Friday, July 15, 2011


Well, I guess I'm back from my hiatus. Forgive the awkwardness of the blog's appearance, I just discovered Blogger's new templates and am experimenting with a new layout. I'm usually loath to change things about the way I work once I find something simple and elegant that suits my purposes, but it's been a season of change.

Much of my long silence had to do with the unending process of getting my viola concerto ready for printing. I thought I'd gotten over the worst of my crippling doubts about composing, or at least had learned that the pressure of incessant project deadlines was a good thing, in that it kept me from getting stuck in my head for too long, getting overly precious about my ideas and material. As such, the piece itself was relatively easy writing. It flowed well, I didn't get too attached to my ideas if I found they weren't working, and the piece assumed the shape it wanted, which ended up being quite distant from my initial conception in many ways. More about the music momentarily.

What I hadn't anticipated was all the peripheral concerns that would assail me one after another during the process of writing the stupid thing. First, I suffered a months-long litany of health problems that would bore the most sympathetic (or sadistic) reader. Suffice it to say that between August and February, I spent an awful lot of time bedridden for one reason or another. Then came the perhaps the biggest shock to my family's collective system, the decision to buy an apartment in Helsinki, and all the busy work associated with that simple act: bank meetings, mortgages, the move itself, light renovations, etc. Then Finale had a complete meltdown during the copying part of the process, necessitating weeks of polite but terse back-and-forth with tech support to resurrect my poor maligned piece. Then the trouble with the parts started. Once again, I won't bore anyone with the details, but the end results of the constant malfunctions and other work intruding were that 1) a piece that was finished in December (on deadline, if I may boast a little) took until June to be copied and delivered, and 2) I was finally pushed past my breaking point and left Finale for good, a process documented lightheartedly here, and not so lightheartedly elsewhere.

Naturally, seeing the end of this work season necessitated a little time off. So after a couple of weeks of leisure, moderate intoxication and travel, I'm back. Another part of the long hiatus between posts was a simple dearth of productive things to say. It was an immensely bleak, depressing winter, a season of which I'm normally a huge fan, but this last one was just brutal: dark, unutterably cold, buried under feet of snow all the time, the kind of winter the North serves up once in a blue moon.

It was bleak for other reasons, as I watched the politics of my now-twin homelands take an alarming turn. First Finland's elections produced tears, anger, and so small amount of introspection in electing the odd True Finns (I shall not link to them. Fie!) with a whopping 20% of the vote. The resulting parliamentary negotiations ended up producing a much more palatable government than anyone had a right to expect, but it was white-knuckle time there for a while. The worst outcomes were the rise of euphemistic campaigning in Finland, where an openly racist, pseudo-intellectual pinhead is described in the media as an "outspoken immigration critic", as well as a rise in cowardly attacks on people perceived as outsiders, notably visible minorities and immigrants. There's always been an undercurrent of xenophobia in Finnish society, but everyone, myself included, allowed themselves to think it a minor problem in an otherwise tolerant people. The whole upswelling of anti-Other hysteria culminated last week, for me and mine, in the brutal assault of a very Finnish-looking colleague by a group of young men for making the mistake of stepping into the local in his new neighborhood for pint. In the long run, it's perhaps a good thing to air out these issues now, before they get worse, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch.

Then Canada, my dear, dear Canada... Oh, Canada! Maybe I'm feeling more and more distant from the land of my birth, geographically, psychologically, even spiritually. Watching the recent elections there from afar – barred as I am from participating in them as an expat – was painful, to say the least, as a government of snide, parochial bully-boys that time and time again displayed open contempt for the populace and ran a campaign that amounted to little more than "Coalition! Ooga-booga!" was rewarded with a majority stake in Parliament. Worse still, people absolutely gloried in the debasement and humiliation of a good, well-meaning, worldly, patriotic man for the crime of having spent a few years outside the country. People complain that career political hacks have too much power, and that our best and brightest should seek office, but when they do, they're derided for not being slick career political hacks. The hypocrisy is astounding, no? (Hmm, overidentifying, much?) The state of the CBC just seems to echo the mood of the land, where people aren't citizens anymore, they're just taxpayers, and everything comes down to money and what's in it for me, right now. Ironically, this all stems from a politician actually keeping a campaign promise. Our Prime Minister is right: I don't recognize Canada anymore.

Perhaps the buying of a house here is symbolic of my increasing attachment to Finland, a land where I can do my work and still hope to live in reasonable comfort. As far as colleagues in Canada tell me, things aren't going to get better anytime soon for the arts, so here is where you'll find me for the foreseeable future. It's a funny thing to live as an immigrant in the global age. Cutting ties to a place perhaps but for a letter now and then, the virtually inevitable result of moving to a new continent and starting a new life, is now virtually impossible. Our homelands haunt us, our home cultures ever-present rather than simply remembered. The dissonance of living in a foreign culture (and Finland does feel very foreign some days, even after ten years – ten YEARS!) never resolves, it just hangs in the air, Debussy-like, a hazy background against which one's current identity is always projected.

Nonetheless, here I am, back at work, with many more things on my mind that I feel are worth sharing. What's changed? Home, space, life, family. Finishing the viola concerto, with its constant references to past ideas and forays into different temporal worlds, felt like a closure or sorts. I found out a lot of things about my ways of working, and unintentionally succeeded in a long held ambition of mine to write a large-scale piece that relies entirely on heterophony rather than harmony for its structure. It wasn't until I finished it that what I'd done hit me. Harmony, that little devil on my shoulder for years, the notion of music moving through time in a linear fashion, finally gave up the ghost in this one, leaving a sea of pure melody, endless and ruminating. I also changed my work habits quite a bit, coming to rely on my computer to a greater degree. (I know, I know.) I'm man enough to admit the damn thing saved my life in a few sections of this piece, where I would have made a hash of things trying to do it by hand and trial and error. It's an interesting development, and I'm trying to find new ways of integrating the computer into my routine as a compositional tool rather than simply a copying one.

Much to do, much to say, little time to do it all. I'd remiss, however, if I didn't note this upcoming CD release, a quirky little project I got involved with through the pianist Antti Siirala. Track 8 features him solo, playing a tiny piece of mine based on the famous theme from the infinitely more famous, much larger preceding work. Note the incongruity of my present career profile and the label. I'm a bit chuffed.