Esa-Pekka Salonen on training composers and conductors to speak the same language

As a conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen had a meteoric rise, first coming to international attention after a 1983 debut with the London Philharmonic at the tender age of 25; within a decade, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But his initial aim was to be a composer. After graduating from Finland's Sibelius Academy in 1979, he joined a collective of like-minded composers who arranged performances of their works. When a conductor was needed, he stepped in. His natural affinity caught the attention of established orchestras in Finland, and soon he put composing on the back burner to concentrate on a newfound career.

Increasingly in recent years, Salonen has gravitated back toward composition, while keeping his feet firmly on the podium. In 2000 he took a year's sabbatical from the Philharmonic to concentrate on composing, and a Sony Classical CD released a year ago features him conducting his own colorful, tightly constructed works.

Salonen's firmly held conviction that a conductor should understand composition thoroughly--and that composers need to understand the orchestra thoroughly, too--came to the fore in September, 2002, when he led a unique training workshop for composers and conductors in Los Angeles. Synergy--co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Symphony Orchestra League, the University of Southern California, and the American Music Center--brought four conductors and four composers together in pairs to work on the realization of new works for orchestra. The event is seen as a prototype for similar workshops in the future.

In this discussion with Jesse Rosen, chief program officer of the American Symphony Orhcestra League, Salonen recalls the Synergy week, and outlines the need for closer connections between those who are training to lead orchestras and those who are learning to write for them.

Jesse Rosen: Why was it important to you to spend several days in joint training with composers and conductors?

Esa-Pekka Salonen: There's the general ideological reason, of course: furthering the cause of new music, deepening the understanding of new music among conductors, orchestras, and music students, and so forth. Synergy had a more specific target as well, having to do with the system of education in this country, which quite often creates problems of isolation. Composers can grow up in their own enclave and almost never meet a living performer. They rarely work with conductors, and conductors rarely hang out with composers. So it's difficult to form artistic partnerships that can then grow into something important. In my own case, I worked with a couple of friends from very early on who are now very well-known composers, like Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. One of the goals of the Synergy workshop was to show how these kinds of relationships can be formed and developed.

JR: Is this isolation a uniquely American problem, or one that is also faced in Europe?

EPS: In a sense the problem exists everywhere, but it's more acute in the States. Although it depends on the size of the country, the school, the city; every place is different. Certainly for a young Scandinavian conductor or composer it is almost impossible not to forge relationships with colleagues and work as a team, because of the low population density. Music schools are smaller, cities are smaller. Conductors and composers and musicians grow up together and hang out in the same bars--which is an important element!

JR: What are some of the deficiencies that aspiring composers and conductors suffer from, as a result of not being in frequent contact with one another?

EPS: Let's take the composer's side first. Obviously there are the issues of orchestration and instrumental writing: how to get maximum effect with minimal effort, and how to optimize the instrumental writing so that you get what you want without making things unnecessarily complicated. And finding the right kind of difficulty--the kind that musicians find challenging, but not off-putting. This is, of course, a very complicated area, and we could not cover it in a week during Synergy. It's a lifelong process for composers, actually.

But our Synergy composers were able to encounter the situation where conductors or musicians who really want to do their best cannot do so for some reason. It might be the way the instrument has been handled, or the way the texture is laid out, or the notation. For instance, a musical idea might be quite simple, quite clear and straightforward, but perhaps the notation has kind of managed to blur the idea into something that nobody can quite pull off. Composers working intensely with performers and conductors can learn a lot in a short time about these kinds of things--simplicity, directness, exactness of the message.

Conductors also have a challenge, in the sense that you can't go to the record store and buy the Furtwängler recording of a brand-new piece. There's no sonic model. You have to learn it from the page. You have to decide yourself what you should do with it, and how you will keep the form together. And you are faced with more unknowns than under normal circumstances. You meet a new orchestra and you are supposed to convey your thoughts about the new piece they don't know, so it's like working on two problems at the same time. At the end of the day, though, you come to realize what sort of communication works, and what is a waste of time.

JR: Did those five days in a teaching role with both composers and conductors give you a different perspective on your own work?

EPS: It always happens, when teaching talented people, that some of the questions asked are so interesting and challenging--and sometimes even profound--that you have to go back to your room and think about them. You don't want to give a flip answer to such questions. These made it a stimulating experience.

For me personally, Synergy was also a trip into my own past. I remember so well what it was like to be a young composer and a young conductor, facing all these problems--the tremendous lack of time, in particular, when you work with a professional orchestra for the first time. You realize that you have all this to do, and you have X hours to do it in. You're not sure how the orchestra's relating to you--whether they are receptive or hostile--and you can't read the signs very well. The psychology of the whole situation is sort of alien. When I saw the Synergy conductors in this situation, it all came crashing back! [laughs] Generation after generation we are facing the same dilemmas, essentially. I think for them, it was kind of nice to hear that we all have had the same problems, and some of the problems will never go away.

JR: At the beginning of the Synergy workshop, you spent a couple of hours explaining a whole kind of system that you employ in coming to grips with a new score, and how you then make the transition from your study and analysis into your rehearsal plan. Where did all that come from?

EPS: Well, nobody's born with a system like that, of course. But we, as conductors, have to be able to learn quite a large amount of music in a relatively short time. Whether you are in a chief conductor position, or are an assistant conductor who has to cover these pieces, you haven't got the luxury of time. You have to be able to understand the notation quickly enough so that you can actually do at least a professional job. I think every conductor in the business has developed some kind of a system over the years, a method that eventually brings you to the point that you can actually stand in front of an orchestra and say that you know the piece.

My starting point is harmony. When I get a new score, I try to decipher the vertical structure of the piece. What are the chords, how are they put together, how do the individual voices relate to the basic harmony? My first step is to find out how the notes relate to each other in feeding that harmony. And then I can go on, studying the other aspects of the music. It may even be that the new piece of music is not even harmonically conceived. Once you establish that, then you can concentrate on other aspects of the music.

My conducting teacher, Jorma Panula, was very, very clear about this. He said, if you don't know the harmony, you have no business on the box. I think that's a very good rule. Sometimes in conducting auditions I'll stop the conductor and ask what the chord is at the place he stopped, and it takes about five minutes for him to decipher it. Then it's obvious that there's an aspect of the music that has not been learned in the first place.

That my study is harmony-based has to do also with my personal preference as a composer. Because harmony is the most important element of music for me as a composer. It interests me the most.

JR: Can the analysis give a conductor too much information, in a sense, if he or she doesn't know how to organize it? When I see young conductors in first rehearsals, so often what seems to get them derailed is that they're really trying to do everything at the same time, and end up skimming through a lot of stuff and not getting to essential material.

EPS: This is one of the hardest things about conducting. Some people are born with tremendous musical talent--and tremendous technical talent for conducting. But how to rehearse--how to maximize your time and prioritize problems to be worked on--is something you can only learn from experience. When learning a new score, towards the end of your study you have to try to create a hierarchy of what is essential for the musical expression, from a technical point of view, and what is something that may or may not take care of itself but is of lesser importance in the whole picture. Nothing is more irritating than a conductor getting stuck in something that takes hours to fix, and then nobody can hear it in the context of the performance. So you have to be practical. You have to let some things go by without trying to fix them. You also have to be very realistic, too--to be able to work within the schedule of the orchestra, and at the same time work within the abilities of the players.

JR: Has your work as a composer changed at all as a result of your conducting?

EPS: What happens to a composer when you have all of the practical experience of performing is that you really try to get your message out as clearly and simply and effectively as possible. You try to develop a notation that leaves very little to be guessed, one that is so clear and understandable from within the instrument that you can ask the players to do very difficult things. The gesture must always be within the identity and physical capability of the instrument. One quite often sees scores by young composers where the piccolo part looks like the tuba part--although slightly higher!--but in fact there is no instrumental identity in its gestures. If you want to have maximum effect out of a symphony orchestra, you have to make sure that every instrumental gesture they're asked to play is idiomatic, at least in the broadest sense.

And also as a result of conducting, I'm less interested in showing how clever I am. Quite the contrary, actually. I try to simplify my thoughts to the simplest possible version--so that they are still my thoughts and they are not compromised in any way, but they are as clear as they can be. Look at what Pierre Boulez has done to his old scores. Very obviously, this is precisely the process he's gone through. Nobody could call the new versions of Boulez's pieces simple or simplistic, no way. But they are extremely professionally written for the orchestra, and each instrument. And hard as hell! But a good challenge, not a bad challenge.

JR: In thinking about your own composing work, you've taken time off to be away from conducting in order to compose, and presumably you also compose while you're conducting. How do you manage this?

EPS: Different phases of the process of composing require different things. There is a very initial stage, when I'm just loosely jotting down ideas. That would be in the middle of a conducting period, because there's no actual pressure to invent something good. I'm just trying to invent any things, and then see later whether they have any potential at all. This is also a method I've developed to avoid panic when I finally have my real composition period, and I'm staring at the paper, and nothing comes up! [laughs] And I just don't want that, my time is too precious. So always when I start a period of composing, I have something down already, some kind of idea what could be, although it mostly changes radically. And most of these jottings end up in the wastebasket. Still, there's something to work with.

Then there is the period when I actually put the sketches together. It's like the last stage of churning butter, when the little clumps actually, all of a sudden, make butter. It happens very quickly. It's kind of an amazing process. And when this is happening in composition, I cannot do anything else. First of all, it's too interesting--I don't want to do anything else. But also I cannot stop the flow without damaging the process. I try to time my work in such a way that I can have a month or six weeks for this, because if I don't, then the piece doesn't happen. That has occurred so many times, and so it's something I've learned over the years to control, to some degree.

Once the piece has happened, then writing out scores is something that could be done between rehearsals and performances. Although I prefer this not to be the case, because of the sheer exhaustion aspect. But it's mentally and physically possible to do it.

JR: So sometimes conducting has gotten in the way of a piece being realized in the way you wanted it to be?

EPS: Yes. You know, the battle between conducting and composing is somewhat unfair, in that conductors and performers have these mechanisms around them, like agents and record companies, secretaries, PR people, and what-have-you. A conductor's time is very well organized and protected. Nobody would ever dream to ask me to take the dog out while I'm rehearsing Beethoven with the LA Philharmonic. But of course, when I'm "only" composing, my time is viewed as totally flexible. That can make it hard to compose.

You know, I once went to hear a piece of mine being played by the French National Orchestra as part of a festival in Paris. French Radio had booked me and my wife in a little bed-and-breakfast kind of place, close to the radio building. And when we checked in, I started complaining loudly to my wife, "Look at this dump. How could any human being exist in this kind of place? It's just awful." And she looked at me and said, "Look. You are being treated as a composer, don't forget." [laughs] That was a very good lesson, because I was the same guy who, when conducting, was staying in five-star hotels in Paris. It's crazy, ridiculous, but that's how it is.

JR: Going back to Synergy again, I wonder how this kind of joint experience, with conductors and composers learning together, might become more available, so that it's not so late in the process before the composer and conductor find each other and begin to have these kinds of synergistic connections?

EPS: One important element would be to understand that forming an artistic relationship with a composer--besides being very exciting, a lot of fun, and rewarding in many ways--can actually also help a conductor's career, in terms of creating a niche or specialty which is then of interest to orchestras. I think quite often young conductors feel that if they want to get work and launch careers, it will have to be through Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky and so forth. But having a certain new-music specialty can be a practical way to get noticed.

For instance, it sounds a bit grand to say that I'm the leading performing authority on Magnus Lindberg's music. But I think it is the case, because we grew up together, and I know every note he ever wrote. It's something that, obviously, has been musically tremendously rewarding. But also, when I was starting out as a conductor, if somebody wanted Lindberg to be played, they usually called upon me because they knew, "there's a guy who knows this stuff."

Getting noticed, obviously, shouldn't be the main concern here. The main concern should always be the music itself and the satisfaction you get out of that. But we also live in the real world.

JR: Forgive me if this sounds grand also, but there's a tradition of composer-conductors that goes back to Strauss, Mahler, Berlioz--which is not so common right now. Do you think of yourself as carrying on that kind of tradition, and are we maybe on the verge of the idea of a composer-conductor really being a force again?

EPS: Well, I--I mean, in some very weak moments, I somehow vaguely would like to see myself in that sort of continuum from Wagner and Berlioz onward. But, of course, these are crazy thoughts of massive vanity! [laughs]

What I think is really interesting is, why has the composer-conductor become so rare? Here we are dealing with not only a musical issue or even an artistic issue. It's a tendency in our entire society, for people to specialize in narrower and narrower segments. It's almost ridiculous how narrow our medical specialties are these days. So it's not surprising that conductors only conduct and composers only compose.

I think it would be healthier if every performer had some aspect of authoring, and vice versa. This, on some levels, also works so much better in pop and rock, where these limits between creating and performing are much more flexible and fluid.

JR: What intrigued or pleased you the most about the Synergy week?

EPS: There were two things that really encouraged me a lot. The first thing that really delighted me was the orchestra's reaction. We had musician mentors, an elected group of people from the orchestra who then spoke with the composers and the conductors. Lots of players came to talk to me afterwards and said, "This was fantastic, this was a lot of fun, and very interesting. Let's do this again." So the Philharmonic was totally behind it.

And the other thing was that all of the conductors, without exception, did their best work in the concert. That's wonderful; the curve was the right type of curve. (Obviously, of course, the nature of this thing is such that the end product is a concert, which is conducted by somebody, so the conducting seems to get the main attention and limelight.)

JR: And the composers' pieces were finished when Synergy started, so the composers adjusted their work less than the conductors during the course of the workshop. You've suggested that one way to improve on the process would be to have the composers write a new piece, and have them come together at some midpoint with the conductors, while there's still an opportunity for the composers to get feedback as they are creating the piece.

EPS: Yes; there are ways to balance this better. I think the next time we do this, we'll start the preparations much earlier, so we can have this kind of truly creative process. Because you might have tremendous musical imagination and talent--but to know how to write for bass clarinet? It's something you just have to learn.