The Melting Point: Two European Composers in America

Esa-Pekka Salonen at Universal Classics Studios in New York City
Thursday, June 2, 2005, 5 p.m.

Frank J. Oteri: What has been happening in Los Angeles over the past decade has been remarkable both for its scope and its adventurousness—the new museums, what you have been doing with the Philharmonic—but it seems like a weird place to have that locus of activity. You came to L.A. not only as an outsider to L.A., but to America. What, for you, are the most striking differences between Finland and the U.S.?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: The main difference is that Finland is perhaps the most homogenous culture in all of Europe, which means that it’s pretty damn homogenous. It has 5 1/2 million people who mostly dress alike, speak alike, and think the same things. They more or less have had the same sort of education, 98 percent of the Finns are Lutheran… It’s just a very sort of simple sociology compared to this country, which is anything but. For me, the very leap from that sort of society to L.A. was enormous. All of a sudden I was in a place where a hundred languages are spoken, a place where nobody seemed to be from, a place that seemed to have a transitory quality to some degree, a tremendous openness and curiosity but at the same time lack of structure.

I have to say it wasn’t always easy in the early years. I came to L.A. with a typical Eurocentric and slightly patronizing agenda. You know, this is how things are: the greatest composer is Beethoven, the greatest writer is Shakespeare, the greatest artist is Michelangelo, and so forth. This is my list. Of course, in a society like Los Angeles, the validity of my list was being challenged by the very fact that there seemed to be more truths than just one. This is the biggest lesson I learned. That if you run an orchestra or an institution of that kind, what you should do is try to create a local identity, to create a uniquely Angelino variety of a symphony orchestra in Los Angeles rather than bringing some kind of a European concept and just transplanting it to the desert and expecting it to bloom.

FJO: You say you came there saying Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, but that seems a bit disingenuous to me. You’re a composer and you were a composer first. In your younger years, you were really a firebrand advocating modernism in Finland. I can’t imagine you showing up in L.A. and wanting to uphold only 19th century traditions.

EPS: I didn’t mean that that was my agenda, but my agenda was based on those assumptions, that there’s this hierarchy that is beyond reproach. That there is Beethoven and there is Shakespeare, and whatever else happened afterwards is a direct result of those basic axioms. Then we come to Boulez after several generations, and then we come to Stockhausen and Berio, and so on and so forth. This is an inevitable historic process that guarantees greatness to some degree. That’s what I meant by this Eurocentric post-Hegelian agenda.

FJO: So, now, who are your great compositional heroes of the past? Who are the people you admire the most and want people to be aware of?

EPS: It’s funny, but I should mention Beethoven right away. I can’t help it. There was a composer whose imagination knew no boundaries. Every solution was new. No models existed for long. Every model was there to be broken and for a new model to be created. It’s not an original thing to say, but for me he is one of the most fascinating artists who ever lived. Over the years I’ve learned to love Haydn more than ever before. I’m very fond of Brahms, Schumann, Wagner lately. This year has been a big Wagner year for me. I did Tristan for the first time in concert and then I conducted it in Paris. I’ve really been smitten by this stuff. And then, coming to the last century, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky of course, Sibelius, Lutoslawski…

FJO: No Americans?

EPS: Then we’re coming closer to our time still… The two American composers I identify with more than anybody else are John Adams and Steven Stucky. Those two have influenced me tremendously and they have also become very good friends over the years. Certainly very different, but important, both of them.

FJO: Interesting. You didn’t mention Charles Ives.

EPS: Ives is a composer I admire. I really enjoy his music. I have performed some of it, but not all of it by any means. I like Ives, but he is of no use to me as a composer, i.e. there is nothing in his language or compositional technique that I can learn from to develop my own craft as a composer. This is a very practical point of view. When I study a piece of Ravel, for instance, there is always something that I can incorporate into my own system indirectly, a technique of orchestration or some sort of harmonic thinking. Whereas Ives is so unique and so particular that there are no tools you can lift out of this stuff without resulting in plagiarism because everything is so uniquely him.

FJO: This process of dealing with the music of the past, interacting with it as a performer and then absorbing it and having it surface in your own compositions, begs the question of how conducting and composing fuel each other.

EPS: In my case, the privilege of being able to study this music and being able to perform it and that I can even make a living from doing it, that’s nice, but essentially it’s the same kind of process that every composer does. Whereas, if I look at the performing side of myself, the fact that I cannot separate the two from each other gives me a somewhat unusual position. When I learn a piece of music, I can somehow imagine the process of creating that particular piece of music. I can somehow guess how the composer ended up with this particular result, mostly. There are some groundbreaking pieces in musical history that seem like something that just landed on the face of the Earth from some other cosmos, and it’s very hard to imagine how on earth the composer could imagine all of this. Pieces like the Eroica, Symphonie Fantastique, Tristan und Isolde, or The Rite of Spring, all of a sudden appear and change history. The world is different after the first time this music sounded. Whereas most other music you can always trace it back to something. You can see where it positions itself in the continuum which doesn’t necessarily make it less valuable or less profound.

FJO: It’s interesting in that list of the great composers you enumerated as role models that you include Stravinsky. He conducted, but he focused on his own music. He didn’t really conduct other people’s music. But none of the other later people you mentioned were really active as conductors. You mentioned Boulez at some point and he certainly has a wide reputation as a conductor of other people’s music.

EPS: The whole idea of performers and composers being different people is quite a new idea. I think the first really important conductor who was not known as a composer was Toscanini. Even Nikisch still wrote music, I think. Karajan was the epitome of a conductor who gradually became more important than the composer. If you look at the whole Karajan cult, this was perhaps the first time in history that the conductor’s name was printed in larger print than Beethoven’s or Bruckner’s.

Of course, this particular separation or specialization is not an isolated phenomenon in our culture. You can see it everywhere. You go to see and doctor and the diversification among doctors specializing in this or that has gone very far. Even in construction. I had this very funny experience about a leaking roof in Los Angeles. For me, this was the symbol of the ultra-specialization in our society. Our roof started leaking and we called the roofer. The roofer came and said, “It’s not the roof, it’s the deck; so you have to call the deckman.” The deckman comes. (All of them happen to be Russian for some reason!) The deckman comes and says, “No, it’s not the deck, it’s the threshold; so you have to call the threshold man.” And then there was a third Russian who came and said, “OK, I’ll fix it.” I said to my wife, “This is amazing. There’s a specialist for the four-inch area between the deck and the roof.” If you keep that in mind when you start speaking about how very few performers compose these days, then you can see that it’s not an isolated phenomenon. It’s just that the whole society has tunnel vision. As a result of this, people who do more than one thing are somehow immediately suspect. There has to be something wrong, or flippant, about your attitude if you attempt to do more than one thing. I’ve seen this many times. It used to be totally normal 75 years ago; now it’s something that somehow is seen as a compromise.

FJO: Even though, given what you just said, it might not even be fair to ask this question, how would you identify yourself to someone who didn’t know you? Would you say you were a composer first or a conductor first? Does it even matter to make that distinction?

EPS: This particular distinction is not terribly important to me. When I compose, I’m a composer. When I conduct, I’m a conductor. But the two sides of the personality are never completely detached. Of course, I’m better known as a conductor than I am as a composer, but then again, who is well known in the classical music world as opposed to rock or pop or film? Nobody. It’s a totally irrelevant thing because none of us is famous the way that Tom Cruise is famous.

The way our culture works today is through faces and personalities. Ideas and concepts themselves are not understood and are not that interesting to people. Everything has to come through a talking head. There has to be a human symbol for whatever movement or cultural institution there is. The conductor is the natural symbol of his institution within the community. But also he, or she, quite often represents the entire art form, becomes the spokesperson for orchestra music or for classical music. That being the case, one should try to use that relative visibility to create interest for the right things. It is part of the role of an orchestra. We are there to satisfy some cultural, spiritual, emotional, and aesthetical needs of the people, our audience. But also we are there to lead, and the higher the visibility the leader has in a community, the easier it is to take that leadership role.

FJO: How much of that responsibility then should be toward new music and toward local composers in the area you happen to be in?

EPS: There is no ideal balance. You can’t say that if you do 16.5 percent of this you’ll be fine. The whole thing is a dynamic process. It also varies. The way I operate is not ideologically based; it is more pleasure based. If there is something I believe in, something that moves me, interests me, excites me, then I do it and stand behind it. It is not based on an equation. Therefore, there are seasons when we have a huge amount of new work and there are seasons where we have less of it and we concentrate on other things.

FJO: For nearly a century, common wisdom claimed everyone loved and understood the older pieces and that new piece were harder to understand and somehow had to be shepherded in. But now we’re dealing with a whole generation, maybe two, for whom older pieces are unknown as well. The average person on the streets of L.A. is probably as unfamiliar with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe as they are with the music of Steven Stucky. It’s not the common language anymore.

EPS: This is absolutely true. There are many members of the audience for whom Stucky is no scarier than Beethoven which is quite a fantastic situation. This is a total open landscape. But still, if you think of what you would call mainstream music today, some kind of a pop rock kind of thing, the tonal language and the formal language of that music is very close to that of Schubert. So, I guess that for most people who have no contact with classical music whatsoever but who are vaguely aware of the pop culture of today, for them a piece by Mozart or Schubert or early Beethoven would sound vaguely familiar because of the way the phrase works, because of the way the tonal functions work and so forth. Yet a piece by Lutoslawski would, from that point of view, sound slightly more alien. Then, of course, having said that, there’s the sonic aspect. For somebody whose main interest is heavy metal, for instance, a piece by Varèse would certainly sound more familiar than Eine Kliene Nachtmusik. So the reference has changed completely. The way people identify various phenomena has changed completely as well.

FJO: Well, in the concert you led which combined Ives, Adams, and Ravel, one would say with conventional wisdom that Ravel is the famous standard repertoire composer, but Daphnis and Chloe was the most difficult listening of the three. In Adams’s Dharma at Big Sur, Tracy Silverman moved around the stage like a rock star which a younger audience could immediately relate to.

EPS: Absolutely. That was precisely my reaction as well afterwards. My daughter, who is thirteen, was at that concert and she said, “I loved the first half. The electric violin piece was terrific. The Ives was great. But Daphnis felt a bit long.” And I thought, “Hmm. OK. That is the cultural reference. That’s where people come from.” Also, if you measure the reactions of the people in the audience, the bravos were loudest after John’s piece, very clearly.

FJO: He was physically there and could get up on the stage and people could acknowledge him directly, Ravel couldn’t be there.

EPS: Exactly. Who knows? We might be heading back toward an era when the only relevant music was new music, which would not be the first time in our history. When you think of the days of Brahms, a performance of a Mozart symphony was more like a gesture, or when Mendelssohn revived Bach. Now let’s take a look back. It was a special event. Mostly concerts were new music and really about new new music. This is the latest piece by Brahms that we’re going to play now, and this is the new piece by this very talented young man from Munich named Richard Strauss. Nobody was particularly interested in a fifteen-year-old piece anymore. So it was a bit like the way the rock and pop world works today. Everybody is desperately waiting for the new Coldplay album to come out. And then it’s out and in half a year’s time, you say, OK, we’ve heard that. When is the next record coming out? So while I’m not a great admirer of pop and rock culture in general, the nice thing is that people are interested in the next creative act. What is really interesting is what this new song sounds like, a song we haven’t heard yet, rather than how this interpretation of the Schumann symphony differs from what we heard last week.

FJO: Of course, one of the biggest challenges is that orchestras require a lot of people, and to get all of those people rehearsed with a new piece takes a lot of time. And they still won’t sound as good as when they’re playing Brahms because they’ve been playing Brahms for years.

EPS: That is absolutely very true, which is why some of the most satisfying experiences we have had have been returns to new music that we premiered and maybe even recorded. A couple of seasons later, we’ll come back to that piece. And then we all realize—the orchestra, the audience, myself—that we’re on a much higher level than where we started. And that’s actually the only way to make these things sound as good as the mainstream or the core repertoire. This was exactly the case with Dharma, John’s piece. At the premiere, we had very little rehearsal time. It was in the middle of the opening ceremonies of the new hall and everybody was completely stressed out and in a state of panic. We had all kinds of problems with the amplification because it was a new hall. And then we played it and John made some little changes in the score, and we played it again a year ago, and now we took it back to Disney Hall. In this process, it had become a completely different piece. Now it was a mature performance of a piece that was rather challenging. The response was also completely different from the audience because everybody realized that this is something that worked and that we were completely on top of it. And that’s the whole point. In order to make a strong enough case for these works, you have to perform them often.

FJO: Have the lessons of what it takes to make a piece of new music happen as a conductor affected the kind of music you write?

EPS: I like the idea of challenging an orchestra. I write very difficult stuff. I enjoy virtuosity, the sheer physical excitement of people doing very difficult things. I get a lot of pleasure out of it in a sick way. There was a funny moment when my orchestra was rehearsing Wing on Wing for the first time. There was a particularly hard first violin passage and I said something like, “Well, you know, I thought it would have been an insult if had written anything easier than I did.” And there was a voice from the back stands that said, “I think we would have liked to take the insult instead.” But there’s some beauty in the idea of people doing incredibly difficult things. It’s also fascinating for the listener in the audience because there’s an element of risk involved. Of course, if this kind of virtuoso messes it up nobody dies or anything like that. Nietzsche in Zarathoustra says, “The best artists are the tight rope walkers ’cause they can make a mistake only once.” That was before the time of the safety net. But there’s something similar in the idea of a virtuoso. He or she goes to these places so that we don’t have to.

But to speak to how I relate to the practical issues in writing a new orchestral piece…Of course, I’ve been around. I’m an experienced musician at this point. I also want to write a piece that makes some sense within a normal rehearsal schedule. So I write in such a way that we can get it together under normal circumstances. And they always get better when we play them again. There’s always this process of growth. And I have realized that I, as a conductor, conduct them better after a few years because of the distance one needs. An interpretation of one’s own piece is actually very hard because when you conduct the first rehearsal of a new piece the unknowns are so many and the whole thing is bewildering. You don’t know what is what. You don’t know what is your fault as a composer, you don’t know what is your fault as a conductor, and you don’t know what is the orchestra’s fault. Only experience teaches you what was what. So time is needed for this purpose. One would think that the composer knows a score better than anybody else. Yes, on some level. But, as a performer, not necessarily as well as an outsider would.

FJO: You said your music is difficult, but certainly pieces like Wing on Wing or L.A. Variations are viscerally exciting and I can imagine an audience really responding to them in a live concert setting. This is music that brings the audience in. Despite the difficulty and all the layers, it’s very approachable. Would you say that you might be writing pieces whose affect is different than these if you were not always so aware of audiences as a result of being in front of them for so long as a conductor?

EPS: One could safely say that, but I cannot imagine how it would have been different because I have no reference. It might have been. Having said that, I think every composer on some level wants to communicate. Otherwise, why write music? It’s a form of communication. How exactly we communicate varies enormously, but I cannot imagine any composer not wanting to have his or her music to be played, to be heard, and to be reacted to. Otherwise it would make no sense to work in such a completely abstract framework. It would be meaningless.

FJO: In your notes for Wing on Wing, you talk about thinking of yourself as Finnish but now, being in America, having a displaced identity to some extent. Where do you see your identity in the international scheme of things? Do you feel America has influenced you as a composer?

EPS: Definitely, but I would say more specifically California. Because of the very fact that it is so open and the structure is so loose that it allows you to become the kind of person you can become. And I am not the only person that experienced this. If you ask John Adams, he would say the exact same thing. The fact that he left the East Coast and moved to Northern California allowed him to become the man he is today. I’ve experienced something similar. I don’t feel like my Finnish-ness has diminished by any means—it’s my first language and it’s the language of my dreams—but somehow the California experience has allowed me to open up and let myself develop in the kind of direction that was always there and which feels completely organic, but somehow the atmosphere in California made it so much easier. In California, you don’t have to belong to any camp; you don’t have to be ideologically based. You can just let yourself become something that you want to be without worrying about how it relates to the post-Hegelian ideas of historic determinism. For me, it was a very liberating experience and I am eternally grateful.

FJO: So is that post-Hegelian thing still going on in Europe and in Finland specifically?

EPS: Well, not really, but we do have still the kind of mainstream modernism idea. In some European countries, there’s still the idea that there’s only one kind of modern music that can be considered, and that is the post-serial modernist kind of music. While I have nothing against that kind of music, I do react against a limited number of truths.

FJO: Well, that’s interesting because your teacher was Rautavaara who certainly rallied against that himself.

EPS: True, but what is interesting is that as a young composer, I actually decided to make a departure from what a complete outsider like Rautavaara represented because it was too early for me to understand what he was doing and what he was talking about. I wanted to have a clear truth. I wanted to know what was wrong and what was right. And this sort of hard core Darmstadt kind of modernism seemed to be able to provide those answers. If you do like this, you’re fine. If you don’t, you’re a piece of crap. And for a young man, this is a very useful dichotomy: the useful and the useless. As you get older, you start to realize that the world is not quite that simple. If anything, I’ve been more liberal in my musical tastes as I’ve gotten older and ideology is much less important than it once was. I can still enjoy a good old modernist piece from Darmstadt. I heard Gruppen a few months ago and I thought, “Wow, this is a great piece.” I don’t have a problem with Stockhausen or Boulez or Berio. I still admire their best work. But now, the field is wide open and I think I’m a happier person for that.

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