“Composing is a slow burn”

A conversation with Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen dirigiertEsa-Pekka Salonen
(Photo: Minna Hatinen, Finnish National Opera and Ballet)

Esa-Pekka Salonen is not only a world-famous conductor, but also an acclaimed composer – one who loves sound, and who feels “like a kid in a candy shop” when he writes for symphony orchestras. In the 2022/23 season, he was the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Composer in Residence.

Mr. Salonen, when you compose a new work, do you feel like you are creating a new world out of nothing?

I don’t think any composer can work independently of the past. I remember that when I spoke with György Ligeti, he had this idea that every new composition has to start from tabula rasa, with a completely new syntax. But I don’t think that is actually even theoretically possible, because we cannot escape ourselves. Our aesthetic decisions are based on what we have heard and learned over the years, what we liked and what we didn’t. The very idea of operating in a vacuum is not interesting to me. On the contrary, I want to be part of cultural life. I want to want to be part of the world. I want to live here and now – and ideally reach other people with my music who also live here and now.

When you succeed in doing so and reach other people – what do you want to awaken in them? 

We can’t control the emotion of the listener. Pop music tells you exactly what to feel: “My lover has left me and I feel super bad.” In classical music, we operate on a much more open, more symbolic and suggestive level. Even a work like the “Liebestod” in Tristan and Isolde can awaken completely different sensations. One feels sadness and loss, but also hope, because it evokes a resurrection. So, since I can’t predict the audience’s feelings, I have to be my own reference point. So I write something and then I question myself. Does this move me? Does this stimulate me? If something moves me, there’s a good chance, in my opinion, that the same will happen to somebody else.

Your music is exciting and stimulating above all through its intoxicating, luminous sound. In the German post-war avant-garde, there was a great mistrust in such aesthetics, because sound itself was considered suspect. How do you view this?

This attitude essentially goes back to the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt. It was one of the most beautiful German Baroque cities, and was reduced to ashes just a few days before the end of the war. Young composers then gathered in Darmstadt and saw devastation everywhere. I can understand that they came to the conclusion: “We don’t want to have anything to do with what went on before. We see the consequences. Let’s do something completely new, a completely new language.” The only problem is that language is something that cannot be created. We are having this conversation in English and not in Esperanto, which is a much simpler language. Why didn’t Esperanto catch on? Because it is not alive. Language is like an organism that grows. You can’t control it. Same thing with music. And that’s why I view the serial and post-serial period of the Darmstadt school as essentially an experiment that ultimately failed. Some of the pieces these people wrote are fabulous, but very few of them have entered the repertoire. And as banal as it sounds, I think that tells us something about the relevance of this music.

Have you ever talked to representatives of the Darmstadt school about these issues?

Many years ago I conducted The Rake’s Progress in Paris, which is a Neoclassical work in which Stravinsky draws on the music of the 18th century. After the performance, Pierre Boulez came to me and said: “You almost convinced me about the piece.” I replied, “Almost?” Then he laughed and said, “You know, my generation was supposed to hate that kind of music.” So even Boulez, the high priest of the Darmstadt School, looked back on the militant positions of this movement with slight irony.

The child composer

You have been composing since childhood. You must have been an interesting child.

I had no brothers or sisters and was generally a bit lonely. I occupied myself with books and poetry, played the horn, and was a kind of nerd who spent a lot of time alone. Composing was amazing, because I could create my own world where I was the ruler. That was a really liberating feeling. I often I turned to my manuscript paper when I was sad or when I was super joyous and just kind of tried to capture those moments. Then, of course, I realised that to get anywhere, you need theory, you need tools. I started studying music theory at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, first in the youth department, then I started studying composition officially when I was 18 years old. 

And your conducting career?

Conducting was a by-product of this. I honestly didn’t think much of conductors. They were like parasites in the musical system who get all the attention, while nobody cares about the composer. A bit later on, we started a group of young composers called Korvat auki (Ears open). One of our ideas was to perform new music in remote places, in prisons, schools, and churches outside Helsinki or even once at a gas station at minus 30 degrees and two meters of snow. And the fact was that no real conductor was particularly interested in performing our music, so we had to do it ourselves. As a horn player, I had already been subbing in Helsinki orchestras, and had the most experience with conductors. So I became the conductor of the group. Eventually I took lessons, but I didn’t have anything like a plan to become an international conductor.

Esa-Pekka Salonen sitzt auf einer leeren BühneEsa-Pekka Salonen
(Photo: Benjamin Suomela)

Between writing and conducting

How is it even possible to be successful as a conductor and as a composer? As a conductor, you communicate with an orchestra on the stage and 2000 people in the auditorium. As a composer, you communicate only with yourself. It could be argued that a person is made for either one or the other.

Without question, it is a challenge to switch between performing and writing music. Especially because the time scales and energy levels are so different. Conducting involves high energy, high adrenaline over a short period of time. A concert is usually rehearsed in two to three days, then the performance follows, and that’s it. Composing, on the other hand, is a slow burn during which you are very lonely. When I go on stage as a conductor, people clap when I appear, but when I go to my studio as a composer, there’s nobody there. If you write a novel, you at least have an editor. I need at least a week to switch from conducting to writing, to breathe more slowly again, to focus completely on myself. And also the other way round. If I have a two-month composing break and go back to conducting, I’m completely dead after the first rehearsal. Then the unusual concentration on other people sucks all the energy out of me.

How do you feel when others conduct your music? 

For me as a composer, the best moments are when I sit in a concert and listen to someone else perform my music and bring things out of it that I wasn’t even aware of myself. Conversely, conducting the first rehearsal for a new work is often tricky for me. Then I have to make a two-track judgement. If something sounds different than expected – is it my fault as a composer or as a conductor? That can be very exhausting. Conducting needs distance from the work, which in turn requires time. Performing a ten-year-old piece of mine does not cause me any problems. With a new work it is different.

Composer in Residence

The German premiere of your organ concerto is the highlight of your season as the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Composer in Residence. How do you see this residency?

This collaboration is very exciting and also flattering. I’ve been a composer in residence with a major orchestra, but there’s something special about the Berliner Philharmoniker. The programme we have put together covers several decades. If one wants to see a kind of a journey or some kind of a linear progression, it can be found. And the pieces are very different in in length and in terms of the size of the ensemble. So they give a pretty good overview.

If someone has never heard a work of yours before, do you have any advice on how to approach your music?

All I can say is: just sit there and let it happen. My music should awaken feelings and conjure up images. Discover whatever you want to discover. I love sound itself, especially the sound of a large symphony orchestra, that expressiveness, that intensity. It’s amazing that the classical orchestra still exists at all. It’s old, it’s expensive, you have to practise from childhood to be admitted. And yet orchestras still fascinate us, there is a special life force in them. When I write for a symphony orchestra, I like to be able to go deep into the sound and really enjoy myself like a kid in a candy shop. If any of that enjoyment is transmitted to the listener, then I’m happy.

Interview by Tobias Möller