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