Notes and Editorial Reviews
Forbidding only in the profoundly awesome volume of such prodigiously imaginative music.
Symphonies: No. 81,
“Doubling the Number for Bergen!”;
“Names Itself When Played”
Bergen PO (without cond)
1172 (71:31) Live: Bergen 2003, 2008
Leif Segerstam’s music inhabits a sound and emotional world entirely apart from the musical mainstream, even apart from the mainstream of post-Schoenberg and post-Ligeti modernism in which he emerged. That difference is characterized by wild sounds from the orchestra, to which he often adds unusual effects, for which the result is a strong emotional pull rather than cerebral mind games. Or, to put it more colloquially, it sounds as if Mahler fell through Alice’s rabbit hole, met up with György Ligeti and the Mad Hatter, and decided that the kick they got from combining their emotional interaction should be brought back to the other side.
Here we have three symphonies written between 2002 and 2007, which form a clear connection to the Segerstam of
A Nooooooowwwww, Pandora’s Box, Patria,
and the earlier symphonies of the 1970s. With some composers, one looks for growth or change, but with Segerstam one only hopes that he hasn’t lost his inspiration for creating exploding clouds of sound that coalesce into strange and often mystical experiences. Segerstam’s music is the closest thing any human has yet composed to resemble the music of the spheres as captured on those NASA satellite recordings of the 1990s.
As mentioned in the notes, each of his symphonies lasts nearly half an hour but takes up only a few pages of score because he leaves a lot of freedom for improvisation to the performers. Most of what one hears is not notated and, though this has always been his pattern in composing, whether symphony, string quartet, or woodwind ensemble, his approach since 1993 has been not only to eliminate most of the music that one actually hears but to insist on no conductor in performance. For Segerstam, anything that separates the musician from freedom of creation—including the man on the podium—is a distraction and not an aid. “I wanted a performance to be a creative event, not a Prussian plowing competition, which is what bar lines remind me of,” Segerstam said. This is not a new position. Even as far back as 1972 he was railing against “that bone-solid order of tones” that was not merely the diatonic scale but even the 12-tone scale. I’ve long said, against the established academic position, that the rules governing 12-tone composition as set forth by Schoenberg are a rigid set, and that for true creativity to happen one must get away from the dictum that each note in the series must be used at least once before any of them are repeated. Segerstam scarcely even recognizes notes as notes: His music is Dalì’s melting clock that symbolized the fluidity of time. In Segerstam’s world, being emotionally involved in the progressing series of sounds depends not at all on intellectual analysis but entirely on feeling. The emotions he evokes are so strong, yet so strange, that one is either attracted to or repelled by them. There is no middle ground. One cannot admire the structure while criticizing the emotion, or vice-versa. One must swallow it whole or spit it up. As the notes so aptly put it, “Music seems to erupt from Segerstam with a primeval fury.” Segerstam’s own comment is typically quirky yet comical: “My symphonies are sperm. There is strength in numbers. Some will survive to take evolution forward.”
I won’t even start to describe this music in technical terms because I can’t, and neither can anyone else, not even Segerstam. Even the liner notes, by the very sympathetic Pekka Hako, can’t really describe it except in terms of evolving sound patterns, and even Segerstam’s own notes on his earlier BIS recordings of his music only speak in general emotional terms of what one hears. The few signposts one glimpses in the listening experience always seem to be pointing to an abyss that one crosses not out of fear but out of the spirit of adventure. Capturing the sound of an expanding universe was a goal of several late 19th–early 20th-century composers, among them Mahler, Scriabin, Ives, Debussy to a lesser extent, and yes, even young Schoenberg. Each took music a giant step forward, no question about it, but each ended up frustrated because he couldn’t completely jettison the rules of music he had learned as a child and which stayed with him all his life. Post-mortem, later composers took some of their unfinished masterpieces (Ives’s
Mahler’s 10th, and Scriabin’s
) and brought them forward into the new musical dimensions that had evolved since their deaths. Segerstam has no need of future savants or seers to envision his music differently from the way he conceived it. It’s already there. You, as a listener, must simply jump into the abyss with him, or stay grounded and give up all hope of understanding it.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Both Bis and Ondine have stood shoulder to shoulder the same Leif Segerstam whose that Brahmsian beard and twinkling smile stares out at us from the cover of the disc. He is better known as a conductor - especially for Bis - but in this case steps forward again as a composer.
With nearly 250 symphonies to his name he has written at the rate of as many as thirty per year. His approach to composition is what? Not for him what he terms as the ‘Prussian ploughing’ of a fixed score. Instead he accords freedom to the players. Improvisation is the order of the day though within the bounds of a couple of pages of score. Add to this his adventurous letting-go another element. In 1993 he began to produce symphonies where he prescribed that there should be no conductor.
As you can gather from the score card for this CD Segerstam is breathtakingly productive and his symphonic progeny run into hundreds, These are symphonies of between 22 and 26 minutes duration.
I would characterise him as a dreamy Webernian melodist. Webern because of his use of small motes and units of music. Dreamy because his music adopts a sort of misty rhapsodising style. It’s the feeling one encounters in the presence of a work such as Ned Rorem's
Lions for orchestra – a work with which I was recently united through the kindness of one of the readers of MWI. Melodist because the cells, specks and atoms that make up Segerstam’s building blocks are tonal. There is a warmth about the music and about its instinctive progress. The piano plays a forward role in No. 81. It is a work of surging optimism and welling upheaval. This is played like a slowly turning miasmic cloud system moving perilously close to the rim of despair and chaos. No. 162 is a romantic swirling storm finally resolving into a glimmering galactic body. It’s a work full of incident and interest. No. 181 reflects a roaring anger at one moment and a sleep-walking stroll the next. It is as if a drifting gothic somnambulist wanders across a surreal landscape buffeted by thunder and tempest. The work ends in a resolution carried by the twinkling piano: the type of starry palimpsest most vividly conjured by Estonian composer Urmis Sisask. I think Dr Brian Cox might approve. In No. 181 the prominent piano acts as inciter and rabble-rouser as well as foundation and anchor. Once again there is that sensation of being inside a heavenly phenomenon. One is swept along in towering anger and then cradled in misty roseate contentment. This parallels the psychedelia of Silvestrov's iconic Fifth Symphony and the more forbidding language of Jacques Charpentier’s Symphony No. 3
His other Ondine discs are ODE 928-2 (Symphonies 21 and 23) and ODE 877-2 (Symphony No. 18 etc). There are others on Bis and a few other labels.
Here is a composer who is forbidding only in the profoundly awesome volume in which music of such prodigious imagination floods out from him.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 81 "After Eighty..." by Leif Segerstam
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony no 162 "Doubling the Number for Bergen!" by Leif Segerstam
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony no 181 "Names itself when played..." by Leif Segerstam
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
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