Liquid Marble Man

What do subway busking, volcanoes, and a Swedish composer have in common? They´re all part of the genesis of Liquid Marble, a 1997 composition by Anders Hillborg that´s on the program of the San Francisco Symphony concerts Dec. 6-7, along with music by Copland, Korngold, and Kodály.

Hillborg explained in his CD liner notes, "My basis for the piece had been in eruptions, flowing magma, and lava, but of course there are elements of tragedy or horror in there if you choose to hear it so" Some listeners seemed to detect those elements during the British premiere of the work at the London Proms in 1997. It took place on the day after Princess Diana´s death. Although concerts had been largely canceled, the BBC allowed the performance to proceed because the Swedish Radio Symphony had gotten on the plane prior to the news. "After [Elgar´s] Nimrod, there was a minute of silence, then my piece" Hillborg recalled. " I thought, I´m going to destroy everything. But many people thanked me afterwards. Liquid Marble had given them a channel for their emotions."

Hillborg has been described by more than one critic as writing "surreal" music that generates images in the mind, intended or otherwise. Reacting to Hillborg´s Eleven Gates, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed at Davies Symphony Hall last May, Richard Scheinin wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, "I first imagined a snowy world, expanding, and then melting; then a micro-world, a world inside crystal structures, full of whistling, eddying, stupefying sounds, outrageously clear and eerily beautiful."

Bernard Holland in The New York Times, writing about Hillborg´s Exquisite Corpse last year, likened his music to floating clouds in which "held notes build slowly into chords and drift on to new situations: first to big shuddering climaxes, later to shrill aviary masses of wind sound, later still to pounding drums reminiscent of a half-time marching band." Finally, Los Angeles Times reviewer Josef Woodard wrote of the "softly shimmering and slowly changing sonic mist" of Hillborg´s vowel-sound choral piece muocaaeyiywcoum (far easier to listen to than read).

All in all, there is something elemental and startling in this man´s music. Surprisingly, Hillborg´s musical career began in rock music and choral singing. It wasn´t until his mid-20s that Hillborg, born in 1954, studied traditional composition and counterpoint at the Royal College of Music in his native Stockholm. A penchant for exploration led him to a deep immersion in electronic music and experiments with microtones, but he refused to be identified with the then avant-garde, and began to incorporate more popular and theatrical elements into his compositions.

I caught up with Hillborg earlier this month at the Napa Opera House, where his first string quartet, The Kongsgaard Variations, the Arietta Quartet, was given its world premiere by the Prazak String Quartet. The work was commissioned by winemakers John and Maggy Kongsgaard. Like everything I´ve heard from Hillborg, it was an ear-opening journey. Through cello pizzicatos, neo-Baroque Scottish snaps, muted accelerandos, ethereal water-harmonicalike delicacies, a chorale, a satisfying segue into the Beethoven tune at the end, and a coda sealed with glissandi, I was entranced.

The next day there was an expedition to the Kongsgaards´ new winery, buried in freshly dug catacombs at the top of a mountain east of Napa. Hillborg´s vowel-filled choral piece was reverberating down the corridors from a stereo as we had lunch. Then we stepped into the cool air for a chat.

We began by discussing Liquid Marble. The piece starts off with weird ascending clarinet vibratos, a sound Hillborg learned from a street musician, then grinds along with the unstoppable inevitability of lava heading for a village on the slopes of Mount Etna. When I first heard the commercial recording of the work, I thought it sounded exactly like the even stranger eruptions of the Tanzanian volcano Oldoinyo Lengai, some 125 miles northwest of Mount Kilimanjaro. It is the only active volcano in the world that erupts calcium-sodium-potassium-carbonate lava, the closest thing on earth to natural liquid marble. Black lava erupts from the volcano, but its unique composition makes it turn white as it reacts with moisture in the air. The lava is twice as cold as normal lava, so you can walk right up to it. Hillborg was thrilled to hear that something in nature paralleled his vision.

Where did you get the idea for Liquid Marble?

This was written in the period when I was doing pop songs. I was spending a year collaborating with a Swedish pop singer. I was totally into that world, trying to think of music the way I did as a teenager. Then I had to make a break to make this piece, which was quite difficult - [to] recalibrate my brain to another way of thinking. I´m not normally a fast worker, but this time I [completed] the piece in three weeks, which is very fast for me. I had no title, and I was thinking, "What is this" Then I found Liquid Marble - it just came to me.

It just came to you? In your sleep?

No, I went around testing. I want titles to be as the music. It should sound good. There should be a rhythm to it. It´s not just the semantics of it; it´s the sound of it. And I like the sound and the semantics of "liquid marble" of course. I thought it really fitted or almost added something to the piece. If you hear the piece and then hear the title of it as liquid marble, it does sound like it.

It does sound "liquidy" For instance, the glissandi - that´s a liquid sound. Where did you get the idea for the glissandi?

It was a device I was using. This idea of continuous glissandi, like [Iannis] Xenakis is using, for example. That´s the kind of thing I was after. Xenakis was the first composer that I heard that wasn´t about feelings, really. When I heard his music, it was just like nature. You hear his music, and it doesn´t necessarily make you glad or sad or something. You´re looking at a phenomenon in nature, and that was attractive. So I was after something like that also in Liquid Marble.

It´s very elemental in sound. It makes me sit up and say, "Something is there. I cannot ignore it" What was the reception? Where was it played?

It was written for a Scandinavian youth orchestra. Every year they gather the best young players from all over Scandinavia. And the concert was in Finland in some remote place. The premiere was in Tampere, outside. And just very near the stage, there was some kind of exhibition of animals and birds and stuff. The sounds of these birds and animals were interacting with the piece - it was very funny. You can imagine that hearing [my piece] outdoors was not great, because lots of the sound just disappears. It took some time before [the music] found its way. For example, the howling clarinets .

I wanted to ask you how you got that howling sound at the beginning - it is amazing!

The strings are building up a spectral chord. And on top of that chord, the clarinets start making a glissando [demonstrates an extremely eerie wail]. It´s not like a trill; it´s more like a very exaggerated vibrato. I have this thing with clarinets. I´ve often used that exaggerated vibrato to make this very weird sound. It is the only instrument where you can do that. That came originally from a woman who was sitting in a subway in Stockholm and playing to get money. And it was an incredibly strange tone that was like this [demonstrates again].

Did she get royalties from your music?

No! [Laughs.] You know the story of [Igor Stravinsky´s] Petrouchka, of course. There´s one part of Petrouchka he stole. [Sings "Elle avait un´jambe en bois" [She had a wooden leg]. That´s a French song. This thing he heard from his window when he lived in Cannes or somewhere. And this guy who was the composer was playing it in the street. And 30 years later, this guys knocks on his door and says, "I want my royalties" And he got them. So there´s a part of Petrouchka that always goes to this guy.

You have a great mixture of sounds and styles in your music. One of my favorite moments in your clarinet concerto is where you have several dissonant chords in a climax, and a pause. And suddenly a B major chord comes out of nowhere. I tell you, the first time I heard that, it was like lighting hit me. I found myself standing up out of my chair from that chord, not remembering how I got there. How did that chord come to you?

It´s just like an item - like a ruin! That was part of the theatrical element: The player at that point has put down his clarinet, and takes his hands to his ears. And then this chords comes: BAAAAAAAA!. And he stops. It is totally synchronized.

So the clarinetist is a modernist who doesn´t like triads?

We really don´t know what this choreography is about, but there were things like that - quite effective, actually. There is no other reason for it, then something to throw in.

Then there´s that eyebrow-raising segue into the "E lucevan le stele" aria from Tosca.

That´s not in the score. That´s courtesy of the soloist [Martin Fröst]. There´s a page there where he can do what he wants. He chose to do that. One day I should write out what should be there [instead]. Everyone [in the audience] remembers that quote, of course - and it becomes too important for the piece, I think.

Your pieces always have breathtaking new sounds. Do you think your background in electronic music has helped in that regard?

Oh, certainly, Oh, yes! When I look back at my time at the [Royal College], the two single most important things I learned were counterpoint and electronic music, not orchestration. Counterpoint taught me the core of composing. That´s where you learn, if you´re not yet a composer, [that] if you study [counterpoint] for a couple of years, you might become one. Because that´s where you learn how the vertical will interact with the horizontal. So either you get that, or you don´t. I think that´s crucial. And the other thing, electronic music made me realize that any sound can be music. I didn´t know that before, because I came from a quite conventional milieu. I started with pop music. I liked the Beatles and stuff like that. That was my world.

A very good friend of mine was my teacher then, Per Lindgren. I heard some of his electronic pieces and then I realized, "Aha! Any sound can be music" That liberated me, yes. As you know, my way into music is through timbre, through sound. I don´t make a piece if I don´t like the sound. It´s not enough with [only] a structure or contrapuntal idea.

When did you start liking classical music? Were you into pop first before you liked classical music, or both at the same time?

Pop first, I´d say. I was playing pop music in a pop band, and then I started to sing in a choir. That´s where I started to read music - very late, like [when I was] 16. Then I started to realize that pop music was fun, but not fun enough. I wanted to break some more rules.

I see that in 2000 you wrote a piece, Rap Notes, for rapper-vocalists, orchestra, and a prerecorded drum track. Do they rap in Swedish?

Yes, God! You bring that up! The Swedish Radio Orchestra proposed it [to] me. There was some kind of youth festival going on and they wanted to have a crossover piece. I just screamed, "No. Come on. It´s disaster. Never! Forget it" But these guys persuaded me. I was naive enough to tell myself, "OK, I´ll ask for a ridiculous sum of money, and they will say no" And I asked for this ridiculous sum and they said ...yes! So then, I couldn´t escape.

There were the three most dangerous Swedish rappers and the orchestra, so I made three pieces knit together. When I did it, I said I´m not going to use the percussionist in the orchestra. They were a bit grumpy about it, but I made my own drum track, which is on a CD, which is played live together with the orchestra. I had thought it was just a one-night stand. But now it´s recorded in France with French rappers and a youth orchestra there. And Andrey Boreyko [performed] it in Winnipeg last year. And Lawrence Renes just made it in Malmö, in the south of Sweden.

You won the Rosenberg Award in 2005. The Society of Swedish Composers said, "With a taste for divine beauty along with the grotesque gesture, [Anders Hillborg] has flirted with, as well as spellbound, an audience worldwide - and that without ever foregoing artistic substance or technical equilibrium" Do you characterize yourself as a master of the "grotesque gesture"?

Well, why not? Have you heard of my piece Paulinesisk Procession? It´s for wind band, a marching wind band with an absolutely incredible inflatable doll, designed by my friend Mikael Pauli (hence the title). I am fascinated by the grotesque and weirdness of things, as well as the divine beauty. I want the whole ...I want the whole cake! I don´t understand why modern music, as opposed to literature or theater, always has to be about untergang [ruin] and depression and tragedy. So much is [clears throat harshly]. You know, the German [approach]. It´s ridiculous!

Many of my pieces, like Haut Posaune for trombone and drum machine, and Paulinesisk Procession are (at least partly) jocular pieces. In that period [the mid-1980s], we were so fed up with German dominance. I like to do humor. Humor is very, very difficult to do in music. It easily becomes ridiculous. But I try it anyway. Most people laugh when they hear it, which is good.

So it sounds like you have a flair for the theatrical in your music. You want the piece to be not just music on paper that is exactly presented, but an experience for the audience, using as many senses as are available.

Yes, I do. Musical drama, yes. Much of my music is voyages, traveling through different landscapes, soundscapes. At least many people tell me that, that they feel as if they´re on a trip.

Have you thought about doing opera?

Yes, and there are an increasing amount of aggressive people telling me that I have to do one. We are talking about it now in Sweden with a leading playwright. He´s a bit like Strindberg and Bergman - very, very good. It´s also very depressing and totally unpleasant. Lots of words, and I really don´t know how to ...

How can you write music with lots of words?

You can´t. Rap is that, but [rappers] couldn´t learn such a libretto. As much as I´m intrigued by musical drama and would like to do something, I´d really like to do something totally [expletive] wild, because once one would say yes to an opera ...

Have you heard of Jerry Springer, the Opera?

I heard about it - just the title ... God, I envy this guy [composer Richard Thomas]! Is it good? I don´t care what the piece sounds like, it´s just enough [to have] the title. Do you know Le Grande Macabre? I´d like to do something that´s visual, where what happens on stage should be totally far out, as important as the libretto, the text or whatever. I would like to incorporate all kinds of usage of the voice, like rapping, like Mongolian chant, like coloratura soprano, like you name it. But who would let me do it? What opera house can do that?

Well, the San Francisco Opera did Le Grande Macabre.

Parts of Le Grande Macabre are fun, but the whole thing doesn´t really work. It´s too long, and too uptight in some kind of way.

That´s the trouble with classical music in general. You have to go, wear tails, sit down. Why can´t you just have a park where you can lie down, absorb, and just have multiple experiences?

This is a huge problem! I started with the Beatles. I´m intrigued by music and I love sound. I love new sounds. And I love acoustical music. So then I suddenly find myself in this environment: tails, rituals, [egos] that are screwed up. What the hell do I do here? I don´t belong here, but it´s the only place I can be if I want to do [my thing]. So here we are 200 years after [the Classical era] - something really has to be done.

People aren´t living forever. The Old Guard is dying away.

But it´s fragile. We will lose, if we don´t get a new audience to come in here.

It won´t be a new audience for the old stuff. There will be a more open art, where pop and classical mix. I see you´re focused on the experience of the music rather than music as an abstract thing in itself, independent of the listener. Would you consider a "magnum opus" something that is perfect, with everything perfectly interrelated on paper such that it doesn´t have to be played, just admired and filed away?

That doesn´t interest me. It has to be heard; otherwise you´d use another medium.

And it doesn´t have to be appreciated initially.

Oh no ...I just have to appreciate it! That´s the only thing. I have to be intrigued by it. Or like it in some way.

Do you think about the audience for your music?

Yes, but I think about me - I want to like this, first. Then I listen very carefully to people´s opinions and measure from where they come from. [Even] someone whom I know knows nothing about new music, [it´s] very precious to me what they say.

Could you elaborate on a statement of yours that "the musical world back then in the early 1980s was a fridge where Sado-Modernism held sway"?

It was a very totalitarian idea. I couldn´t at that time verbalize why I felt what I felt. But now I can. To me, it seems it was a period where the ideology was about saying "no" to things. After the Schoenberg crash, you said, "No, you can´t use octaves. No, you cannot do this or that" But there was absolutely no "yes, we do this instead." Everything was about avoidance, the art of avoidance. My main gut feeling was: Well, why should I work in this language? This is not a musical language, I thought - that which was considered to be the New Way, the way Boulez was talking. I always have to ask the question about language. What is a language? Is this what I´m doing now a language? [i.e., does it communicate?] I cannot not ask this question when I compose. I don´t mean that everyone has to do this, but I have to.

That´s a central aspect of modernism, that everything has to be new. And it´s no good if it´s old. Even though it might be better than what was written before. I think that´s part of the fallacy, that we need a new weapon that can kill even more people. Is that better? Love is old, yet we still cherish it.

And finally, what is old and new? If I´m using a microtonal chord or a simple melody - what is new and old? I mean, both of these things are old. And they´re both new. The whole way of measuring is old and totally dated. And yet I have friends who work in the Ensemble InterContemporain and are still Boulezian. They can´t imagine writing a melody in a tonal environment. It´s too dangerous. It´s really scary [for them]. So everything has to be minor ninths and major sevenths. Come on, it´s too simple.

After all this, I´m really looking forward to the concert!

Thank you very much!

By Jeff Dunn

(Published in San Fransisco Classical Voice, November 28, 2006)

(Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of NACUSA and president of Composers Inc.)