By ZACHARY WOOLFE
CHICAGO — A few years ago, after they had shared more than a couple postconcert martinis, Yo-Yo Ma had a request for the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen: Write me a concerto.
That’s the kind of offer you can’t refuse, and the two happily, tipsily shook on it. The only problem? The commitments of the night before seemed, as they can in the haze of a hangover, a little sketchy the next morning.
“I knew with absolute certainty that we had agreed on something,” Mr. Salonen dryly recalled a few days ago. “But I wasn’t sure on what.”
His memory eventually jogged, plans were set in motion, and last week Mr. Ma, Mr. Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the concerto’s premiere here. Racing across the country, Mr. Ma on Wednesday will play the fiendishly difficult piece — in which the cello does battle with a swirling orchestra, a hyperactive set of bongos and even, through live tape looping, its own shadow — with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert.
Before that, cellist and composer came together over afternoon bottles of Heineken in a studio high above Orchestra Hall in Chicago to discuss hypercommunication, creating a sonic environment and the work’s final flash. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the experience of working on this?
YO-YO MA With a piece of new music I go through a phase where I ask myself: “Why was Esa-Pekka angry at me? What does he have against the cello? Why are you torturing me with impossible things? You know I can’t do that, you know it’s too fast.”
I go through that, and finally get to: “Oh, this is very interesting. O.K., uh-huh, so this is how that works.” And I gradually get more and more into it. I can’t tell you how many versions I go through, translating the score into physical engineering. With this, I was worried about the music coming through, and projection.
ESA-PEKKA SALONEN That was the first thing he said to me when we went through the sketches: “So, should I be amplified or not?” And I said, “I’ll try to be very careful.”
The thing about the violin is you can always soar; you can go above the whole orchestra. But the center of the cello register is where it’s generally densest in the orchestra. And if you want to create any kind of sonority or resonance within the orchestra, the notes that you usually use for that are taken by the cello. So you have to be very careful, because if you pack too much stuff in the same range, it just disappears.
Was there collaboration during the writing?
SALONEN When you write for someone who is extremely busy, like he is — and I am also busy — the workshop aspect is pretty much theoretical.
Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. Credit Anne Ryan
MA It was pretty much, “O.K., here’s the piece.”
So did you find ways to tailor it to your knowledge of Yo-Yo?
SALONEN What really fascinates me about performing, especially when I see Yo-Yo perform, is the communication. The fact that whatever he does is meant to come out, and reach out. And I thought I could build on that quality in the finale. The gestures become amplified and that sort of communication becomes like hypercommunication.
MA He said, “At the end you should feel burned up.”
SALONEN It’s like a heroic end.
After that ferocious finale, the last moment is an electronic echo of the cello’s final high note, sent out through speakers in the hall. What does that ending mean?
MA Only in rehearsal did you put in that last flash. And it was perfect because you wrote a note that is basically at the very limits. That’s the outer limit. It’s not unlike the boy who flew too close to the sun. Is it burning up? Do you break free?
SALONEN There’s one version of genesis in Greek mythology where the cosmos is surrounded by a membrane, which is Gaia. And now, when I think about it, the last B-flat might be the arrow that breaks through that membrane.
What are other images you’ve been discussing?
MA You used the word “primordial” a couple of times. Consciousness — where does consciousness emerge? Chaos, stasis comes up a lot. We talked about wanting to hear a sound that’s inside and can’t get out. In the finale you talked about a lung, so that’s internal, biological: You’re inside it and this thing is pulsating.
SALONEN When I started out, I was an obedient student of the modernist movement. And I listened to my superiors, Boulez and so on, and of course in that world there is no space for narrative, none. The very idea that music would be about something, it was soft. And as I get older, I realize that all music is about something. There isn’t one note that isn’t. And that thought liberated me as a composer a lot.
Many people at intermission were talking about the looping in the second movement: haunting echoes of cello fragments that seem to travel through the hall. What are you trying to convey?
SALONEN I had this idea of music that would seem like it was being born at that very moment, that it wasn’t composed so much. And I thought with looping, there’s a random element to it. You can control it, obviously, in terms of what is being looped, but you can’t control it in terms of how it comes out, precisely because of the randomness of the layering.
MA I think you set the stage for certain conditions to happen.
SALONEN I’ve done a couple of V.R. projects, and of course that’s the thing about virtual reality. It’s a tool that doesn’t work very well for narrative because you can’t tell the viewer: “Look there.” Because they can look anywhere. Instead, it creates a space where an experience can happen. With the static nature of the looping, I was hoping it would become an environment.
MA It’s not, “Oh, we’re using that technique.” It’s enhancing the aesthetic you had naturally; it’s very organic. Just like in the piece, you’re doing something different than direct quoting or paraphrasing of Lutoslawski or Tchaikovsky, but you pick up lots of influences. Just whiffs. They’re the DNA building blocks. And if someone else studies this work, they will find things in it that they can build on top of, and that’s what makes things grow.
SALONEN I think that the very beauty of this thing we call classical music is that you build on your predecessors’ work and you become part of this fabric which we call history.