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About this Piece

Composed: 2002
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = alto flute, 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, Chinese gong, cowbells, crotales, glockenspiel, log drums, marimba, mark tree, rototoms, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tams, tom-toms, triangle, tuned gongs, vibraphone), harp, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 4, 2005, with the composer conducting

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 entrance of the timpani and the trombones. 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 the 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. Toward 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 is Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.