The Modernist with a twist

He is a leading figure of the avant-garde, but for Magnus Lindberg, the past is not a foreign country, as he explains to Martin Anderson
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The Independent Culture

"All of a sudden I just felt: 'Why should we abandon many of the really complex and beautiful aspects of classical expression?" And with that Damascene revelation in the mid-Eighties, the music of the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, 42 in June, began to marry the sonic discoveries of Modernism with the eternal verities of harmony, uniting in one powerful synthesis the two main schools of 20th-century musical thought.

"All of a sudden I just felt: 'Why should we abandon many of the really complex and beautiful aspects of classical expression?" And with that Damascene revelation in the mid-Eighties, the music of the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, 42 in June, began to marry the sonic discoveries of Modernism with the eternal verities of harmony, uniting in one powerful synthesis the two main schools of 20th-century musical thought.

Lindberg usually deals in vast orchestral canvasses. The mightiest of these to date is Aura of 1994, which is a 40-minute symphony in everything but name - though Lindberg has dodged the issue of whether a composer with his modernist credentials should be writing old-fashioned things such as symphonies by labelling this one a Concerto for Orchestra.

Aura has just been paid the sincerest of tributes in these days of cash-strapped record companies: a CD release on a label as mainstream as Deutsche Grammophon (463 184-2, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Oliver Knussen).

One of the most recent of Lindberg's orchestral colossi, the 22-minute Fresco of 1997-98 was heard at the Proms three weeks ago. And at 6pm tonight, the Proms come back for a second bite at Lindberg, though this time on a smaller scale, when his piano piece Twine (1988) and the Clarinet Quintet of 1992 are heard in the third of the new "Composer Portrait" series in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music. The affable Lindberg himself will be in attendance; even if you can't be there (entrance is free), you can catch the concert live on Radio 3, subsumed into this evening's In Tune.

Lindberg's most influential early contacts with contemporary music came through the piano, playing his way through scores by Zimmermann, Boulez, Stockhausen and other Modernist classics while he was a student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. He then explored the music of Xenakis and Berio before temporarily leaving Finland in 1981 to study with Franco Donatoni in Chigiana and Vinko Globokar and Gerard Grisey in Paris.

Lindberg's own early scores had been attracting attention inside the cosy world of the avant-garde throughout the early Eighties when his monumental Kraft - scored for massive orchestral forces and no less than seven soloists - won the music prize of the Nordic Cultural Council and an award from the Unesco Rostrum of Composers.

He was international news. But the sheer density of Kraft - some of its chords contain as many as 70 notes - seemed to leave little further scope for exploration, and while the lessons learned from Grisey and his "spectral" school played themselves out in the pieces Lindberg wrote in the late Eighties, the synthesis of old and new was slowly emerging. The hard-core gurus of Modernism -people such as Boulez and Stockhausen - had always insisted on a complete rejection of the music of the past; for Boulez, even Schoenberg was dead.

But Lindberg began to realise that this attitude was wrong-headed. "I think it's important for a composer to be aware of the Western musical tradition," he says, voicing a view that 10 or 15 years ago would have brought him accusations of selling out. "I don't see why music shouldn't have a contact with the past, if the contact is natural and if it's not a question of quoting and stealing better ideas that someone else had invented in the past. It's a question of somehow seeing the expression in a larger context - and when putting notes together I don't see how we can avoid the fact that they will always recall something that was already written.

"When you are a young composer, you believe in certain things and you hate other things. You see the nature of music from a very narrow perspective. With me it's been a case, not so much of liberation, but of tolerating things much more, of trying to see music-making in this wider perspective - but not pushing it into a kind of populist approach: there has to remain something you can call style."

The audible result of this catholicism is a sense of evolutionary growth in Lindberg's music - though his textures remain complex, he has moved from being a dictator over his material, forcing it to fit pre-existing rules, to a position where he can trust it to develop on its own.

"That's a nice way to put it," he agrees. "After all, this is a very artificial form of art, and yet at the same time the material does have some organic properties and tensions that one should be sensitive enough to listen to. With experience, a composer should achieve the skill of dictating the material and at the same time the capacity to listen to see what its qualities are - without forcing it too much."

The corollary of this foreground freedom is a background sense of harmonic purpose. That was always true of tradition-conscious composers such as the late Robert Simpson, whose music moves towards a goal, the attainment of which brings a perceptible feeling of arrival. But it is something that Lindberg and several other erstwhile Modernist composers have had to rediscover. He is happy to admit that he is "very interested in how chords change" and he offers an insight that Simpson himself would have applauded.

"The real perception of a traditional allegro first-movement sonata-form piece was harmonic: the speed of harmonic change made up the feeling of allegro. A Beethoven slow movement is a slow movement even if the music is entirely black, because the harmony is moving in a slow fashion. The big movement creating a sense of speed is the speed of how the harmony is changing."

It is this embrace of the structural, "background" functions of harmony that is what makes Lindberg's music so rewarding for the listener.

Asked to put his finger on what makes it distinctive, the British composer John Pickard cites first its sheer energy and then points to Lindberg's "highly distinctive feeling for harmony and pronounced sense of harmonic tension and release - an ability to make the music breathe".

Pickard, 36, comes from the Simpson school of tonal symphonism, so his praise is the more telling. "A lot of contemporary composers seem to think that rapidly repeated figuration creates a sense of movement," he says. "But Lindberg has a strong sense of foreground and background. Indeed - and he may not like this, since a lot of Finnish composers seem to want to get away from it - it seems to me that he stands in direct descent from Sibelius."

Composer Portrait, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London SW7, tonight, 6pm, free. The event is also being broadcast live on Radio 3 as part of 'In Tune'

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