Among the remarkable group of musicians studying with composer Magnus Lindberg at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, in the late '70s and early '80s, were some extremely talented performers. The conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste are perhaps best known, but others include clarinetist Kari Kriikku and cellist Anssi Karttunen. Lindberg has written a number of works featuring one or the other, or both, of these instrumentalists and the two conductors have directed a great many of his scores, as well. Zona (1983) is one such piece, composed for Karttunen and the Nieuw Ensemble of the Netherlands, a joint commission from Finnish Radio and Dutch Radio.
The Nieuw Ensemble is unusual in its instrumental combination, which features a preponderance of plucked and struck sounds. For Zona, Lindberg draws upon the harp, piano, and percussion, in addition to alto flute, bass clarinet, violin, and double bass. He is, thus, able to create a continuum of texture, from sustained sonorities at all registers to percussive ones, with the cello able to move from one to the other, bowing the notes or plucking them, playing anywhere from low to high registers.
The piece is built on several strata. One is the gradual emergence of the cello as the dominant voice, arising from the opening passages where the textures are more egalitarian. Another is the formal division into three linked movements, the middle one featuring sparser textures and a cadenza for the cello. The final section is rather disjointed, as if the different strands had unrolled, the soloist gaining in prominence (partly through the increasingly virtuosic writing for the cello). A third layer is the concern for interpolating rhythmic processes, where certain figures (or densities, more generally) are gradually transformed into other ones. It was in working on this piece that Lindberg discovered his need for a computer to carry out the necessary calculations. It will be apparent, in listening to the music, that there are usually a number of ongoing rhythmic processes unfolding at the same time. This is typical of Lindberg's music. Underlying the complexity of the rhythmic organization is a fourth compositional stratum, harmony. As in many other pieces, the composer makes use of the chaconne principal. Cycles of chords unfold, unifying Zona's sound world, though this aspect of the music is far from obvious.
Zona takes its title from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Stalker. In this quest story, the zone is the place the characters are heading to, an almost mythical place where energies are most focused, where dreams may come true. But, one's dreams may not be what one imagines them to be. Lindberg reflects this darker aspect of the concept of zone by ending his piece at a point in its trajectory where the material is most fractured and extreme.