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Magnus Lindberg's new orchestral work, TEMPUS FUGIT, was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Finnish independence on 6 December. The composer introduces the work and explains how technology has helped renew his search for a harmonious modern language.

With a Finnish-themed commission, how do you view the current balance between native and cosmopolitan elements in your music?

I’ve never actively sought to position my music as ‘Finnish’ – whatever that is. When I was studying, Finland had been a musical backwater, dominated by composers centred around Sibelius. My generation tried to escape from this as it was rather stifling, so we looked towards the new music in Europe. The composers that first caught my attention in the late 1970s were Italians such as Berio, Castiglioni and Donatoni with their stylistic clarity, and I explored the music and philosophy of Germans such as Zimmermann and Stockhausen. When I moved to Paris in 1981, studying with Grisey and Globokar, it was the spectral music that attracted me, and the possibilities of employing computers in musical generation and electronics as pioneered at IRCAM and by certain American composers such as Babbitt.

Today, everything seems to be a mash-up, partly due to the total access to all available music. It is hard now to appreciate back then in Helsinki how important composition teachers were as guides – in my case Rautavaara and Heininen – and the crucial role of libraries in providing source material for study. In order to graduate from the Sibelius Academy I had to return all my books on loan, and this included 341 scores! To sum up, of course I have the tradition of Finnish music in my work, but now, in the age of iTunes and Spotify, so could any composer from any country.

Does the title TEMPUS FUGIT imply a particular focus on time in this work?

Finding a title was a challenge because, unusually, the commission was related to a specific celebration – Finland’s 100 years of independence. The title would have to carry a meaning related to this. Should it be in Finnish or Swedish, our two national official languages? Should it claim to celebrate how good and prosperous we are, or support some kind of nationalism? I decided the way to neutralise some of these issues was to choose a title in Latin, a universal language in Europe long before our independence – the language of culture, tradition and scholars.

If you translate TEMPUS FUGIT as ‘Time Flies’, you could say that Finland has travelled a long way already – but 100 years is a short timespan, and living as a human in this part of the world started long ago and, we hope, will continue for millennia to come. This relates to my fascination with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s concept of spherical time – that the past, the present and the future are continuously linked and within reach. You can also examine the inter-connection of musical time in the earlier works of Stockhausen such as Kontakte and Gruppen which had a big impact on me as a young composer. A translation of TEMPUS FUGIT that I prefer is ‘Time in Flight’, offering the idea that time escapes from us but bequeaths a tangible residue, rather like a plane travelling towards the distance but leaving a visible vapour trail.

How does the new score reconnect with your earlier compositions?

Preparations for TEMPUS FUGIT took me back to my researches around the time I was composing Kraft. I have had the luxury of 14 months to write the new work, very unusual in my schedule, so this has given me the opportunity to time travel back into my past to excavate what I’d been preoccupied with in the 1980s – something I’ve been itching to do for many years. Back then, I’d been using the LISP programming language to compute the relationships between harmonies but, of course the hardware was now obsolete. I found six ancient Macintosh 2s and, by screwing and soldering them together, made a retro ‘supercomputer’ that would have enough power to run the 30-year-old software.

The output from running the software has provided me with a repository of chords, organised so the relationships are hierarchically clear. The algorithms to create these chordal lists can generate related harmonies, using defined rules, rather like aspects of Artificial Intelligence. To be clear, the computer is not the composer here, but is creating and organising a harmonic pool. Without the technology and processing power such calculations and systematic charting would be impossible to achieve in a lifetime.

So the new work extends your exploration of harmonic continuity and chordal tension as heard in recent works like Two Episodes?

Yes, but what was limited and largely intuitive there, is extensive and systematic in the new work. I’ve wanted to address what is perceived by many as a problem with much contemporary music: the missing logic and rhetorical power of functional harmony to shape music, mirroring that enjoyed in the tonal classical era. A chord should not be an isolated object but should be aurally related to what has come before and what follows. I see an analogy with language – with subject and object in a meaningful relationship, with questions and answers, with tension and relaxation, with foreshadowing and recurrences across time. This is my dream, which I’ve been able to pursue further in TEMPUS FUGIT.

The work appears to be in five parts. What characterises the different sections and how do they make up the whole?

The score plays continuously and the listener should not always be clear of the multiple subdivisions. However five broad sections emerge. The introduction leads to two large-scale fast sections which contain the bulk of the material, variants of each other like the Allegro and Scherzo movements in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The fourth section functions largely as a slow movement, and the finale is summatory while also referring back to the introduction so they are bookends. The harmonic material is focused to form a distinctive theme in the final section, rather like the Promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which is here chorale-like in nature, building and finally fading in time, though remaining tutti to the final bar.

How special is it to write for an orchestra where you know many of the players?

I’m very pleased I can celebrate the centenary of Finnish independence together with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, because our working relationship goes back close on 40 years. I first collaborated with the orchestra in the late 1970s and it commissioned my first big piece, Sculpture II, completed in 1981. This was one of a group of orchestral works commissioned from young composers, intended to be practical and easy to play by a range of orchestras in Finland. However, it turned out to be the most complex piece I’ve ever written, requiring two conductors to navigate through the score. Despite that, the orchestra asked me for more commissions including Kraft, Kinetics, Feria – which has turned out to be my most performed orchestral score – and the Clarinet Concerto. The orchestra has performed nearly all of my orchestral works and, in a way, I’ve grown up with many of the orchestral players as they are the same generation. They are in excellent shape under Hannu Lintu so I’m greatly looking forward to the performances of TEMPUS FUGIT.

As you approach your 60th birthday in 2018, what perspective does this give you about Finnish composing life?

The more time passes, the more I realise how lucky I’ve been. When I graduated from the Sibelius Academy I benefited from the Finnish system of scholarships for young artists. It wasn’t lavish but it allowed me to work full-time as a composer without a secondary career, something I now realise was envied by young composers in other countries. My generation, including Kaipainen, Saariaho and Salonen, had the option to concentrate on being composers, and much of our music has thankfully lasted in the repertoire right through to today.

With Sibelius behind us, and an active generation of Finnish composers, conductors, instrumentalists and singers on the world stage, I have to be optimistic about the next 100 years, whatever the financial and cultural challenges for young artists today.

Interviewed by David Allenby, 2017

Magnus Lindberg
(2016-17) 27’
for orchestra

Commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra for the 100th anniversary of Finnish Independence, 6 December 2017

6 December 2017 (world premiere)
Helsinki Music Centre 
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/
Hannu Lintu

9 December 2017 (Estonian premiere)
Estonian Concert Hall, Tallinn 
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/
Hannu Lintu

>  Further information on Work: TEMPUS FUGIT

Photo: Philip Gatward

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