In 1990, Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg was living in Paris, carrying out compositional research at IRCAM. That year, he composed Joy, a relatively large-scale work for the Ensemble InterContemporain. This piece used sampled sounds produced from recordings the composer made while destroying an old piano (vibrating strings, metallic sonorities, percussive noises, etc.). While Joy was eventually scored for a mixed ensemble of 23 musicians, Lindberg had evidently begun the piece thinking about keyboards and percussion. In 1997, he returned to this formation, composing Related Rocks for two pianists and two percussionists. The pianists also play electronic keyboards controlling samplers, the sounds derived from the same sources as in Joy.
As one would expect from this composer, Related Rocks is elaborate, colorful, and engaging. The percussionists play various keyboards (tuned percussion), so that there are many passages in which flurries of struck notes whirl around the resonating space of the music. The piece is built from a series of connected sections, often quite clearly defined. The opening, tolling low notes in the pianos and bass drums spilling out into high, bell-like flourishes, is straightforwardly dramatic. Throughout, the music tends to be sonorous. The harmonic underpinning is relatively simple, and there are many resonances of tonal chords. One continuum Lindberg explores is between the overtone-related harmonic structure and the spectral characteristics of the sampled/electronic sounds. The noisier aspects of those imported sounds form a bridge to the gongs and cymbals the percussionists play.
Lindberg, who, in addition to Related Rocks has written a piano solo (Twine, 1988) and a Piano Concerto (1991), is clearly an accomplished pianist. The writing is highly idiomatic and virtuosic, at times recalling the bravura of nineteenth-century piano music. There is a passage about two-thirds of the way in that runs through a sequence of triadic arpeggios racing up and down the keyboards that could come right out of that era (apart from the Thai gongs). The percussion writing, too, is also highly accomplished. This is intricate chamber music, with the individual parts interlocking in a variety of ways to create scintillating textures that shift often quite rapidly between synchronized patterns, layered materials, and diffuse soundscapes. After a minimalist reference at the 14-minute mark, the music moves through a carefully controlled transition to land on a comical boogie-woogie (jazzed up by having two tempos carry on simultaneously!). This homage to a different era of pianistic virtuosity shifts to a sonorous, dramatic passage to close the piece.
Related Rocks contains a welter of references, but the music retains coherence through the relatively consistent character of the harmonic signposts that anchor the sonorities. The fast pace of the score matches very well the percussive character the instruments. The clarity of attack makes the rhythmic cycles and layers so much easier to perceive than with other ensembles. This work provides a welcome addition to the two piano/two percussion-genre begun by Bartók with his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.