Any festival that devotes an entire concert to the world première of just a single large-scale piece of music is taking a considerable risk. It’s the kind of risk that perhaps invites an audience to respond in a peculiarly polarised way: when faced with well over an hour of new music, our inclination is surely to tend towards either loving or hating it, rather than simply shrugging it off.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Martin Fröst
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

The amount of effort put into the first performance of Emerging from Currents and Waves, a new piece by Swedish composer Jesper Nordin, was clearly enormous. Lasting 75 minutes, and scored for solo clarinet and orchestra – in which both soloist and conductor additionally manipulate the ‘Gestrument’, an electronic device of Nordin’s creation akin to a cross between a theremin and a Microsoft Kinect – also involving a dancer and live video, the work had clearly put everyone involved at the Baltic Sea Festival and the Berwaldhallen to a considerable test.

In terms of technical accomplishment the risk was definitely worthwhile: the gamble paid off and the performance unfolded with only the slightest of hitches (two cellists who had seemingly got lost within the bowels of the building and emerged, clearly somewhat embarrassed – but to much applause – after several minutes of communal waiting). From a purely superficial perspective, the sound and the visuals were represented beautifully: the intricate filigree of Martin Fröst’s solo passages; the translation of hand and arm gestures into electronic samples (of both clarinet and full orchestral sounds); the slow, silky movements of Virpi Pahkinen’s choreography, moving across the stage dressed in an elaborately flowing costume.

Unfortunately, engaged with more deeply and seriously, Emerging from Currents and Waves turned out to be a dull, disappointing experience. The essence of Nordin’s musical invention could be condensed to a simple formula:

  1. Establish a simple, quiet idea;
  2. Patiently let it grow and develop into a larger entity, either pitch-based or textural;
  3. Push this entity harder and harder until it becomes a vast, miasmic wall of sound;
  4. Repeat.
Emerging from the Currents and Waves
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

In hindsight, it’s such a shame that the very real beauty contained within the piece was so overwhelmingly undermined by Nordin’s insistence on leading every one of his ideas to precisely the same kind of blank climax. The law of diminishing returns certainly applied to Emerging from Currents and Waves: Nordin seemed to be completely unaware that each subsequent climax would be more tiresome than the last, packing even less power to impress and amaze, less ability to overwhelm, less evidence of any substantial content.

It’s a shame too that the piece navigated its way between these enormous blasts in such an indecisive way, further frittering away its allure with literal wastes of time, spending far too long with the barest doodle of an idea, subsequently stretched out so thin that one wondered on several occasions whether the piece had simply ground to a halt due to everyone forgetting what they were meant to be playing. This was music that, for all its ambition, conclusively failed to articulate anything meaningful on either the small or large scale.

It’s important to restate that, as a performance, it could hardly have been better. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s direction was wildly enthusiastic, the integration of acoustic and live electronic sounds was well-judged, and the way the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra fought to make each new climax more massive than the last was genuinely valiant. But unless one was prepared to be beguiled by nothing more than slick surfaces and colossal displays of empty, undifferentiated overload, all of their efforts were entirely in vain. 


Simon's press trip to Stockholm was funded by Swedish Radio