Monday, August 4, 2008

Emerging, composer?

My summer hiatus ended up being much longer than originally planned. I started a post about compositional process, but ended up not being able to formulate it clearly enough for my own liking, though I'll get it figured out sooner or later.

My new piece for multiple flutes and harp (see post here) sucked up most of my free time and head space in the last couple of weeks of its composition in June, with the final movement causing me no end of headaches; one section in particular had to be redrafted upward of ten times before I was able to trim the fat off it and figure out its function in the form. I finished the score literally hours before getting on an overseas flight. Despite the rush, the July 19th performance went extremely well. Hanna and Lily, as expected, went above and beyond in their preparation, getting right to the heart of the music. As a result, the piece generated a lot of positive attention and good feedback, and I found myself feeling more satisfied with Night, sleep, death and the stars than I have been with any of my previous chamber works. I feel like I'm finally starting to draw together the diatonic/minimalist side of my writing with the more serialist/atonal. Though the extremes were still present in the piece (they tend to be more obvious in my chamber music, where I feel more at liberty to try odd things, than in my orchestral and choral pieces) they came into closer contact than ever before. The setting was perfect, too: a still, clear Nordic summer night, a late concert starting at nine, and an old, resonant church with a star field painted on the white ceiling. Overall, a positive experience. After trimming the fourth movement, in which I lost the thread a little in the rush to finish it, and tweaking the middle section of second to allow more time for harp pedaling, I think I'll have a strong piece.

The real reason for the long silence, though, was an extended trip to the States and Canada to visit friends and family. It had been far too long since I've trod the ground of my home continent, and it was a real pleasure to be there. We started in western Massachusetts, the seat of many fond memories from my university days, in the easygoing company of one of my old professors and her family. From there, Ottawa and the larger part of my immediate family, ending with the Canada Day celebration in the capital, which is always a fun occasion. The last leg brought us, at long last, to the West Coast and Vancouver. I'm slightly ashamed to admit I've never been to that end of Canada before – the furthest west I've seen is the Rockies – but in my defense, it's a big damn country, and you really need a reason to go out there. Luckily, my brother recently moved out to the Pacific coast, providing us with a neat excuse.

Vancouver is a lovely city, laid back, cool, scenic, really an idyllic location. There's a strong sense of being "somewhere else" out there, a vibe unique in Canada. And finally a city with enough green to rival Helsinki! Long walks through the coastal rain forests were simply spectacular, in any weather. We had a three-day side excursion to the wine country of the Okanagan valley, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. More beautiful country, of course, but the wine, which you don't see a lot of outside the province of British Columbia, was world-class.

We spent most of our time around the smaller, start-up wineries in the south of the region, near the U.S. border, where I tasted a degree of dedication and passion in the winemaking that's hard to come by. Some standout products included the aromatic whites of See Ya Later Ranch, which also produces an excellent Brut sparkling wine with a yeasty, buttered-toast nose. Their Riesling and Pinot Gris (blended with a tiny amount of Gewürztraminer) were especially memorable. Burrowing Owl, in addition to its highly photogenic namesake and sharp, well-run restaurant, produces the best single-varietal Cabernet Franc I've ever had. Blue Mountain's refined, age-worthy Pinot Noir, Gehringer Brothers' powerful Riesling icewine and a Gewürz from Wild Goose were also eagerly packed for the trip home, but pride of place went to Golden Mile's incredible "Black Arts" Syrah, blended with Viogner in the Rhône style, simply the best wine I tasted there, perhaps the best I've had all year. The aftertaste of dried fruits and spice went on and on for minutes, always developing, always bringing new layers to my attention. Truly remarkable! Even in the slicker, more corporate north of the valley, where the wines had a designed-by-committee feel (though Mission Hill earns significant points for beauty of location), there were rare finds, the most notable being the lovely light, fresh, low-alcohol icewines at Sumac Ridge. Even amid such travel opulence I found it hard to turn off my irony filter, noting that all the wineries seemed to be named after some beautiful, ancient feature of the landscape that was plowed under to make room for vineyards. Oh well. If I ever move there, they can put me in commercials for B.C. wine; there would never be a reason to buy a bottle made out of province. Forget Napa!

The visit was all too short, and I sincerely hope to make it back to that part of the world again very soon. However, the North called, and home we returned. Truth be known, I found myself feeling homesick for Finland, which is a first. I've put down roots here, both personally and professionally, and despite the difficulties inherent of living in a faraway place as a foreigner, Finland is very much my physical and spiritual home. It seems to have become such without my noticing, too. Go figure.

And now comes a time of transition. My thesis, and with it my degree, is spiraling toward completion, though whether it's an upward or downward spiral remains to be seen. My three-year teaching contract at the Sibelius Academy came to an end this summer, and although I'll be continuing in an adjunct capacity for the forseeable future, my focus will turn toward composition as principal activity. Following a year of significant career developments, I now know more or less what I'll be doing with my composing time for the next three years and change (more about that later, as things become official). It's all terribly exciting, not to mention a little frightening, which is why I find comfort in hedgehogs. (Whatnow?) Yes, you read right. One of my Nordic fancies is this lowly creature, unremarkable to locals, but thoroughly enchanting for foreigners who grew up without them, in much the same way as my wife loves raccoons. The hedgehog has become something of a totem animal or spirit guide for me in my years here, rarely sighted in the city, but deeply affecting when seen. Quietly fascinating, calm in a paradoxically high-strung way, they counsel patience (try out-waiting a bundled hedgehog sometime to see what I mean), and I'm unfailingly reassured by their sporadic appearances, made to feel as if whatever's on my mind will work itself out. I've seen them more frequently this summer, and hope they bring me good tidings.

A small milestone I failed to notice is the first anniversary of this blog. I've been remiss in writing, partly from lack of time, partly from a desire to figure out exactly what this space is for me and my work. One thing I've resolved to do with my writing from this point is to be more proactive in my topics and less reactive. It's always much easier to write a riposte to someone else's thoughts than to take the time to formulate a positive, meaningful discourse on one's own views. Part of the reason for this is that much of what I do proceeds from a highly intuitive sense of "rightness" that's difficult to articulate in a conscious artistic credo. However, if this blog is to have any meaning at all, I believe it must be as a contributor of positive, informative thought about the process of composition, and about the role of artistic intuition in creation. There are plenty of blogs of the reactive kind, so I'll strive to do less of that this year.

Thanks to all who have stayed with me this far, and I hope I'll justify your reading time into the future!

Post-North America visit reading:
Kyle Gann, Music Downtown
John Luther Adams, Winter Music
Maria Peura, trans. Hackston, At the edge of light

John Luther Adams: Earth and the Great Weather
Sigur Rós: Med sud i eyrum...
Charlemagne Palestine: Schlingen-Blängen & Strumming Music
Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Le Vent du Nord: Les Amants du Saint-Laurent