It is hardly news that Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic’s spellbinding music director, draws a turn-away crowd at a personal appearance. The difference, on a recent Thursday night, is that this appearance is without the usual 106-member Philharmonic as backup, and the venue is the Apple Store in the Santa Monica Promenade, with the ever-young musician on hand to demonstrate — nay, celebrate — the ongoing symbiosis between art and technology.
Salonen is there to re-create some of the birth pangs of Helix, his latest orchestral work, whose U.S. premiere the Philharmonic will present on March 30. “The great Russian conductor Valery Gergiev asked me for a piece for a BBC concert to celebrate an organization called The World Orchestra of Peace. I had no idea what kind of composition I could write to celebrate the idea of peace. I called the BBC and they told me to just send along any old composition, and that’s what’s here.”
Helix, like most of Salonen’s recent compositions — like the music of nearly any serious creative artist you can name these days — is the product of a collaboration: the invention of the composer and the software that facilitates turning that invention into the printout that the world receives as a readable, performable score. “There is a terrible loneliness about composing music,” Salonen tells the crowd, “and the software creates the illusion of a dialogue, of somebody else in the room — not composing, but at least telling me that what I’m doing is doable. It makes it possible to dream up symphonies, even operas, while I’m in an airplane or in a hotel room far from home. Then, when I get back I can quickly download those dreams.”
Two English brothers, Ben and Jonathan Finn, developed Salonen’s favored software and then gave it the name of Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. “As far as I know,” says Salonen, “I am the first Finnish composer to use Sibelius.” He has plenty of company among fellow composers, though; the Sibelius Web site teems with names: Steve Reich, Michael Tilson Thomas, Lalo Schifrin — and takes a swipe or two at Sibelius’ principal software rival, a program called Finale.
On a big screen at the back of the crowded Apple Store, Salonen gets to demonstrate himself, and Sibelius. The sounds aren’t yet the L.A. Philharmonic, but synthesizers provide a fair likeness. Several measures from the start of Helix are laid out; then, manipulated by software, the notes are altered in length, in duration and through combination. The textures thicken as combinations of notes are played off against themselves. Gradually, the music is transformed from an open-textured exercise into an intensifying, accelerating sound pattern of concentric circles. Over Helix’s nine-minute duration, the title begins to make sense.
At the end there are questions and, as expected, a certain pandemonium. The age spread is impressive; you get the feeling that the next great symphony might come from a 14-year-old Apple whiz, or from an 82-year-old critic, for that matter. Someone asks the inevitable: How does the program affect the division of his life?
“Anybody can conduct symphony concerts,” answers Esa-Pekka Salonen. “But only I can write my music.”