“I want my music to be a part of society”

Composer in Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen

If there is one dogma in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s understanding of music, it is the rejection of all dogmas. He doesn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed, but searches for music that excites and moves the listener – how he gets there is secondary. In the 2022/23 season, Esa-Pekka Salonen is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Composer in Residence.

In his youth, one of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s main preoccupations was defending the true values of music. If a hit by Donna Summer was played at a student party, he might sit down at the piano with a friend and they would counter it with twelve-tone music for four hands. Now, Salonen can only laugh about such episodes, and no longer sees pop music and twelve-tone music as mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary.

For Salonen, who was born in Helsinki in 1958, the search for a musical “truth” counts less than the desire for powerful experiences. His goal is to write music that even the average concertgoer can understand and enjoy. He rejects the distinction between serious and popular music; for him, music is simply music. “People expect something different from music in different situations,” Salonen says. “There are moments when I also like to listen to pop music. That what we understand as music covers such a range, that's fascinating!”

Salonen talks about his Residency

Spontaneity is an important factor for Salonen when composing

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music is highly expressive and speaks directly to the listener. It knows no dogmas and so it is difficult to pigeonhole. Flickering sound surfaces or dissonant chord clusters are found alongside rhythmic explosions or a sometimes late-Romantic harmony. “I write music that touches something in me. Initially, I also see myself as a receiver, as a listener. When I write a piece, I first play it in my own head. If the listener in me thinks it is good and interesting, exciting or moving, then I write it down. If I like it myself, there’s a good chance that others, maybe many, will like it too.”

Spontaneity is an important factor for Esa-Pekka Salonen when composing: “I rarely have a finished concept. I am constantly collecting material, because I don’t want to sit in the studio when I start a composition and panic because I have no ideas and I’m just staring at a blank page. I collect ideas, rhythms, themes; then when I start writing, I already have some material in front of me, and I usually find something that becomes the basis for my new piece.”

The battle between Salonen the composer and Salonen the conductor

But Salonen is not only a composer, he is also one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. This is a difficult challenge for him: “It is a constant battle between the composer and the conductor. Like Gustav Mahler. He dedicated his whole life to the Vienna Hofoper. Such institutions are monsters. They squeeze all the lifeblood out of you.” That is why he only works with selected orchestras as a conductor and always takes time in between to devote himself entirely to his compositions.

Salonen doesn’t believe in making music and composing in an ivory tower. He needs contact with the audience. And he makes a point of not seeing himself as the sole measure of all things. “I want music – and especially my music – to be part of society. What I can’t stand are people who take themselves too seriously. There always has to be room for irony and laughter, otherwise life would be unbearable.”