Det Virtuelle Musikbibliotek » Ears Open An interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen

Ears Open An interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen

Volume: 2
Sider: 6 - 7
Ophav: Anu Karlson
Udgiver: NOMUS

Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958) is one of a generation of young Finnish composers who have aroused a great deal of attention both for their hard work and for the wealth of talent to be found among their ranks. This circle of musicians – they formed an association calling itself Ears Open in 1977 – have been instrumental in making a number of international musical movements known in Finland. The Finnish musicians they look to as models are Erik Bergman and Paavo Heininen, two members of the avant garde, and thus, from the point of view of the country’s musical establishment, they have to a certain extent represented the opposition.

Esa-Pekka Salonen began his musical education by playing the French horn, which he studied at the Sibelius Academy from 1973 under Holger Fransman, taking his diploma in 1977. From 1977 to 1980 he studied conducting under Jorma Panula and took a diploma in this field as well. He studied composition in Finland under Einojuhani Rautavaara and in Italy under Franco Donatoni and Niccolo Castiglioni. His earliest compositions were neoromantic in style, but he has since become a staunch member of the group of modernists who follow international trends and are constantly seeking something new. He does not admit to following anything that could be described as an aesthetic line, but changes his approach and manner of composition from work to work.

You don’t represent any well known musical family. How did you come to get involved with music?

“I have no musical ancestors, it’s true, nor as far as I know do I have any relatives in the music profession. At school I began to play the trumpet on the recommendation of my teacher. I later exchanged the trumpet for the French horn. I was a pupil of Holger Fransman, privately at first, then I gained entrance to the junior section of the Sibelius Academy. There my teacher recommended that I take piano and musical theory as secondary subjects. I was already very interested in composing, although of course I had no proven ability in that direction at the time. Eventually I became convinced that I wanted to become a professional musician and began to take private lessons at school, sitting the necessary exams but otherwise working independently. When the time came round to leave school, I found myself with plenty of time for playing the horn so I took my diploma at the same time as my leaving certificate.

I had also begun to study composition while I was still at school. This became my major subject in 1977; my teacher was Einojuhani Rautavaara. The reason that I started to study conducting was really that I wanted to have some kind of professional skill if I should ever be asked to conduct one of my own works. I was surprised myself when, a couple of years ago, I found that conducting had become my main occupation.

In Scandinavia today there is a lack of conductors, when you consider the volume of musical activity. Perhaps, in part, this is because the egalitarian mentality of the comprehensive school has made leadership professions unpopular in general. Nowadays there are so many competitions for conductors that success does not necessarily lead to major contracts; orchestras choose conductors for other reasons. I have never taken part in a competition for conductors myself.

Finland is a good country from the point of view of the young conductor. The attitude here towards Finnish conductors is quite natural, their professional skill is appreciated. We have a long and firm tradition of Finnish conductors.”

What kind of country is Finland from the point of view of the young composer?

“At the moment it’s also good to be a young composer, although on the other hand the composer is considered less valuable than the conductor. We have, thanks partly to the Ears Open association, a fairly faithful following, and orchestras play a lot of new music. On the other hand, the interest aroused by Ears Open has perhaps led to us young composers being treated more as a group than as individuals. But that is a small price to pay for all the attention we have received.”

“I let the world affect me and then I let myself affect my music” – you have sometimes described your attitude to composing in this way. Can you explain something of how you experience the world?

“I tend to think of the composer’s position in the world, a world which certainly seems quite awful, in such a way that if I aim to make a work as good as possible, I can’t expect it to be socially acceptable. The very act of composing means taking a stand of behalf of the world and the continuation of life. A rock number about disarmament is not necessarily a more valuable stand in this respect. All creative work is work on behalf of human values.”

How do your compositions take shape these days?

“I go through changes in my own style so fast that seldom does a change have time to be realized in the form of a composition. But I have learned more and more to value discovery more than other methods of working, organization for example. I devote the absolute minimum of energy to the latter.”

Nowadays there are rather a lot of festivals devoted especially to contemporary music. What is your opinion of them?

“There is no necessity for all these festivals of contemporary music. In my opinion, the music of the day should be served up in such a way that music lovers do not need a special kind of courage to listen to it. The ISCM Festival, for instance, is a tragi-comic example of how 60 people, all extremely jealous of each other, put on an expensive festival for themselves and each other only. The importance of contemporary music events often seems to lie in the way they salve the consciences of their organizers: “Here once again something’s been done for the good of contemporary music”.

From the point of view of cooperation in the Nordic countries it’s good that Ung Nordisk Musikfest and Nordiska Musikdagar exist, particulary UNM, where fruitful contacts can be established, not only between the artists and musicians of different countries but also between future top administrators. Good contacts, even if only in the Nordic countries, have the effect of moderating considerably the envy and intrigues which otherwise could easily predominate in a small country like Finland.”

How does your work as a conductor affect your work as a composer and vice versa?

“First of all, conducting takes time away from composing. Secondly, it has the effect that I am less interested in theory and more interested in music, specifically in the way music sounds. I have to go through great amounts of music composed by other people, and I learn from that. Perhaps there is a danger here that one can become too practical. One regards the wilder flights of imagination with scepticism when one knows how it feels when it is realized.

Having experience as a composer is an enormous help, of course, when conducting. Quite often I think I know for certain what a composer intended, although some sforzato, for example, is missing. In other words, my attitude is not one of slavish adherence to Urtext.”

What are you primarily, a composer or a conductor?

“Well, I’m described as a composer in the phone book though 80% of my time goes to conducting: but on the emotional level this is not a true reflection of my interests. I would hope that in the future I could devote half of my time to composing – and perhaps other kinds of writing. But now I must strike while the iron is hot.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium with the saxophonist Pekka Savijoki and the composer Paavo Heininen prior to the premiere of Heininen’s saxophone concerto at this year’s Helsinki Festival.