Conductor Susanna Mälkki trains a layman to understand contemporary music

Kulttuuri 12.8.2009 16:30

Susanna Mälkki got a challenge. The conductor and music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain had to train a journalist to understand contemporary music. Let it flow!

Susanna Mälkki Photography by Markku Niskanen.

On the 13th and 14th of August Susanna Mälkki and Ensemble Intercontemporain perform at Helsinki Festival.

According to Pierre Boulez, the composer, architecture is solidified music. Thus, tonight’s concert is placed in a most appropriate building.

Twelve musicians, all dressed in dark colours, place themselves in the grand stage of Centre Pompidou in Paris. Ensemble Intercontemporain, a French orchestra founded by Boulez in 1977 and specialized in contemporary music, is about to start its jubilee concert.

How did I ever find my way here? How is it possible for someone whose listening is limited to pop, rock and jazz, whose ears merely by accident have sometimes caught some contemporary music, that incomprehensible, out-of-rhythm cacophony?

Susanna Mälkki swiftly steps to the conductor’s podium, takes a bow and views the Parisian audience. I believe I’m well melted into this crowd of four hundred people of all ages and appearances, but still I feel like Mälkki is looking tightly right at me. With an eye of a school teacher when handing an exam sheet. Well, well. This is what you’ve been studying for. Soon we’ll find out what you have learned.

* * *

Helsinki, Töölö, twelve days earlier. The door to my teacher’s house opens and I meet her for the first time.

The mission inspires Mälkki, though at first she has hesitated – would she have enough time to play her role well? She doesn’t have much spare time, because in autumn 2006 she began her work as music director of the famous Ensemble. There’s the nearly full-time administrative work, there are plenty of new compositions to learn and there are visits to conduct other orchestras. Shuttling between two countries and the search for an apartment in Paris.

Therefore she has taken a glance at her records and helped me plan an independent curriculum, that is supposed to culminate in one of the thirtieth anniversary concerts of the Ensemble in Paris.

She hands me two hours of homework:
Marc-André Dalbavie: Ciaccona (2002).
Magnus Lindberg: Arena 2 (1996).
Ivan Fedele: Richiamo (1993-94) and Duo en resonance (1991).
György Ligeti: Melodien (1971), Chamber Concerto (1969-70), Piano Concerto (1985-88) and Mysteries Of The Macabre (1996).

The purpose of Dalbavien, Lindberg and Fedele is to get used to the sounds of the Paris concert. Ligeti, on the other hand, is just ”masterly, great contemporary music”. In addition, she recommends me a book based on interviews of Pierre Boulez as he is indisputably one of the great figures of contemporary music. As the Musica Nova Festival is conveniently underway in Helsinki, three live concerts are also included in my curriculum.

Having stepped out of her door I go through her advice once again:

”Lay down on the floor and just let it flow in.”
”Don’t wait anything. Forget your prejudice about what music is.”
”No association is false!”
And the most important advice:
”You mustn’t exhaust your head with these. You mustn’t listen too much at a time.”

The teacher and the student discuss. On draining the laundry in sauna and other associations.

Susan Heikkinen: In Ciaccona a truck roars by signalling with horns. Occasionally the oscillating strings open up the landscape, it’s like wind on a corn field or on a green moorland. Large metal shots begin to fall on the ground, bouncing heavily. Some high-pitched falling star brightens up in the middle of all other things. But it doesn’t rise to the centre stage, it goes out almost immediately.

Susanna Mälkki: Sounds fantastic, lovely. There are directions in music, and things develop or don’t develop. You get hints that go forward or don’t. It’s funny that you have in a way followed that musical traffic. Often the listener is directed to hear this or that. People get a feeling that a composition should be heard the same way professionals do. It’s important to let everyone have their own way to receive it.

SH: In Arena 2 kinks of fishing line flail in the air, lots of delightful little mice skitter on somebody’s strained muscles. Tickle, itch. In Duo en Resonance the high piano keys purl like a little spring brook in a little window that opens in between the other instruments. In Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto I first find myself on a swamp inside a swarm of mosquitos, then I’m in the middle of rumbling buffalos, next I’m in the middle of a burbling flock of pigeons. And the third part is excellent: the rhythms are tapping as if one is hanging wet laundry to drain on the lines in the ceiling of a sauna. From every garment comes its own rhythm of droplets that taps the wooden bench below it. Occasionally the rhythms meet just to separate again.

SM: You’ve got it exactly. It is explicitly composed to be a mechanical play.

SH: But am I just vainly trying to translate the language of contemporary music to the language that I speak? And would everyone make a different translation anyway?

SM: Some wise people have said that if we could verbalize music, we wouldn’t need it. The reason that music exists is that there are so many things that cannot be put into words.

SH: Eventhough there are no false associations, mustn’t there be something that the composer is trying to say?

SM: There should be… perhaps even I don’t always find the message. That is quite a good question. There’s a lot that is unintelligible for me, too. But I do always try to understand, and as a performer I do my best to make in sound intelligible.

SH: But I longed for full explanations. I wanted to realize what the compositions were telling about. But all I got were unconnected associations. I decided to give up looking for a moment of insight. I decided I don’t have to understand if the work is about falling in love or about war or about growing up.

SM: Yes, music being more a space than a story?

On ugliness, beauty and losing one’s mind

SH: The concert of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra began with agony. A high-pitched sound whined in the beginning of Jovanka Trbojevic’s work Orgone Accumulator (2006). It kept existing as the rest of the orchestra began. And it gave me a headache. It, or the coffee in the cafeteria of Finlandia Hall. In any case, I had pain in my head through the performance. Later I found it soothing when also the critic of the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat wrote that the sound – note E of the clarinet – kept going nightmarishly long. I wonder what then is beautiful in contemporary music?

SM: First you have to define beauty. New York is very beautiful in its own way, but then, you’re not supposed to compare it with the fells of Lapland.

SH: Does music have to be beautiful?

SM: That is an issue to dwell upon. We live in a terrifyingly ugly and oppressive world, so should art express that or should it offer a hideaway? Perhaps we could think that some sort of solution should be found in art. It’s not very constructive if we just present the dreadfulness, and then it’s even more depressing. As a performer I notice that if I have to work with oppressive music, it does make me feel blue. It does affect, no matter if I think that these are just sounds. Terribly tragic works like the symphonies of Shostakovich I don’t want to take too often. It would be irresponsible to perform them without going through the suffering. You don’t want to do that every week.

SH: What is beautiful in contemporary music then?

SM: For example the Ligeti record that I gave you contains really beautiful colours and textures of sounds that keep changing their shape little by little. And there’s a lot of beauty for instance in Kaija Saariaho’s music. But I haven’t listened her cello concerto yet, tell me about it.

SH: Notes on Light (2006) was performed after Orgone Accumulator. Perhaps I was still under the influence of that clarinet-E. Self-evident was the beauty not. Why does almost all contemporary music sound as if out of tune and also all of it as if out of tune in the same way?

SM: You are on the right track. When abstraction is pursued – and I’m not talking about Saariaho now – everybody easily chooses a certain way for avoiding harmony. Some find their own tongue. But if you listen to Mozart’s coevals, for instance, you find the same thing. All music of that time sounds very similar, but Mozart has been touched by some special wing of an angel, it is something more. And then I would like to add that Finlandia Hall is not a good place to listen to Saariaho. The overtones don’t sound. Its like standing in an art gallery with poor lights.

SH: The last work in the concert was Eero Hämeenniemi’s Fourth Symphony (2004). Why do I feel that the language of most contemporary music still expresses weirdness, threat, lunacy and going out of one’s mind?

SM: That is quite surprising. Hämeenniemi knows Indian music well, did you recognize any overseas elements?

SH: No, I noticed that I got tired. My mind wandered off many times.

SM: Yes… concerts are often really too long. The more modern the music is. The expression is extremely dense. Those 90 to 120 minutes sessions are close to limits. One hundred years ago people composed symphonies that lasted one hour. Nowadays a 15 minutes work is long.

SH: Even the last roar of applause was rest for my ears. Or not actually for the ears but for the soul. While the applause roars, world doesn’t seem to hang on the edge of madness. Music doesn’t oppress you, you don’t have to reject the message all the time. But in next day’s concert there was a pinch of humour. While playing Jukka Tiensuu’s Mind, pianist Juhani Lagerspetz twanged the grand with his fingers. I think I noticed some wittiness there.

SM: Tiensuu’s music is nice, it’s playful and there’s positive energy in it. Nothing stops you from going into that direction. You can leave the oppressive works and find something nice.

On urine and Windows

SH: In the concert of Avanti orchestra, composer Perttu Haapanen had chosen soprano Helena Juntunen to perform one instrument in his work Ladies Room (2006-2007). Juntunen reached a phenomenal scale of voice as she instantly switched between girlish babble and that classic opera singer’s voice. But the lyrics. ”Your face is a twisted stem, a nauseous laughter floating in your mouth like urine crammed in a child’s bladder”, the beautiful soprano sang, as if suppressing a retch. You were there in the audience yourself. Was that parody?

SM: Oh, it was a fantastic performance. Only a few singers can sing that kind of music. Parody didn’t cross my mind. On the other hand, there was humour in it, as it combined all sorts of things, it took distance to everything. But I’m not able to say, if the work was meant to be serious at that moment or not…

SH: It came to me that anyone can make and abstract painting and be taken seriously as a painter. But a work of contemporary music can’t be produced just like that. It takes proficiency from all levels: the composer has to know how to write a score, the conductor has to be able to read it, and the musicians have to master their instruments.

SM: Yes, there are many more filters. But music that seems to lack message does exist. It does happen.

SH: I found a nice trick in Fedele’s Richiamo, which I listened home using my computer as a player. Along those symphonic sounds a funny electronic sound kept repeating. Like a whizzing smack. It was like a friend that followed along, though new and strange things kept emerging in the music. What a fine thing, that the composer had placed something so bizarre in his work, a friendly smack! That’s when I marked an error message on my screen. ”The USB device could not be detected.” Smack. ”One of the USB devices is in error mode and cannot be detected by Windows.” Smack.

SM: But isn’t it quite great when you start taking everything for real? You can start seeing meanings everywhere. You think different, since you observe different.

On concentrating and coriander. Rebukes.

SH: I found it difficult to concentrate on Ligeti. I decided to fully concentrate in my home concert, but at the end I didn’t manage to do that even just for one piece. My mind wondered off. Clearly, sheer concentration is one of the challenges in my training. I did’t get any grip on Melodien.

SM: Well, it is a piece of its kind, it just flows down. It doesn’t even drip, it just flows. Did you listen all those at one time?

SH: Umm, yes. 70 minutes of Ligeti, on one day.

SM: I told you not to do so.

SH: I did have breaks…

SM: That is quite a session. Do I smell a danger, that after this you’ll never go to a contemporary music concert again?

SH: Does this pace seem too fast? After all, it would have taken just one day to listen through all these records and concerts.

SM: I you just count minutes, yes. But if you taste coriander for the first time in your life, and then you season all your food with coriander for a week or two, surely that is a little bit too much… even if it tastes really great. You have to give space for the music. Even I like to listen to some simple pop music every now and then.

SH: But Ligeti’s concertos were great! I didn’t feel like needing a break. It was pleasing to listen to.

SM: H’m.

SH: I tried to figure out a practical use for the music. I’m still not able to take it as it is. Could you pedal on an exercise bike in time with this music? Or jog… no way. Perhaps you could practise yoga?

SM: A truly funny idea to practise yoga in time with Ligeti. You would be judged odd quite quickly if you mentioned that as your hobby.

On curiosity. Why is the mister sniffing the drums?

SH: In the concert in Finlandia Hall I could count at least three children in the audience. Would I dare to bring my children to a contemporary music concert? If the child is accustomed to traditional children’s music…

SM: And then we shatter down that wonderful world?

SH: Yes, is it too scary for a child, since even for me it is sometimes disturbingly strange?

SM: Children don’t have a prejudice. Often Mozart makes them yawn, but in contemporary music concerts they are wide-eyed, because it is so fascinating and droll.

SH: Doesn’t Ensemble Intercontemporain offer concerts for children all the time in Paris?

SM: And children come there to see the rehearsals. The teachers know well how to prepare them. They may see instruments for the first time, and they’ve never been in a concert hall before. The strange music might be the one familiar element among all this. A schoolchild once asked: ”why is the mister sniffing the drums?” When a kettledrummer tunes the drums up, he has to put his head very close to them in order to hear.

SH: When contemporary music is put into the repertoire of a symphony orchestra, are the musicians happy to play it?

SM: It depends on how accustomed they are to it. Musicians all have their professional pride, and suddenly it can feel like the rug is pulled from under their feet. Hating the music might be a defence mechanism in that situation.

SH: You recommended me the book Conversations with Boulez. The composer called it lazyness and lack of curiosity, if professionals avoid contemporary music.

SM: It is also selfish! Music is not here for the musicians. Musicians are here for the music. It is understandable that you only play music you like, but it is also very childish. You don’t see the whole picture. If you don’t want to be updated, you are, how to express it in a civilized manner… a chicken. I myself don’t enjoy every composition I conduct. There’s lots of stuff I don’t like. But then, there’s plenty of excellent contemporary music that people never hear, because they don’t want to know anything about it. Curiosity is the driving force behind evolution!

SH: How did things go this far? Howcome majority of people don’t care about contemporary music, aka serious music made less that one hundred years ago?

SM: Certain developments started in the beginning of the 20th century. People strived for absolute abstraction. Things went to extremes sometimes, music becoming provoking and terribly theoretical. Intentional ugliness and such. In a way it was necessary to come to a dead end. But after 1950’s some reverse has taken place. A negative impression may be a consequence of one single experience. Just as if in a contemporary art museum you would only see one piece of art.

On elitism.

SH: The French Ministry of Culture finances Ensemble Intercontemporain. The orchestra is the cream of contemporary orchestras in the world.

SM: Yes it is.

SH: Are the performers of contempory music the cream of all serious music?

SM: You opened a big chest. Elitism is an awfully sensitive issue in Finland. Firstly, I think it is funny that there should be less ambition in art than in other fields. Nobody wants to watch miserable football, and nobody wants Kimi Räikkönen to be just an average Formula 1 driver. Everyone appreciates an athlete who is the best in the world. But then, in art, we should be as average as anyone! I don’t understand the logic in it. Why wouldn’t you be allowed to strive for as good as possible?

SH: Do the musicians who play contemporary music consider themselves elite musicians?

SM: Meaning being better than other people? No!

SH: But can’t you consider yourself elite, in the positive sense, if you have reached the top in your field?

SM: Things could be done better, everything should sound better and better. Maybe we are talking about a certain mentality here. Allright is not enough, you should seek for first-class.

SH: So, elitism means constant self-critical effort for better and better?

SM: Perhaps it is some sort of… union of idealism and perfectionism.

* * *

The baton of Susanna Mälkki rises. First, the audience in the Grand Hall of Centre Pompidou concentrates on Arnulf Herrmann’s Anklang .1/.2 (2004), then on Dalbavie’s La marche des transitoires (2004) and Lindberg’s Jubilees (2002-03).

Mälkki is leaving her fingerprint in world’s musical landscape. As the music director she has most power over the repertoire of the Ensemble. Herrmann is an interesting future name. Previous co-operation with the orchestra is what other composers of tonight’s concert have in common.

The only things the audience sees of the conductor are smooth gestures, a ponytail and small golden earrings. But the conductor herself has antennas with which to sense the attention behind her back. For her it is rewarding to feel how a hall listens attentively.

Last twitters of Fedele’s Ali di Cantor (2004) fade out and the 30-year-old Ensemble Intercontemporain stands up. Mälkki welcomes the applause standing modestly beside the podium. Once again I feel like she’s staring right at me, but this time sympathetically, with humour.

Did I pass? Did I fail? On the eve of the concert, in a cafe in Paris, she had actually already said what she expected from her student.

”I believe I won’t flunk you. You’ll get a reward for attendance. In fact, I’m merely interested to know, what you are going to write about all this. To know if any mark is left.”

* * *

The article was published in Suomen Kuvalehti in April 2007. Translation by the writer.

The Finnish version as a pdf file here.

Suomenkielinen juttu on alun perin julkaistu SK:ssa 14-15/2007.