I phoned Esa-Pekka Salonen in L.A. yesterday to talk to him about his new string quartet, which he has dubbed “Homunculus.” I had to write a short story for the newspaper, but rather than link to it here (that’s the link), I thought I’d share with you all a transcription of our entire talk. Among other things, we talked about Strindberg, hockey and sperm. Beat that. There ain’t a better interview than Salonen in all of classical music.

(Four rings. We greet each other and get to it.)

I’ve read your program note and put it on the blog, but I’m curious how much did that have to do — the title, the concept — with the actual piece itself. Did the title come before or after you wrote the piece?:

Sort of halfway through. I mean titles are sometimes difficult because sometimes they are there before the piece is there, sometimes, you know, halfway through the process you kind of know what the title is and sometimes you finish the piece and the real struggle is to find the name. But in this case, I was asked to write a short string quartet, which is a sort of a category that doesn’t almost exist at all. Because most string quartets we know are about half an hour or thereabouts, and that’s actually a programming problem for string quartets. Because if you put three of them together in a program, it’s too long, and if you only play two it’s too short. And when the Johannes Quartet started talking about this commission they said that this would be a very important addition to the repertoire because of the scale issue. So I set out to write a string quartet that would be no longer than 15 minutes — this is actually pretty 15 minutes as it is. As I got going I realized what I wanted to do was to write a little piece that would behave like a big piece, i.e. it would have all the sort of aspects of a large scale piece but just compressed, and sometimes happening simultaneously, but containing all the kind of building blocks of — almost like a symphonic work.

Once I realized this, then — I can’t quite remember how this came about but, a friend of mine was talking about alchemy. He was very interested in alchemy and, we were actually talking about Strindberg, yes, that’s what it is. And Strindberg at one point in his life he was also an avid alchemist, and he was trying to make gold — he was generally a crazy guy. And then he sort of mentioned the idea of homunculus, which is the sort of little man that in every way is a perfect little man except he’s very little.

Does the title refer to the little man that’s the seed or that’s already been born?:

Well you know if you look up the word homunculus it comes up with lots of different interpretations. And homunculus, in neurological theory, homunculus is the sort of operator in our brain who kind of translates the sensory stimuli into perception, i.e. it’s like inside our skull there is a little man who is kind of watching the program that is our life and kind of experiencing it for us. So that’s one of the homunculus interpretations, in modern day.

Yeah, which is valid in a way, conceptual rather than biological.

Yeah, I don’t think there is a little man in my brain, although sometimes it feels like that it’s up there after all. But yes, it’s a conceptual thing of course. And then there’s an other homunculus which is, again it’s a neurological thing, it’s a picture of a person where the dimensions of the various body parts are relating to the density of number of nerves in various body parts. Therefore the picture of this particular homunculus is very interesting because the lips are huge and the earlobes are huge and the genitals are huge and the hands are huge, and then many other parts are not so huge, so it’s like a — it looks pretty bizarre, but it’s the kind of picture of the dimensions of sensory sensitivity.
Then there is the sort of spermists theory of homunculus, which I found kind of funny. That in every sperm there’s a perfect little man, and that is then being then inserted into the eggs and out comes that very perfect little man. But of course there’s a sort of logical fault in this theory, as there would have to be an endless chain of little men. But this is quite a recent theory, I think it was sort of 1600-something. So at the time when there was a lot of new thinking happening, you know with the Keplers and Newtons and Bacons and all these people, there was still this kind of unbelievably primitive idea of the sort of the theory about the way how we multiply.  So it’s kind of interesting.

But you know all this has really (laughs) very little to do with the music other than that I was trying to write the perfect little man, i.e. like a little guy who behaves like a big guy. I have a lot of experience of this, by the way.

What do you mean?:

Well I used to play hockey as I was a kid, and I was pretty good. I was not a nerdy kind in this way at all. I was ok. And then after one summer I went to the first practice and I realized that every other teammate had grown by a foot during that summer, and I hadn’t. So that was my homunculus moment. I realized that hockey is probably not going to be my professional career — and I went back to my counterpoint studies.

That’s a tragic little story.

Yeah, I know it’s so sad.

But did you try to act like a big man at that point?:

Well I was just trying to survive, keep my bones intact and all that, but that (laughs) — and I haven’t played. Well I have played every now and then since, but somehow I realized a professional hockey player is not my realistic goal in life.

Well so, back to the piece — we won’t actually be hearing sperm?:

No, unless you get really excited. (laughs) No. No, no. You know, I regret this program note a little bit because it has become sort of famous. And there are lots of people who know all about these program notes and they haven’t heard the piece they’re about. Not particularly interested in hearing it either. But the program note is certainly famous already. So it was a little careless of me. But basically, yes, it’s only the title and what it implies, i.e. a small scale piece that contains all the elements of a large scale (piece).

What are some of the ways that a little piece can act like a big piece, what do you do as a composer to accomplish that?:

Well first of all it has a great variety of material. So there is sort of scherzo-like material, there is the sort of main movement-like material, and there is a slow material. And in a sort of normal string quartet, the normal large scale string quartet, all these different types of material would be reserved into their own movements. But in this day, kind of they’re interlaced and sometimes they appear simultaneously and sometimes they sort of transform into each other as well. So that’s the sort of simple explanation.

And the more complicated explanation and the kind of thing that cannot be really described very well is that I also tried to write the piece that would have a big sort of emotional and sonic impact despite its length. That I was trying to do a big thing in 15 minutes. And somehow I was trying to create an illusion of a complete journey in 15 minutes, like an illusion of a longer journey.

So it’s a small piece but it’s serious and important — it wasn’t something, a miniature dashed off at a moment of leisure?:

No, in fact, I was really trying to put my best music into this. And of course, string quartet as a medium is so, I mean it’s very, very inspiring to write for of course, but also scary in many ways because of the unreasonable number of masterpieces in that repertoire. and somehow, you know, if you write a piece for heckelphone trio, you’re not faced with the Beethovens and the Brahmses and the Alban Bergs and this and that, and the Bartoks and so on and so forth. But in string quartet you can’t help it, you are really there, playing with the big boys. and yet at the same time, the possibilities of a string quartet are unlimited and also, string quartets are very good. You know these are usually people who are really devoted, very skillful players that have played together for years and they are not afraid of challenge and they are willing to work until they get it right and so on and so forth. And so mostly when you work with a string quartet you know that these people are really ambitious and devoted musicians and that’s kind of another thing that makes it very interesting and rewarding to work with a string quartet. In fact, if and when I write my next string quartet, I will call it the second string quartet (laughs). So, I’ve broken the ice.

When Robert Schumann was in one of his quartet writing moods he wrote a letter and he said that he was having ‘quartetish thoughts’ and that meant to him a very particular kind of musical thought. Did you feel that you were having ‘quartetish thoughts,’ is this a work that’s very specific to string quartet or could it be turned into a piano piece or an orchestral piece?:

No, this is very specifically a string quartet piece. and it cannot be turned into anything else and it cannot be even transposed. I mean a semitone up or down would destroy it, because the harmony and the whole identity of the piece is so built around the open strings. and the anchor in the piece really is the fact that there are certain notes that resonate louder than other notes because of the fact that they are open strings. and the whole thing is based on that. So it’s completely string quartetish in this way.

Is getting a grasp of the possibilities of each instrument a big part of the job? You’ve composed a lot for strings in the past, but coming down to this level of four individuals a special challenge?:

Yes, well you know in my other job I’ve been working with string players without being one for 30 years. And I’ve been married to a violinist for 17 years. So I have a fairly good understanding of what the strings can do and how to write for them. and also I have written a sort of mini cello concerto and solo pieces for violin and cello and so on and so forth, and plus viola as well. So this was by no means the first time I started writing for the strings, so. But obviously every time you do something you use the experience you have had previously and try to kind put thing things onto a higher level. I found this particular approach is very — I mean it’s always difficult — but I was just kind of inspired by the idea of writing my first string quartet at a mature age (laughs). It was fun and I was kind of surprised at the end of the process how kind of autumnal some of the expression is in that piece. There’s a sort of like a long drawn farewell at the end. And I don’t know farewell to what, I have no idea. But this is kind of almost like a — I don’t know. There’s some kind of melancholy in that piece despite the energetic bits and pieces that it has, but there’s some kind of melancholy — I don’t know where it came from.

Because you’re not feeling particularly melancholy at this moment?:

Well, I don’t know. It was just the kind of expression that seemed to be on my mind at the time, and maybe, who knows? Who knows where things come from? We don’t know. And quite often music expresses something that comes very directly from the subconscious rather than any other place.

In the past, you were a conductor. Now you’re transitioning to be more of a composer. In the past you didn’t accept the commission money. Did you accept the commission money for this?:


Good for you.

(Laughs) I have made a decision that as I’m becoming more of a composer technically speaking in the future, so that that means it’s a profession. So I don’t have a problem with that.

What are you working on right now?:

Right now I’m working on a violin concerto in fact.

So that’s what we’ll hear in the spring?:

That’s the one, yeah.

Is it pretty far along?:

Uh yeah, I mean there’s still a lot to do but I’m kind of over half of the duration of it in terms of a sketch. There’s no finished score or anything like that yet. But I’m trying to get the solo part finished pretty soon so that I can send it off to Leila.

Is this a Chicago Symphony commission?:

Yes, it’s Chicago Symphony, L.A. Philharmonic and New York City Ballet commissioned. So, they’re actually going to dance it, which is kind of fun. Peter Martins is going to do the choreography to it. So it’s just my first combined concert and ballet commission.

Is it your first ballet?:

In a way, yeah.

Are you coming to concert on Wednesday?:

Yes, I’m planning to.

How you getting here?:

Um, I’m going to drive and hope for the best.

Yes, because people tell me you’re a terrible driver.

I have to be driven. (laughs) Yeah, I won’t risk anybody’s health and life.

Have you heard the piece?:

You know, I’ve never heard a performance of it. I never made it to the rehearsals. and I never made it to any of the concerts when they played it. and I heard the tape of one of the shows, and I did hear a rehearsal with them earlier this autumn. But I never heard a performance, so it’s going be very excited. and also a very unusual situation for me. Because mostly I’ve been involved in the first performance in some way, at least hearing a few rehearsals or something. But this is the first time, this is actually the first time when I’ve had no idea how it was going until I heard the tape.

Do you like what you hear?:

Yeah. I think they play it really well and they put in lots of hours and you can tell that they know it backwards. And you know, I was pretty happy with it actually. Happy and surprised by the kind of, not the darkness but the certain mellow quality that is kind of new in my music I think.

Quick question about the Philharmonia job. There’s misconception of you jumping to new music directorship. But you’re responsibilities there are much less intensive than at the L.A. Phil, right?

Yes, correct. A London orchestra is essentially a self-governing orchestra. and the music director or principal conductor has a sort of mainly ceremonial role apart from his own projects. So, obviously, in major artistic decisions there will be consultation, but there’s no daily administration. And I’m not involved in guest conductors, orchestra soloists, or any of that stuff.

Fund raising?:

Well to some degree. I mean it’s not something that is even stipulated in the contract but obviously it’s in my interest to help when I can. But it’s basically conducting.

Doesn’t the Philharmonia do single concerts in its subscription series?:

They do mostly single concerts and there’s a lot of touring involved. And in fact the subscription series in the Festival Hall is very small. It’s nothing like a U.S. orchestra. and the most part of my work is actually touring in Europe. And the idea is that I do a fairly limited repertoire package and that project whatever it is is then being toured at European festivals and cities and so on and so forth.
I’m also trying to cut down on the amount of repertoire I do per year because that’s one of the things that, while interesting and stimulating, it really takes up a lot of time from composing — studying all that music and keeping it alive.

Is the Philharmonia job ideal then?:

Yeah. I mean I’m not taking it lightly in any way at all, but the structure and the way the orchestra works suits me very well at this point in my life. Because I can still do high quality conducting work with an orchestra which is excellent and people I know very well and all that but I’m not on 24/7 so to speak. I mean it’s a pretty good practical solution for me at the moment.

(We discuss the prospect of a future interview, possibly in the spring, and say ta-ta.)