Wednesday, April 30, 2008

May Day menu

It's Vappu in Finland, or May Day, during which the entire country becomes a huge prub crawl. The results aren't usually pretty, especially when it's this nice out, but it's always interesting. In that spirit, and due to the lovely weather, a wine dinner menu for friends tomorrow:

-Freixenet Extra Brut Cava with Crème de cassis (aka poor man's Kir Royale)
-Green salad with goat cheese, pine nuts, pears and wasabi-ginger vinaigrette (Bründlmayr Grüner Veltliner '06)
-Chicken sauté with green olives and preserved lemon, ratatouille and couscous (Clos de Coulaine Savennières '01 – opened a day earlier)
-Meditation: Camille Giroud Volnay Premier Cru Champans '78(!), brought by a wildly generous friend
-Yogurt panna cotta with winter figs and honey (Tállyai Muskotályos Aszú Tokaji '95)
-Cheese & fruit plate (Gustave Lorentz Kantzlerberg Riesling Grand Cru '99)

Hauskaa vappua!

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Doin' it like a lady..."

In the category of badly misheard lyrics, via an old friend:

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the birds

I should be working on tomorrow's Mahler lecture, but the sun is shining, the air is warm (for Finland), and my exercise-starved body, after weeks of work, illness and fouled-up scheduling, was screaming for some movement. So I took myself outside for an hour or so to participate in the curious local pastime of Nordic walking. It's ridiculous to behold from the outside, a formerly deeply held prejudice to which I admit shamefully. Since nothing I ever say seems to convince people of the worth of the activity, all I can offer in its defense is to swear that if you try it, you'll soon find yourself hooked. It's a quick, easy workout that can be done close to home and still leave time for other pursuits during the day.

It's made easier in my neighborhood by the close proximity of Helsinki's crown jewel, the Keskuspuisto, or Central Park, which should be more famous than its New World namesake, as far as I'm concerned. Helsinki may not be a breathtakingly lovely city in that cozy, Disney-ish way one expects European cities to be – indeed, it has more than its fair share of cookie-cutter suburban nightmare housing and high-rise Hell-on-earth. It may not be the most happening , vibrant place, either, but it is unpretentious and above all, it is a green city, with more trees, parks and wilderness areas than any city I've ever been to, perhaps more than any city in the world. The Finnish approach to residential building, by and large, is to leave as much existing green around buildings as possible, instead of cutting everything down, putting up houses and planting those funny little front yard trees that never seem to grow thereafter. "Park" is a misleading term as applied to Helsinki's: it's barely controlled wilderness with miles upon miles of bike paths and ski trails and public gardening plots, all of which are heavily used by the populace.

Spring is my favorite time to go there, what with ample signs of life, of the earth waking up. The tiny, colorful wildflowers that carpet the Nordic woodlands this time of year are starting to appear; the huge forest anthills are teeming with movement, which means I'll have to break out the bug spray to keep the critters from overrunning the house. (I'm all for sanctity of life, but it kind of goes out the window when you come home at 1 a.m. and find your studio crawling with hundreds of winged queen ants.) I even saw a bumblebee. Best of all, birds are singing again, or more species than the few that winter over in Finland. My absolute favorite, if not the most original, is the blackbird. Its song, more than any other, is the sound of spring. Hearing the first one is an irrefutable sign that winter is ending, and fills me with hope – mercifully, after the non-winter we've had. Many other species are returning, including chaffinches, which are among the prettiest to look at and listen to – although the hands-down winner in that category is the rarely seen, migratory Bohemian waxwing – and will soon be followed by that virtuoso of the Nordic woods, the thrush nightingale. They're the familiar sounds of life here, and of changes in the seasons, so much so many of their songs found their way into the tape part of my choir piece Shiki last year – based on the stunning, crystal-clear field recordings of ornithologist and birdwatching tour guide Hannu Jännes, who provided the soundtracks used on the web page I linked to above.

Listening to birds always gets me thinking about music, natch. One of the pieces I come back to every year in my 20th-century analysis class is the first movement of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, "Liturgie de cristal". It's a fun exercise for students in analyzing independently structured parts, from the rigidly isorhythmic piano and cello parts, to the limited, recurrent motivic material of the violin, and the free, almost improvised clarinet. Once we get past that layer, it's always productive to talk about the relationship between the musical characters present in the movement. The most eye-catching one is, of course, the dialogue between the two "soloist" players, the violin and clarinet. There's a joyous cacophony to their interaction, one which I've always found attractive, but didn't fully understand until an experience in impromptu birdwatching a couple of years ago.

My wife and I were taking an evening walk near our old apartment when we witnessed something extraordinary: two male nightingales perched out in plain sight, both singing at top volume, unbelievably loud for such small creatures. (One nested next to our bedroom window in 2003, which is when we discovered that "nightingale" is not just a clever name. We got very little sleep that summer.) Nightingales are famously hard to sight. They're very nondescript-looking, small and grey, and blend in well with the tree canopies where they hide. They tend to start singing at twilight, and if you come within about twenty feet of them, they shut up, so seeing two of them out in the open is rare.

The thing about the nightingale's gorgeous, highly complex song is that it's a territorial marker. You never hear two of them singing within hearing distance of one another. You can often tell the relative age of a bird by how long, non-periodic and complex his song is. In this case, one of the birds was clearly older, and a much more experienced singer. It would pick up elements of the younger bird's much simpler song, incorporate them, riff on them, then vastly embellish them in long, cadenza-like phrases, interrupting his opponent brusquely and drowning him out. At one point, the older bird flew into a pile of underbrush left by city park managers a couple of weeks earlier. I thought he'd just been hiding from us, as we'd gotten very close at that point. But I realized after a moment that he was using the pile of dried branches as a makeshift resonator to amplify his song. It was a fascinating display of territorial competition. Sure enough, the older bird's song was the only one we heard after a couple of days of this. The younger one, clearly out of his league, had moved on.

It wasn't until months later, when working through the Messiaen again with my class that I figured out the fundamental quality of the relationship between the birdlike violin and clarinet parts: one of competition or territoriality. I'd been accustomed to thinking of chamber music as a participatory, communal activity, where all the parts contribute to a unified whole at one point or another. But that doesn't seem to be what Messiaen was aiming at in this movement. Not only are the parts structured according to four completely unrelated systems, it would seem that two of the characters aren't really cooperating at all, they're trying to outclass each other. It's a difference in conception that adds an extra psychological layer to the music, both as a listener and, I imagine as a performer. I'd be curious to find out whether performers of this piece conceive of it in this way, or if any research has been done into this type of relationship in Messiaen's music, other than just cataloging transcriptions of birdsong. With the Messiaen centenary in full swing, I may have just figured out what I'll be doing with my summer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Decisions, decisions

With my teaching semester winding down, I'm putting down sketches for a piece I'm calling Night, sleep, death and the stars (after Whitman) for multiple flutes and harp which, counting an overlong student effort for solo alto flute, makes this my fifth piece casting the flute in a prominent role. It's the instrument I've returned to the most often, though there's really no special reason for this focus, given that I'm an ex-horn player. The flute has just always seemed to be in my life in one way or another, either by being friends with a flutist, dating one, or discovering an old instrument in a closet of a room I was renting and messing around on it, trying out a few sounds. I've learned enough fingerings over the years that it's become the only instrument aside from the piano that I can sort of hack my way through my own pieces on, so I have a better-than-average understanding of how it works compared with, say, the bassoon.

One of the truisms of being a composer that I've discovered in recent years is that if you manage to write a successful piece for an instrument or ensemble, people have a maddening tendency to keep asking you to write for it, again and again. And one feels flattered, of course, and obliged to accept, no matter how inspired, or not, one may be to write for it. It's happened to me with choir music, and again recently with the flute. In such cases, I have to take some fairly extraordinary steps to keep things fresh for myself, finding ways to make the experience new, and to avoid retracing my steps.

This flute/harp duo proved particularly tough in the conceptual stages, though, in that a couple of years ago I wrote a piece called Sketches before a storm for flute and kantele, the zither-like Finnish national instrument, which for all intents and purposes works exactly like the harp: it's a diatonic instrument on which chromatic pitches are provided by tuning levers (instead of pedals), so if you move the C lever to C#, all the Cs change. It's a ferociously difficult instrument to write for. It's frequently impossible to follow your ear, because the instrument's technique may not allow a certain harmonic shift, or at least not without audible pitch bends, which sound extremely cool, but only when the gesture is composed in. The fact that the tuning changes are done with the hands instead of the feet adds an extra wrinkle, so that the retunings need to be choreographed into the music in order to allow the player time to execute them. (There's nothing more distracting than watching a kantele player's hands flail back and forth wildly as they play very slow, quiet, ruminative music that's too chromatic for the instrument.)

Nevertheless, had that commission been for flute and harp, I would very likely have written the same piece, with a few minor changes. I've even been thinking of making a flute/harp version of it, what with the number of kantele players in the world being somewhat limited. The question for me in this new piece is how to keep from repeating myself in the most literal way. Facing this kind of challenge, it's helpful to make a little rulebook for myself before starting, something that limits my options in certain areas and forces me to think outside the box; that, or add something unusual to a familiar texture to make me think harder about the choices I'm making. For example, in my last two big choir pieces, I added tape and percussion parts, respectively, which helped enormously in keeping me from falling back on the same set of tricks.

In this case, I'm using both specific rules to guide the composition as well as new elements. The harp is a different instrument from the kantele in many ways, much louder, wider range, etc, but the texture itself is essentially the same. Therefore, the flute part was the logical locus of conceptual changes. The first decision I came to, in consultation with Hanna Kinnunen, the flutist, was to use several members of the flute family for coloristic variety; she especially asked me to give her an excuse to play her new alto and bass flutes, a pair of instruments so sexy-sounding they should be illegal. With the four distinct images in the title, it was an easy leap to include the piccolo and write four separate pieces, one for each member of the family.

The next idea was to treat each image in a way that purposely goes against what, to me, at any rate, would seem the most obvious "depiction". The "sleep" movement is going to be super-fast and very twitchy; the alto flute is the most timbrally similar to the harp in its middle register, and at fast tempi, unison canonic music should sound especially good, making it hard to tell who's playing what at times. The registral implications of "death" and "stars" are reversed, with the piccolo invoking the former and the bass flute the latter. We also decided that the higher the flute, the less virtuosic the music would be, so that the piccolo movement consists exclusively of quiet, long tones, and the bass flute piece will be ridiculously virtuosic, replete with extended techniques. These aren't going to be quiet, distant stars, but more like a Van Gogh-style depiction, burning hot and surrealistically exaggerated. The C flute of "night" won't be allowed to make any conventional sounds, only extended ones involving voice, key clicks, whistle tones, etc.

Mixing it up in this way is making the initial stages of composition a lot of fun, cataloging sounds, putting phrases together, coming up with different relationships between the instruments: registral, gestural, etc. It's more like generating material in an electronic studio than paper-and-pencil composition at the moment. In response to the variegated flute sounds, the harp part is becoming the static element in the piece, the unifying agent across all four movements. (Despite all this back-patting talk of "innovation", I have no doubt the flute part will sound a lot like its great-grandfather, Debussy's Syrinx. It always seems to come back to Syrinx with the flute.)

It helps to be working all this out with two of the best musicians of my acquaintance. The harpist, Lily-Marlene Puusepp – in addition to having the greatest name, like, ever – is a consummate experimenter, ready for anything, and convinced that nothing is impossible to play. This is the first time we're working together on a new piece, though she played in the orchestra for my violin concerto a couple of years ago. Although this is my first piece specifically for her, Hanna and I go way back insofar as my time in Finland is concerned, to her giving the European premiere of my flute/piano duo Ash-Wednesday in 2003. I've been blessed over the years to write for some truly excellent flutists who have steadily increased my knowledge of the instrument and its technical and expressive capabilities, but Hanna just gets my music, on an intuitive level that's very rare in composer-performer relationships. It's been that way from the very start; I hardly ever have to tell her anything about how to play something, which tone color to use, articulation, whatever. It all just comes out pretty much exactly the way I imagined, and frequently better.

I'm lucky, I think, to have this in my life. At one time or another, I think composers tend to find someone whose sound and musicianship embody their ideal for that instrument; indeed, composer catalogs are littered with streams of pieces written for the same performers. Even if you do compose for someone else, you're still writing for your favorite flutist in a way. My concept of flute sound is raw, airy, almost vibrato-less, steely and tough, yet transparent, light, almost like a shakuhachi. It probably comes from my playing it badly for years, and this type of sound isn't widely favored in flute-playing circles, based on my anecdotal observations. Imagine my delight, then, when I met a player who took those very elements, those fringe characteristics, and made them positives, whose core musical values were exactly mine. We'll be collaborating on two other projects over the next couple of years, and far from dreading the prospect of returning to the same instrument time and again, I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Strange bedfellows

Excellent article in the Vancouver Sun about the CBC Radio Orchestra fiasco, bringing up some very pertinent issues, and breaking down the CRO's budget to a cost of $0.02 per Canadian, which is revealing in the extreme. On this matter, if the comments sections following many such recent articles are to be believed, I find myself in bed with a class of people whom I'd normally decry, that quasi-jihadist sect of snobs who loudly insist that classical music is the only legitimate musical art, and everything else is garbage. That argument, it goes without saying, hurts the CRO's cause more than it helps, and I have no doubt that most of these people would be quick to denounce the greater part of the music I and other living composers write as tuneless, formless crap. And yet, we're forced onto the same side by this issue.

Anyway, Janet Danielson of the Canadian League of Composers asks some tough questions about the CBC's new classical policy, or lack thereof, but the lines that most stuck in my mind were the following:

"Have we really reached the point where to voice a preference for classical music is to disenfranchise oneself?

Then there is the question of genre. The CBC website breezily assures us, "we'll be drawing from a broader, richer and diverse spectrum of music: classical, jazz, folk, world, R & B, singer-songwriter and roots.

Breaking down music into categories of genre is not as clear-cut and fair-minded as it might seem.

Why have "classical" as a single genre -- why not Renaissance polyphony, 19th century art song, French baroque opera, serial music, and minimalism, just to name a few?"

The CBC's much-touted (by the CBC) new aim of being more inclusive of other genres flips the supposed elitism of classical listeners by cramming centuries of musical art into a catch-all category, making it much easier to dismiss. To be honest, I was never entirely thrilled with the classical programming on the CBC, or many NPR stations in the US, for that matter, with their broad over-reliance on 18th- and 19th-century warhorses and kleinmeistermusik from the same period. Any modern/contemporary music you'd hear in time slots before 10 p.m. tended to be "safe", i.e. highly accessible. My "classical" listening tastes are overwhelmingly centered on music from before 1600 and after 1900, arguably the least represented periods in classical radio programming. My listening preferences are/were not really being met, yet if I argue to preserve classical programming, am I trying to suppress other genres in the eyes of the CBC brass?

I'm not a connoisseur of many genres outside my field, though I do try to listen to – and understand – a lot of different kinds of music. I'll freely admit that I couldn't tell you the difference between folk and roots. That probably makes me elitist in the eyes of some, though I prefer the term "specialist". But what is the lumping of minimalism, French baroque opera and Renaissance polyphony into the same category of "classical" music, then shoving it aside in favor of other, much more specifically defined genres within popular music, but the same ignorance and snobbery in reverse?

Monday, April 7, 2008


"[…] wildness has been perceived as a dangerous force that confounds the order-bringing pursuits of human culture and agriculture. Wildness, according to this story, is cognate with wastefulness. Wild places resist conversion to human use, and they must therefore be destroyed or overcome."

–Robert MacFarlane
The Wild Places

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A bang or a whimper?

This isn't going to be one of those posts about the supposedly sacrosanct position of classical music in Western society. I don't have the time or energy to mount an argument as to why classical music should get public financing at the expense of other forms of music, because honestly, I can't rationalize that disparity, except to say that I think it's important to keep creating big-budget, large-community, unprofitable art like classical music, just because we can, and that very act of making something that is of no real use or benefit to the commercial market is a powerful statement about our values, and our value as a species.

However, when a national broadcaster abdicates a significant part of its mandate to support the culture of its country on specious grounds of profitability, the gloves have to come off. The CBC's ridiculous decision to terminate North America's last remaining radio orchestra is a final, public slap in the face to Canadian music from an anti-intellectual, anti-cultural government that is trying to stamp out creativity in my native country. The CBC's new management have been systematically shutting down outlets for classical music, especially contemporary, for going on two years now. Radio shows of broad popularity have been cancelled, classical music moved to inaccessible late-night time slots, and now they cut an orchestra with an infinitesimal budget, part of whose stated mission is contribute to Canadian culture by spurring the creation of new music by Canadian composers. The CBC Young Composers' Awards, which the CRO served admirably for years in the orchestral category, died a quiet, shameful death a couple of years ago, leaving emerging Canadian composers with one less high-profile way of getting some attention.

Read this, and note the bureaucratic doublespeak in the CBC mouthpiece's answer, rife with material from the Department of Redundancy Department. "Existing music organizations"? To my knowledge, the CRO is an existing music organization, or was until a few days ago. This is not a budget decision, it's a political one originating with the philistines in both the CBC management and the government that appointed them, yet another shot across the bow in a long line of attempts to eliminate quality and originality from Canadian art, thereby reducing the demand for it, and providing grounds for cutting off funding. Be sure to follow up your reading with this, a run-down of other attempts to stifle artistic and intellectual diversity. (I particularly love Bill C-10, an attempt to legislate the censoring of homegrown film productions by revoking tax credits, while allowing foreign productions to do whatever they please, as long as they spend their money north of 49.) Protest this. Write letters. Sign the petition to save the CRO. Make some goddamn noise, and vote these uninformed bumpkins out of office at the next opportunity.

I have yet to fully process why this single issue makes me so angry, given my geographical and temporal remove from Canada. I've been away for a long time, I'm comfortably settled in Finland, and love the work I get to do here, and the local community that has accepted and supported me. But Canada has always been, and always will be my ultimate home. I will not argue that classical music holds some inviolable, all-hallowed place in our culture. It was always a tradition planted in shallow soil in North America, and constantly under threat as a result. But in Canada, it's a small, thriving industry, one that could blossom into a powerhouse like Finland's given the right attention and funding. To see our national broadcaster abrogate its responsibilities so flagrantly, to watch the government my countrymen voted for trying to dismantle my art form piece by piece, makes me deeply sad.