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.


Jorma Koskinen said...

Hi Matthew, my favourite Finnish composer!

Last Sunday I glanced through the RSO spring programme as their ticket sales started on Tuesday 3rd. I remembered your premiere and googled the title thinking it was one of your literary quotes and, WOW, Mr. Google gave me a pdf file of the score with your foreword. I have now read it through, took me two days. You are one fascinating contemporary composer in that you are not afraid of that old-fashioned thing called melody. I listen to a lot of new music and am fairly omnivorous. I can take pure rhythm, long clusters of one chord and zigzaggy rickety-rackety-ticks of percussion only but without any melody my concentration considerably diminishes after about three minutes. Your viola concerto sounds appetizing in my head. I may have to listen to it on the radio though because RSO offered seats only behind the orchestra and I am not going back there again. I have been sitting there often enough and the experience is not worth the trip from Kotka where I live now. When is somebody going to say something about the disastrous acoustics in the new hall? Our emperor has no clothes. Three quarters of the vineyard are unsuitable for listening to unamplified orchestral music and naïve as I am I thought that is what the place was built for. One hears nothing at all of a vocal or piano soloist and whole sections of the orchestra sound distorted or are inaudible. The quarter in front of the orchestra being reserved for season ticket holders surely can’t be a way of educating future audiences. I shall have to start a new Facebook group of Musiikkitalo haters or a “Symphony concerts back to Finlandia-talo” movement. I thought I was never going to say this aloud: I miss Finlandia Hall. At least one could hear both the soloist and the whole orchestra in a proper perspective from every seat in the house.

I am not a professional musician; in fact I am not a musician at all so I could not figure out everything in your score. For instance what are the double arches over the strings on cue 1 in bar 83? Do the markings for the trumpets at F denote jazz-like opening and closing of the mute? Lots of 3-note chords for the solo viola but I didn’t know violas can play 4-note chords across two octaves! I would call this a virtuoso concerto. I am sure the soloist has accepted all this with an eager smile :-). The result seems well worth all the trouble and toil you describe in this blog.

I am very happy for you that your career has soared the way it deserves to with two major premieres with the country’s two top orchestras during the same spring. Listening to the Leaves of Grass in Mänttä I thought this composer thinks orchestrally, in terms or orchestral colour that is. I am much looking forward to hearing a new piece of yours for a large orchestra.

All the best

Jorma Koskinen

Matthew Whittall said...

Hi Jorma! Apologies for not answering sooner, I've been drowning in a sea of work.

Many thanks for your compliments, I'm glad you like the preview of the viola concerto you were able to find. The internet is an amazing repository. The piece is in many ways a return to melody for me after a number of years of avoiding it, or at least on that scale, trying to find beauty in sparer textures and floating single harmonies. The added incentive of having such a singing, beautiful instrumental voice to write for helped a lot. I'm quite excited to hear the result, and hope you can hear the broadcast. My other large-scale piece (about which more later) won't be on the radio, unfortunately, but welcome to hear it live in May.

Having been to the new hall a number of times, I can't say that I miss Finlandia, unfortunately. There are definitely some acoustical issues that need to be resolved, and sightline problems from the cheap seats, but the sound is quite remarkable: deep, dark, very detailed and revelatory in denser textures. It seems like the bigger the band gets, the clearer the sound becomes. That said, I wouldn't sit behind the stage for a vocal soloist. (Actually, I will be tonight, but only because better seats were sold out.) With the exception of a few places in the upper rear balconies, I haven't had any trouble hearing anything. The hall does seem to be causing some trouble with coordination, particularly between the percussion and the rest of the orchestra, but I anticipate those issues will be worked out as the orchestras learn to "play" the hall. Overall, I have to say it's a marked improvement.

My bigger problem is with the way tickets are sold. Frequently, concerts listed as sold out are anything but. With large blocks of good seats going empty, I assume bought my companies as a package and gifted to employees, none of whom show up. A better system would be to resell any unclaimed tickets as rush seats before the concert, as is done in many halls in North America. That way, the hall could maximise profit from ticket sales, and avoid the embarrassment of dozens of empty places at a "sold out" event.

Anyway, do tune in to the viola concerto broadcast if you can, and let me know what you think!

Jorma Koskinen said...

What I like most in your music is the expansiveness; that you are not afraid of your own musical material. You are not in a hurry to say as much as you can in as short a time as possible. Once you have something nice to say you are not ashamed of taking your time and letting it blossom out into full bloom. I first watched the YLE Areena webcast twice simultaneously reading the pdf file of the score in another window beside it (very handy in itself). In the tutti passages the score is so tall that on my screen I had to read it in three parts one below another to make any sense of it and that was too cumbersome so I ordered the conductor's score from the FIMIC and it took its good time to arrive. Listening to the CD I made of the webcast and reading the score a whole page at a time is a much more enjoyable experience. I have now listened to your concerto six times and feel I can say my humble and modest opinion, for what it's worth.

Your viola concerto is an emotionally rich and immensely rewarding journey: introspective, extrovert, ruminative and rejoicing. The structure is solid with appropriate changes of mood, tempi, instrumentation and soloist-orchestra balance. What a wonderfully melodious instrument the viola is. What a deeply felt interpretation. How incandescently sublime a sound I.A. pours forth from his instrument throughout. But you had to write it first, of course.

It is especially the latter part of the concerto from the cadenza onwards that brings me the greatest pleasure. When the mood changes at letter S (Hypnotic, meditative) the melody gradually brings the listener to a sunnier landscape.

After the piccolo introduces the liberating melody at letter T the solo viola plays so unutterably ravishingly that one voluntarily surrenders to the music. Here I am, take me. When at bar 428 the strings join in it is as if all shackles of human bondage brake and one finds one can fly, soar into light. Pure unconditional joy bubbles up through one's spine from the deepest sources of existence, free, without any cause or purpose. At moments like this I have a feeling that life pays up. It repays for some of its unhappier events and for a moment I no longer hurt inside.

There follow a few moments of anxious worry when the listener thinks that a final release might after all not come. However, listening to the contrabassoon solo and its exchanges with the viola at letter V sounds so much nicer and makes much more sense than looking at the music on paper. The mighty Brucknerian unison of near despair at letter W does not make the suspense easier. At Y breathing becomes freer again and the flute takes up the familiar tell-tale melody, a promise of better times to come.

The greater is the joy when the final catharsis arrives at letter Z. I wish those trumpet flourishes would never end and I am reminded of the root of the word ecstasy. It comes from the Greek ex stasis, away from stasis. True ecstasy is felt when we are suddenly transported from a place of stasis to somewhere else. It is the change itself, the transport that gives the feeling, not the arrival, nor the place arrived at. At moments like this I almost forgive life and tell myself it is OK to be a human. Life is intermittently bearable.

When I go to a concert I always have an eager mood of positive anticipation. Tragedy, comedy, no matter, both are equally valid and important. What I most want is to be moved. Sometimes I get more, I get transported.

Matthew Whittall said...

Jorma, thank you for your kind and moving comments. It gives me great pride to have reached even one listener so clearly. I really appreciate your taking the time to give me such detailed positive feedback.

By the way, welcome to the premiere of my next big piece, a canata for soprano and orchestra called "Dulcissima, clara, sonans", to texts of Hildegard of Bingen, with Helsinki Phil on May 19. This one won't be broadcast, I'm afraid, so live will be the only option. There are still tickets left, I believe. Hope you can make it!

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