I adore the music of Jean Sibelius. This is no secret to my friends and family. Over the years I’ve listened to every note of his music that I could get into my ears, and I’ve examined every line of his scores that I could get my hands on.
I was first introduced to his music when I was a Junior at Concordia College. Our orchestra was performing in Minneapolis, and shortly after our performance the Minnesota Orchestra took to the stage to perform a concert of Nielsen and Sibelius. I thoroughly enjoyed Nielsen’s 5th Symphony, but it was the performance of Sibelius’s 2nd which changed my life.
Over the last years I’ve often wondered why it is that I adore Sibelius’s music so much. Is it inherent? Is it learned behavior? Is it based on my previous listening experiences? Did I discover his music at just the right time? Or was it simply the fact that I lived just up the road from Osmo Vänskä and his world class group of musicians who championed Sibelius’s music better than any others? (reminder, I'm a total fanboy for Vänskä)
While to some extent all of those reasons may be true, I eventually came to the following conclusion: I believe Sibelius crafts the formal structure of his music better than anyone. I realize this is a substantial claim, and I’ll admit it’s incredibly biased towards my views on what makes the formal structure of a piece successful. This in turn raises a significant question: did Sibelius’s music conform to my beliefs on what a successful structure is, or did my views on successful structure come from listening to Sibelius? I believe it’s a combination of both, which is why the point in my musical career that I discovered Sibelius is of such importance. My mind was forming new ideas that had yet to be codified, and Sibelius’s music provided the ammunition for said codification. His music was the peanut butter to my intellectual jelly.
Back to the form though…
What do I admire about Sibelius’s formal structures? Perhaps it will be easier to explain certain aspects of music from different composers who I don’t give the same praise. The easiest example is Mahler, as he was a contemporary of Sibelius, crafted a similar symphonic output, and continued to compose in a relatively tonal sphere. Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Mahler nor attempting to speak negatively about his music. Obviously his output stands on its own and he doesn’t need me to defend it, but I find comparisons to his music useful. And on a side note, I thoroughly enjoy listening to Mahler’s work.
If I may make use of an analogy...
If Mahler and Sibelius both built houses, I think Sibelius would have built a better structure through and through when completed, but Mahler would have a house made of nicer materials and with each room being slightly fancier than the comparative room in the Sibelius house. Mahler’s living room would be fantastic and filled with delightful furniture and a sumptuous bear rug next to the stone fireplace, but it would be awkward and convoluted to walk through. It might also not fit with the other rooms of the house as it sacrifices continuity for extravagance and lavishness. The Sibelius living room, on the other hand, would be more humble in its furnishings and design, but it would burst with feng shui and would flow with the other rooms of the house so well as to make the entire structure better than the sum of its parts.
Better than the sum of its parts… that’s the money phrase. I’ve heard the works of many composers who write fantastic ‘moments’ which are strung together to create something that just doesn’t get off the ground. This is seemingly a greater issue in the electroacoustic world, where most of my new listening occurs. As composers of electroacoustic music are traditionally viewed as ‘creating’ sounds to compose versus ‘using’ sounds which already exist, I feel that the approach to composition is very different. Having composed a large degree of music in this medium, I can attest to the truth of that statement. The compositional process can be tremendously different.
However, this does not mean the final product should inherently be structured differently. Certainly the process of composition will affect the final product of the piece along the way, but the overall approach to structure, whether composing or listening, should not vary due to the genre or medium of composition. I hear few works at electroacoustic festivals which have any sort of structure which resonates with me. I find I disagree with many of my peers when discussing what we just heard. The works which have ‘rad sounds’ or are well EQ’d are considered the highlights of the day. To me, that's like hearing 2 symphonies back to back and saying the one with more instruments was better.
I'm aware I'm in the minority on this issue, and I might take some flak from my electroacoustic colleagues. I imagine in the coming decades we'll see a move away from the aesthetic first established by electroacoustic composers in the middle of the 20th century. Schaeffer is dead, so to speak, and I believe a new approach to 'creating' and 'using' sounds is needed if electroacoustic music is going to continue to grow. This is undoubtedly why I prefer to compose for live-instruments with electronics, as it combines the new and the old much more seamlessly. If I can compose a work with the unique sounds available to me in an electroacoustic work that combines the technical mastery of the medium with a formal structure that is as satisfying as a work by Sibelius, I'll put my pencils down and close my Logic session for life!
And hey, if you disagree, that's just like, my opinion, man.
-Thanks for listening