A New World of Sound

Interview with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: Helsinki, March 1989. The city is full of musicians; the fifth Helsinki Biennale for new music has started. I sit in the smoke-filled bar at the Vakuna Hotel and wait for Magnus Lindberg whose piece for orchestra, Kinetics, has just been premiered. In Finland he is considered the big new name, and optimists call him Sibelius’ heir. At precisely the appointed time he emerges through the smoke and settles into one of the easy chairs. Lindberg has recently moved to Paris, and with his casual dress and constantly burning cigarette he looks more like a French intellectual than a Nordic composer. Of course he is in Paris because that’s where IRCAM is, the composers’ workshop. That’s where his works are created. We come quickly to the topic of IRCAM, the composer, and especially his new work. Lindberg briefs me on the background to Kinetics.

Magnus Lindberg: The story behind the work is a long one. In 1981 I composed Sculpture II, a piece for large orchestra that was premiered at the Nordic Music Days in Copenhagen in 1984. It was understood that after this, following the precedent of Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes, I would write two more orchestral pieces to go with it. I didn’t expect my music to have anything to do with Debussy’s; it was only that the starting point for his work was also a study in small nuances.

Then two years ago I decided to get on with this project. As I said, the starting point was to have been two works, ‘Sculpture I’ and ‘Sculpture III’. But after some time I realized the material that was used eight years earlier couldn’t be used anymore. It had to be a completely new work that did not have anything to do with the old one. I had also begun to work at IRCAM with a project that still continues, namely to develop a language that includes spectral harmony, that is, the type of harmony that is based on acoustic phenomena like overtones. All my French colleagues, especially Gérard Grisey, have worked with these ideas for quite a long time. How could I find an aspect that would be completely my own? That was the main idea behind Kinetics: to work with a kind of hybrid material, I was going to use a combination of serial, dodecaphonic harmony—as I had worked with them earlier—and group theory, or on the other hand, set theory and a harmony that is based on the laws of acoustics. In other words, linking two ways of looking at material.

There was also the inspiration from one of my favourite works, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s last large orchestral work, Photoptosis. I don’t know if Zimmermann himself spoke about the foreground and background in this work, but I have analysed it and found a lot of musical ideas that clearly constitute a kind of layered music with both foreground and background. That interested me because in Kinetics I wanted to let the acoustics—overtone harmonies, analyses of different sound objects, instrumentation—create a background harmony. The foreground should be made out of the type of harmony I worked with in earlier works, like for example, Kraft.

The major part of Kinetics is based on these harmonic ideas and the title is also connected to the harmonic language. My problem with purely spectral music has been that it is static. But by combining the spectral and the serial I could achieve ‘movement’ on the harmonic level, that is in terms of kinetics. I did this, for example, by using Elliott Carter’s technique of metrical modulation, where I use a mechanical, pulsing movement, that continues while tempo and time are changed. This motion or transformation applies not only to the tempo and time-plan, but also to harmony.

AB: Can you go into a bit more detail about the thoughts behind the serial part of the work? When you talk about set theory, I suppose you mean Allen Forte’s ideas?

ML: Yes, but it goes beyond the prevailing preoccupation with Forte’s theory. I have a sizeable computer program that facilitates working with set theory using a database. This database has a great number of chords that are chosen subjectively and categorized. An analytical method makes possible a precise description of the combinatorial aspects of the chords. The problem with set theory is that it simplifies and is mainly statistical. Although a set theory analysis of a chord is merely a representation, a simplification of the original, this program allows me to make corrections and re-enter the results.

This is a really advanced data program that is written in Lisp (Lisp is a programming language that is often used for the development of music programs, ed.), a kind of artificial intelligence mechanism that allows me to make any chord whatsoever a part of my database with the help of minute adjustments. That sounds perhaps a little cryptic, but it actually means that I can transfer ‘colours’ from my own harmonic system to the chords, and generate harmonic processes—chains of chords—using the computer and after that manipulate them with the data program. In this way I have control over the material. I can decide that a process will consist of one kind of chord exclusively, or of one type followed by a certain other kind. For me it’s like searching to find something equivalent to functional tonality.

I haven’t worked with series or classical dodecaphony for a long time, but rather with set theory, group or primary class theory, which allows me to have complete control over the interval content. This is supplemented by means of the computer and allows me to return to the original point of departure, but with a more precise control over the interval relationships. And much of the set theory I am working with at this time is also based on acoustics: I can give certain tones preference, for example, a segment of an overtone series.

What is interesting in this project is how one can create tension and control with the means that we have at our disposal, establish the rules for connecting chord A and chord B. It’s comparable to the way in which tonal music functions. In this way I think I have discovered new possibilities in set theory. The problem with this theory is, as I said before, that it is an abstract model of a theoretical way of thinking. I have added programmatic aspects to this process and found that a combination of set theory and acoustics is a useful hybrid.

AB: What about the data system and program? Have you developed that yourself?

ML: Yes, most of it I have written myself, albeit with the help of some French mathematicians and programmers. Some of the technical procedures are difficult, for instance deriving a variety of combinations from a large body of material.

AB: Do you have training as a programmer or something like it?

ML: I took basic courses in these subjects at the Sibelius Academy in the 1970s. We had basic data programming courses for two years, but I can’t say that I am a professional in the field. That is precisely one of the reasons I applied to IRCAM where I could work with people who are professionals in the area. I would say that I have limited understanding and a great deal of practical experience.

AB: I spoke with a musician who performed Kinetics. He said that the piece is not especially difficult to play. You modified the complex background material so that the musicians could learn the piece in a limited amount of time. Is it your own background as a musician that prevails and determines the composition process?

ML: When one writes for large orchestra one has to make many compromises. I am very critical of the inclination to compose for large orchestra in the Brian Ferneyhough-style. With works for large orchestra one has to be aware of the fact that at best there will be only three or four rehearsals. What I try to do then, without limiting my musical ideas, is to make the layout as clear and concise as possible. My ideal in this regard is Stravinsky, who, instead of overloading some sections, split up the parts. When there was a difficult passage in the trumpets, for instance, he used two trumpets. He was sensible in dividing the parts.

It is important to be aware of practical solutions to problems that can arise. I have reached a point where I simplify the meters so that they completely ‘follow’ the music. In this way there is no structure behind my bars. I write the music so that all the demanding elements are given to the conductor. This is due most likely, as you say, to my past as a pianist. Before I left the country I often played the piano in the orchestra. As a composer, I consider it important to become familiar with what it’s like to sit in the orchestra and rehearse a work, and it is annoying that I have less and less time for this kind of activity. Playing with the Toimii Ensemble is about all that’s left.

AB: And performances of a work like Kraft that demands such large resources are probably very limited?

ML: Kraft is an extremely expensive piece to stage. The performance on the third of March with the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Copenhagen was the fourth and most recent one.

AB: Let’s go back to Kinetics. We were at the point where you had processed the basic materials with what you call ‘hybrid thinking’. But the work isn’t finished yet. What is the next step in the process? Instrumentation?

ML: I should say first that I made a preliminary study with a seven-minute work for piano, called Twine. That naturally kept the instrumentation to a minimum so that I could concentrate on the harmonic material. When that piece was finished I had numerous harmonic ideas to work out in Kinetics. In this way these two works have the same harmonic principles.

I used to proceed with strict systems but now I have a somewhat more pragmatic attitude about the process. I find it more interesting now to sit at the piano with these new chords and bash through them, gradually becoming acquainted with them. Besides I can use the synthesizer to help listen to the overtones and get to know the material in that way. Then I begin to work with other levels in the music: form, rhythm.

When overtone-based harmony is used, then we are talking about large chords. I have at times used the first 60 overtones. Naturally, this introduces a number of problems with instrumentation. How can one write these out for strings, winds, and so on. That was one of the reasons I wanted to have the synthesizer in the orchestra. It takes care of the overtones.

AB: But only one electronic instrument? You could have used several synthesizers in order to achieve an extremely accurate realization of the overtone spectrum. You wanted to have the sound and the effects of the acoustical instruments?

ML: Yes, it was a conscious choice not to use more electronics, only an ordinary synthesizer that is almost like an extra piano in the orchestra. Besides, I knew that Kinetics would be premiered in the Finlandia Concert Hall which has terrible acoustics. For that reason, you could say, that I wrote an extra acoustical element into the piece. The work contains, in a way, its own acoustic. And I wasn’t at all sure how that would work as a solution for the orchestra. I was also unsure about other parts of the instrumentation, for example, the brass section plays fortissimo while the strings have long pianissimo tones that possibly wouldn’t be heard very well.

AB: After having heard the work do you have any reason to revise the score?

ML: No, I was quite pleased with it and with the changes in colour that were produced by the overtones. Even though the chords are big and compact, the result is a certain softness or richness of sound because a large number of the tones are based on the overtone series. Even the thickest chord has a transparent, consonant colour when it has the cohesion that binds it to the overtone series.

AB: What you say sounds as though you were inspired by Schoenberg’s thoughts on Klangfarbenmelodie.

ML: It is clearly important for me, but Kinetics is not only ‘colour’ music. I would rather talk about it in terms of ‘harmonic’ music. I have worked with pieces that to a greater extent focus on the aspect of timbre, and within that I was especially interested in ‘dry’ sounds, that is to say, all the rough-grained instruments like sandpaper, Latin American rattles, and to some extent, dry, metallic sounds, not to forget, wooden instruments—drums. So the idea of Klangfarbe has implied working with these acoustical materials.

AB: Do you have certain theories or aesthetic ideas behind your use of powerful effects as in Kraft, or, albeit to a lesser extent, in Kinetics? I’m thinking of the conscious balancing act between global control over the material and a desire for powerful discharges of energy, ultimately the relationship between rationality and expression.

ML: I am not sure it is necessarily an issue of definite aesthetics. As far as the powerful effects are concerned, it is hard to overload an orchestra. It’s easier to write a fortissimo outburst for the orchestra than for a string quartet. The orchestra can take a lot.

AB: Are you deliberately playing on the showmanship of the orchestra?

ML: Not consciously, but obviously when someone stands and pounds with a huge mallet, invariably there will be a bit of a show. If anyone finds it too showy and cheap then it’s just too bad. That’s what I want! If there is an aesthetic element implied, then it must be the wish to work with extreme expressive means, a kind of ‘super’ expressionism.

I have never had any doubts about using such disturbing instrumental effects. Moreover, I have a kind of seductive desire to try to reach out to youth—the rock public. Kraft has probably become so well–known because it cultivates punk and rock aesthetics. I would like to offer today’s rock music an element which has been completely lost: dynamics. Today’s rock music constantly drives on zero. A few days ago I listened to an old recording by Genesis that has been transferred to CD. My God! what variation in dynamics they used then. The rock music of the 1980s has no changes in dynamics—only maximum loudness and uniformity.

AB: Speaking of stronger instrumental effects, that applies to your work in progress as well. I understand the piano in your summer house has had rather rough treatment.

ML: Yes, that is the basic material for the piece I am currently working on at IRCAM. I have recorded different special piano sounds, but for the first time in my life I have an instrument that I don’t have to be careful with. I tuned, for example, the bass strings an octave lower. When the strings loose their energy, they produce these sub-sub-contra tones, but in what we picked up with high quality microphones, we could come incredibly close to a micro-world of sound. I have a number of hours of material that we have recorded with this instrument. It will be computer processed and will later comprise the electronic part of the work.

It is an extreme extension of the piano. And I want to find a kind of bridge between the piano and percussion—the work is written for orchestra and four soloists; two pianos and two percussionists—to create a continuity between them. In the orchestra, which comprises 20–25 musicians, there are no descant instruments: no flutes, oboes, trumpets, or violins, only instruments in the alto and bass ranges, a kind of grunting orchestra.

AB: When will it be premiered?

ML: The piece, which still has no title, is a co-production between the Ensemble Moderne and Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. The premiere will be in Frankfurt in October 1990. When I get back to Paris I will work with an assistant, so that we can revise the piano sounds with computer equipment. There are wonderful programs to be found at IRCAM, for example, sharp digital filters so that one can get an output of 8 Herz. All the filters can be managed by continuous functions, and you can open and close these banks of filters giving a rich complex sound. I find it terribly fascinating to work in this wondrous world.

Let me give you an example. Kaija Saariaho also works with filtering sounds. She takes a low tone on a string bass, looks to see what overtones, which formats, are sounding. Then she opens just the filters for these overtones and takes in a flute tone, and suddenly she has a flute tone that sounds like a string bass. By intelligently revising sounds, one can mix characteristics, putting characteristics from two sources together, to get a kind of cross-synthesis.

AB: That sounds like something approaching sampling.

ML: Not in this case. Sampling is actually quite primitive: you record a sound and then you can play around with it. As far as the practical realization of my new work is concerned, I will use sampling to transfer the sounds when they are reworked so that the pianists can play them.

AB: You are talking about sounds as though your work in the future will come more and more to depend on the possibilities and developments offered by the equipment at IRCAM.

ML: Yes, because there you have the potential for a synthetic approach to thinking that I believe is inevitable for today’s composers. In the coming decades this way of thinking will become a principal concern of a composer’s work, even for those who do not work with electronic music. At IRCAM there is a fantastic databank of the entire sound spectrum of all instruments. There are, for example, all the tones of the piano, and each tone is available as pianissimo, mezzo-forte and fortissimo, so one can see precisely how the overtone spectra look for these tones. Knowledge about these things is absolutely necessary.

AB: You say that as if you had found the Holy Grail at IRCAM. Would you advise all composers to study there?

ML: Not necessarily at IRCAM. Many acoustical areas have yet to be explored, for example, how to make spectral images and establish accurate information about the acoustical properties of different instruments. I am convinced, based on rational thinking, that with the knowledge gained from this type of research, we can advance musical creativity and gradually develop a more intelligent approach to the use of harmony and timbre.

A field that is incredibly fascinating and one that hasn’t seen very much experimentation so far, is evolving physical models. At IRCAM we simulate, for example, the data for the violin. You have a string with the two ends fastened down, you have a bow with a kind of friction that causes the strings to vibrate. If you are in control there is no problem with having a string that is 200 metres long, with a diameter of one metre, and a metre-wide bow that can go 10 kilometres an hour. When you have control over the characteristics you can easily spread them out. This is an extreme example that isn’t particularly interesting, but when we can make tones with a bow of different widths and influence the attack, and so on, then all the acoustic limitations are overcome.

We are also working at this moment with developing ‘Chant’, a program based on the human voice. It is quite a complicated synthesizing project to simulate the human voice. It contains 150 different parameters and controls all the glottal functions, all the muscular properties and the different shapes of the mouth cavity. In this way you can precisely produce the acoustical conditions for all the vowels.

All of this knowledge is enormously important. It is not a question of simulating the human voice, but of creating a new world of sound. I would like, in time, to see all composers able to get a library of handbooks with exact descriptions of all the instruments and of the characteristics of their tones. My aesthetic, positivist attitude to music is that with better knowledge we can make more interesting music. Scientific research doesn’t turn music into an academic, ‘dry’ art that has no interest for anyone. On the contrary, insight into this kind of special knowledge will allow us to get more out of music.

AB: Some people may possibly say that you will become too much of a scientist with a lab coat . . .

ML: Yes, that’s probably right. But there is now a wealth of information that should be mastered before it is permissible to write music. Anyone can throw a major chord down and say it’s art. But to write a chord for an orchestra requires quite a bit of background knowledge. Thus I see no problem maintaining the boundary between scientist and composer. Writing music requires enormous control of detail, finesse, knowledge, information, insight. The more control one has, the freer one can be: consciousness and intuition go together.

AB: That you as composer should be constantly in line with technical developments makes me think of Rimbaud’s ‘Il faut être absolutement moderne’, or, Habermas’ belief that being modern is an incomplete project. Does it seem to you that your music is a continuation of that idea?

ML: That is a good analysis. As professional composers we should use the freedom we have to investigate our material; one should master the vocabulary completely. This can sound a little superior, but that’s the way it is. It is also true that the ones who advance the farthest are those who have consciously attempted to change the attitude toward the material they work with.

AB: You have named Stravinsky and Zimmermann as inspirational sources in the development of your musical language. Are there others from our own century?

ML: Many. I have worked with, among others, the writer Juha Silpanen. Three years ago we made a work for radio, Faust, that won the Prix Italia. We started by running around for a half year with a tape recorder collecting material, everything that existed in our surroundings. To that we added texts and music that bound the whole together in a kind of continuum. It was research and it was an incredible experience to make music with, so to speak, a reality based on a microphone.

AB: Bartók travelled around and recorded folk music in the midst of daily noise.

ML: Yes, so Bartók found musicians in the country who played the violin and we found power stations (laughter). When we speak of sources of inspiration, I should mention that I also studied with Vinko Globokar for one year in Paris. His idea about music was that there always had to be an outside element, a reference to something outside of the music. As a result I composed a piece for the Toimii Ensemble that year in which I investigated various natural phenomena: water, earth, fire and so on. And I made another one based on Goethe’s colour theory, but it was a disaster and I gave up. That project was significant for me because after that I took an unambiguous position: music does not have to have an extra-musical content. As Stravinsky said, ‘Composers write notes’. But much of the work with, for example, Kinetics has been intuitive; I have sat at the piano and searched for a certain expression, in the same way that a sculptor works: one has an idea about the form that you want to create. And much of what I do at this moment is intuitive. I have no structure to fall back on, but rather I have an elastic material that needs to be moulded.

AB: When one asks Erik Bergman why he went to central Europe at the end of the 1930s he says that it was to get away from the Sibelius-obsession. Have you settled down in Paris to work at IRCAM in order to escape contemporary Finnish musical thinking?

ML: Indeed. There is a limit to what one can experience here in Finland, there is no doubt about that. It is also important to get some perspective on nationalism by getting away from it. Having said that I also think that the geographical situation has radically altered in recent years. It makes no difference whether you sit in an airplane or in a train for the two hours it takes to get to the city. Distance doesn’t mean so much anymore. The structure of Europe will also change becoming one country without borders in the coming years.


Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958, Finland) studied at the Sibelius Academy before continuing private study with Gérard Grisey and Vinko Globokar in Paris in addition to attending courses given by Franco Donatoni (Siena) and Brian Ferneyhough (Darmstadt).

Lindberg’s fruitful association with Toimii, an ensemble that he founded with Esa Pekka Salonen, which is dedicated to experimentation in composition, led to a significant engagement with electro-acoustic music, complex scores and work at IRCAM in Paris. More recently he has concentrated on harmonic sonorities.

Lindberg has received numerous commissions and prizes and has been the featured composer at many international music festivals. His scores are available from Chester Music Ltd., Edition Fazer, Modus Musiikki. Recordings can be found on the Ades, Ondine, Montaigne and Sterling labels, among others.

© Anders Beyer 1989.

The interview was published in Danish: ‘En ny verden af klange: Interview med Magnus Lindberg’. Danish Music Review vol. 64, no. 1 (1989/90): 3-9. The interview was also published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.