Sebastian Fagerlund: Borderland between the Real and Unreal

Photo: Simon van Boxte

Sebastian Fagerlund is a Finnish composer who has written chamber, orchestral and operatic work during the last two decades. He came to prominence in 2006 after the premiere and consequent performances of his Clarinet Concerto performed by Christoffer Sundqvist. His another major work, a tone poem Isola (2007) has been performed around the world. His other orchestral compositions include Ignite (2010), Drifts (2017) and Water Atlas (2017-2018). Fagerlund is also an author of Violin Concerto ‘Darkness in Light’ (2012), Guitar Concerto Transit’ (2013), Bassoon Concerto ‘Mana’ (2013-2014) and most recently Cello Concerto ‘Nomade’ (2018), apart from multiple pieces of chamber music. Fagerlund’s music always draws us into the world of deep reflexivity, inviting our mind to work and build visions while listening to his music. And this is no surprise, as the border between the real and the imagined fascinates the composer in almost all his creations, with inspirations drawn from nature, art, literature and architecture. This quality of his compositions is particularly evident in his operas, with his Autumn Sonata having had a premiere in Helsinki in 2017. 

We met with Sebastian to discuss his approaches to the composing process, its challenges and revelations, as well as his work on particular ochestral and operatic projects during his career.

Sebastian, how did music begin to play a role in your life?

My mother was a pianist, and I started to play violin when I was 5, so from that perspective music has been with me for my whole life, one way or another. During my teenage years I started to feel that playing was not enough, and I had a very strong need to express myself through my own music.

How did that happen exactly? Did you have a period as an instrumentalist when you learned about all the world’s existing music and then developed as a composer?

I feel it went in parallel. It was a great experience and an advantage to develop and learn the craftmanship of music composition, and at the same time also to play all fantastic music there is, both classical and more contemporary.

What kind of language was composing for you? What was the mental process behind it? I can imagine what it is to begin to draw, I can imagine what it is to write your first poems, but I can’t imagine what it is to start composing your own pieces.

This is a difficult question (laughs). I think I could best describe it as this very strong feeling of hearing your own sounds. They were of course quite abstract ones, but still quite at an early age I started hearing them, and there was a need to write them down. It had to do with curiosity, when you realize that there is something there, and there is a sound world you want to express and explore. This curiosity has always been driving me.

Who were your teachers, who guided you in composition, who created the building blocks of your craft as a composer?

If I go quite far back, I would say that even my violin teacher – Simo Vuoristo – who taught in Turku Conservatory – already realized that I had a very strong urge to compose. He didn’t teach me composition, but he made sure that I was exposed to many types of music, past and contemporary. Then I started studying composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. I would say that it is through my composition teacher- Erkki Jokinen- that I really learned the craft of composing but also about arts in general. He was that type of teacher who one day could say: ‘Now there is a great exhibition in that museum. Your task is to go there, and we will discuss it the next time we meet’, or ‘Have you read that book about Kandinsky – it is something that you have to read.’ I think you have to be truthful and honest about your experiences. And then to try and find the way of channelling them into music and sounds that you feel are your own.

Photo: Sirpa Räihä

I read that the generation of the 1970s – Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen – were in the straightjacket of Darmstadt school and they were forced to write very intellectual music that sometimes was difficult to comprehend. Were you beyond this movement and line of thought?

When I started studying – in the mid-1990s – the modernist aesthetic was still present but at the same time I also felt more interested in what happened outside that realm. There were so many other interesting things going on, and looking back, I feel this helped me to find my own personal path. As a composer you are in a constant search, and gradually you start to find a musical expression within yourself that resonates with you and that you feel comfortable with. You have to be aware of what that has been written already, but at the same time you have to keep your mind fixed on the horizon, looking forward so to speak.

The world has become so post-modernist that you just can’t avoid ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and your music inherently quoting other people’s creations. How do you use your memory to be aware of everything that had been created when you write your own piece?

I think that the feeling of being on the right path with your own expression comes from this security you get while composing… It is very difficult to explain, but there is a moment in the compositional process when you realize that the piece you are working on is almost living its own life. Of course, you are guiding and developing it, but there is a strong sense of force and motion that in a way gives me the sense that I am on the right track.

But if you then try to analyse what you have written, would you be able to see the influences in your music – say, for example of Lutosławski? 

I would say the process of analysing your own work is more or less an ongoing state throughout the work with a new composition. Interesting that you mentioned Lutoslawski. Though our compositional voices are very different, when I was younger Lutoslawski made a real impact on me through his amazing ability of building long dramaturgical archs in music, and then at the same time dealing with very small chamber music elements inside them – all within his own personal style and compositional technique. His orchestra piece Livre pour Orchestre is a score I’ve had with me since I was 13 or 14 and I find myself returning to it, because that music still

feels relevant. There is a connection to history and at the same time it is forward looking.

In this process, how is the right balance to be found? There are so many interesting things going on, but on the other hand, composing is a lonely process. How do you form the inner discipline?

How do you build the momentum that would lead you to a new composition? For me the best and almost the only way is that I try to go to my study and compose every day. Sometimes I get a lot done, sometimes I tear up several minutes of music when I come back the next day and realize that it wasn’t good enough, and that can actually be a very good working
day! But I think the key issue for me is that every day I need to stay in contact with the music and the piece I am working on. For me it is the only way to stay focused – the important thing is not to loose touch.

When I was studying the system of Stanislavsky for my theatre degree, and his system was based on the premise that you should not wait for inspiration but prepare the space inside yourself for it to come. Your approach to music seems similar in a way.

Absolutely! That is something that I would also say. And sometimes I do get asked – ‘where does your inspiration come from?’ Inspiration can mean many different things, but if I were to describe it, my inspiration comes from the actual process of working, composing. And many times it happens that when I work on an orchestral piece and this piece is starting to get finished,
it already leads me to the next piece. I discover some ideas or small fragments that have been born in the previous piece, and they are starting to form building blocks for the next one. So for me the important thing is that I constantly keep my hands on my music. And one piece feeds into the next one – that’s the closest I could describe it.

Photo: Simon van Boxtel

Alexander Pushkin has a poem about his own poetic creativity where he says that when he experiences strong emotions and passions, he can’t write poetry. But writing comes afterwards when he has a clear head and mind. What is the right balance between emotions and the intellectual considerations of structure when composing? 

I think that every artist and every composer needs to find their own way of working out that balance because, on one hand, you need to stay objective when it comes to the way you are creating the piece and the craft of making it. But at the same time I feel that you also need to stay connected to the emotions. It is actually quite a paradox. In the beginning I spend a lot of time dealing with structures, relations between rhythm and harmony, instrumentation, motives etc. At some point there is this moment when you, after spending so much energy on the musical materials and creating the backbone of the piece, in a way have to let go of it. Then the emotional part comes in. And these are – if they happen – the most fantastic moments when you feel that the piece in some way is free of gravity. So this is a paradox of being in control and at the same time trusting your emotions.

So are you always your own judge? Or do you have a group of mentors or colleagues who hear your piece and give their opinion?

I need to work within my own world. It would be very difficult for me to imagine that I would share my thoughts in the middle of compositional process. The actual process is so personal and also so long, and it can also be sometimes so hard. This is something that you have to deal with yourself.

Going to your compositons - you say that your big breakthrough was the Clarinet Concerto. And also the clarinetist who played it – Christoffer Sundqvist – was very important to you. Could you describe the process of working on that concerto?

Yes, it feels like that. And indeed, working with Christoffer was really important to me. I composed the Clarinet Concerto in 2005-2006. It was my first large concerto where I was very inspired, first of all, by Christoffer’s playing and his musicianship. He is an amazing musician who can create almost any sound on the clarinet, and that of course was a fantastic experience. We studied at the same time at the Sibelius Academy in the 1990s when I wrote many smaller pieces for him. And the other was that it was the first piece where I felt I needed to search for new paths in my own expression, and that resulted in the Clarinet Concerto. It is a piece that draws from many different aesthetics and has a really strong forward momentum and rhythmical drive.

Did the success you enjoyed with the piece also help you to open up?

Now when I look back at it, it felt like a very liberating process. I also realized how important it is for me to know for whom I compose. I find it wonderful to work with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, because I know the orchestra and Hannu Lintu very well, and I also know the former chief conductor Sakari Oramo. When my music has been played somewhere else in the world and afterwards I come and listen to it being played by FRSO, I feel almost as if I am coming home. So I think these things influence you and are important – that you have these musicians and these orchestras and these conductors who know you so well that you don’t have to explain everything. They see the score and they know immediately the way I want to do it. It is a very big advantage.

Premiere of Nomade at Elbphilharmonie

Is it when Sakari Oramo played your Clarinet Concerto with the FRSO that your relationship with the orchestra began?

Yes, that was the starting point for me with the FRSO. Actually, the Clarinet Concerto was premiered by a wonderful conductor, John Storgårds. He was the one who programmed the World Premiere at Korsholm Music Festival. After the world premiere Sakari got interested and we made a radio recording with the FRSO, and then somehow everything suddenly happened

very fast. So I would say that my international career started from that piece. And that is something I am very grateful for both to John and Sakari – and to many others, in fact. After that I composed my chamber opera Döbeln (2009) commissioned by West Coast Kokkola Opera
and Anu Komsi and Sakari Oramo. That opened the whole world of vocal music to me. Before that I’d written a small song for Anu (for soprano and piano), but a chamber opera was a completely new direction for me. Then came the orchestra piece Ignite (2010) that Sakari commissioned for the FRSO. The orchestra piece Isola (2007) was also composed slightly earlier
and was actually a collaboration with another good friend of mine – conductor Dima Slobodeniouk – whom I have also worked very much with later.

Speaking about Isola, I really liked the way you described it – that a real island to where witches were sent was an inspiration for this piece. 

The actual island is called Själö (In Swedish it means Soul Island). In medieval times people who suffered from mental illness and women who were suspected of witchcraft were sent there. And according to the legend, they could only take materials to build their coffins with. But later – and this is a historical fact – they had a leper colony and a mental hospital there. These people were isolated there. So this island has a very grim past – a lot of death and suffering. But if you visit it now, it is absolutely beautiful. They have an old wooden church, and the scenery is absolutely fantastic. So representing these two layers in music was important to me. Writing Isola wasn’t straightforwardly programmatic  but what inspired me was the idea of the serene beauty of nature, but at the same time a strong underlying emotion that underneath there is also so much darkness. And that was the thing that I wanted to convey in music.

In a way it reminds me of how we perceive St Petersburg. It is a beautiful city, but when you think about its history, during the siege people starved to death there. In relation to this, I wanted to ask – can an architectural piece like the new Oodi library, for instance, be described by music? How do other forms of art, nature and human existence like architecture, novels,

landscapes find their way into your music? Could you describe in more detail what being inspired by Murakami or an island mean?

Well, for me it can only be done in a very abstract way. I would find more or less impossible to compose a piece that would be about a building itself – that would feel very strange. But if we talk about things that you mentioned – for instance, the writer Haruki Murakami has inspired me very much.  His writing helped me to find the direction for my Violin Concerto. I was struggling for a long time with how I would find a new, fresh angle for the highpoint in the concerto. Then I came to think about the world of Haruki Murakami, because in many of his novels he explores the borderland between the real and the unreal. His writing sometimes describes the transition between these two worlds. And it was this concept that I started to be very fascinated with. How about trying to create a musical situation in the slow movement where it feels like everything is sliding away, with big sound blocks that are falling apart? With the soloist just evaporating…

And that was the abstract key moment for the Concerto. This is in a way a paradox. The Concerto has its forte fortissimo moments, but for me the real climax is when you start to feel that the ground and the sky are going in different directions and giving away, and you don’t really know in which reality you are any longer.

If you think about it, the same stands true for Isola – that borderline between the present and the past.

Yes, indeed, that’s true. And this was something that I was also interested in when I composed Opera Autumn Sonata. In a way, there I also wanted to bring in my fascination with this borderland between the real and the unreal. Those voices of the audience that the pianist mother Charlotte Andergast is bringing with her whereever she goes, and sometimes you can’t really distinguish between the dream and the reality.

Can I go back and ask you about Döbeln? There you have dreams of mentally disturbed people, is it correct? 

Actually not. More perhaps dreams of one character under heavy mental and physical stress. The story, in brief, is about a famous Finnish-Swedish general Georg Carl von Döbeln who took part in the 1808-1809 war between the Swedish empire that Finland was a part of, and the Russian empire. Earlier he was heavily wounded in the head, and could not be completely healed so he had a leather strap covering this wound for the rest of his life. The opera starts with the surgery and the removal of bone fragments from his scull – Döbeln gets opium and then starts to dream of all the things that he had been witnessing, different important events. But then he starts to mix in his own imagination things that he feels that are from the future, the things that might come.

Sounds like something from a film by Akira Kurosawa…

Maybe, yes. You have a sequence of dreams where these imagined things and the real are mixing, and it all becomes very distorted. For example when making the famous retreat over the frozen Åland Sea his army is starving and therefore the men are ice fishing. At some point in the dream Döbeln imagines himself as a fish, and then the other men end up eating him. He also starts to see himself in the dream – so suddenly you have to have two generals on stage, with one of them being played by a soprano! These two characters then start to communicate with each other, and it gets crazier and crazier. At the last moment Döbeln wakes up on the operating table, but the opera ends in such a way that you are not really sure whether he indeed has woken up, and what has been the dream and what has been the reality.

I read an article once about how composer George Benjamin works with the playwright Martin Crimp. What is your relationship with the librettist? Do you get a finished libretto and then start to compose, or do you show pieces of written music to your librettist at some different points?

Well, my approaches have been slightly different in different projects. For the chamber opera Döbeln the librettist Jusa Peltoniemi gave me some drafts that were partly dialogue, partly poems. Then we started discussing and when the libretto had developed into a version with more dialogue, I started composing the music. But throughout the compositional process I would stay in touch with the librettist.

But he, in turn, never suggested anything for your part of the work – the music?

No. The musical expression is the sole responsibility of the composer. In my more recent opera Autumn Sonata I received an almost ready version of the libretto from librettist Gunilla Hemming.  Of course, when I started working on the opera there were some cuts and adjustments but we discussed these things with each other and made the necessary changes.

Nomade, April 2019, Finland, with Hannu Lintu and Nicolas Altstaedt

I saw Autumn Sonata in Stockholm this summer and was overwhelmed by it – couldn’t sleep properly afterwards. Somehow, having been raised in Russian dramatic tradition, I was thinking of Chekhov when I saw it. What is your relationship to Ingmar Bergman’s films in this opera? Did you have to immerse yourself in his films when you were writing the opera?

No, in fact, I didn’t want to do it. Of course, I already knew Bergman’s scripts and films. But when it came to this opera, I think the most important thing was for it to be a new work of art. I composed the opera for over two and a half years, but I never watched the movie during that time. I was afraid that it would somehow corrupt my own vision. Now I am very happy that I did so, because I feel that what we created is a new work called the Opera Autumn Sonata. When you create a piece of art, the important thing is that you need to find something genuine, and to express your own personal view of it.

In this opera you allow the listeners to have a quiet space in their minds. Your opera is not forcing itself on us, it creates a labyrinth that you walk into, and its world is not afraid of silences, because we have potentialities and dreams there. How did you find such dynamics where sometimes there are as many silences as there are sounds?

When you write purely orchestral music you can overwhelm the listener with all the detail and fast movement in the orchestra. But when it is something happening on stage, you need to dare to take time and to let the audience immerse themselves in that certain stimmung that you are creating. I think that a good drama is a combination of places where things move very fast and moments where things are put into perspective, and for that you always need time. I think this balance is very difficult to achieve, and I am very happy if you felt that way.

I felt that you create the situation where the interactive element is required on the part of the audience. You can’t just sit and listen – you start to think about your own relationship with your mother or may be your craving for fame – it is when you hear those voices of the audience.

Yes, we felt that it was a very interesting thing – adding the choir as some sort of a Greek Chorus that played Charlotte Andergast’s audience. Gunilla was very passionate about it, and we wanted to have that element there, because it is also something that it is very relevant today, this relationship between the performer and the audience. As it is said in the opera, you need each other. But it can also be disturbing for the performer, so I wanted to bring that out – the impact it makes on a person. I wanted to explore what is healthy and what is not in this relationship.

But I also felt that in the orchestral score of Autumn Sonata you had what one could call Wagner leitmotifs for each character. 

Not perhaps in the Wagnerian way, but I could call them leitmotif ambiences. Every character has their own specific ambiance that is developing throughout the opera. So when people in the opera undergo change, then the leitmotifs also start to change. And then of course there is the inevitability – a motive that runs unchanged throughout the opera. All characters want to change, they confront each other with this aim in mind, but the inevitability of it all is that change is so difficult to achieve. It is probably true for all of us, as it is so easy to talk about change – we need to change our way of living, we need to change our view on the climate, and we want to change ourselves, and so on – but it is so difficult.

How is the listener supposed to connect with all these layers that you put into the opera?

The orchestra is a very important part of the whole Autumn Sonata opera. The orchestra constantly reflects on everything that is happening on stage. I don’t think you need to be an expert in understanding orchestral music in order to just hear the sounds. So for me it was important that the orchestra is not just giving accompaniment to what the singers are doing. Everything they are saying on stage is reflected on by the orchestra, and sometimes it is the even the orchestra that comes first. The orchestra is a big dimension in itself.

Autumn sonata at Baltic Sea Festival

Which leads me to another question about the audience. Many people nowadays consider a concert as a nice way to spend a pleasant evening, they often forget to switch their phones off and more and more often I notice they try to capture the moment of being present in the listening hall by making pictures during the concert. When I came to London and began to listen to modern composers, it turned out that music required your engagement and all your knowledge and previous listening experience. So my question is how would you recommend to move from this passive conformist listening experience to the one that you have just described.. How to shed this mental vision of ‘nice time spent in a nice place’ associated with music and opera?

I don’t think it should differ if you are listening to traditional classical music or if you are listening to a contemporary work. It is all about keeping your ears and your mind open. And if you do that, you can find new and amazing things both in Rachmaninov as well as in something newly written.

So basically you don’t feel like an educator of your audience, is it correct? It is our own choice – to listen to it properly or not, right?

I wouldn’t put myself in that position, no. The only way artists and musicians can make an impact is by trying to honestly express their view and make art and music so well-written and so strong that it captures the audiences. You can’t really force anyone to like your music or to become suddenly very interested in it, but I think the music captures people if there is enough strong emotion and power in it, regardless of its genre. And I think that it is something you should strive for as an artist.

How do you receive the feedback from your audiences? Do you talk to people after the concerts and operas, do you read your twitter and other social media? 

Well, I feel very old-fashioned here, almost like a dinosaur. The only place on social media I am on is Twitter. The feedback from Autumn Sonata was completely overwhelming. People came and were so emotional and had experienced so many different things. That made me very happy as a composer. I feel that that particularly opera, depending on the listener, creates many different ways of perceiving it. That’s the beauty of opera – it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. At best it can be an enormous experience – director, conductor, set and costume designers, musicians and performers all working together.

How much does that depend on particular performers? You exressedly wanted Anne-Sofie von Otter singing the main part in the premiere production and in Stockholm version of it. 

Working with Anne-Sofie was great, and she was a big inspiration for me. But on the other hand, it will be interesting to see and hear a different singer – Charlotte Hellekant – singing the leadingrole in the Malmö Opera production in Sweden this autumn. I am looking forward to listening to her interpretation. It is the best situation that a composer could wish for – when a piece starts living its own life, and new performers are opening up new perspectives.

Now there is a big trend of combining music with cinema, visual effects and virtual reality. Are you a believer in their potential?

I am very intrigued to see what the possibilities are and what might open up in future. I think we always need to stay curious, and look for what could be the next step, but I personally haven’t found an approach yet that would work for me. But may be that time will come.

Could you speak about your new Cello Concerto ‘Nomade’ and about your future plans?

I finished composing the Cello Concerto - Nomade in November 2018. The World Premiere took place 15.2.2019 in Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. The Finnish premiere with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra took place April 10th 2019.

Premiere of Cello concerto at ElbPhilharmonie with cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and conductor Hannu Lintu.

Do you feel that a piece already has its own independent wings and can fly on its own?

I felt it already when I composed it – it became a very important piece to me.  It is my largest concerto up to date, and it consists of six movements with a total duration of almost 38 minutes. It has been a great  and inspiring process working with Nicolas and we are really taking the solo cello to its extremes. He reaches an almost impossible high note – C5, and then he is taking the C scordatura down to F#. At the same time the, in some way human, character of the cello came to remind me that our search never really ends: we are all nomads in one way or

Any new commissions that you have now?

I am currently working on a Flute Concerto for Sharon Bezaly and I’ve also been commissioned a Chamber Symphony. It will have the same combination of instruments as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony №2. Otherwise the upcoming 19/20 season contains many interesting performances and country premieres of recent works with for example BBC SO, Minnesota Symphony, and a new production of Opera Autumn Sonata at Malmö Opera in Sweden.

Thank you for these wonderful insights into the composing process, your work and your visions.