The future has no frontiers

Buster Keaton rubs shoulders with the world's worst rock 'n' roll band in Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's eclectic selection for this year's Meltdown festival. By Stephen Johnson
Once again, we have Meltdown. The London music festival that makes eclecticism its proudest boast returns to the South Bank for a two-week slow trawl through not so well-charted seas. This year there's a very strong Finnish presence, centred on the work of Meltdown 96's director, composer Magnus Lindberg. But despite the Northern emphasis, the programming does suggest a conscious effort to avoid an easily identifiable house style. "Serious" contemporary music ensembles Avanti, Toimii and our own London Sinfonietta share the platform with the Karelian vocal / instrumental group Varttina - described as "a cross between Abba and Le Mystere des voix Bulgaires", the Siberian "shamanistic punk" of Yat-Kha and the Helsinki- spawned Leningrad Cowboys, self-styled "worst rock 'n' roll band in the world".

There's no deliberate "message" in this year's programme, says Lindberg, nor is this Meltdown an attempt at Finnish musical colonisation - "It's simply the kind of music I like." It also represents Lindberg's way of living up to the implications of the festival's title - "melting down barriers. We are moving towards the end of our century, and this kind of mixing things together makes a point, I think. On the surface you have huge differences between what's going on in rock, electronics, world music . . . But if you just change the perspective a little you realise people are dealing with the same kind of problems. I strongly feel there is a huge potential, a future full of things that haven't been done yet. This will come more and more from mixing things." So High Art / Low Art boundaries have no place in Lindberg's musical cosmology? "Definitely not. As long as you're honest and not mixing things up out of a superficial sense of fun, this can have a vigorous impact. You can feel this in Heiner Goebbels's music theatre works - and you can even do it through so-called bad taste."

In other words, the Leningrad Cowboys. But "world's worst" groups, singers, poets or what-have-you rarely survive unless there's an element of ambiguity. Are the Cowboys simply a ghostly parody of an antique rock 'n' roll band, or do they hint (however obliquely) at more serious things? After all, bad taste, kitsch, camp, enjoy unprecedented status in today's culture. "Yes they do. And I think there is an `honest' theme here. Of course the Cowboys are fun, and they're so different from what I do that I somehow feel relieved when I listen to them. But to combine them with one of the best choral groups in the world, the Red Army Choir - this has a point. Now there is so much nostalgia about the old Soviet Union, and Finland is a kind of bridge between East and West."

Just a moment; one of the major anxieties (we were told) of being Finnish during the Cold War was living with the Bear Next Door. Do Finns have much to be nostalgic about? "It's hard for me to talk about `Finnish attitudes', but now there isn't the same political danger, we can see that we are close - Finland and Russia - and we should try to see the good things in them."

When we come to the inclusion of Varttina, here the serious purpose is easier to read. Instead of doing the obvious things and bringing an "authentic" Finnish folk group, Lindberg has brought an example of home-grown eclecticism that manages to sound unlike anything else. The Village Voice recently raved about Varttina's "oddball rhythms, hoedown grooves and heartbreaking harmonies".

Lindberg prefers the Abba / Voix Bulgaires comparison. "The surface is very polished in an Abba sort of way, but they stem from a genuine Karelian/ North Finland tradition. They present a very genuine view of folk music in our country - more genuine perhaps than some of the old-fashioned traditional groups, because their mixing things makes them alive."

So, a solid vindication there for Lindberg's directorial view of the frontier-less future. But what about Lindberg the composer: could Finnish folk - or Varttina's version of it - ever be an influence on his own music? "I'm some way away from that. I've never based any of my own work on Finnish folk, and I haven't chosen any of this music to send a `message' about me as a composer. I'm rooted in a European tradition where different national flavours and techniques are not important any more, though it's good to be aware of them. I'm lucky enough to travel a lot, and coming to Finnish folk music with that experience has been fascinating for me - fascinating because it shows people in our country have roots far away from here."

Lindberg's choice of his own music has suffered some alteration in the planning process. Originally there was to be an orchestral concert, including a performance of Lindberg's Aura, compared by my colleague on the Independent on Sunday to "a night of heavy but extremely satisfying sex". Alas, financial and practical problems soon ruled out a repeat of that experience. It's all the more of a shame, says Lindberg, because the orchestra is his "favourite instrument. But choosing pieces that would show off different aspects of my music-making away from the orchestra came to be rather enjoyable, because it allowed me to include some of my most extreme projects - like Action-Situation-Signification."

They don't write titles like that any more. Lindberg produced Action- Situation-Signification in 1982, when a very different spirit prevailed in new music. Musique Concrete - music prepared from natural or man-made sounds - plays a part, so do the grand anthropological ideas expressed in Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. The work proved so difficult that a special ensemble of outstanding musicians, Toimii, had to be formed to play. Toimii makes one of its rare appearances to play the work again in Meltdown 96. Alongside it (and how's this for contrast?) is a newer Lindberg piece called Steamboat Bill Jr, obliquely inspired by the glorious Buster Keaton film of the same name. "I was really absorbing myself in orchestral music at the time, and I had the opportunity to write a piece for two friends - just clarinet and cello. I had this strange idea of imagining I was writing for full symphony orchestra, but having only two instruments - so you have to cheat. I remember this scene in the film where Keaton is trying to keep his ship in the river - two people trying to be an orchestra was rather similar. Technically, though, it's still very symphonic, as are so many of my works. I won't ever write a symphony, partly because of the shadow of our Great Master, Sibelius, but also because I don't write tonal music, and the symphony is defined by tonality. But the orchestra remains the ultimate challenge. You start with utopian ideas, but then you have to keep in mind all the different technical limitations. But that's the marvellous part. You're like an architect who has to dream up a building and then build it himself!"

Unlike a festival director, of course, who can dream his dream and then hand it over to other people for realisation. But Lindberg says he's looking forward immensely to hearing his Meltdown in situ. Did the location matter in the planning - is Meltdown 96 specifically a London programme, or would Lindberg put it on anywhere? "I would put it on anywhere. I want it to be sincere, and this is the sincere choice. The tricky part is to try to see yourself as a member of the audience. Even when it's my music, I can do that - I somehow forget that it is mine. As long as you can keep that in mind, you're on the right track."

n Meltdown 96 starts on Saturday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242). To 6 July