Saturday, December 22, 2007

trad. Canadian

Today is Christmas dinner. Not the official one, I suppose, but the one I look forward to most, when we get together with our various expat friends and their Finnish spouses (spice?), whoever's in Finland around Christmas, and cook a huge, decadent feast. It's become a tradition in the last few years, and it's our turn to host, which pleases me greatly. There's very little I like so much as making food for sharing with the people I care about. It's a fairly conventional affair, eggnog, turkey and such, with a few adaptations of the old-style dishes. Instead of stuffing, I made a bread pudding, and the usual heavy Christmas pudding, which I gave up on because local ingredients don't adapt well to my recipe, has been replaced with an absolutely heart-stopping steamed toffee pudding. Can't wait for dessert.

Preparing a meal like this, I inevitably find my thoughts drawn back to my family's Christmas table in Canada, and how it reflects my/our interpretation of tradition. Over the years, especially as my siblings and I got older, we developed a routine of two family meals, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with slightly different rules. Christmas dinner itself, which is usually my mother's domain, is everything you'd expect of from a largely Anglo-Saxon family: turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, gravy and plum pudding, the recipe for which has been in the family for the better part of a century, a sort of poor-man's pudding made of cheap ingredients, concocted during World War I and handed down from my Scottish great-grandmother.

I always enjoy this dinner, with its relative formality and consistent elements, but for my money, the meal most accurately reflecting my family's makeup is on Christmas Eve, when all the quirky bits of our heritage come out. Sitting side-by-side with lasagna (the presence of which is more or less inexplicable, since there's not a drop of Italian blood anywhere in us) and New World desserts like New York-style cheesecakes, you'll find Greek dishes like spanakopita and dolmades, family favorites that come to us from my maternal grandfather's family. Then there are the French Canadian dishes my sister-in-law makes: baked beans, tourtière (meat pie) and occasionally the majestic six-pâtes, a huge, heavy dish made of layers of game meat stews and pastry, baked for hours and fed a steady diet of meat broth for the potatoes to absorb. Heavenly, and deadly. This is serious lumberjack fare from the colonial days.

What I love is the eclectic nature of it all, the fact that all this stuff is brought together on one table for no other reason than that it all tastes good. You don't even have to eat all of it, just take whatever strikes you as appetizing. And this, I think, is the essence of what it means to be of the New World, and from an immigrant family, indeed, nowadays, as an immigrant myself: tradition is no more or less than what you bring with you. There's a pleasing absence of blind obeisance, of doing things a certain way just because that's the way they're done, and have been for centuries. Traditions are patched together from what you know, the parts of your historical makeup that make the most sense to you, with very little reference to consistency or received wisdom.

Not that there's anything wrong with long traditions. They're common in the part of the world where I live, as in many parts of the Americas with long-established communities, and they give people a deeply rooted sense of who they are and what makes them that way, one you mess with at your peril. It's admirable, and it makes me slightly envious, coming as I do from a mixed heritage of cultures, without a long attachment to place or community to provide structures and attitudes. The Scottish and Greek come from my mother; my father is of largely British extraction, but of a family that settled in – wait for it – Turkey in the 18th century, and came to Canada via a detour of some years in what is now Zimbabwe.

Being a first-generation citizen on my dad's side, I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what, exactly, I was. Living in a small town away from the large immigrant groups, we had no particular attachment to the Greek or Scottish communities, and even English Canada was a little distant from my experience, growing up as I did in the French-speaking community, and perhaps picking up more of their traditions and cultural structures than any others. (I think my fondness for French music is attributable to simply understanding it, the way it speaks, from the start.) Living in the borderlands between many cultures can be unnerving, really having nothing that can be taken for granted as an essential part of your selfhood. Everything must be questioned, its relative value assessed on an individual basis.

Gradually, though, I came to realize that this could be a source of strength, that a lack of received wisdom is liberating, exhilarating, even. Not having a tradition to uphold, you're free to pick and choose what suits you best, what works at a given time, and to discard the structures that don't mean anything to you, or just don't fit the way you think (sonata form, indeed, form as a preset concept, is one of these things for me). It sounds like I'm endorsing some sort of postmodernist pastiche approach to life and art, which isn't really the case. Juxtaposing things only works for so long, eventually becoming self-referential. Rather, the idea is identify those structures which are strongest, figure out what they have in common, and graft them together into something that makes sense to you.

Being neither entirely of the New World or the Old, ultimately, I don't feel a responsibility to either uphold or reject any particular aspect of my heritage, only, I think, to try to sort it all out coherently and present it to the world and hope somebody finds value therein. I've long since left Christianity behind, but Christmas dinner remains, this relic of my upbringing, a paradoxical reminder both of how far I've moved away from my roots and how close I still am to them and, more than anything else, a symbol of tradition and its endless ability to adapt, incorporate new elements, and take on new and ever more valuable meanings.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Horning In (with apologies to David Rakowski)

With my semester finally over – not that it's been an unusually heavy one, but still – and the Christmas choral season more or less put to bed, I'm free to put down a few ideas over the next couple of weeks. It's a nice feeling to know that, despite the fact that this blog is still mainly a way of avoiding any real academic writing, I don't have too many other pressing things that I really should be doing.

Browsing the NY Times, as I do on daily basis, I was bemused by a review of a chamber concert by Allan Kozinn. I don't usually read too many reviews unless they have to do with new music, but the mention of "horn" in the title caught my former brass-jock eye. After distancing myself from my ex-instrument for about ten years, I've suddenly found myself writing for it a lot lately, with a recent trio with violin and piano, a fanfare for three horns, and an upcoming concerto. There truly is no escape.

Anyway, Kozinn writes of the concert:

"The first oddity, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A flat (Op. 70), is a rarity for the soundest of reasons: It is scored for French horn and piano, and horn writing as expansive and exposed as this is too perilous to attract many takers. David Jolley is as good a hornist as you’ll find in New York’s chamber music world, but the Adagio largely defeated his efforts to stay firmly on pitch and avoid cracked notes."

I was uncharacteristically quick to overcome my initial, deeply ingrained bristle at the description of one of the central works of the horn repertoire – if not the Everest, than at least Anapurna or K2 – as an "oddity", one that, I might add, is regularly pilfered by many other instruments ranging from the violin, viola and cello to [shudder] the oboe. I was mostly amused by his noting that David Jolley had trouble with the Adagio movement, to which my only reaction is that nobody has an easy time with this piece, ever. Even if they do it perfectly, they nearly had a heart attack trying. I still have nightmares about the woefully exposed high C in the Adagio, and get cold sweats about running out of "face" at the end.

My friend Tommi, the most simultaneously Zen and kamikaze horn player I know, performed it last year on one of his doctoral recitals, and I nearly passed out. Literally. Listening to it, I found myself uncomfortable, tense, short of breath. Absently noticing my spasmodically clenching and unclenching left hand, I realized I was fingering the damn thing right along with him, fearing the worst as high notes approached, knowing all the spots in the Allegro where a tiny, desperate breath can be caught before diving headlong back into the fray. It really is that hard. So I tip my hat to anyone with the guts to go out and play it, legend or not. A few slips on the final ridge still gets you to the peak, right?

The other quote that caught my attention concerned the Brahms trio:

"The balance problems born of putting a horn in a small ensemble were evident as ever (here’s a piece that works better on recording), but Mr. Fleisher and Mr. Laredo were able to wrest the spotlight more often than not, and in the two fast movements, their energetic, mercurial playing was offset by Mr. Jolley’s evocation of a hunting horn, which gave the performance an agreeably earthy quality."

This is an important observation: balancing this ensemble is almost impossible. When I wrote my trio last year, it started out being a compact, nicely behaved little piece, with the horn safely in its corner, but I still ended up calibrating the whole thing in one way or another to the horn's overpowering personality. No matter how careful you are, there are always spots where the horn just buries the other two instruments, and of course, you don't get to find this out until you hear the piece. It's especially perilous in the Brahms, where the horn part is an integral part of the contrapuntal texture, every bit as important to the piece as a cello would be in one of his piano trios. This is the miracle of this work, in fact, that Brahms refused to condescend to the instrument, relegating it to a few hunting horn riffs while the violin hogs the spotlight.

It's all the more remarkable that Brahms actually specified that a natural horn (i.e. valveless) be used. The composer had a well-documented preference for the timbre of the unadorned instrument, I'm guessing because early horn valves were leaky, marring the tone, and the mechanism was noisy. However, the natural horn is a bit of a specialty these days, and the players who have truly mastered it sadly don't get heard in a high-profile settings much of the time. So hearing the Brahms trio on a modern instrument is par for the course, with all the inherent balance problems.

And yet, one has to wonder if there has indeed always been a balance issue with this piece, if it was problematic in Brahms' day as well. It turns out, I discovered fairly recently, that the answer is an emphatic "No". On another of his epic concerts this fall, Tommi performed the trio on natural horn, and decided to make it a period affair, with the violinist playing on gut strings, and an 1893 Érard piano, a rare instrument owned by the Sibelius Academy that was reconditioned for the occasion. (I have a sentimental attachment to this instrument, being the same type of piano Debussy owned, and whose veiled sound is the archetype for his late piano works.) With this ensemble, the Brahms trio sounded much gentler than one would expect. Because modifying the pitch on the natural horn requires a multitude of different hand positions in the bell, some more muffling than others, the overall tone has to be softer in order to avoid having random notes jump out of a melodic line.

The misty sound of the Érard, combined with the gut strings and the oddly distant-sounding horn, made the piece feel much more intimate, less extrovert, even in more dramatic passages, as if the music were enveloped in a warm, sepia glow. It was like hearing an old phonograph recording, a relic of another time, when instruments weren't so loud, and one occasionally had to lean in to catch all the details. It was magical, hearing it played as Brahms might have , indeed, how he probably wanted to hear it.

The point remains: horn, violin and piano is an extremely tricky beast to write for, and composers who take it on do so at their peril. Those who have navigated it successfully often come up with original ways of working the horn into the group, like Ligeti's trio, where for much of the piece the horn inhabits its own world, or a more recent work by Marc-André Dalbavie, in which the horn is only introduced about four minutes in, a novel idea with the effect of making one initially forget that the horn was supposed to be there at all. But hearing the Brahms trio as nature intended was significant proof that the mere fact of adding a horn to an ensemble doesn't require clearing the furniture, or at least it didn't always.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Soul food

In the spirit of the season, which is to say, excess, I offer one of my favorite comfort food recipes, for when the richness of holiday cooking gets to be too much. (Apologies for the mixed measures.)

Matt's Penne with Chèvre, Sundried Tomatoes and Basil

2-3 tbsp olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 pinches chili flakes, to taste
1 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
2 14-oz. cans Italian tomatoes, chopped
2-3 tbsp tomato paste
150 g. (6 oz.) chèvre (soft goat cheese), room temperature
1 large bunch basil leaves, chiffonaded
3 chicken breasts (optional)
500 g. (1 lb) tricolor penne
salt and fresh ground black pepper

Season, grill or sauté chicken breasts, if using, slice thinly and reserve. Heat olive oil in medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and chili flakes and fry until garlic is soft but not browned, 1-2 min. Add sundried tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste and black pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 min. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add pasta and cook to al dente. Drain and return to pot. Season sauce with salt to taste and gently reheat chicken. Pour hot sauce over pasta, add chicken and chèvre, and stir to melt the cheese and thoroughly coat the pasta. Stir in the basil chiffonade at the last second to keep from wilting too much, and share out among 4 plates. Garnish each serving with cracked black pepper and a basil top.

Serves 4

This can also work as a baked dish. Undercook the pasta a little, mix with sauce, cheese and basil, spread into a baking dish and add extra dollops of chèvre on top. Bake until cheese is melted and the pasta is cooked through.

Monday, December 10, 2007

And this is a problem because...?

Yesterday's NY Times featured an article by Charles Rosen about his friend Elliott Carter, whose 99th birthday is tomorrow – the same day as my wife's 28th, I'm inexplicably tickled to discover. Rosen writes very sympathetically about Carter's life and music. Although I've never been a big Carterhead, I appreciate some of his early works like the cello and piano sonatas, and find that his music is becoming ever more appealing as he approaches his centenary. However, it's not so much Rosen's tributes to Carter's music that caught my attention as his mild slam of an unnamed piece in a contrasting aesthetic. He relates the story of his first meeting with Carter at an ISCM concert in 1956:

"One generally went to the society’s concerts to see friends; only a small amount of the music played there was attractive, since most contemporary music, like most of the music of any other period of history, is of little interest."

Hmm, whatever. But go on...

"On this occasion, if I remember correctly, one work was a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes (but the performance was abbreviated to 40 minutes)."

Ack! Shock!! Horror!!! A piece that only employs a single pitch! For a very long time! What a laughable, ridiculous idea! Seriously, though, how does one write a credible criticism of a piece, even a pithy one, by citing a work's very means of articulation as a pejorative? Rosen's comment proceeds from the offhand, a priori assumption that the very concept of this piece is unworthy of consideration. Nothing else is revealed about it, no other factors taken into account. What was the nameless composer trying to achieve with the piece, and was he/she successful? Was it performed by a sympathetic musician, or did the violinist treat the piece with contempt and play it badly? Was the piece well programmed, or did the other works on the concert not leave it enough space to be received in a favorable light? These and many other questions could be asked before dismissing a piece, but its use a single pitch (a trick that, I might add, is deployed to great effect by Carter himself in Four Études and a Fantasy) and long duration seem to be grounds enough to treat it as inconsequential. If it's not even worth asking these questions, why comment about said piece at all, except to score cheap points for your side of a largely no-longer-relevant aesthetic debate?

This post once again reveals my tendency to blow tiny comments way out of proportion, but I think Rosen's flippant attitude toward this mystery piece is indicative of a larger contempt held by certain proponents of mid-century modernism for any piece that does not aspire to their particular brand of complexity and ambition, and is therefore by its very nature flawed. But to criticize a piece based solely on its means of construction is no criticism at all, really. A similar thing happened to a colleague of mine last spring. She had composed a piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, a ballsy, uncompromisingly repetitive work that sounded like Morton Feldman's Coptic Light on steroids. It was a very risky thing to do for her first big orchestra commission. I thought it was incredible: beautiful, powerful and stirring. I ended up being one of a tiny minority of people who liked it. It was, as I recall, vocally disliked by many, and even booed by a few. The review that appeared a day or two later, though, based its criticism on the fact that the percussion section carried most of the musical argument in the early stages of the piece, as if writing extensively for percussion in an orchestra piece is in and of itself a bad thing. No further comment necessary.

It's okay to make choices as an artist. I generally think that holding to strong beliefs about the "rightness" of one's aesthetic choices creates art that speaks urgently and convincingly in most cases, and that the idea that everyone should like everything is somewhat naïve. But one can and should remain open to meeting the composer halfway. A good critic, professional or armchair, knows how to check their expectations at the door and be receptive to what an artist is trying to accomplish, and evaluate a work on the success or failure of its particular project. Perhaps the piece Rosen is so dismissive of was indeed a failure. But the way he comments about it implies that such an idea is destined to be a failure from its very inception, and should be given no further consideration. Good criticism – of one's own work and that of others – needs to be based on more than knee-jerk positions, taking into account myriad factors that go into the creation and presentation of an artwork. Simply pushing it aside in this way diminishes the discourse and the critic both.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Cud chewing

One of my upcoming projects is a concerto for horn and strings for my friend Tommi Hyytinen. I'm not planning on starting it until the fall of 2008, but as is my habit with big pieces, I'm preparing for it far in advance, working out ideas, basic sonic concepts, mood, etc. Horn and strings is a very clean, cool soundworld, one I have an abiding fondness for. I played Gordon Jacob's concerto some ten years ago, sadly not with orchestra, and love the bleak melancholy Nordic composers bring to the combination, as in Kurt Atterberg's quirky essay in the medium, which also includes piano and percussion, and Lars-Erik Larsson's brief yet satisfying Concertino. The première of my yet-to-be-written concerto will be given in 2009-10 by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, based in Tommi's hometown of Kokkola, on the west coast of Finland. I've been listening to their recordings to get an idea of the group's sound, and I'm struck by the rough-edged, yet highly lyrical approach to everything from Mozart to new music. I'm informed that their playing style is rooted in Ostrobothnian folk music, especially the fiddle tradition, which explains much about their unique sound.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the overall mood I want to convey with the piece. Pondering on the ideas of folk music, nordicity, and such, I found myself drawn back to a piece I hadn't heard in years: Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto in A minor, which uses as lush a string orchestra as you'll hear anywhere. Vaughan Williams, as with many other composers I've blogged about here, was a youthful discovery of mine. One of my early mentors, the Missouri-born Montreal playwright, poet, actor, artist and all-around Renaissance man Fred Ward, was a huge fan of old Ralph, and through him I heard most of RVW's works in my late teens. Although I tend to like most everything of Vaughan Williams', I was particularly attracted to the so-called "pastoral" works like the Oboe Concerto, 3rd Symphony, and the lovely Hymn Tune Preludes – "Eventide" is a particular favorite. I pulled apart a score of the Tallis Fantasia when I was about 19, and later wrote a piece for trumpet, cello and string orchestra that, viewed dispassionately years later, is tinged with a certain English-folk-music-meets-Ives quality. That sound of massed choirs of strings was very seductive, and it left its mark on the way I think of ensemble sound in general.

As with most youthful enthusiasms, Vaughan Williams eventually gave way to the more outwardly sophisticated music of Tippett, and later Britten. Living in Finland, one doesn't get to hear a lot of English music, especially of the cowpat variety, though the Radio Symphony is performing the Tallis Fantasia later this spring, which pleases me greatly. I hadn't heard Vaughan Williams in a good ten years until last year, when my good friend David Searle conducted the 5th Symphony with the Helsinki University Orchestra as part of a program of English music which included another favorite of mine, William Walton's Viola Concerto. I was utterly taken aback at how fresh Vaughan Williams' music sounded, how effortlessly alive and breathing, and reflected on how rare it was these days to hear such honest, unaffected lyricism in a big symphonic work. The slow movement especially touched me deeply, an anthem-like meditation in which you'd swear that identifiable snatches of English hymn tunes surface momentarily before morphing into something else.

Building on that experience, the Oboe Concerto seemed like the right place to start, what with its gentle mood and un-concerto-like lack of obvious virtuosity. So, as an excuse to put my new toy to use, I downloaded a recording, got a score, and am once again quite taken with a piece of rather neglected music, in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life sort of way. The first thing that leaps out at me is how smoothly and effortlessly, not to mention how simply Vaughan Williams sways back and forth between fast music and slow, rhapsody and concision, stasis and motion. It's arresting to hear a headlong forward lunge give way suddenly to slow, polyphonic textures, yet none of the transitions ever seems forced, or any of the individual sections too short. The music progresses so naturally from one idea to the next, it's almost as if a gentle breeze were carrying the piece along on its gusts and lulls.

Another remarkable facet of the piece is how little truly fast music it contains. Though there's no official slow movement – the traditional slow middle movement is replaced with a short, cleverly jaunty minuet rife with hemiola – slowness and stasis dominate the piece, interspersed with faster episodes that provide contrast, yet don't overwhelm the lyricism of the slow music. Vaughan Williams upends the concerto tradition by neither writing anything particularly flashy, nor providing much in the way of virtuosic climaxes. Passagework tends to dissolve into stasis rather than lead to anything conclusive. The solo part is obviously very difficult, if the audible clicking of the oboe's keys is any indication, and one is left with the impression of having heard something exciting, but not of having heard a musician work very hard to achieve that excitement.

One of the most difficult things in contemporary music, in my opinion, is the writing of fast music. I rarely hear fast, non-minimalist, yet still pulse-driven new music that I feel works. Often, it's almost as if you can hear the gears in the composer's head churning as they work out their ideas. Very frequently, you come across music that I like to describe as "new notes over old rhythms", that is, a modern pitch content laid over an 18th- or 19th-century rhythmic framework, which is just awkward-sounding a lot of the time. (How many galumphing, mixed-meter octatonic/12-tone scherzi have you heard in your lifetime? I've written a couple, sad to say.) The default cliché for solo wind instrument and string or small orchestra is the churning motor rhythms and note-spinning melodic writing common in the lesser derivations of neoclassicism. Wanting to avoid that as much as possible, if not entirely, Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto is becoming an object lesson for me in how to approach the concerto from a fresh perspective, without a lot of the baggage we've come to expect of the form in terms of showy finger tricks and gallery-playing dramatic highlights. Long may that gentle breeze continue to blow.

Monday, December 3, 2007

My thing

This past weekend, I went to the Helsinki Chamber Choir's second concert of the season. They were performing Britten's A Boy Was Born, so I wasn't about to miss it. Also on the program was Thomas Weelkes' When David Heard, which sounded surprisingly contemporary for a 17th-century piece, very much like Gesualdo is its quirky harmonic turns, as well as the Finnish première of Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight?, a setting of Rumi for double choir that ends in a clangorous unison F, with added Thai gongs and tubular bells to boot. Insanely effective, and refreshing to hear such minimal use of instruments in choral music. (One of my choral conductor friends was once heard to utter, "I'll take my choir straight up, thanks. Hold the piano.") In fact, those gongs just might end up in my new choir piece. The concept already includes simple parts for bass drum and tuned glasses, but may be open to other additions.

The crux of this post came about in a conversation with some friends afterward. I was describing the concept for the new piece, and mentioned that the choir had requested something calm, ceremonial and meditative (in French), and that the more I thought about it, the less I felt like writing another calm, spacious piece – this despite the fact that it's more or less ready to go in terms of its formal layout. One friend then asked, "Well, isn't calm and meditative your thing?" It was kindly meant, coming from someone who knows me and my music very well, but it brings up a significant problem with contemporary music.

It often seems like the world tries to impose categories on composers for its own convenience. Consistency is one of the hallmarks of Western music, and people frequently expect you to display a sort of Brahmsian approach to composing, working within well-defined areas that are identifiable from piece to piece. Do what you do well, stick to it, don't stray off the path. The twentieth century encouraged these perceptions, with its steady stream of "isms" and proprietary musical languages. More often than not, when people talk about a composer's "voice", this consistency is what they mean. Some composers do it extremely well, like Magnus Lindberg, whose music is instantly recognizable as his and nobody else's, and depressingly good pretty much all the time. Reich, Feldman and Takemitsu also come to mind as examples. Others, though, aren't so lucky as to have found such a rewarding sound world, or aren't as comfortable staying in one place, so some other aspect of their music becomes their "thing". It's one of the stamps that allows the rest of the world to identify you, to know what to expect from you. It sure makes it easier to brand and market your music. (Arvo Pärt, anyone?)

For me, apparently, it's "slow and meditative", and not without reason. I've been doing a lot of that lately. Having trained under a series of teachers who liked to see fast music and harmonic variety, when I moved to Finland and became a little more independent creatively, I started indulging my fascination with long, slow harmonies, static clusters and deep breaths to its fullest. I freely admit it's a corner I've painted myself into, and happily so. But I don't consider it my area to the exclusion of all else. I very frequently change focus from piece to piece. Last year, after completing a 30-minute essay in stasis for choir and tape, I let loose with a big, loud, fast, colorful concert opener for orchestra, and it felt great.

Part of it is not wanting to get bored. I have a short attention span when it comes to my musical interests, and work in accordance with that, because it keeps me at my best. Another part of it is a death fear of repeating myself, which may appear to the outside world as an inability to commit to anything – and was reviewed as such by one critic after a concert last spring. But again, it's not uncommon, even among the composers thought of as the most consistent. Beethoven wrote his 5th and 6th symphonies concurrently, which puts the lie to the "fate knocking at the door vs. redemption" story, and shows that even composers with burning, irrepressible things to say like variety in their working lives.

None of this is a complaint, mind you. I'm happy to write within certain specifications, and as far as limitations go, these aren't onerous at all. In fact, they're geared toward my compositional comfort zone. The choir was entirely reasonable in expecting such a piece from me, and I'm fairly confident that I'll find a way to keep it fresh, for myself and for the performers. But I'm afraid, as are many other creative artists, I think, that at some point I'll start constantly falling back on an established set of tricks and, worse still, won't be able to tell the difference between having found "my thing" and just being in a creative rut. And everyone knows that's no place to be.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The north speaks

"When I went to the north, I had no intention of writing about it, or of referring to it, even parenthetically, in anything that I wrote. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions based on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing musical critiques, for instance, in which the north – the idea of north – began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban-oriented and spiritually limited thereby."

"Something really does happen to most people who go into the north – they become at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents, and, quite often I think, come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility – they become, in effect, philosophers."

–Glenn Gould, notes from The Idea of North

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Better late than never

Steve Hicken's quiz over at Listen gave me some real posers. Late to the party, as always, but here are my answers, in no particular order:

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?
Schreker, Die Gezeichneten
Berg, Lulu
Janacek, Katja Kabanova
Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage
Saariaho, Adriana Mater (I'll get my wish on this last one over the winter.)

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?
Adams, Harmonium (or Harmonielehre, I'm not too picky)
Feldman, Coptic Light
Mahler, Symphony #2 (Again, first time next spring.)
Palestine, Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone
Tippett, A Child of our Time

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?
Christian Tetzlaff
Sigur Rós (came close a few weeks ago)
Yo Yo Ma
The Dixie Chicks
Marc-André Hamelin

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet? (This one's tough, because I've actually met a lot of the ones I'm interested in, sometimes just in passing. Nevertheless...)

Steve Reich
Terry Riley
Sally Beamish
György Kurtág
Marc-André Dalbavie

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?
We: Me, Poul Ruders (very tall), Gustavo Dudamel (seems very energetic)
They: Richard Taruskin, Philip Glass, Andrew Clements

Monday, November 12, 2007

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark...

After a weekend spent at an intensive rehearsal session with our choir, I'm back in the city grading papers and doing the laundry, trying to avoid looking outside. The winter is setting in, when pundits like to trot out suicide statistics and other fun topics. I read somewhere – I can't be bothered looking up such depressing things – that most suicides in northern Europe occur toward the end of winter, when people just can't take it anymore. But as far as I'm concerned, the greatest endurance test living in southern Finland is the six- to eight-week stretch between November and late December. It keeps getting darker, with no relief. It rains constantly, and the impenetrable, ever-present cloud cover makes it seem like the sun never rises. (True story: my first year here, I saw the sun exactly twice during November – flying to Germany and back.) There's no snow to brighten the landscape, and the weather gets into your head like a fog. You're tired all the time, and every nerve in your body screams when your alarm goes off in the morning. It's a time to draw family and friends close, talk, laugh, drink, and get each other through it.

I think it's part of the reason the recent Jokela school massacre has hit the populace so hard. Make no mistake: people are well and truly rattled here. Such things are generally thought of as happening "over there" – a generic location meant to describe anywhere but peaceful, law-abiding Finland. Anytime such a tragedy occurred, it would have cut Finns to the heart, but for it to come at this darkest time of year doesn't help. There is a great pain in the air that will take time to heal, and won't be helped along helped by inane commentary based on clichés and non-sequiturs that passes for news analysis in some circles, nor by a smug, condescending follow-up to perfectly justifiable outrage. There's been the predictable response: shock, mourning, calls for limiting access to handguns, or an outright ban on them, entirely reasonable to an anti-gun person like myself. And then there's a tabloid media awash in pictures of the leering, self-appointed "natural selector" who perpetrated this unthinkable deed, and precious little mention of the victims. All of it set against that dark, dark backdrop.

I was selfishly glad to get out of the city, then, to a place that holds a special significance for me. Our choir retreats there for the weekend before each big concert to work up our repertoire, and it makes a huge difference, giving people the intensive workout big pieces require, and letting the singers relax and bond in a way that's not really possible during the normal work week. It's an old farming estate cum course/concert center owned by the Sibelius Academy in the town of Järvenpää, on the shore of Lake Tuusula just across a field from Ainola, Sibelius' country house. (It's also close to Jokela, a fact not lost on anyone in attendance this past weekend.) I've been going there regularly since I moved to Finland in 2001. It's a Sibelius Academy tradition to take its incoming foreign students there for a weekend in the fall, and it's where I had my first authentic experience of the Finnish landscape.

Some friends and I had walked to Ainola, discovering to our dismay that it was closed for the winter. Deciding to explore the surroundings, we met a man in his fifties walking a trio of identical, fluffy pocket dogs who, hearing us speak English, asked (the man, not the dogs) where we were visiting from. When we mentioned the Academy, it immediately sparked his interest. He seemed to know an awful lot about Sibelius and Ainola, and the history of the area, and asked us many questions about our interest in Finnish music. Puzzled, we finally asked about the source of his information, and he told us he was Sibelius' grandson. With a shock of recognition, we all realized why he'd seemed so familiar. His eyes were identical to his grandfather's: that same piercing, blue gaze, friendly on our new acquaintance, but austere and slightly discomforting in the late pictures of the composer. We thanked him for the chat, said goodbye and went on our way, but there was another shock waiting for me.

Early the next morning, unable to sleep, I went for a walk near the lakeshore, a short distance away across farming fields. Despite a small highway cutting through the landscape and houses along the edges of the fields, I imagine it looks very similar to the way it did when Sibelius and the visual artists of the Järvenpää group were living there a century ago. It was very quiet, and a heavy mist hung in the air, making the pine trees by the lake appear as shadows. I couldn't see the lake itself, but I could hear birds out on the water, their calls echoing in the utter stillness of the morning. All of a sudden, in a completely instinctive way, it hit me that I was literally looking at the beginning of Sibelius' violin concerto, at the moment when the plaintive violin melody, supported by quietly murmuring strings, is finally answered by a lone clarinet that disappears back under the strings almost immediately. I knew this in a way that had nothing to do with research, without knowing where the piece had been written – I still don't know if the concerto was composed at Ainola – only that this view was undoubtedly the origin of a music that had haunted me since I first heard it as a teenager. I'd thought of the violin concerto as being about a composer's love for his instrument, a drawn-out, adoring tribute to the violinist he never became. I realized then that it was also about a deeper love: that which Sibelius held for his landscape.

It's very rare to perceive such a strong connection between nature and music, and I get the sense very often that even overtly depictive pieces – Respighi or Strauss, or places like the opening of Mahler's 3rd, famously connected to the cliffs near his summer house – have more to do with an idealized amalgamation of landscape features than any specific scene. Yet here was this thing confronting me, the connection obvious, in an uncomfortably inexplicable, yet deeply thrilling way. It wasn't that the music depicted the landscape, it was the landscape, this landscape, at that very moment; the two were inseparable. I still can't hear or see one without calling up the memory of the other. It was like a private conversation between me and Sibelius, much like the experience with Debussy I blogged about earlier, in which the composer revealed something that was for me only to know. It know this sounds terribly self-aggrandizing, but somehow, learning this intimate thing about Sibelius, and about his connection to the land, made it my landscape too, and made Finland my home, months before I consciously made the decision to stay. He was of the north, so was I, and I'd stay and write about this land, this sky, those trees, all so similar to Canada, until I felt I'd gotten it right. (The best, most moving compliment I've ever gotten came from an expat Finnish composer friend who lives in the US, who said that my music always made him think of home. I was a little verklempt.)

Going back to that place is always comforting, knowing that even if the weather's different, I can call up the image of that morning at will. It reminds me that, no matter how alien the culture may be at times, how far I am from the place of my birth, how I need to get a better command of the language if I want to call myself a Finnish composer, this is my home. And it makes the darkness lighter, more bearable. So does turkey stew with biscuits.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Guns don't kill people. Crazy people with guns kill people.

A moment of silence for the victims of the high school shooting in Jokela, outside Helsinki. Between the weather, my being under it, this event, and the news broadcast about it playing Sibelius' Andante festivo, Finland's Barber Adagio, it's all a little too much for me today.

Monday, November 5, 2007

You can't say that!

Every so often, I read a program note for a contemporary piece or hear an interview with a composer in which they'll spout something that you really shouldn't say about your own music: "My music really has its own voice," "My vision is..." "I think this piece is very of its time," and so on. These are judgments that we don't, as creators, get to make about our own work. Describe the work, by all means, tell us fascinating, illuminating things about it, but it's not up to us to say where our music fits into a tradition or a zeitgeist, even whether or not our voice, if we indeed have one, is individual, and whether it actually comes out in the music. Even if such a statement is written in the third person, you can always kind of tell if the composer themselves wrote it. Thankfully, this kind of writing is generally frowned upon in Finland, and if anything, composers here are much too modest about their work, focusing more on structure or process instead of aesthetics or philosophy.

Which is why it's nice to have someone else say this kind of thing for us. I went to the Helsinki Chamber Choir's season opening concert yesterday, a group with which I'm lucky to have a growing relationship. They sang at a concert of my music last spring and are premièring my new piece ad puram annihilationem meam in April. Their new director, my erstwhile partner-in-crime, conductor Nils Schweckendiek, asked me to write something for the season program book about Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, whose piece muoaiyoum, a real tour de force of choral minimalism, was on the program yesterday. In turn, another colleague and friend, pianist Risto-Matti Marin, was asked to do the same about me. It's a relief to read someone else's text about my music and realize that, yes, in fact, all those crazy things I think about are apparent to others, seemingly consistently so, and that they're willing to write it down in a way that I can't – or won't allow myself to do. Most of the composers I really respect take this attitude toward their work, sticking to the piece itself and letting others do the fancy talking about its place in the world.

So getting to write about Hillborg, one of my favorite living composers, was a special treat, because he doesn't say much about his work otherwise. I discovered Anders' music a few years ago, got to meet him at a summer festival in 2005 and had a lesson with him. I say "lesson", but it was really a therapy session. I was in full crisis mode at the time, not having written anything substantial in a couple of years, trying to figure out why I was writing modernism one minute, minimalism the next, why they never seemed to come together, and yet both seemed to be honest expressions. I heard in Hillborg a satisfying mix of most of the ideas I was grappling with, and thought it might be comforting to talk to him about some of the issues weighing on my mind.

Boy, was it. I walked out of the room completely blown away that an older, much more experienced composer dealt with many of the same problems as me, and accepted that they were just part of his process. Composing is such an isolating activity sometimes that it's easy to think you're in it alone, and that everyone else but you has a clue. It's valuable, necessary even, to be reminded on occasion that others face the same difficulties, even the people who seem to have it the most together and to be working at their peak. If nothing else, it's always nice to have a composer you respect tell you they like your music, right? Talking to Hillborg flipped a switch in my head, and I was able to work again, at a much more productive rate than ever. As thanks for that, it was an honor to be asked to write the following ecstatic tribute:

Where light in darkness lies

My first encounter with the world of Anders Hillborg came a few years ago, through a recording of his Violin Concerto of 1991-92. After being utterly seduced by its luminous, pulsing opening, a headlong post-minimalist rush that still somehow manages breathe in deep, Sibelian phrases, the rug was cruelly pulled out from under me, the wonder of the moment obliterated at a stroke by a grotesque march, the long-limbed melodic line twisted into a limping, wheezing caricature of itself. This experience is, in a nutshell, the essence of Hillborg's work, which occupies a place of perpetual possibility – or perhaps of infinite improbability, to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams. As I came to know Hillborg's music better, it occurred to me that the more unlikely was an event's occurrence within a given context, the greater the chances that it would, in fact, happen. Moments of timeless beauty are abruptly cross-cut with sneering, chattering, hyperactive music that seems to tear at the very idea of aesthetic beauty, calling into question the artifice behind it. A major chord will slowly appear out of a sea of chaos like a guiding star to show the way home.

It would be easy to say that such contradictory impulses reveal a deep ambivalence. Indeed, Hillborg's preoccupation with stark contrasts can appear as a refusal to commit himself to a particular set of aesthetic values, which it is to a limited extent. While certain complex surface textures and background harmonic progressions are generated using simple pitch matrices, in the manner of the twelve-tone school, the composer archly dismisses any rigorously systematic approach to composition (even in his own early works) as a need for "safety in numbers". All languages and gestures are permitted, nothing is ruled out a priori. But this most open-minded of composers is no polystylist, despite his loud collisions of disparate ideas. (If anything, the title of a recent orchestral work, Exquisite Corpse, betrays a Surrealist delight in the absurd, in the placing of a familiar, even clichéd object in an alien landscape.) There is no mere post-modern acceptance of uncertainty in Hillborg's work, no living with insecurity, nor any meaning in simply presenting the choices of our time in some orgy of endless variety and consumption. Rather, by engaging the act of choosing head-on, he enters into an epic battle for truth.

And how victorious is he! In the end, there is wonder, even amid the raucousness, made all the more valuable for having been tested. In fact, if one surveys his work as a whole, there is far more beauty than not, some so exquisite as to not even permit the questioning of it. The work HKK is performing this season, muoaiyoum, is an example of such. Another is his vocal work …Lontana in sonno…, which I saw render a row of mildly doctrinaire young composers speechless, so transfixing was its beauty. In such works, the states of suspended animation Hillborg conjures have the effect of telescoping time, making irrelevant any idea of duration. To this day, I have no idea how long …Lontana in sonno… lasts, nor do I want to know. Such music exists as the end point of a celebratory, cautionary heavenward ascent worthy of Dante – another source of inspiration for Hillborg – in which the composer gleefully fills the role of guide. Such unquestioned faith in the existence of a place of perfect beauty is rare enough in this age of cynicism and prevarication that, in my mind, it merits Hillborg a title so overused in modern art as to have been largely stripped of its value, yet which undoubtedly applies here: that of visionary.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Multitudes contained

I'm a regular reader of The Guardian's music coverage, and although they've unfortunately drastically scaled back their online offerings of reviews and articles, it's still one of the best sources of information if you're interested in the British music scene. There's an article by composer Steven Stucky today on the dearth of American music heard in Britain. It's well worth a read, and sheds light on some possible stumbling blocks in the reception of American music that don't just apply to Britain. Speaking for myself, and in the broadest terms, the overt populism of a lot of American music is viewed with a certain amount of suspicion on this side of the Atlantic, and is often infuriatingly mistaken for naïvety by artists and critics alike. To that end, Stucky also takes a mild swipe at The Guardian's Andrew Clements, whose dislike of a large swath of American music is well documented, culminating in my mind in his nasty, vitriolic review of Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body at the last – in every sense of the word, apparently – Masterprize competition a couple of years ago, which was, for better or worse, a populist endeavor meant to bring visibility to new music of broad appeal.

Stucky accurately points out that the music of the European composers he mentions, mostly Britons and Finns, are a regular feature of the American musical landscape, but that the reverse isn't true, with the exception of a few big names like Reich, Adams and Carter. And yet, one can't help but notice that the Americans he cites as being in want of greater exposure in Britain, as well as the Britons played Stateside, are all from a very narrow range of orchestra-circuit people like Christopher Rouse, Shulamit Ran, John Harbison, etc, etc. This is not to say that I have any particular problem with these people, and as was seen during the "essential minimalism recordings" fuss at the NY Times a while back, it's the easiest thing in the world to poke holes in a list like this.

But if we're talking about Americans who should be heard more abroad, shouldn't we cast a broader net? Where's Lee Hyla, who is to my mind one of the most original and tragically underappreciated American composers? His music is some of the most beautiful, well-constructed, surprising stuff around, and yet he gets little attention, perhaps due to his working largely with chamber and small orchestra groups. Where are the non-Adams postminimalists? For that matter, where's the other John Adams? Meredith Monk? The Bang on a Can composers? And while we're at it, why is there nobody on the list under the age of 50? The music of 30-something Brit Thomas Adès rates a mention, as does the deliriously beautiful output of Julian Anderson, but on the American side there are no younger counterparts. Judd Greenstein? Nico Muhly? Lisa Bielawa? Belinda Reynolds? Even if we stick to the orchestra circuit, there should be sufficient young names to offer up, like Theofanidis, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts or Michael Hersch. My mentioning any of these names signifies neither approval nor opprobrium (okay, I obviously like Anderson a lot), but rather that they're significant names that are part of a much broader, more varied scene than the one Stucky puts forth. And that's just the living composers. When was the last time Morton Feldman's strange, genre-challenging orchestral works were programmed at the Proms? (According to this, Feldman's music of any kind has only ever been performed there once.)

I don't mean any of this as an implicit criticism of Stucky's view of American music. Everyone has their taste, and he works in a rather rarefied stratum of the business. But in presenting a cross-section of one's native musical culture in the mass media, which tends to have a simplistic, highly reductive, context-free editorial approach toward complex issues like art scenes, movements and ideas, I think it's important to include as much detail as possible within those constraints. Listing only the most visible, lauded names from a small subsection of a much larger, infinitely more complex landscape doesn't advocate for American music at its most diverse, at its most different from European music, which is, to me, the entire point. Because Stucky is dead on in his final statement about American composers, something that can't be repeated often enough:

They suggest, instead, a range of intellectual and artistic engagement as messy, as difficult to pigeon hole, as maddeningly impure and as wonderfully ambitious as American culture itself.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Odds & Ends

Now that I've gotten Tauno Pylkkänen out of my life, I'm free to waste time again. Naturally, this is one of my first stops. My headspace isn't cleared out enough to make any serious statements, so in no particular order, while my carrot-ginger soup simmers:

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Artsjournal) about PhD degrees and studio art, and whether artists should be made to do doctoral work in order to be considered qualified to teach at the university level. That one hit a little close to home, for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with my being in the "why am I doing this?" stage of my own studies.

Gordon Ramsey was in town promoting a new book and was given a tasting of some of the blander Finnish "delicacies" by a local morning show hostess, and was apparently Not Very Nice. Having seen the video (2nd from the top under the 31.10 dateline, it goes into English a minute or so in), I won't even bother to defend him. He acted like a boor. However, inviting a guy like Ramsey into your studio and then claiming to be shocked – shocked! – when he does what he's famous for is a little disingenuous. Being confronted with a stone cold Saarioinen Karelian pasty covered in margarine/egg whip at the crack of dawn probably wouldn't bring out the best in me, either. That said, anyone from the land of haggis has no business comparing another nation's foodstuffs to excrement, even if it does look like mämmi. There's been a mild uproar about it reminiscent of the time Conan O'Brien visited Canada and had Triumph the Insult Comic Dog say some very unfunny things about French Canadians. A tempest in a teapot, to be sure.

And, last but not least, I've finally joined the ranks of drones I see walking around everywhere, shutting the world out and barring any form of social interaction. The siren call of not having to carry tons of CDs proved too powerful to resist.

I could justify it by saying that I'll be away the whole month of January (more on that later) and will need to make my Mahler collection more portable if I'm going to prepare my class, but who am I kidding? It's unbelievably cool!


Param Vir: Between Earth and Sky (recorded from the BBC website with iRecordMusic, the greatest software on earth.)
Glenn Gould: The Idea of North (The Solitude Trilogy, Part 1)
Sigur Rós: Agaetis Byrjun

Friday, October 19, 2007


After hearing so much about this piece during the knock down-drag out fight over the NY Times minimalism record lists last month, I finally ordered a copy of Charlemagne Palestine's organ improvisation Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never previously heard any of Palestine's music, especially given that I taught a course on minimalism last year. I can only plead ignorance and bad time management. I just plain ran out of research time and discovered a number of things far too late. Anyway, the disc arrived Tuesday, and I let it sit on my desk for a couple of days before putting it on for some late night listening.

There are no words that adequately cover it. But I'll try to manage a few.

Awesome. Shattering. Uncompromising. Humbling, certainly. It makes me feel small, which is the highest compliment I can pay it, and yet at the same time it feels like I'm big enough to contain the universe. I love writing long, resonant diatonic cluster chords, but Palestine takes the idea to its furthest extreme. This is the music I'd write if I had the guts, and if I didn't care if people thought I was crazy. I indulge myself in many conceits, one of them being the notion that I'm not confined stylistically, but the truth is that I'm extremely sensitive to the issue. I live in a country where modernism is still the ruling aesthetic, and even though my music is different, I draw on modernism as an influence, and willingly so, because it informs what I do as much as minimalism. As a therapeutic exercise, I'll hold a white-note palm cluster down on my Clavinova for minutes on end, but I'd never do it for an hour and call it a piece. (Palestine doesn't do that either, but the point remains.) My Western modernist training wouldn't allow it. I'd think I was a charlatan, too lazy to compose a real piece. And yet, here it is, the thing that, if I'm honest with myself, I've secretly been wanting to write my whole life, on my CD player.

Every so often, you come across a work of art that shakes you to your very foundation, that makes you question everything you hold dear as an artist, your very method of creating. This morning I woke up thinking of myself as, if not an iconoclast, then at least as having my moments of aesthetic courage. Tonight, I go to sleep in the happy realization that I know nothing of any value, especially about the meaning of courage.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Coming up for air

In between performances of kantele music, all of which went extremely well, endless shifts working on Bathseba, negotiating text setting rights and bemoaning the current state of politics in my homeland*, I've been thinking a lot about instrumentation lately . I'm now two-thirds of the way through the opera project and the end is in sight, praise be to Unnamed Deity. I'm relieved that I'm finally in a groove with it, having become more familiar with Pylkkänen's language and orchestration. The music is reminiscent of the big Cecil B. deMille-type film epics, lots of big gestures, brassy jolts and the like. Not all of it is memorable, but it meanders pleasantly between lyrical and rhapsodic, has some very nice tunes, and makes an undeniable dramatic impact.

A big stumbling block at first was the ensemble: 13 players with single winds, two horns, trumpet, single strings and percussion, with a small harp obligato that my wife will be covering on kannel. (The opera is set in Estonia, so the national instrument seemed like an appropriate choice. Also, how the hell do you replicate the sound of a harp with an orchestra? You don't, that's how.) I don't write for mixed ensembles very much. Actually, looking over my output, I don't ever, it seems. My single, only partly successful attempt in the genre was a small piece for flute, viola, vibraphone and harp, which I chose because there were areas of clear timbral convergence that I could work with.

Since my instrumental approach is mostly derived from the music-formerly-known-as-minimalism (tip of the hat to PostClassic there), I need groups of matched instruments to get the hazy, heterophonic effects I'm going for. I can handle a solo instrument or a solo-"accompaniment" texture, but anything smaller than a full symphony orchestra that combines more than two different timbres gives me the heebie-jeebies. In the States, where everybody and their dog wrote a Pierrot or Pierrot + percussion piece in grad school, the very idea terrified me. (I wrote a string quartet instead.) I've come to better terms with mixed ensembles in the last few years since discovering Spectralism in a big way. That kind of integral, timbre-based way of writing makes a lot of sense, but I think I'm still a long way off from writing an effective piece for such a group.

So working with a precariously balanced ensemble like this is daunting, to say the least. This kind of scoring has the potential to sound almost like a full orchestra, or just horribly overdone. Certain things, like Pylkkänen's tendency to always write matched winds in thirds, make things even tougher. "I'm using that clarinet to fill out a 4-horn chord, but that damn flute tune needs the third below it, and the oboe will just bury it in that register." "That violin tune needs to come out over the brass, but the winds are busy and I can't thin out that brass chord, because then it would stop being a dominant seventh/added sharp fourth/whatever chord." (My first music theory classes are coming back to me with a vengeance: "Drop the fifth, even the root, but not the seventh!")

Logistical problems like these, combined with constantly having to comb through the parts to find gestures that aren't in the vocal score, make for long days. But I'm excited to hear how it's going to sound, almost as much as if it were my own piece. I'm more at home writing for orchestra than with any other ensemble, except perhaps choir. I take great pride in my orchestration, and this has been an entirely new challenge, one I stand to learn a lot from. Few people get to write a full-blown opera for their first outing, and besides, I find it very hard to relate to grand opera as a genre. Realistically, if I ever get to write the 1-hourish, one-act opera I've had in mind and would like to do in the next five years, it will be for these instrumental forces, or something close thereto. Hearing how the layers and densities I've written interact, even in music that's pretty far from mine in every respect, will probably be invaluable. So fingers crossed, I head back into it, to be heard from no more, or at least till November.

*(Pop quiz: How, as a minority government that was elected with just over 30% of the popular vote, do you avoid ever having to compromise on your dubious agenda in Parliament? Answer: Make every proposal a confidence motion! That way, if the government is brought down, the opposition heads into an election with labels like "uncooperative" and "obstructionist" tied around their necks. Governance by schoolyard bullies.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

An embarrassment of riches

This fall boasts an unexpected number of performances of my music, something I'm not really used to. This coming weekend, the Sibelius Academy kantele studio celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert festival. October 13th features two of my pieces, starting with Sketches before a storm in the afternoon, with Hanna Kinnunen on flute, and Eva Alkula on the Finnish electric kantele. On the evening concert, my lovely wife, Hedi, who plays the fully chromatic Estonian version of the instrument, performs the piece I wrote for her in 2002, The Snow Watcher, after the eponymous poetry collection by Chase Twichell. November sees the Finnish premiere of my recent solo accordion piece, being the pine tree, which I wrote for the incredible Veli Kujala. And in December the choir of which I'm a longtime member, the Hämäläis-Osakunta Singers, give the première of my carol In the bleak mid-winter. Getting your work played by top-notch musicians is always great, but getting it played by top-notch musicians who also happen to be dear friends and family is even better.

Interludes and random thoughts

I'm taking a break from the opera arrangement today to compose. I've tried to do both in the same day, but I always end up so fried after working on Pylkkänen that it's impossible to concentrate. Usually orchestration is pleasant work. I sit at the coffee table, spread out my score paper, pop on a set of DVDs – Scrubs, Friends, whatever, though The West Wing is particularly restful for some reason – and go to it. I enjoy it because it's automatic work for me. My music is so strongly built around instrumental color that by the time I get to the orchestration it's only a question of copying it out. I rarely have to stop to figure out how to score something or bang it out at the piano. Obviously with Pylkkänen it's different, because it's not mine, and I'm doing my best to respect his original scoring, which imposes a few more limitations than I'm used to.

The biggest problem is that I'm scoring directly onto Finale, which is something I never, ever normally do. I can't see the whole page, I'm more prone to make mistakes, and staring at the screen all day is wearing on the eyes. I'm one of what is likely a very small number composers my age who uses the computer purely as a copying device. I much prefer good light, a pencil and paper. It's old-fashioned, I know, but I studied with a long line of old-fashioned composers, people who grew up when they still had to write everything by hand, and only used the computer for clarity in copying, if at all. I work faster this way, writing a shorthand full score by hand, and then copying the clean version on Finale when I already know how it looks. I'm extremely visually oriented this way: I need to have everything in front of me in order to see and hear how things relate.

I can't compose at the computer, either. I have many friends who do, and produce terrific music, but for the life of me I can't figure out how. I hardly ever touch the playback functions, because it wrecks my sense of the music. I'll occasionally build a model for a section of music in MIDI just to check the pacing of events, or to check a tricky rhythmic bit, but only after I've already decided on the content. I may not have the world's greatest ear, but I do know from experience that what I hear is invariably more accurate than the computer's approximation, and my notation employs a lot of boxes and such that Finale can't play back properly, so usually I end up having to trust myself.

All this is just to say that it's frustrating and tiring to be tied to this piece all day, and I needed some time off from it. So I yesterday I also did my work quota for today as well, in order to have some head space for my own work. I'm currently working on the final eight of a set of twelve (natch) pieces for piano for my friend Risto-Matti, based on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I'm also putting the final touches on the text I compiled for my new choral piece for the Helsinki Chamber Choir, ad puram annihilationem meam, for which I'm close to working out the details with the publisher in Paris. The commission was for a spiritual piece with a largely French text, and after some searching, I settled on a series of excerpts from a tract by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called La Messe sur le Monde. I'm also thinking forward to another Whitman-derived piece for flute and harp due for next summer that I'm calling night, sleep, death and the stars.

I take a lot of what is, I hope, affectionate ribbing for my titles from my buddies, and get asked fairly frequently by colleagues and teachers alike why I saddle myself with so much extramusical baggage when I write. I can only answer that music is not, and has never been an abstract thing for me. I've tried writing technical exercises in the past – fugue, Renaissance counterpoint, etc – or thinking purely about musical issues, but I usually fail miserably. Writing for the sake of gaining technical skill just isn't sufficient motivation for me: If I don't have that visual/poetic catalyst, I can't work. Our macho western classical music culture, or academic music culture, at least, tends to make people who think this way feel like a bit of a wuss or, worse, a Romantic, but I suppose everyone limits themselves in some way when they write: pitch content, form, style, what have you. Since I try not to limit myself stylistically, it helps to have an outside factor dictate what the piece is "about" to me. I'm not into program music, and what I write ends up functioning abstractly as music, independently of the images I've attached to it, but getting the notes out in a coherent form always requires an external stimulus. Most of the composers I know are of the Sibelian "form arises from material" school. I respect this process, and even envy it, but it's not enough for me. Music only comes out when I've have a clear idea of what the piece is supposed to express, and sufficient time to figure out what form and language are necessary to articulate that vision. The abstract formal function of the various compositional elements comes much later in the process.

I'm funny that way. But I think a part of developing as an artist, on the technical level at least, is knowing what works for you, what helps you get the piece done, and what doesn't, and being comfortable with that, even proud of it. I used to beat myself up a lot for not being able to think in abstract musical terms, for needing that expressive crutch. It does impose a lot of preconceptions on the piece, and finding that perfect way of expressing it is a long, arduous, ego-destroying process, but it's what works. If that makes me a Romantic, so be it, I guess.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Speaking of protracted quiet

I've been slightly less than dedicated about blogging lately, and it looks like it will stay that way for at least the next couple of weeks. After taking too much time off from work this summer, I got out of the habit and, as usual, find myself behind only a month into the semester. What with a set of eight piano pieces to write, a class to teach – thank god it's only the one this fall – and a thesis to draft, I suicidally took on yet another project. I was commissioned (read: passive-aggressively harangued by a good friend) to compress the orchestration of a one-act opera by Tauno Pylkkänen called Bathseba on Saarenmaa. For those non-Baltic readers, Saarenmaa is the island off the Estonian coast where the story takes place. It's quite a nice little drama, about 40 minutes long, and very tuneful. Pylkkänen was dubbed the "Puccini of the North", and it's not a bad tag, as far as these comparisons go.

Here's the catch: there's no extant full score of the version I'm working on, so the orchestration has to be concocted from a set of parts and a vocal score. I thought it would be easy enough, but it's turning out to be a major pain, not least because the brass-heavy original doesn't lend itself easily to an ensemble of 13 players, with two horns being the only matched pair. Deciding how to voice some of the chords so they still sound full is a minor nightmare, and the woodwind players are going to kill me over the instrument changes. Still, it's nice to have a new challenge to re-engage my brain after a too-long period of rest. Something about taking on this job kick-started me, and now I'm ready to go again. So while I get this done, I'll have time for little else than short posts like the present one. More rants to come, though.

Listening to:

Frank Bridge: Fantasy Trio for two violins and viola
Luca Francesconi: String Quartet no. 3

And, of course, Pylkkänen.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday night beef

Interesting piece by Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto Globe and Mail today, about Glenn Gould's fascination with Schoenberg. My revered compatriot (Gould, that is) is approaching his 75th birthday, which I'm sure would be a great occasion at home, were he still breathing. Actually, reading Everett-Green's list of events for Toronto alone, it seems that it is a great event, regardless of the absence of the guest of honor, which makes me happy.

I've been thinking about Gould a lot lately, specifically his three radio compositions collectively known as the Solitude Trilogy, which in my mind are some of his best work – though "So you want to write a fugue?" gets played every year in my analysis class. However, I'll leave Gould for another time, when I'm more at leisure to utter coherent thoughts, because he's tied into other, much more complex issues. What caught my interest today was Everett-Green's writing about Schoenberg, a loaded topic always guaranteed to generate heat. I generally like Everett-Green's writing and find myself in agreement with him more often than not (this, of course, having nothing to do with him being one of two newspaper critics who didn't diss the orchestra piece that gave my blog its name when the TSO played it a couple of years ago). He presents a thoughtful, even-handed portrait of the attraction Schoenberg held for Gould, never once copping to not liking Schoenberg's music, at least not in so many words. He mostly states that mainstream audiences don't enjoy Schoenberg all that much. And still, in the comments following the article, we get this:

"It's hard to believe that Schoenberg and atonal music are still controversial after a century. Audiences are generally accepting of abstract painting or free verse in poetry, yet Schoenberg's modernism is treated with scorn by the public.

If they took the time to listen, they would actually hear that his music is quite Romantic in a way."

I'm about to inveigh at disproportionate length against an offhand comment made online, but this just kills me. One could equally say (and again I'm late to the party with this comment) that it's hard to believe that after a century, there are still apologists who insist that we've got it all wrong about Schoenberg, that his music is really (insert attractive quality here). I'm not as anti-Schoenberg as some. I generally like his earlier works, though not enough to seek them out repeatedly. That absynthe-soaked latelatelate Romanticism just isn't my thing. Some of his late music is enjoyable, as well. I attended a performance of the Piano Concerto once, played by my friend Paavali Jumppanen, a sympathetic interpreter who made the piece sparkle, and I found that it felt much more compact and breezy than one would expect from its 30-minute duration. I teach a section of the Fourth Quartet every year, because the system of pitch rotation he uses is a good exercise for students learning about 12-tone techniques. Though I may abhor the implementation, I think he had it right in believing the innovations he played a part in spearheading were necessary to keep the art form fresh. Debussy and Bartók's innovations were just more rewarding and fertile.

But you'd have to tie me to the chair to get me to sit through the Violin Concerto, Wind Quintet or Piano Suite ever again. Perhaps oddly, I'm a huge fan of the work that tends to piss the most people off: Pierrot Lunaire. As a theater piece, with a great ensemble, it's unbeatable. I can understand not liking it if your only exposure to it is on recording, though. It needs to be seen. In fact, pretty much all of Schoenberg's free-atonal works are terrific, and I think it's a shame that he didn't stay in that idiom longer (like, for the rest of his life). These works deserve a fair hearing, but enough of his music is sufficiently offputting – nay, grating – that a century of listeners can't really have gone completely wrong. I think a hundred years is plenty of time to make the call, and really, it's not as if Schoenberg has suffered from lack of exposure or champions.

And yet, there are still people who take offense if you dare level an accusing finger at the Master. Don't like Bruckner? Well, it's not to everyone's taste. Stravinsky not for you? Okay, we don't see eye to eye on that. You don't like Schoenberg!? Ohmygodwhatswrongwithyou!!!??? Is it possible for us to accept that everything Schoenberg touched did not turn to gold? Is it really so injurious to his reputation to admit that some of his works aren't very appealing to the average listener, and accept that their reactions are valid and informed? For what it's worth, I completely reject the canard that atonal music is controversial. I've heard great atonal music, and written some myself that received positive reactions, so it's not the act itself of writing atonal music that audiences respond to negatively. To imply as much is to insult the intelligence of the people who pay to hear our work. One of the harshest, most dissonant, most taxing pieces I've ever heard is Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, yet I saw an audience rise to its feet after the performance, not out of duty, but out of sincere joy at the experience, because the piece is damn good. Same for Feldman's Triadic Memories. I think what audiences dislike is being subjected to dull, colorless, rambling, barely expressive atonal music and being told it's good no matter what they may think of it, that there's something wrong with them for not liking it, and that by extension, they must be unable to appreciate any form of atonality.

This attitude, that audiences are too dumb to know a quality experience when they hear it, is what ruins it for the composers who give atonality a good name, who are honestly interested in reaching people with their chosen aesthetic, not ensuring the cultural hegemony of any nation or school through their work. Program works from Schoenberg's dry-toast period if you must, but don't be surprised when most people hate them. And give the audience their due: the verdict is in.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Meditative work

After having a pretty nasty, disappointing week in which I got precious little of value done, I'm playing hooky from real work today, and engaging in that most meditative of cooking tasks: caramelizing onions for soup. I'm using Thomas Keller's method, from his book Bouchon which takes about six hours from slicing to soup. (I may have to skip an hour of caramelizing just to get the soup done sometime before midnight.) Keller, as expected, gives very detailed instructions on everything, including the method of julienning the onions. It sounds slightly ridiculous, and having no guiding pictures to help me out, I butchered one onion completely before figuring out what he was getting at.

You cut off the top and bottom of the onion and slice in half lengthwise, and cut out the root and vertical core of the onion with a V wedge cut. Then you place the onion half flat on the board, and slice it from the lower edge toward the core, with the knife positioned at slight angle to the board, almost parallel. The resulting slices are beautiful, and just fall apart with almost no trimming. There's a certain amount of waste involved, but if you plan ahead, like I will next time, you can save the trimmings for stock. The caramelization process is longer than any I've ever heard of, five hours, but I'm putting my faith in the recipe. I'm keeping a photo diary of it, so I'll post pics of the results if they look remotely like food when I'm done with them. Cooking is what's going to get me through the fall, which promises to be a doozy this year, weather-wise.

Update: It turns out cutting the caramelization time isn't an option. You really do have to cook them to the end. I had the heat turned down too low for the first couple of hours because I was afraid of burning the onions, but the directions were for gas heat, which is disappointingly rare in Finland. Only the oldest buildings in downtown Helsinki have gas stoves, leaving my little suburban house with cast iron-like flat burners. It's like taking a sculptor's chisel away and giving him a sledge hammer instead.

Anyway, I couldn't get the onions to the dark brown color they should be, mostly because we had company and I wanted to feed our guests. Rather than add flour and broth to the onions to simmer for an hour and reduce, I just assembled the soup directly in the bowls and put them under the broiler to melt the cheese. I will never, ever caramelize onions any other way. I'll do it better next time, and maybe cut the croutons more carefully so they don't sink into the bowl as much, but even a few steps short of ideal, the soup was unbelievable: refined, rich, sweet, almost no seasoning needed, except for a little salt and a few drops of sherry vinegar. This is about to become a winter (weekend) standby in my kitchen. I served it with a '93 Rheingau riesling, and it was a perfect match. The off-dry, slightly sweet wine picked up the sweetness of the onions, and the its remaining acidity was a cleansing finish for the soup. The photo diary follows. It was 6 large spanish onions, 6-8 tbsp of butter, and 1 tbsp sea salt.

At 30 minutes:

90 minutes:

3 hours:

5 hours:

Finished soup:

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday night listening

I came across a few clips from a new CD from British label NMC of music by David Sawer. I'd read the name many times, but never heard the music. Liking the previews, I decided on an impulse to download the whole thing. To date, I've don't think I've been disappointed in an NMC recording I've bought. They seem to have a great ear for variety and quality, so I was expecting a good buy. But...

Wow. (I get eloquent when I'm impressed.)

This is music that's bright, colorful, kaleidoscopically orchestrated, multilayered, complex, the whole package. Sawer hews to the postminimalist side of things, working with very simple, diatonic materials in a repetitive, obsessive, yet playful and lighthearted way. It's fun to listen to, and sounds like Sawer had a ball writing it, too. The closest thing to it in sound that I can think of is the chirpy friendliness of early Michael Torke, but that still doesn't come close, because there's more going on under the surface, and the forms Sawer creates have more byways and digressions, sudden turns and stops that give the music an expressive depth, as well as lending it a certain modernist tinge, yet blessedly without the angst. I listened to three ensemble/orchestra works from the 90s, Tiroirs, The Memory of Water, and the greatest happiness principle, leaving a longer, more recent opera suite for later in the weekend. I may be late to the party in discovering Sawer's music, but I'm enthralled by it, and it's nice to hear of a Briton who writes music of this aesthetic stripe getting big opportunities like orchestra and opera commissions. I hope this won't be the last Sawer disc I get to hear.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Time well spent

Composing and performing are highly satisfying activities which well justify the disproportionate amounts of time put into them. But few things pay back as evenly on time invested as cooking with and for friends, especially on a cool fall day as with today. Making a home cooked Sunday dinner and sharing it with people I care about is just about the best way I know of easing into the work week, with its classes, appointments, and the ever-growing stack of books on my desk waiting impatiently.

A menu:

- Lentil potage with curry and mint ('06 Sander Riesling, Rheinhessen)
- Roast leg of lamb with herbs and shallot gravy, twice-baked potatoes with old Cheddar cheese and chives, and glazed Brussels sprouts and carrots ('01 Basarin Barbaresco, '01 Rioja being brought by our friends)
- Bread pudding with apples, nuts, raisins and dates and vanilla sauce (coffee & tea)

Payback is a bi...

As some sort of karmic retribution for my last post on choral music, a simple, entirely conventional, slow-chorales Christmas carol got stuck in my head on the way home from Iceland. Being obsessive by nature and needing to get it out before it drove me nuts, I had to bow to inspiration (whatever that is) and write it down. Actually, it's something I've been wanting to write for years: a setting of Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak mid-winter". It's a slightly frightening prospect to take on a poem like this one, that's been set many times, and by two of my choral gods at that, Holst and Britten. But after writing some fairly far-out choral textures in the last year, I had a hankering for some triads, so I jumped in.

My initial contact with the poem came when I was about 20 through Britten's version, in the a capella cantata A Boy Was Born, an incredible, highly virtuosic display of compositional technique, text setting, and catchy tunes and textures, made all the more unbelievable by the fact that Britten was only 19(!) when he wrote it. Pieces like that make me wonder why I bother sometimes. I got a score and took it apart from beginning to end, but the one section that kept haunting me was the Rosetti setting, for the women's voices alone, and a melodic cameo for treble choir.

The idea is simple, really, but the effect is powerful, to say the least. Those chilly half-step dissonances on "bleak", the open fifths, it's all textbook, but transcends the bounds of obvious word painting. I especially love the way Britten turns the line "snow on snow" into the background texture for much of the piece, those soft, descending lines bringing a warmth to the music, enhanced by the trebles' melody. I've wanted to set the poem since that first experience, but couldn't get far enough from Britten to do it. I eventually settled for a more distant take on Britten's texture in the last movement of my much-mentioned piece Shiki, to a haiku by Santoka Taneda:

yuki e yuki
furu shisukesani

snowfall on snow

If I couldn't get away from Britten's sound, at least I'd change the words around a bit, and in a different language. Still, Rosetti's verse kept bugging me until now – note that I say "verse" in the singular – which ended up causing problems in the piece. The poem has a very subtly asymmetrical rhyme scheme, in spite of its being cast in a fairly conventional verse form. If you try to do a strophic setting of it, you end up with some awkward compressions and extensions of words, and strange, counterintuitive emphases placed on the wrong part of a sentence. This is exactly what happens in Holst's verse-form setting.
Despite the music being meltingly beautiful, I find that Holst often had to crowbar the words into place in order to fit the 4x4 phrase structure of the piece. If verse-form music doesn't work, the only option is a through-composed approach, which brings up the ever-present danger of chorales. I have absolutely no problem with the chorale texture itself; it's a perfectly valid form of text setting. But all too often, it ends up being a cop out, an easy way to avoid dealing with tricky rhythmic problems, much like the use of recitative to churn out a lot of text and information. Chorale phrases can be of any length without sounding too long, and such a texture is easy to rehearse.

Britten neatly sidesteps the problem by setting only the first of Rosetti's five verses, troping in additional verses from the Corpus Christi carol when the treble choir enters. He creates a more or less single-idea piece out of very few words from the Rosetti, putting the rhyming weight on the Corpus Christi lines, which are more symmetrical and do support even phrase lengths. I suspect that Britten's decision to do this may also have been due to the slightly maudlin turn the poem takes in subsequent verses into a display of stock Christmas imagery. And this is where I got stuck. Since the Britten setting had been foremost in my memory, I'd never paid much attention to the content of the later verses. A devout Catholic in my youth, I left the Church about 14 years ago, and as a rule don't set explicitly Christian texts. It's not due to any particular animus against the Church, but rather a desire on my part to be sincere and respectful of others' beliefs. If I couldn't utter the words of a devotional text in faith and sincerity, I won't set them.

So having set the first verse from memory and running up against the wall of Victorian sentiment, I was faced with a choice: use words I didn't like or mean – and the 16-year-old boy in me really couldn't set "a breastful of milk" with a straight face – or alter the poem significantly. I picked out the words I found least problematic and compressed the poem thusly:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Heaven cannot hold
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
In the bleak mid-winter.

Thronged the air,
The night rang
With their bliss,
But only mother
Worshipped with a kiss.

What can I give?
If I were wise, I would do my part
Yet what I can I give –
my heart.

The intent of the poem is preserved, I think, the fervent sense of expectation of a world in need of deliverance and individual sacrifice, but without all the cherubim-and-seraphim stuff of the original. My setting solution to the rhythmic difficulties is far less creative than Britten, with a solo soprano plainchant-like melody over a fifth drone at the beginning and end, and chorales for the middle two verses. It dances perilously close to the clichés of the Holy Minimalists, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway. Wanting to stay as far away from Britten and Holst as possible, I decided not to make a big deal out of those wonderful, singable, endlessly spinnable words, "snow on snow", keeping the flow of the poem as direct and unobstructed as possible. I'm pretty happy with the end result, and I'm hoping it will come across as pithy but effectively dramatic, though the voicing may yet require some tinkering. I was going to post a pdf of the score here and offer it as a Christmas gift to anyone who's interested, but I'm having web hosting difficulties and couldn't find a place to upload it. However, if anybody wants a copy, all they have to do is e-mail me. Our choir will be performing it on our seasonal concert in December.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Something Old, Something New

Well, I'm back from a full week in Reykjavik and surroundings, plus two travel days, and recovering at home after a long, hot shower, blissfully absent the smell of rotten eggs. No disrespect to Iceland's unique and environmentally sound hot water supply, but damn. I'm also sorting through the usual chaotic set of impressions, experiences and memories, good and bad, that accompany such a tip-of-the-iceberg immersion in a new culture. Once again, though, I return madly, hopelessly in love with a place, or rather its landscape. I was woefully under-equipped for venturing out into the wilderness on this trip, though I did manage some short excursions into places like Þingvellir national park, seen above, where you can see the American and Eurasian tectonic plates – the ridges at left and right, respectively – pulling apart.

Iceland is everything I'd read: rough, exotic, hip, cultured, friendly, bleak, exciting, a curious mix of traits, with aspects of both Nordic social organization and a frontier-like chaos of events. The Hvönn Choir and Gunnsteinn Ólafsson gave an enthusiastic, lovely-sounding performance of two movements from my choral piece Shiki, graciously letting me join them in singing, and even managed to find a kargyraa guy for the second movement. The festival itself went off rather well, without much of the usual dick-swinging that accompanies a largely male group of artists with big egos being sequestered together for a week. I admit that I socialize minimally in such circumstances, not because I don't like people, but because I get claustrophobic in groups full of people I don't know. I can manage a night or two at the bar, chatting and trading ideas, but at heart I'm a homebody, something I get from my father, and prefer to spend evenings with my wife, or talking in the company of trusted friends. And at New Music events, the conversation can become circular, with the same topics coming up over and over. At such times, I prefer to strike off on my own or, as with this week, with a few buddies. One of the best parts of the week was getting to hang out with one of my favorite colleagues, composer Antti Auvinen, whom I rarely get to see more than once or twice a year due to his living in Jyväskylä in central Finland. He's a cool guy, a serious artist who doesn't take himself too seriously, as another friend once put it, and it's always a pleasure to talk with him. Our music sounds like we're from different planets, yet we see eye-to-eye on a great many issues. He's funny as hell, a character, and very much the way his music sounds: jerky, hyperactive, peppering his talk with lots of sound effects, yet strangely lucid, and with startling moments of introspection and calm. Antti does great work with professional and amateur ensembles out in the provinces, but I selfishly hope that the Helsinki scene will be able to steal him away someday soon.

Reykjavik itself is a charming, busy, terminally hip little city, full of activity and life, far from what one would expect from its location and population.
Once I got used to the staggering, breathtaking prices, and the notion that I'd be paying off the trip till Easter, I had a wonderful time. The Icelandic people I found to be friendly, welcoming, zany, but with a curiously Finnish sense of humor, self-deprecating and unpretentious, and unashamedly proud of their country and heritage. It's remarkable how many artists there, having gone abroad to study, ultimately return, never having intended to stay away for long.

What I most enjoyed was hearing the language spoken all around me for the first time. I've heard bits of Icelandic before, but never a whole backdrop of it. Being an English speaker is sometimes a lonely state, oddly enough for one of the world's dominant language groups. I occasionally miss the sense of kinship that comes of having a surrounding group of cognate languages, siblings, half-siblings and cousins to our own. As much as the influence of vernacular Latin, French and others have enriched English and made it singularly adaptable and fluid as a mode of verbal construction, it's an isolated language, with no close relatives like the pan-Scandinavian group of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, all of whose speakers conversed freely this past week (though Swedish-speaking friends tell me that talking with Danes usually involves a lot of smile-and-nod). Even Finland and Estonia share a close kinship in this regard. Despite their cultures being so different and their languages mutually unintelligible (contrary to popular myth, Finns and Estonians can't understand each other freely), there's still a sense of shared roots, of "these are our people" that I've never had as an English speaker, and a New World one at that.

So in spite of not understanding more than a few words, and finding that it sounds nothing like modern English (indeed, Dutch and Swedish are closer), hearing Icelandic still started a twitch of recognition in some long-dormant corner of my subconscious, a sense of close familiarity with the sounds, rhythms and cadences of the language, and a desire to understand more of it. There was a sense that along with the changes that made English such a force in the modern world, we have lost a level of familial connection with other languages, like the black-sheep sibling who ventures out into the world and never quite fits in again at holiday dinners. There's an ancient poetry to Icelandic, the impression of which was only strengthened when I got to hear some Icelandic folk music, in the powerful form of Bára Grimsdóttir, whose singing had an unaffected beauty and immediacy, and whose control of a huge range vocal timbres is exactly what I was going on about a few posts ago. I've since heard some of her choral music, and she's an accomplished composer as well, it seems. Her performance of an Icelandic song she introduced as the Seafarer's Hymn had tears welling up in my eyes, not least due to the surprise, crystalline addition of a Finnish kantele to the accompaniment, which up to that point had consisted of various string instruments familiar and strange played by Chris Foster. Truly memorable.

Another highlight of the week was a barnstorming performance of Le Sacre du Printemps by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra which, to quote Pres. Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing, "has got some serious game". I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I blew off a festival concert for this, but it was unforgettable: raw, edgy, and not a little bit wild. The culmination of the first part was like a tsunami, with all the non-congruent rhythmic cycles going off with great precision, yet feeling like the barely-controlled bacchanale it really is. The final upward thrust of the piece, which you always know is coming, somehow came as a complete surprise this time, like a slap in the face. It was all I could do to keep from following Debussy's lead (or was it Ravel?), springing to my feet and shouting, "Genius! Genius!"

The strange thing is, I don't really know what motivated me to go to the concert, other than that I felt an irrepressible need to hear this piece again, right now. It's heresy to admit this, but unlike most composers, I'd never been truly captivated by Le Sacre. The orchestration has always been fascinating, and indeed, there are parts of my recent orchestra piece, Solen, that would not be the way they are without Le Sacre (six solo violas, who else but Stravinsky could have thought of that?). But for me, twentieth-century music always began and ended with Debussy, and to some extent Bartók, whose mantles as the great innovators of the century I've always felt were unfairly usurped by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. With Stravinsky especially – with the exception of pieces like Symphony of Psalms and the Elegy for solo viola, which are uniquely expressive works in his output – I'd gotten the impression of being able to see all the strings being pulled, of not being quite as impressed as I should, despite the bells and whistles. Stravinsky was better than anyone at picking up fashionable stylistic elements that were in the air and polishing them to a gleaming shine, but that was pretty much it as far as I was concerned. I've heard Le Sacre live many times, and yet it wasn't until now that it hit me why this piece caused a riot at its première. (Yeah, yeah, I know that story may have been inflated, but it's worthy of legend, so I'll let it go.) The primal, raging energy of the score, the intended cacophonic effect of the rhythmic complexity, was evident for the first time, and I went back to the hotel – after a long, long drinking session with members of the orchestra, who graciously welcomed Antti and me like part of the band – burning with the desire to break out a score and recording and go through it again.

Revelations abounded on this trip, and the country itself was another major shock, one that will necessitate another post. I plan on folding it into my delayed ramblings on landscape and "Nordicity" as it concerns my coming to Finland, but that will have to wait another few days. For now, I'll end by stating that everyone should go to Iceland. Now. Next time, I'm bringing a backpack and a good tent. Waterproofed. For a country with a self-explanatory name, it sure rains a lot.