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The Composer and the Machine

Finland's Magnus Lindberg creates rigorously engineered, dizzyingly kinetic compositions from soul and circuitry.

March 08, 1998|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is the classical music critic at Newsday

NEW YORK — The Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is 39, but like his conservatory comrade Esa-Pekka Salonen, he has the look of a perpetual boy, with sandy Nordic hair grazing a smooth forehead and traces of baby fat still clinging to his cheeks. Time and jet lag have left a delicate webbing around his eyes, but even so, it is easy to imagine him some 35 years ago, sitting on the floor of his family's Helsinki home, playing with the broken computer parts his father, a systems analyst at I.B.M., used to bring home from the office.

Computers are less mechanical now, less fun when they don't work, but they are still an important part of his life and his music. Even when he retreats to his rural house on Finland's frozen coast, an hour or so from Helsinki, the PCs go with him. It's at this sort of keyboard, and not the piano kind, that his compositions always begin, with a database of chords, rhythms and rules that Lindberg has been inputting and storing for decades--the RAM of his imagination.

His newest orchestral work, "Fresco," which Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will give its world premiere on Thursday, is made from materials left over from the construction of "Engine," a 1996 piece Lindberg describes as "based on rules--machine-made, in a way."

It would be a mistake, though, to think of Lindberg as a composer who has relinquished the creative privilege of his craft to soulless circuitry. "When it comes to production and making decisions," he says, "I still have a handwritten manuscript on paper, and I check it with an ordinary piano. Then when I have finished the manuscript, I recopy it again on the computer. It's not very efficient, but then efficiency is not a quality as such in composition."

If the internal workings of his compositions are rigorously engineered, Lindberg's outward style, too, has a computer's high gloss and frenzied pace. It moves along at Pentium speed, a cascade of gestures, rhythms and harmonies all whirling together in a synchronized orgy of multi-tasking. We experience Lindberg's music the way we do the quick-cut images of our cyber era: as the dizzying, kinetic surface of a rigorous and logical substructure.

"Magnus' music is tremendously exciting, with a lot of energy and lots of brilliant ideas," says Salonen, who arranged for the Philharmonic's commission of "Fresco." "But also, I tend to admire professionalism and he's one hell of a professional composer. He's one of the best orchestrators in the world."

Much of Lindberg's music has a centrifugal energy, as if the composer's inspiration were always threatening to spin out of control. "Feria," which the New York Philharmonic gave its U.S. premiere late last year, begins with a blinding fanfare and then explodes into a hyperactive sequence of brief, bright motives that jostle and grind. No sooner has the ear begun to grasp an event than it is gone, tossed into the maelstrom of sound. And yet, compared to earlier works of Lindberg's, "Feria" is almost leisurely, even graced with a sad, sweet passage of chords cannibalized from "Arianna's Lament," by Monteverdi, that emerges out of the thundering notes like a rainbow in a waterfall.

Lindberg is nervously aware of the tension in his music between anarchy and discipline, and the computer is one way to keep the composer's superego in constant surveillance over his id.

"The point is to find and define a syntax for contemporary music," he explains. "Then there are those moments when you have found a syntax and you enjoy staying within it and playing around, and then, in very rare moments you can play with it in a very irrational way."

Only when the boundaries are understood and internalized, Lindberg suggests, should the composer lengthen the leash on his inspiration. "In Beethoven, for example, you feel the rational substructure and then on top you feel the dramaturgy, the unexpected qualities of the music."

But Beethoven had inherited a slowly evolving groundwork of rules that went back centuries and that his musicians and audiences took for granted. Even a slight tremor in that foundation was volcanic. Lindberg, on the other hand, has the misfortune to be a composer in a time of total stylistic freedom, and so he must build his rules from the ground up. He treats the stuff of his own invention like an architect suspiciously examining the properties of some unfamiliar type of stone or steel.

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