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Esa-Pekka Salonen

Publisher: Chester Music

Insomnia (2002)
Work Notes
Canadian premiere reserved.
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
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Programme Note
Esa-Pekka Salonen Insomnia (2002)
Insomnia was written between March and November 2002. Technically speaking, it is a set of variations based on a harmonic model separated by a Ritornello-like section, which is essentially a pedal point on the note e.

The sound of Insomnia is darker and deeper than that of my other recent orchestral works. I decided to add a quartet of Wagner Tubas to the brass section for the very particular sonority only these rare and weird instruments can produce.

The two basic archetypes of my music, the chorale and the machine, are still an important part of the vocabulary, but now they are quite often in a state of flux, one thing becoming another gradually. Even the Ritornello phrase keeps changing shape and structure; only the characteristic harmony remains the same throughout the piece.

Insomnia begins with a woodwind chorale, continued in the horns and Wagner tubas. This chorale will reappear many times later in different guises. The first incarnation of the Ritornello follows, dominated by the heartbeat (irregular) of the timpani. The music speeds up to a Presto; first we hear a machine-like structure, which gradually develops into a more chamber music-like texture featuring a solo violin in a very important role.

Suddenly, the atmosphere darkens with the timpani and the trombones entering. What used to be a bright figuration of the solo violin, is now a dark and threatening rumbling in the cellos and the violas. After the return of the Ritornello (again dominated by the timpani), the machine music is back. This time it filters down to a folk music-like clarinet solo.

Next we hear a variation of the woodwind theme from the beginning, this time over (and under) pedal points in all registers of the orchestra. The next machine accelerates to a wild tutti section dominated by a neurotic trochee rhythm, which continues still in the third incarnation of the Ritornello.

From early in the composition process, I realized that this music was somehow about the night (an early working title was “Nox”), but not in an idyllic, nocturnal way. I was more drawn towards the demonic, “dark” aspects of the night: the kind of persistent, compulsive thoughts that run through our mind when lying hopelessly awake in the early hours.

The musical processes in Insomnia have a lot in common with the psychology of a sleepless night: some thoughts become prison cells we cannot escape; others keep coming back persistently. Towards the end of Insomnia the music finally calms down to an Adagio, dominated by the mellow sounds of the horns and the Wagner tubas. The very moment we think that we have finally arrived at the gates of sleep, the sun rises in its full glory. A new day begins, exultantly.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen on 'Insomnia' from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.

  • Ensemble
    Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Anu Komsi and Piia Komsi (sopranos)
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Deutsche Grammophon:
'You have to envy - or at least admire - a composer who can not only conduct his own work, but put it on a program of other music that speaks directly to it. That's what Esa-Pekka Salonen did Thursday night in his dynamic debut with the San Francisco Symphony, and the results were unforgettable. The program's centerpiece was Salonen's "Insomnia," a powerful, ear-opening orchestral essay written two years ago for a program in Tokyo. That performance alone, delivered with tenderness and uncompromising intensity, would have made this one of the most exciting concerts Davies Symphony Hall has witnessed this season. ...Salonen is also - perhaps even primarily - a composer of enormous imagination and technical bravura, and the 22-minute "Insomnia" sounded like a hugely important addition to the orchestral repertoire. As the title suggests, it's a dark, uncomfortable nightmare of a piece, not particularly dissonant but feverish and - until the concluding blaze of sunrise - deeply unsettled. The uneasiness of the wee hours has rarely been depicted with such cunning. The materials are compact, drawn largely from the opening pages. Here the woodwinds sing a chordal hymn whose apparent calm is punctured at the end of each measure by a sudden melodic spasm - the restless toss of an anxious sleeper, sketched in a few notes. That music is then subjected to a series of variations, often against the pounding thud of percussion and brass. At one point, the concertmaster leads the solo strings in a fervid, importuning dance of night specters; later, a chorus of French horns and Wagner tubas offers fleeting promises of relief. Yet the piece is nowhere near as uneasy as it may sound. Salonen's command of the orchestra is astonishing - though the writing is thick and sometimes bottom-heavy, the range of dark instrumental colors and chiaroscuro effects at his disposal is remarkable. His rhythmic palette, too, is extensive, and he works a large range of variations on a few simple metrical ideas. The result is a compositional tour de force, and the orchestra lit into it with ferocious zest.'
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic,03/04/2004
Salonen’s program set two classics of the early 20th century against a terrific work from the early 21st – his own ‘Insomnia’ (2002), which was having its American premiere. The demons that haunt Salonen’s wakeful night are a loud and impish lot. They sing ominous chorales and explode into tumultuous rhythms flung across a huge orchestral canvas that boasts extra percussion and a quartet of Wagner tubas. ‘Insomnia’ is a highly charged, ingeniously wrought piece that rejoiced in the sonic testosterone of our orchestra. Salonen the conductor nobly served Salonen the composer, and the crowd was clearly exhilarated.
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,05/04/2003
Finnish master Esa-Pekka Salonen, known above all as a conductor, created a fascinating tonal painting with his full-orchestral "Insomnia" from 2002, which crosses baroque forms and techniques (chorale, organ point) with futurisitc gestures, and furthermore produces a highly romantic mood of dreams, nocturnal thoughts, and fears. We read this in Salonen's analysis - and we heard it even better in the orchestra's interpretation. Thundering applause rewarded the beloved guests from Hamburg.
Gerhard Bauer, Kölner Stadtanzeiger,25/03/2003
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