Lobster Soup

This article was originally printed in Nordic Sounds 1/98.What is the True Sound of the Clarinet?
The soft and pastoral mildness of Mozart?
Or the rough and charging masculinity of Balkan folk music?
This concerto is in fact two concertos,
cut into pieces and spliced squarely into each other,
the soloist now in this world, now in that
– the Janus Face of the clarinet.

An artist’s personal musical style and the craft and techniques related to it is to him what the shell is to a lobster. It is a tool for interaction with the outside world, a means for others to identify him, and a firm framework without which his artistic ideas and inspiration would have been a helpless heap of mental protoplasma. 

However, the lobster’s shell has a severe drawback: It doesn’t grow, like its owner does. So when the stuff inside gets too stuffy, the lobster moves out and hides soft and vulnerable under a rock, until a new and more spacious shell has formed itself, and a larger and stronger lobster can reenter the scene. 

As I started working on my Clarinet Concerto in 1995, I felt I very lobsterlike. For many years socalled fractal mathematics had been an important component in the technical shell of my instrumental music. These fascinating mathematical phenomena, simple equations from which strangely organic structures emanated, had provided a means to generate a quite detailed skeleton on which I could sculpt the music. 

With this technique, there was a constant collaboration between my subjective, artistic choice and the computer: I gave the computer specific tasks, and chose the “best one” out of the different solutions offered. When a satisfactory skeleton had been erected, I could let my imagination interact with it to shape the final score. Out of this generative system came pieces as different as the icecold and distanced Onda di ghiaccio (Icewave), the pleasant, summery ning, and the brutal, pulsating Stonewave. 

The common denominator for these pieces is a high level of formal complexity, where no part can be altered without changing the totality, a musical counterpart to an ecological system. The burden of constructing such a “musical biotope” is a heavy one. At least if listenable music, not the system itself, is the ultimate goal. In those fractal days, my thoughts often wandered to Adrian LeverkÙhn, the tragic composer hero in Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus. The poor man, devoted to formal and systematic concistency, but equally concerned with the expressive value of his music, took the drastic step to sell his soul to the Devil, after many years of hard and painful work. In return he was given some years of exploding creativity, before ending his life in a most mysterious manner. This solution seemed in periods as a quite attractive one. The only problem was that a good atheist has no Devil to call upon. 

However, it was not idleness that was my strongest reason to let this way of working rest for a shorter or longer period. I simply felt that I had exhausted the possibilities in the technique for the time being, and I felt the necessity to again let the desitions concerning details be led by my own intuition. Although the pieces mentioned above have many good qualities, there is a certain strictness in them. Strictness is of course not necessarily a negative characteristic, but I felt I had to move somewhere else in my next pieces. 

The Form

Still, the Clarinet Concerto is very far from being a reckless plunge into the realms of emotional whims. The large formal structure is very strict, although quite simple, as one can see In Fig. 1: two small parts are placed in the middle, growing by the proportion of the Golden Section towards the beginning and towards the end.

Figure 1: The Golden Section

This formal frame was very well suited to my aim: to make two Clarinet Concertos in one, as I suggested in the introduction. The “green” concerto (the colour of the crayon I happened to choose in the first sketches, marked here with G1, G2 etc.), is the soft one, starting the whole work dominating the beginning. The “red” concerto (marked with R’s) is active, loud, thrusting forwards. Each of the contrasting sets of parts can with small changes be edited together to form one long Adagio and one long Allegro. I don’t have any such plans, of course, as the whole formal idea is built on the sudden switches between the two worlds, much like film cutting techniques. 
The funny thing about this form is that the very simple distribution of these parts between the two sound worlds leads to a dynamic shrinking and growing of the duration of the parts of both concertos through the piece, but with a “green” dominance in the beginning, and a “red” dominance in the end. Looking at this form afterwards, I find a correspondence to the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol, where the black field contains a white circle and vice versa. This is a reocurring concept in my music: that every quality can contain its own negation. 

Consonant Atonality

So what did I bring with me from the fractal years? Above all the love for simple procedures that yield complex material. And when I say complex, I do not mean the complicated, the cumbersome and the difficult, but rather something that has a manyfaceted quality, a world within the world to explore. 

I personally find such a quality in the harmonic structure of the piece, a system I had worked on for some years, but that I felt moved into the centre of my interest as the fractals moved out. The nickname I have given them, Crystal Chords, might have a New Age ring, but it simply refers to their growth in a sort of three dimensional “interval space”, forming cubic crystals like those of pyrite or salt.

Figure 2: Crystal Chords

In short, the system is based on three germ intervals, that are multiplied and stacked on top of eachother. Many multiplications make a “scale”, few multiplications give a “chord”, which is a subset of the “scale”, just as the C major triad is a subset of the C Major scale. One big difference is that the Crystal Chords do not repeat themselves at the octave, but evolve in unpredictable ways through the octaves, yet still having an inherent quality or “flavour” that depends on the quality of the germ intervals. Dissonant germs make dissonant chords, consonant germs make consonant chords. And as the consonance is of a very ambiguous kind, without any clear tonality, I am tempted to use the term “consonant atonality”. (If you feel this term as a selfcontradiction, you are a victim of a prejudice originating from the historic fact that atonality was introduced by the Expressionists of the German-Austrian tradition, for whom agony was on the agenda more often than bliss.) 

This tendency to expand the traditionally hard-edged modernist harmonic palette and let it also include more warm and bright sonorities, is not specific to me. Listening to compositions made during the last two decades, one finds a strong tendency to seek a kind of harmonic framework without crawling backwards into the mother’s womb of History, as neo-romanticists and most minimalists do. This is done in many ways, one of them is the French “Spectral” school, taking the harmonic basis from the analysis of natural and instrumental sounds. You can also find a parallell in today’s modernist architecture, looking quite different from the brutalist concrete fortresses of the sixties, but still using the same principles. 

A New and Happy Lobster

So what does the Clarinet Concerto represent in my own evolution? Why did I make it? OK, OK, I admit it: I just wanted to make Good Orchestral Music. If that’s a sin, I’m ready for Purgatory. There are no Deep Meanings in it, and on the surface it is in many ways quite traditional, almost Debussy-like. People that think Modernism has to sound in one way to be Modernist, may be turned off by it. But for me it was the sheltering rock, a free space to prepare other directions, to collect experience and energy. 

In 1997 I wrote Ground for the cellist øystein Birkeland and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, a totally different and artistically more ambitious work, although it is composed in a very similar way. When I now work on a Concerto for six percussionists and Orchestra, premiered in December 1998 by Kroumata Percussion Ensemble, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, I follow the same direction as in Ground, even if the surface will be yet another. 

The life of a composer is a hard one, and it should be. But I feel that the shell I have built up the last few years is a spacious and strong one, letting me use my attention on the important issues concerning composition, instead of worrying about details. The lobster coming out from the shelter is a very busy, but happy one.