Ramifying naturally? On Sibelius and Spahlinger

[This brief essay was co-written with musicologist Seth Brodsky for a March 12, 2015 program of the DePaul Orchestras, in which Sibelius's Tapiola is played alongside Spahlinger's morendo and doppelt bejaht: etudes for orchestra without conductor.]

On 8 May 1912, Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary: 

”I intend to let the musical thoughts and their development determine their own form in my soul.”

It would seem during those days and months that Sibelius was consumed by such thoughts. James Hepokoski writes of repeated diary entries from 1912 indicating that Sibelius’s “aim had become to rethink the concept of form by allowing certain nature-mystical core ideas to ramify ‘naturally’ or meditatively, as though they had a separate volition not to be thwarted by the habits of traditional practice.”

The works that would emerge in the coming years—especially the last three symphonies (nos. 5-7)—are nothing if not a realization of this utopian dream: “own form”/“my soul”. But it’s tempting to think of Sibelius’s last major work, the 1926 tone-poem Tapiola, as its most extreme case. After its completion, Sibelius would live another three decades, and write virtually nothing else. While he worked for years on an eagerly awaited eighth symphony, Sibelius threw the manuscript in the fire. This biographical detail, often noted, carries enormous pathos. But here, in the context of this concert, it has a special relevance. What if it wasn’t creative despair, or a misanthropic shrinking form the world, that compelled the composer to burn his work? What if it was the coldest logic? As if his compositional aim had been fulfilled, and “the musical thoughts” had indeed finally taken on a life of their own—to such an extent that Sibelius the composer no longer had control over them. So one might hear Tapiola as more than just the hypnotic, haunting sound-portrait of the Finnish forests it claims to be. It could also be one way of hearing the vanishing point of “common practice” compositional thinking. A 20-minute window into another kind of forest, where nothing ever stays the same, even as nothing ever quite “goes somewhere”; where the whole idea of “theme” begins to fall apart, even as one never hears a new theme. A continual reconsideration of, a perpetual development of, rumination upon, some basic, by definition “generic” intervals. Tapiola becomes a document of supreme ambivalence: teetering between the “sound of nature” as heard by a transcendental auditor—The Composer—and the “natural sound”, unfolding despite all human audition, all earful efforts at hearing-as and listening-in.

Surely this is a thing with which Spahlinger can sympathize, albeit skeptically. He is, after all, the author of series of experimental text-scores entitled suggestions, concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer. But on a concrete level, Sibelius's final, restive efforts are a fascinating foil to Spahlinger's experimental 2009 score doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”). Here, the concept of “ramifying” is explicitly thematized in these 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor. Each has many ways of going to another, via “verzweigerungen” (“branches,” let's call them; not forgetting that the Finish forest god who was Tapiola’s subject-muse), and, rather than “the musical thoughts” ramifying in a questionable “soul,” it is the orchestral collective itself that allows this to happen. If one takes a few conceptual leaps, one might say that where Tapiola clutches for dear life onto the precipice of the mimetic (not just nature—air, light, flora, storm—but no less relevantly, historical forces), doppelt bejaht lets go, and becomes instead a microcosm of them: its “own form”, but with an un-ownable soul. The point is forced – the orchestra becomes, not an imitation of, but an actual world. The players must make decisions—without anyone to tell them what to do, when to do it, how to do it, how long to do it—otherwise the piece simply does not happen. And while, of course, players in orchestras always make decisions all the time, only here is their decision-making the compositional agent itself, rather than its fantastical imitation, whose concealment provides the very support for the fetishized commodity that the institution of the 21st century orchestra has become.