Jyrki Linjama writes music of boundaries and encounters
by Anna-Kaisa Uusipaikka :: 2006
Jyrki Linjama (b. 1962) subscribes to an ancient tradition of discipline and handicraft, combined with a sincere and open-minded acceptance of his role in the continuation of a robust European cultural heritage. However, his respect for classical civilization and learning does not translate into conventional solutions or bland nostalgia. In employing traditional structures and techniques such as cantus firmus, Linjama explores the limits of his idiom and his personal relationship to the centuries of craftsmanship preceding his work. Although he shuns easy solutions and compromises, he feels that any and all technical solutions made while composing must serve the purposes of the music above all. He is particularly fascinated by boundaries and encounters: points of connection between music, theology, ethics, language, poetry and dance. He says he enjoys crises and tension. Often the core of a complex musical texture consists of the dense and rich interaction of different elements, of the new and the old.
Jyrki Linjama plays the violin, and it is therefore only natural that three of his four extensive orchestral works to date are violin concertos. His First Violin Concerto, sub-titled Serenadeja (Serenades, 1989), is written using strict dodecaphonic technique and is an unconventional concerto in that it is emphatically focused on the solo instrument. Its scale of expression extends from lyrical, meditative melodic writing to Paganini-like virtuoso figures complete with harmonics and pizzicato. In form it is a loosely cast set of variations on a theme. Linjama’s Second Violin Concerto (1991/96), by contrast, is Expressionist in a way that recalls Berg. The contrasts in this Adagio for violin and orchestra are created through a juxtaposition of the soloist’s extensive colour palette and orchestral harmonies, combined with the superimposition of different types of musical gesture. The dramatic sonority of the orchestra is augmented with electric drums and a synthesizer.
The Third Violin Concerto (1998-2001) is built on a repeated harmonic ground in the chaconne tradition. It strikes a deliberate balance between the old and the new, between elegant high culture and a raucous country dance, between passion and a restrained sacral atmosphere. Even each string on the solo violin is given a character of its own in the musical material. This concerto is a typical example of Linjama’s approach to tradition: his respect for the fundamental nature of the genre does not prevent him from exploring its boundaries in his own personal idiom.
Linjama’s instrumental output includes several works for small chamber ensemble or solo instrument. Omaggio (1992), a solo violin piece dedicated to the memory of Maximiliam Kolbe, a Polish priest who died at Auschwitz, combines the sonorous and melodic potential of a twelve-tone row with a Medieval antiphon. The lyrical Sonatina for piano (1995), somewhat reminiscent of Messiaen, is built on a Medieval cantus firmus and the B-A-C-H figure (where B = B flat and H = B natural). But though cast in sonata form, the piece does not really have a theme in the traditional sense; instead, its structure is articulated through a variety of texture, harmonic colour and rhythmic patterning. Consolation (1997) is Linjama’s only work to date for solo accordion. Its meditative and solemn overall tone is coloured by virtuoso scale passages typical for the instrument. Johdanto, muunnelmia ja kehtolaulu (Introduction, variations and lullaby, 1997), on the other hand, is built up of soft arpeggios and inexorable rhythms bordering on minimalism. The charming and humorous Taivas on sininen ja valkoinen for violin and piano (Blue and white is the sky above, 1996, version for solo piano 2005) combines a familiar Finnish folk tune with the composer’s harmonic and melodic idiom.
The most extensive of Linjama’s chamber music works to date is the Partita for guitar quintet (1996). Somehow Neo-Classical in nature, its genesis involved the composer becoming acquainted with the guitar, a completely new instrument for him, and combining this new encounter with an ensemble he already knew very well: the string quartet. Linjama’s complex lyrical writing merges here with a variety of dance-like elements, from aristocratic Baroque gestures to the wild, almost primitive beat of a wine harvest dance. Linjama later renewed his acquaintance with the guitar in his Sonata for guitar (1998), a layered structure in the best traditions of the Western cultural heritage, especially in the rich blend of strict academic writing and sensual nuances that makes up the Ricercare movement. The texture in the middle movement consists of bell-like harmonics, arpeggios and knocks in regular patterns that gradually disintegrate towards the end. In the final movement, a loosely conceived set of variations interpolates a Medieval Alleluia melody with shifting rhythms from the Balkans. The sonata framework, on the other hand, reflects the solemn 17th-century genre of sonata da chiesa, a sonata for the church. Linjama’s chamber music output also includes the more extensive Elegia (1987), a lucid and glass-clear work for fifteen strings, and the playful and sonorous pas de deux for orchestra (1994).
Pääsiäsmotetti (Easter motet, 1995) for mixed choir and organ was Linjama’s first extensive sacred work. Combining a folk hymn tune from Eurajoki in Finland and the Gregorian chant Ad cœnam agni, it mixes these soaring archaic melodies into the densely packed dissonances and joyous virtuoso writing of the organ part. The cantus firmus sustains a set of seven variations whose texts are also a mixture of old and new: an early Medieval hymn text in Latin, a Finnish translation by Jaakko Finno written in the 1580s, and two modern Finnish translations.
Linjama properly began his career as a liturgical composer with Juhlakantaatti for choir, soloists and organ (Festive cantata, 1997), commissioned for the Government church service on the 80th anniversary of Finland’s independence. Linjama had no qualms about consciously calling current conventions into question, and the mixed emotions with which the cantata was received provoked him into sticking uncompromisingly to his chosen idiom. In his doctorate, he explored a topic which has continued to influence his output as a composer substantially: the yawning but unnecessary gap between modern concert music and the services of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church. In the context of his doctorate, he wrote a wholly modernist Vesper (2002-2003), Hildegardiana (1998) and Tuomiosunnuntain vastausmusiikki (Judgement Sunday responsory), which are all intended not only for concert use but for practical liturgical use too. In the Vesper, the harmonic material underpinning the traditional texts is, typically for the composer, derived from fragments of twelve-tone rows whose dextrous placement in various octaves demonstrates how carefully Linjama listens to and balances his material.
In recent years, Linjama has focused on liturgical music in his own uncompromising, high-quality style. His awareness of the tradition shows in his use of cantus firmus melodies amidst his own post-Serialist textures. Liturginen konsertto uruille ja jousiorkesterille (Liturgical concerto for organ and strings, 2005) follows the tripartite structure of the Lutheran church service: the movements are entitled Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei. In the flanking movements in particular, the organ part echoes the rhythms of the Latin Mass texts, and the final movement incorporates the Gregorian chant Da pacem, Domine, in diebus nostris. The middle movement is based on an earlier choral arrangement, a passacaglia on the Medieval Christmas carol Puer natus in Bethlehem. The work thus displays a close and complex relationship to the traditions of liturgical music. It is, however, far removed from the classical concerto tradition. In the opening movement in particular, it is the strings that have the main role, and the organ principally sustains the structure and articulates transitions between sections.
In addition to sacred vocal music, Linjama has written secular pieces for choir and the song cycle Kolme madrigaalia (Three madrigals, 1998, 2000-2001) for soprano and piano. His vocal music is characterized by his interest in the semantic connections between phonetics and music, painting with vocal sounds and the smooth transitions emphasizing overtones that voices can perform. The idea of bells appears in many of his works, from the booming nocturnal bells of Venetsialainen yölaulu (Venetian night song, 1988) to the brilliant bell fanfares of Kolme madrigaalia. Eskon häälaulu (Esko’s wedding song, 2002) and Helavalkea (Beacon fire, 2004), both settings of poems by Aleksis Kivi, feature a rich, complex and solid metric structure.
Linjama’s professionalism and unprejudiced approach have won him recognition, for instance in the form of the Hulda Paulo Prize of the Paulo Foundation in October 2004.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi