Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg attracted major international attention in 1985 with his large-scale orchestral work, Kraft. This piece features a group of soloists drawn from an experimental ensemble Lindberg formed in the early 1980s together with Esa-Pekka Salonen. The primary focus of his music at this time was on gestural extremes and the exploration of the limits of instrumental possibility. UR, written in 1986, conveys a similar character.
While Kraft was conceived on a grand scale with the orchestra amplifying the intensity of the ensemble material, UR is chamber-sized. Scored for clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin, cello, bass, and piano, the score is like a mosaic, spotlighting different instruments in the midst of generally aggressive, rapidly shifting textures. A major addition to the ensemble is the electronic part, which consists of sequences of synthesized material triggered by the pianist by means of a MIDI keyboard. The piece was commissioned by IRCAM (Institute de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the center for computer music research in Paris founded by Pierre Boulez. Personal computers and MIDI were just coming into use at that time, so UR was intended to showcase the possibilities of the new technology.
It is not so well known that Lindberg is quite at home with computers. During his long sojourn in Paris in the 1980s (he lived there for most of the decade) he carried out research at IRCAM developing compositional software. A primary interest was the creation of interpolations between different elements such as rhythmic cells or harmonic aggregates (or pitch sets). UR, like most of his music, is densely active, usually with different layers of material evolving independently. A unifying feature, one he adopted for a number of compositions, is the revolving harmonic progression that unfolds over the course of the piece. For all the wildness of the music's surface, there is an underlying coherence to the music that draws the listener in and ultimately repays repeated hearings.
The electronic part stands out through the bell-like, or synthesized tone of the sounds, along with the generally fast, dramatic gestures that would be exceedingly difficult to perform live. The innovation of the technology used in UR was that the sequences of material, launched by a MIDI command sent by the keyboard, could be integrated into the ebb-and-flow of the live chamber music context. Prior to this, electronic parts would rigidly play back from a recorder, and live musicians would have to synchronize themselves, machine-like, to the strict tempo of the material on tape.
UR, along with its novel use of computer technology, is a colorful, turbulent piece. It has proved to be popular, but it turned out to be the last of Lindberg's compositions in this exploratory, somewhat abrasive style. He wouldn't complete another piece for two years.