a big part in this.

And suddenly we became a bunch of guys who do covers rather than actually making new songs. I think we lost a lot of ground to pop and rock music by shifting the emphasis from new creation to reproducing endless versions of old stuff.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t play the old stuff, because yes, we should – it’s wonderful, and theaters should keep playing Shakespeare – but the other art forms are doing better at taking care of the new.

What does the future of contemporary music look like?

I think we’re back on track. Things are going in the right direction, and there are lots of composers whose work circulates beyond the specialist groups and who are more open about their influences and who are able to deal with the vocabulary of techno, dance music, rock and pop without compromising the integrity of the piece they’re writing. It’s somehow in touch with the way the world sounds.

No art can successfully exist in a bubble, or in a vacuum. It needs dialogue beyond the borders of itself, and the big problem in Germany, I think, is that German art quite often engages in dialogue within itself, which in certain cases can be fine and in others becomes unbelievably boring.

What is the process of composing like, as opposed to conducting?

It’s lonely, intensely lonely. It’s kind of low-energy in the sense that the goal is not next week, it’s not next month, it might be two years away. It’s like churning butter: you have the liquid, cream and salt, and then you churn and you churn and you churn and nothing happens for a long time and then what happens is that you can see these little grains, little lumps forming, and when the lumps are there, from that point on it goes very quickly.

You just have to keep churning and when you see lumps, you know that there’s some kind of cohesion that eventually will create a piece of music.

Tue, Sep 6, 20:00 | Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan- Str. 1, Mitte, S+UBhf Potsdamer Platz