|Published: 2001-09-14 by Stellan Sagvik
By Christina Tobeck (transl. Sven Borei)
(Published in Nutida Musik no. 1 1988/89)
By now the trombone has come to fascinate Lars Ekström – a grandiose and dynamic instrument, capable of sounding both raw and sensual. It possesses an unusually wide expressive range. “And there is something slightly absurd about it since you pull on it. No other instrument is like that,” says Lars Ekström.
The trombone hasn’t always attracted him. Since he isn’t a trombone player himself nor can he point to any real earlier contact with the instrument, it’s quite natural that he should lack a real relationship with it. Still, when Ivo Nilsson suggested that he write a trombone concerto, his interest was piqued. “Ivo is such a solid musician. It’s fun to watch him play. He acts. It’s showtime. He swings on the scene together with the orchestra and I think that’s important,” says Ekström. The musico-dramatic part means something to him, since he believes it’s all too easy for a concert setting to be very boring.
We meet to talk about the trombone concerto Do it Ivo! just after the completion of the first performance of his broadly designed and well-received composition titled Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard, written for bass baritone, two orchestras and electronics to a text by Stéphane Mallarmé. This 50 minute long piece has an exceedingly demanding and virtuoso song voice especially composed for Mikael Samuelson who is not only an accomplished singer, but also a musician with scenic talent. So far Lars Ekström has always had a special musician in mind when composing his solo works, often a musically and technically practised soloist with artistic talent.
When Ekström decided to take up Ivo Nilsson’s challenge to compose a trombone concerto, he asked himself “what can be done with a trombone that interests me as a composer?” It took time to figure it out. This is why he needed some time before the composition gelled: the piece was begun in 1986 and finished in the spring of 1988.
“I’ve never written any music that’s presented me with as much resistance as this one. Other music usually takes shape after a while. I guess the resistance is related to the instrument. What is it that a trombone expresses? I actually began with a concerto for two trombones – this is the fourth draft!”
One question for every composer writing a concerto for soloist and orchestra to answer is what the relationship is to be between the solo instrument and its siblings in the orchestra. Some solve this dilemma by simply omitting the solo instrument from the orchestra, others choose to write sub-ordinate voices for the orchestral family members. Lars Ekström has chosen the opposite course by frequently having the two trombones in the orchestra play with the soloist. “I have made one instrument of the three trombones. One way to put it is that the work is in places composed for a soloist and two ‘other soloists’. Certain passages are even marked that way.”
The tonal material of the entire concerto is built on the overtone spectrum inherent in the trombone when it plays E below the bass staff. The tone is carefully chosen as this is the trombone’s most overtone-rich tone, an apex for an instrument that on the whole has a very rich overtone spectrum. Sixteen tones out of this overtone spectrum are chosen as some type of tone art or mode and are used in the introduction of the piece to create the great accords there. However, the quarter-tones are removed, as the composer is seeking the compact sonority of distinct notes. The quarter-tones would only be an unnecessary complication.
"Do it Ivo!"
The concerto begins with soloist performing alone in a descending, diminishing melodic movement which ends in a fermata and a long pause: silence.
What follows can best be described as an assault on the listener. The whole orchestra opens up with a fff in immense chord pillars that move in unison or parallel to the soloist, the start of a rhythmic and dynamic music. The work is divided into two large parts. The first is a “swing section with roughly sketched music reminiscent of a wood sculpture by Döderhultaren”, to borrow the composer’s own words. This first section takes up 13-14 minutes of the 20 in the piece as a whole.
“It almost doesn’t matter what you play on a trombone. It swings anyway,” says Ekström. “This is because of the glissando effect which is nearly impossible to avoid.” In the introduction the composer has taken this effect and let it influence the entire orchestral part. The rhythmical chords soon become horizontal sounds, with the fff changing to pp. High string voices move slowly downwards while the wind voices billow back and forth like dynamic waves. Excited agitato sections alternate with espressivo ones. But if you attempt to analyse specific parts, the first section is difficult to grasp.
The soloist works as hard as before. Except for a few bars, he plays the whole piece without a break. When I point out that the soloist is taken to the limit both here and in the earlier vocal work mentioned, Ekström says he is fully aware of the fact. He wants the physical exertion. Both his oboe and flute concertos have exceedingly demanding sections. “It mustn’t be mannered! The soloist must not loose his concentration.”
Towards the close of the first section, the work becomes more complex. The ‘swingy’ theme from the beginning is found in the wind voices. The rhythmical, short and sharp chords return and the trombone soloist is forced higher and higher, up to an extreme elevation. The score reveals that Ekström likes to compose in layers, often treating the strings as one unit and the winds as another. Here at the apex just before the second section begins, the composer hands the strings a type of polyphonic music, one he feels is based on Giovanni Palestrina’s counterpoint. Consonance and dissonance are treated fairly traditionally. The sounds move from terseness through pure triads and back to harsher sounds. The development is closely related to the dynamics. The pure triad appears when the phrase is at its dynamic height: all crescendos terminate in a triad. The composer said that here he has written more triads than in any earlier piece.
Ivo Nilsson had expressed the wish for ‘a real trombone concerto’. In the traditional meaning, this would include a solo cadenza and one is duly included. The strong tension built up in the close and climax of the first section with its high levels, as well as strong and expressive play, finds its release in the solo cadenza. With the notation molto nervoso, the soloist performs a bit of musical theatre, shouting into the instrument and striking its mouthpiece. There are agitated sections with accentuated, rapid and tightly positioned notes, interrupted by sensual singing using wider melodic intervals.
The second part of the concerto begins after the cadenza and forms a contrast to the rough sculptural music of the first. The tonal language is calm and reserved, with long sections of rather static musical language without any direct outbursts. Most instruments play with cool intonation lacking vibrato. Ekström constructs a sound mass, a polyphony lacking polyphony. Indeed he has written a polyphonic string section and then removed the polyphony by breaking up the extended melody tones and giving the pieces to different instruments, though with a certain overlapping that makes for some parts playing. When the individual musician ought to change note, another takes over instead. While the musical material is in base polyphonic, the sonoral result is paradoxically hardly so. It might be possible to label the technique a type of hocket playing.
A few, individual expressive voice slowly wind through this non-vibrato sound mass. Even the soloist plays expressively throughout, though always reserved. In other words, this section presents two contrasting layers, conceived to create a tension between espressivo and non espressivo. “I’m not sure if it will be possible to accentuate these instruments so that it will be possible to hear that their playing is charged in the midst of the general coolness. It was a sound idea I had. It would be fun if it turned out as I had thought!” says Ekström.
The second section of the concerto demonstrates with all clarity the composer’s predilection for swell effects, for phrases of long tones that move from an extremely soft level to a louder one and back again. After a while the dynamics increase without returning to quasi niente – almost nothing, as had been the case earlier. Even this second section has a high point, though perhaps not in its entirety as obvious as the apex just before the solo cadenza. The dynamics increase, reaching as far as fff in both the string and wind voices. But the complexity hardly matches the volume increase. It is true that just at the culmination there appears a growing drama in the percussion section, but the intensity fades after a few bars. The long swelling tones return, sometimes tied to glissando movements. After a few espressivo swelling tones in the bass clarinet and bassoon played against a slowly changing non vibrato sound in the low strings, the general sound slowly thins out. The Do it Ivo! trombone concerto then ends with a low G# played by a few instruments, weakly coloured by the fifth (D#) in muted cellos.
During the year just past there have been several opportunities to listen to music by Lars Ekström, currently in his last year of studying composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. In February 1988 the Futurumensemblen presented the concerto Järnnatten (The Iron Night) at the College, led by Kjell-Inge Stevensson. Since the piece was specifically composed for this ensemble made up of teachers and students at the College, the instrumentation was set at the start. Its length was also predetermined: it couldn’t be too long as it was to be broadcast on one of the Contemporary Music Concerts of the Music Radio. As it was, it got a playing time of 13 minutes or so. A recording of this first performance was chosen in the spring of 1988 to represent the Swedish Radio at UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers scheduled for early summer in Paris. In the closing vote, Järnnatten gained a place on the list of works recommended for broadcast. It’s natural that in addition to other programs from the Rostrum program, the Music Radio will broadcast the Swedish contributions during the winter under the title Rostrum 1988. In addition to Ekström’s work, Sweden was represented by Jan Sandström’s Acintyas for string orchestra which also was honoured by being placed on the broadcast list.
Järnnatten can be seen as something of a twin to the trombone concerto. The work was written during the summer of 1987 when Ekström already had been working on the trombone concerto for a long time. He had reached the climax at the end of the first section just prior to the solo cadenza. At this point there is a rhythm in the brasses which has been moved over to Järnnatten almost without change. “I plagiarised the trombone concerto in favour of Järnnatten,” says the composer, somewhat drastically. But more than that, there is a close relationship between the two works: both use the overtone spectrum created by the trombone when it plays E below the bass staff.
Lars Ekström likes to give imaginative titles to his compositions. The name Järnnatten refers to those frosty nights which can come around midsummer, seemingly only in Scandinavia. In spite of warm days, the temperature can drop under freezing and cause frost damage to crops and other cultivated plants. The composer has been inspired by the special mood that exists under these frosty June nights. It is always dead calm, for if there is wind there will be no frost. And the early summer night which otherwise would be filled with bird song, is quiet and still.
It is just this dark and mystical mood which informs the beginning of Järnnatten. The composer associates the low, slowly changing sounds with earth and humus. Ekström is very interested in instrumentation. Even when he is composing orchestral music, he tends to write as detailed as for chamber music. “I love to combine instruments and seek out sounds. There is something sensuous in it. And that is what I’ve tried to do in Järnnatten.”
In the first movement the two trombones play an important role. The note they play is just that low E mentioned above. A few minutes into the piece the trombone players are urged to sing “a-i-a-i …” into their instruments. Musically this brings to mind the deep chants of the Tibetan monks. Time stands still. Against this sonoral, low layer are laid high, glass-like tones played by instruments like crotales and a vibraphone, both originally played with a bow [sic], as well as flageolet in the strings.
The second movement begins with a high string sound which slowly sinks tonally. A long glissando begins, perhaps even one of the longest in orchestral literature. Against this the piano plays a type of solo cadenza with wide melodic leaps. The solo role is the taken by the alto flute, building an uneasy mood through strong and aggressive playing. Behind this energetic performance are dissonant sonorities with sharp attacks in the viola and cello voices. The expression becomes increasingly desperate, while the flute spasmodically seeks the heights.
A hard, heavy attack in the low instruments marks the beginning of the next part: Järnnatten is constructed in moment style. Once more there is a dark section with low brass instruments, kettle drums and percussion prepared piano. The music is reminiscent of the introduction, sharing some of the earthy character, though darker, even more aggressive and almost panicky. In contrast to this strong, percussive music there grows a melodic, polyphonous layer in the strings. The expressivity increases, but so does the worry. The rhythmic power source becomes more tangible and with it the impression of hurry and stress. The melodic lines in the strings are dissolved in glissandos. The climax is reached when the conductor and the percussion section let out a scream!
The last movement could also be considered a coda, in part because it holds references to earlier sections. But there is a desolation we haven’t felt earlier. An alto flute plays a solo which mainly uses only one single note, middle C, though with varied intonation. Suddenly the desolation is broken by short, rapid melodic movements in the oboes and violins. The composer explains that here he was inspired by pictures, saying that “I wanted to create a trees without leaves, standing as naked sculptures on a large field.”
Even if Järnnatten consists of clearly definable parts, there is a unity of expression. “Each section has a language and a content. For that reason I do not believe it possible to avoid a summary and close out using some type of coda,” says Lars Ekström.