Monday, November 5, 2007

You can't say that!

Every so often, I read a program note for a contemporary piece or hear an interview with a composer in which they'll spout something that you really shouldn't say about your own music: "My music really has its own voice," "My vision is..." "I think this piece is very of its time," and so on. These are judgments that we don't, as creators, get to make about our own work. Describe the work, by all means, tell us fascinating, illuminating things about it, but it's not up to us to say where our music fits into a tradition or a zeitgeist, even whether or not our voice, if we indeed have one, is individual, and whether it actually comes out in the music. Even if such a statement is written in the third person, you can always kind of tell if the composer themselves wrote it. Thankfully, this kind of writing is generally frowned upon in Finland, and if anything, composers here are much too modest about their work, focusing more on structure or process instead of aesthetics or philosophy.

Which is why it's nice to have someone else say this kind of thing for us. I went to the Helsinki Chamber Choir's season opening concert yesterday, a group with which I'm lucky to have a growing relationship. They sang at a concert of my music last spring and are premi̬ring my new piece ad puram annihilationem meam in April. Their new director, my erstwhile partner-in-crime, conductor Nils Schweckendiek, asked me to write something for the season program book about Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, whose piece muoaiyoum, a real tour de force of choral minimalism, was on the program yesterday. In turn, another colleague and friend, pianist Risto-Matti Marin, was asked to do the same about me. It's a relief to read someone else's text about my music and realize that, yes, in fact, all those crazy things I think about are apparent to others, seemingly consistently so, and that they're willing to write it down in a way that I can't Рor won't allow myself to do. Most of the composers I really respect take this attitude toward their work, sticking to the piece itself and letting others do the fancy talking about its place in the world.

So getting to write about Hillborg, one of my favorite living composers, was a special treat, because he doesn't say much about his work otherwise. I discovered Anders' music a few years ago, got to meet him at a summer festival in 2005 and had a lesson with him. I say "lesson", but it was really a therapy session. I was in full crisis mode at the time, not having written anything substantial in a couple of years, trying to figure out why I was writing modernism one minute, minimalism the next, why they never seemed to come together, and yet both seemed to be honest expressions. I heard in Hillborg a satisfying mix of most of the ideas I was grappling with, and thought it might be comforting to talk to him about some of the issues weighing on my mind.

Boy, was it. I walked out of the room completely blown away that an older, much more experienced composer dealt with many of the same problems as me, and accepted that they were just part of his process. Composing is such an isolating activity sometimes that it's easy to think you're in it alone, and that everyone else but you has a clue. It's valuable, necessary even, to be reminded on occasion that others face the same difficulties, even the people who seem to have it the most together and to be working at their peak. If nothing else, it's always nice to have a composer you respect tell you they like your music, right? Talking to Hillborg flipped a switch in my head, and I was able to work again, at a much more productive rate than ever. As thanks for that, it was an honor to be asked to write the following ecstatic tribute:

Where light in darkness lies

My first encounter with the world of Anders Hillborg came a few years ago, through a recording of his Violin Concerto of 1991-92. After being utterly seduced by its luminous, pulsing opening, a headlong post-minimalist rush that still somehow manages breathe in deep, Sibelian phrases, the rug was cruelly pulled out from under me, the wonder of the moment obliterated at a stroke by a grotesque march, the long-limbed melodic line twisted into a limping, wheezing caricature of itself. This experience is, in a nutshell, the essence of Hillborg's work, which occupies a place of perpetual possibility – or perhaps of infinite improbability, to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams. As I came to know Hillborg's music better, it occurred to me that the more unlikely was an event's occurrence within a given context, the greater the chances that it would, in fact, happen. Moments of timeless beauty are abruptly cross-cut with sneering, chattering, hyperactive music that seems to tear at the very idea of aesthetic beauty, calling into question the artifice behind it. A major chord will slowly appear out of a sea of chaos like a guiding star to show the way home.

It would be easy to say that such contradictory impulses reveal a deep ambivalence. Indeed, Hillborg's preoccupation with stark contrasts can appear as a refusal to commit himself to a particular set of aesthetic values, which it is to a limited extent. While certain complex surface textures and background harmonic progressions are generated using simple pitch matrices, in the manner of the twelve-tone school, the composer archly dismisses any rigorously systematic approach to composition (even in his own early works) as a need for "safety in numbers". All languages and gestures are permitted, nothing is ruled out a priori. But this most open-minded of composers is no polystylist, despite his loud collisions of disparate ideas. (If anything, the title of a recent orchestral work, Exquisite Corpse, betrays a Surrealist delight in the absurd, in the placing of a familiar, even clichéd object in an alien landscape.) There is no mere post-modern acceptance of uncertainty in Hillborg's work, no living with insecurity, nor any meaning in simply presenting the choices of our time in some orgy of endless variety and consumption. Rather, by engaging the act of choosing head-on, he enters into an epic battle for truth.

And how victorious is he! In the end, there is wonder, even amid the raucousness, made all the more valuable for having been tested. In fact, if one surveys his work as a whole, there is far more beauty than not, some so exquisite as to not even permit the questioning of it. The work HKK is performing this season, muoaiyoum, is an example of such. Another is his vocal work …Lontana in sonno…, which I saw render a row of mildly doctrinaire young composers speechless, so transfixing was its beauty. In such works, the states of suspended animation Hillborg conjures have the effect of telescoping time, making irrelevant any idea of duration. To this day, I have no idea how long …Lontana in sonno… lasts, nor do I want to know. Such music exists as the end point of a celebratory, cautionary heavenward ascent worthy of Dante – another source of inspiration for Hillborg – in which the composer gleefully fills the role of guide. Such unquestioned faith in the existence of a place of perfect beauty is rare enough in this age of cynicism and prevarication that, in my mind, it merits Hillborg a title so overused in modern art as to have been largely stripped of its value, yet which undoubtedly applies here: that of visionary.

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