Skip to page content

Composed: 2002

Length: 14 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (all = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, chimbasso (or tuba), timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongo, congas, crotales, glockenspiel, log drums, marimba, mark tree, opera gong, tam-tam, tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Collage and collective work were important elements in the Surrealist movement between World War I and II, revealing a sort of unconscious group gestalt through what the painter Max Ernst called "mental contagion." One of the techniques developed to guide this process was the Exquisite Corpse, something like MadLibs for intellectuals. Several people would, in turn, write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to hide part of it, and pass it along to the next person for their contribution. "The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine" (Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau) was one result of the process, giving the technique its name. The technique was also used for composite drawings by artists such as Yves Tanguy, Max Morise, Joan Miró, and Man Ray.

The Surrealist hope was that such apparently random juxtapositions would reveal a deeper psychological truth than art mediated by the conscious mind. Commissioned by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for its 75th anniversary, Hillborg's Exquisite Corpse is not a communal effort nor is it unpremeditated. It is assembled, however, as if a group of people had taken elements of Hillborg's music and put them together like a flamboyantly contrasted Surrealist chain.

"What I did was to (try to) consciously combine disparate material from my own pieces as well as from other composers," Hillborg told James Keller and the San Francisco Symphony. "For instance, there's a chord from Petrushka, there's a style quotation from Ligeti, etc. Originally, my intention was to leave these different parts alone, and not do transitions between them, but of course I couldn't resist... so in that respect one could say that the concept failed. But there are still traces of it, and anyway it's of course not important that the piece should reflect the Cadavre exquis process. All these tricks that we use to liberate our creativity are often precisely just that and are maybe interesting and important for the composer only.

"I should also mention that a quotation from Sibelius's Seventh Symphony is present, somewhat hidden. The Sibelius Seventh was commissioned by the Stockholm Philharmonic, and was also performed at the anniversary concert together with Exquisite Corpse. So I thought it a nice idea to send (the exquisite corpse of) Sibelius as a greeting, as well as connecting the past and the present for the audience."

- John Henken