When the Baltic Sea Festival was founded, it was always intended that the music side should go hand in hand with an ecological message about the need to protect the maritime environment. To that end, a series of seminars and discussions parallels the concerts. But for one of this year’s programmes, both strands came together in a single event, the world première of a new 90-minute choral and orchestral score by Anders Hillborg, written to accompany a film by two Swedish cinematographers, Jesper Kurlandsky and Fredrik Wenzel, and entitled Aeterna.

Hannah Holgersson, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Hannah Holgersson, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

The result is a true audio-visual experience, and it is difficult to imagine one part working without the other: the film is otherwise silent and the expansiveness and slowness of the music need the images to give it purpose. The film, which is described as still being work in progress, has been conceived with no less an aim of portraying and commenting on the effects of human life on our planet. A constant succession of images extends from the cosmos and the forming of the earth to the dividing of the first cell and on to the arrival of agriculture before the repercussions of urbanisation and exploitation destroy human innocence. The cinematography is stunning and many of the images presented are poetic, and it certainly makes its point – illustrated rather than preached – about the ecological effects of human footprints on our environment.

Anders Hillborg's <i>Aeterna</i> © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Anders Hillborg's Aeterna
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

Hillborg’s music, conducted by the festival’s artistic director Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the full Swedish Radio Orchestra and Radio Chorus crammed into every corner of the stage, had an often hypnotic effect of its own. But it’s not what one would traditionally term a ‘film score’. It was audibly in the foreground from beginning to end, and was as firmly part of the whole experience as an orchestra is when accompanying a concerto soloist. Although some of cinematography’s tricks of the trade are employed in the music itself, such as cross-fades and jump cuts, it wasn’t specifically illustrative and didn’t always slavishly change in line with the imagery – about as far from the cliché-ridden music that accompanies most wildlife films on TV these days as one could imagine. Indeed, it’s not clear if the film was edited to fit Hillborg’s score or if the music was written to a pre-ordained story-board or draft edit. (One also assumes that the ‘in progress’ nature of the project applies to the film creation and editing rather than to the score.)

Anders Hillborg and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra © Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio
Anders Hillborg and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Micke Grönberg | Sveriges Radio

Hillborg’s music in any case is often an immersive experience, one in which our concept of time can be tricked. His long-drawn-out paragraphs, comprising tonal clusters, microtones, swelling chords, chattering repeated figures and more had a timeless quality, such that when things did occasionally move at a lick – as at a dramatic fast-frame section of the film towards the end when music and visuals for once come together – the effect was all the more dramatic. Ligeti inevitably came to mind as the fine Swedish Radio Chorus ululated chords and clusters while the screen showed CGI images of the galaxy and solar system, and the fast chordal repetitions of early John Adams paid a visit too, yet in the grand scheme of things the whole 90 minutes seemed of a piece stylistically. Melody, as opposed to deconstructed harmony, was sparingly used, but soprano soloist Hannah Holgersson and duduk-player Hayk Hakobyan brought a refreshing change of perspective in their brief contributions. Otherwise, the performance skills seemed to centre around balance and pacing, both of which Salonen secured in abundance from his talented Swedish players and singers.