Esa-Pekka Salonen explains how providence led him to create ‘Gemini’

Benjamin Suomela

Esa-Pekka Salonen shares his thoughts about Gemini and its two constituent parts. Castor and Pollux, the two movements of his work, Gemini (2019), are named for the twin half-brothers of mythology, whose names also grace a pair of stars in the constellation Gemini. Pollux was composed first, on commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic: 

Pollux has a ritualistic character, based on a mantra rhythm I heard during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. A post-grunge band played in the background, and I wrote down the bass line on a paper napkin, not knowing exactly what it was and who the musicians were. I couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to use a heavily modified version of it in Pollux. The pattern has been distilled to pure rhythm and slowed down to less than quarter speed of the original.”

Another source of material is a chorale (here wordless) based on the first lines of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus):

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung! (There rose, a tree. Oh, pure transcendence!)/O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr! (Oh, Orpheus sings! Oh, tall tree in the ear!)

“I was very taken by the funny and surreal Salvador Dali-like image of a tree growing out of the ear. The metaphor is far from obvious, but it is clear that Orpheus can unify art and nature by the sheer force of his song. Every musician I know would like to be able to do that.

“Pollux oscillates between cloud-like formations (that’s where demigods dwell) and more clearly defined textures of the Orpheus music. After the final, fortissimo incarnation of the chorale, a nostalgic English horn solo brings Pollux to home. At the very end, there’s an Aeolian echo (a scale used in ancient Greece), a simple chord consisting of natural harmonics in the strings. I was trying to imagine something much older than most music.

“Castor is the mortal twin brother of Pollux. They share their musical DNA, but Castor introduces some completely independent material. Castor is mostly hyperactive, noisy and extroverted. The music gesticulates wildly, often in extreme registers. Two pairs of timpani and two bass drums are the rhythmic fundament upon which freer, ornamental lines build. A light, dance-like episode develops into a manic episode dominated by a trochee figure. It burns itself out and sinks onto a low B-flat, the second lowest note on the piano. A massive canon, fortissimo, starts in the strings and the horns, rises to the orchestra’s highest range and sinks into an abyss.”

Castor can be played separately as an independent short orchestral work, or following Pollux without pause, attacca. The two pieces performed together are called Gemini, not surprisingly.

“During the composition process of Pollux, I encountered a strange problem: my material seemed to want to grow in two completely opposite directions. My solution was to write two independent but genetically linked orchestral works. Pollux, slow and quite dark in expression, was the first of them. Castor, extroverted and mostly fast, followed later.”

Gemini took shape as Salonen began referring to the two music identities emerging in his compositional sketches as “brothers.” He realized that they would not, could not, co-exist in a cohesive, formal unit as a single movement piece. “This made me think of the myth of the non-identical twins Castor and Pollux, who share half of their DNA, but have some extreme phenotype differences and experience dramatically different fates,” he said.

“In Greco-Roman mythology, Pollux was immortal, as he was fathered by Zeus. Castor was mortal, as he was sired by Tyndareus, the King of Sparta, although his status changed post-mortem. The mother of both was Leda, who while being already pregnant by her husband, had a tryst with Zeus, who seduced her in the form of a swan. (There’s something intriguing in the idea of this famed beauty having a penchant for large water birds.)”

Source: Wise Music Classical

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