Internationally known Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg arrives in Budapest to mentor young composers and conductors on June 20.-26. during a course organized by the Péter Eötvös Foundation, together with composers Péter Eötvös and Gregory Vajda. The week starts with the mustMEET Composers event and culminates on Sunday with a concert at the Budapest Music Center. In the interview, Magnus talks about his own background and what inspires him as a composer.
Hi Magnus! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Magnus Lindberg, and I have been a professional composer since 1981. That year I graduated from Sibelius Academy where I studied composing under Professor Einojuhani Rautavaara and Professor Paavo Heininen. After graduating I have been a free artist and working with music diversely.
I come from a family with no background in classical music, only my mother played the piano as a kindergarten teacher. I first played the accordion, but an Austrian graduate pianist who listened to my playing suggested I switch to the piano, and helped me get into the youth department of the Sibelius Academy in 1973. There is still a youth department there that is fantastic, and there I also had the opportunity to study music alongside regular school as a teenager. I had piano as my major, but orchestral music and composing quickly started to intrigue me. With the weekly allowance money that I saved, I was able to buy my first two partitures, which were Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which I still have. Very quickly classical contemporary music began to interest me and I am still on that path.
When did you compose your earliest work?
When I played the accordion as a little boy, I actually performed on a children’s show on tv at the age of eight playing my own compositions that were waltzes, tango and polka. My first big attempt to compose an orchestral piece was in 1974 or -75, although it has not been performed, and I do not hope that anyone will dig it out anymore. By that time, I was already composing for a large orchestra. I have done compositions that have been played and recorded since -76. That’s when I composed a big piece that still exists, for my colleague and long-time friend Esa-Pekka Salonen and a string music trio. Oh dear, it seems that I have written music for almost 50 years.
It felt natural for me from an early age that with all my interest in written music, the need to compose myself arose. My father worked at IBM and through him I also got excited about computers and programming, which came into my work at a very early stage. I’ve learned to compose with the help of a computer since I was young, and working with computers has been another side project in my career.
What inspires you as a composer?
What interests me the most is the grammar of music. For myself, experiencing nature, literature, or art may not have served as much as an inspiration, although there are exceptions. I am particularly interested in where the grammar of music is today. If we look at, for example, how Bach created Western tonal music alongside his contemporaries, and how classical music developed into the Romantic era after the Viennese School, how the music opened up for example in the form of Impressionism in the 20th century, how folk music came through Bartók and Janáček, and why not Sibelius. How important is the division into the traditions of tonal and non-tonal music in the 20th century. A particularly interesting time for myself is after 1945, when World War II ended and many composers tried to start making music from scratch and break away from the traditions of classical music. Since then, different schools of tradition have been brought closer together and it was noticed that although attempts have been made to break out of the tradition, it is only rolling forward. Personally, I’m a kind of synthesis between this kind of modern and non-tonal, as well as more traditional ways of thinking, but hopefully not repeating them.
In summary, the internal logic of music, or the grammar that governs and carries it forward, is an eternal source of inspiration for me. The form of expression is important to me and it is on this basis that each work creates its own environment. This is a priority for me, although I have also composed works that expresses nature, such as my work Marea (Tide). Composing music is especially fun because the starting point can be anything, even if I’m a theorist by nature. I am very interested in music, I listen to, study and perform a lot of music, even though my main job is as a composer. None of this would be possible without this huge repertoire of music we have in store, thanks to the notation and recording of music. I want to belong to this tradition, I can’t deny that.
You have travelled a lot during your career, is there any special place that has affected your music?
I try to draw as much influence from as many countries and cultures as possible, and hopefully it can be heard in my music. I am lucky to have been able to travel a lot, and that my works have been played all over the world, not only in Europe but also in Asia and America. I lived in France for a long time, actually from the 80s to the mid-90s, and that is, of course, very important to me musically as well. I have also lived in Germany and the Netherlands, which are very important and close to my heart. My publisher is in London, I visit there a lot and it is involved in my daily life. It has been a pleasure to work with great orchestras in America, and I have gotten to know many great musicians along the way. What’s fantastic about the diverse music field is that there are so many different personalities. Things are still done in many different ways, and I think it’s a great asset.
I have also been inspired by Hungarian music from the beginning, I have played quite a lot of Béla Bartók's music, and of course all the fantastic music he has written has made a big impression on me. He has meant a lot to me as a composer.
How much do you edit your works after you compose them for the first time? How much room is there for interpretation in a finished composition?
Interestingly, the more experience I have gained, the more I edit my works. The premiere week is really stressful because I still try to edit my works in that situation as much as possible. Most often it is a matter of fine-tuning: if in the rehearsals of an orchestral work I have to tell the trumpet section that you should play more quietly, even if the notes read forte, then of course you have to fix it. I am increasingly trying to hone my pieces so that things like this don’t have to be guided separately in the rehearsals.
The accuracy of a notation can be endlessly discussed and I personally think that the finished composition is like a platform from which music takes off. It is always open to interpretation what mezzo forte or staccato means, and it depends on the composer or musician, as each has their own tradition. I am interested in the accuracy of the notation, but of course the conductors have the freedom to emphasize what they find to be important in the piece. It’s a really interesting work phase and a source of inspiration, especially when you hear different performances.
I’m in a happy position having such a good classical publisher in London who still prints the sheets of my music. It is always a great thing when a printed version of a composition arrives in the mail. It is, in a way, final and no longer needs to be changed, and I can move forward again. It’s probably the same type of feeling the author has when the book is finally published. I may be part of an older generation in this matter, but it is important to me. Today, there are a lot of young composers with great internet networks where things can be changed and moved forward over and over again. I myself have a bit of an old-fashioned idea that once the notes are printed they are public property and I no longer have to worry about them.
Have you visited Budapest before? What are you expecting from this visit and the event?
I have, although it has been a long time, back in 1985. Over the years I have also had my pieces performed in Budapest, most recently Jukka-Pekka Saraste played my orchestral piece Feria a few years ago, but unfortunately I wasn’t there myself.
It is great that we are now able to carry out this course in Budapest, the project has been discussed with Péter Eötvös for two years, but the pandemic kept messing up the arrangements. I have been honored to have known Péter for a long time, he conducted my piece in 1983 in Paris, so next year we will have a full 40 years of friendship. Kaija Saariaho and my other colleague Matthias Pintscher have both visited this course and praised it profusely. I myself am particularly inspired by the fact that the course has a combination of conductors and composers. I’ve run a lot of courses, often with either composers or musicians, but that kind of combination of both is a new and fresh idea. Péter is an important composer and colleague, I like his way of making music a lot and I enjoy his music. I hope we can spend time together with the students and Péter. It’s really awesome that the event is finally coming together.
During the course, we will be working on my chamber music work called Jubilees, which I have been able to lead several times myself. It is a difficult piece and a challenge for conductors. There are also plans to do a workshop around the composers’ own works. I think the work week is going to be intense, but I hope I'll have time to eat a little goulash at some point.
What kind of projects will you be working on after Budapest?
Many projects have been on hold for a long time because of this pandemic and have been postponed again and again. However, I am going to New Mexico, Santa Fe with my good colleague Anssi Karttunen, where we have had a course called Creative Dialogue since 2007, which is organized together with students from the Sibelius Academy and American universities. In this course composers and musicians are meant to finish their work. It is a very laborious but rewarding course that has been postponed for two years in a row. It’s great to be able to do it again.
My main work as a composer at the moment is my third piano concerto, which has also been delayed due to the pandemic. I am writing it to Chinese star pianist Yuja Wang, with whom we were going to perform in Beijing two years ago. The premiere is now coming out in October with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. This must definitely be completed, I have been composing it for two years now and I hope to complete it in the next few weeks.
After that, my next main work is coming in the winter, which is a violin concerto for Lawrence Power, and the premiere will be in Helsinki in 2023. Ideally, I have tried to have one main work a year, alongside which I might compose a bit of chamber music.
What kind of music do you listen to besides art music?
I listen to a lot of different kinds of music; I have a hobby of listening to music from various cultures. I’ve traveled a lot in Asia, where I’ve collected a variety of genres, and from Africa comes a lot of interesting styles. I collect different influences, although I don’t transfer them to my music directly, but they can offer many interesting nuances.
I often listen to music when cooking, a lot of classics and other music. Of course, professionally I listen plenty too, but it’s a different matter - leisure music, especially alongside cooking, can be almost anything. Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of things, especially rock music. During my school days we even had a band. I was a typical Pink Floyd fan, but Emerson, Lake & Palmer was a big discovery. My mother was absolutely horrified when I brought home some of their records and she tried to prohibit me from listening to them. Finally she then realized that the music had only a positive effect in the end.
I lived in Berlin in 1984-85, composing my work Kraft, which was influenced by local music. Wonderful punk rock was played there, a kind of industrial music that fascinated me a lot. Japanese techno interests me too, I am very versatile in terms of listening to music. With my two daughters, I’ve also listened to a variety of things. I’ve been to Michael Jackson and Prince concerts, for example, turning green with jealousy looking at the resources they have available to perform music. It's absolutely fantastic. I approach music especially through the world of sound and think a lot about how such different worlds of sound can be organized with each other.
Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
I am really looking forward to returning to Budapest and doing this wonderful event!
Who: Magnus Lindberg
Profession: Composer, musician and orchestra conductor
Education: Diploma in composition from the Sibelius Academy
Place of residence: Helsinki
Hobbies: Cooking, fishing and music