Among Salonen's compositions are ...auf den ersten blick und ohne zu wissen... (1980, a saxophone concerto with a title taken from Franz Kafka's The Trial), Floof for soprano and ensemble (1982, on texts by Stanisław Lem) and the orchestral L.A. Variations (1996).
Salonen has stated that his time in California has helped him to be more "free" in his compositions. Mark Swed, chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times, described it this way:
When arrived in Los Angeles, he still liked to consider himself a composer-conductor, but the truth was that he had stopped writing music. "The obvious and easy explanation for me to give to people when they were asking why there hadn't been any new pieces for a while was that I had been conducting so much, I had no time," he said. "But that was only half the explanation." As a European Modernist, Salonen said, he had been inculcated with negatives, such as to avoid melody, harmonic identity and rhythmic pulse. Secretly, though, he was attracted to John Adams, who was then dismissed overseas as being simplistic. "Only after a couple of years here did I begin to see that the European canon I blindly accepted was not the only truth," he said. "Over here, I was able to think about this rule that forbids melody. It's madness. Madness!" Without a European musical elite looking over his shoulder, Salonen began to feel that it was fine to have his own ideas. "My focus moved from an ideological principle to a pleasure principle" is how he described the composition of his breakthrough piece, "LA Variations," which the Philharmonic premiered in 1997. Although a work of great intricacy and virtuosity that doesn't ignore Salonen's Modernist training, "LA Variations" builds on rhythmic innovations closer to Adams. The piece proved an immediate hit, so much so that Salonen was stunned by the reaction and then by the score's continuing success – it has been taken up by several other conductors and had more than 80 performances worldwide.
In order to devote more time to composition, Salonen took a year's sabbatical from conducting in 2000, during which time he wrote a work for solo horn (Concert Étude, the competition piece for Lieksa Brass Week), Dichotomie for pianist Gloria Cheng, Mania for the cellist Anssi Karttunen and sinfonietta, and Gambit, an orchestral piece that was a birthday present for fellow composer and friend Magnus Lindberg.
In 2001, Salonen composed Foreign Bodies, his largest work in terms of orchestration, which incorporated music from the opening movement of Dichotomie. Another orchestral piece, Insomnia, followed in 2002, and another, Wing On Wing, in 2004. Wing On Wing includes parts for two sopranos and distorted samples of architect Frank Gehry's voice as well as a fish.
As is apparent with his interpretations of such avant-garde works as Jan Sandström's Motorbike Concerto, Esa-Pekka Salonen voices a distaste for ideological and dogmatic approaches to composition and sees music creation as deeply physical. In the liner notes for Deutsche Grammophon's release of Wing On Wing, he is quoted saying "Musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression in my opinion. It all comes out of the body." A recurring theme in his music is the fusion of or relationship between the mechanical and the organic.
Salonen has among his intended composing projects a proposed opera based on the novel The Woman and the Ape by Peter Høeg.
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