Saturday, September 8, 2018

Ondine to Release Recent Lindberg Compositions

courtesy of Naxos of America

This coming Friday Ondine will release a new album of two recent works by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. The earlier of these is his second violin concerto, which he completed in 2015. On the album the concerto is preceded by “Tempus fugit” (time flies), which was composed between 2016 and 2017. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Hannu Lintu, and the concerto soloist in Frank Peter Zimmermann. As usual, is currently taking pre-orders for this recording.

I must confess that I have a personal bias towards “Tempus fugit” that has nothing to do with music. Back in 1983, when Lindberg first began working on “Kraft,” which he was writing for a large orchestra, he was trying to work out how that orchestra could realize harmonies with up to 70 pitches. He ended up using a computer to analyze the harmonic implications of chords that would involve such a large number of intervals. To this end he wrote his own computer programs in the LISP programming language, a language that allowed him to manipulate not only numbers but also structures of numbers (such as the ascending order of pitches in a chord).

LISP was basically a language that manipulated structures of symbols. It treated numbers as a particular kind of symbol that could be subjected to operations (such as those of arithmetic) that were not applicable to other symbols. Because of its flexibility, LISP was the language in which many of the early artificial intelligence programs were written, meaning that, in the wider community of computer programmers, it was regarded as elite, rather than practical.

For my part I was enthusiastic about LISP from the time I first encountered it as an undergraduate. By the time I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I was teaching a beginning programming class with it whose only prerequisite was total ignorance of any other programming language (such as BASIC, which was popular at that time). On the research side, together with two colleagues, I worked on a system of structured symbols that could represent the pitch relations (both sequential and simultaneous) that Heinrich Schenker had tried (less successfully, in my opinion) to notate in the form of what he called “graphs.” LISP was the ideal language for creating those structures and analyzing their properties.

As an aside, the very first portable computer I purchased was the Apple PowerBook 170 (first released in October of 1991) because I knew it had the compute power to run Maclisp. I make this observation because the booklet notes by Kimmo Korhonen (translated into English by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi) describe how Lindberg resurrected some of his old computers; so he could run LISP programs again while working on “Tempus fugit.” I am impressed that Lindberg took the trouble to revive hardware from the Eighties; but that may have been his only way of recovering any of the code he had written while working on “Kraft!”

Like “Kraft,” “Tempus fugit” is rich with thick harmonic structures. If Lindberg needed software to help him negotiate how, in the midst of all of that thickness, he could convey a sense of progression, then I would say more power to him. Indeed, his analytic foundations are clearly not tied down to some overarching tonic-dominant-tonic progression (as Schenker would have demanded was necessary). “Tempus fugit” makes it clear that a composer can establish a recognizable sense of harmonic progression without committing to orienting around a tonal center.

There is, however, one thought about the title that seems to have escaped Korhonen’s booklet notes. “Tempus fugit” was written on a commission by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was first performed at the gala concert for the centenary of Finland’s independence, held on December 6, 2017 in Helsinki. Since Lindberg often has a prankish streak in his work, I would guess that, when told what the centennial occasion was, he might have quipped, “It seems like only yesterday!” Writing about time flying would then be an appropriate follow-up to that response.

The textures of the violin concerto are far more transparent than those of “Tempus fugit.” However, by thinning out his textures, Lindberg allows himself to explore colors emerging from different combinations of instruments. Thus, while the solo violin work is unmistakably central, there is often a sense that the violin line is weaving its way through a landscape of diverse sonorities, interacting with each of them in its own unique way.

This idea of negotiating a landscape seems to be a key element of Lindberg’s interest. If this is the case, however, then there seems to be considerable variety in what he takes to be a landscape. For example, in his second piano concerto, that landscape was basically the score for Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto to be performed by the left hand alone. My own first encounter was with a concert performance, and I was already picking up hints of thematic familiarity about a quarter of the way into the performance. By the three-quarter mark I had identified one Ravel theme I had not yet encountered, only to hear it suddenly coming from the orchestra. The second violin concerto does not work this way; but, as I observed, the technique of setting a landscape and then working in it seems to be part of Lindberg’s toolbox.

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