Composer in Profile: Lotta Wennäkoski
by Osmo Tapio Räihälä :: 2002
Poetry. Enchantment and mystery. Small is beautiful. These are epithets that can be ascribed to the music of Lotta Wennäkoski (b. 1970). Her work proclaims nothing; it is spun of aphoristic observations yet is not devoid of compassion.
Wennäkoski explored her musical orientation by first studying theory of music, the violin and folk music in Hungary, and then theory of music at the Sibelius Academy, before finally embarking on her composition studies. Her output contains no dodgy youthful works; she did not write her first real pieces until she had come to study with Eero Hämeenniemi at the Sibelius Academy. Thus, she was already an adult when she really came to grips with the problems of composing, and it is evidently this that lends a certain coherence to her idiom — which, on the other hand, is not to say that she repeats herself.
The idiom in Wennäkoski’s output is solidly grounded in post-Darmstadt European Modernism à la Lutoslawski, characterized by a complete absence of tonality yet unfettered by a system that would prohibit it. The fragile lyricism of her music does not require traditional stanzaic forms; there are no pulsative anchor points in its rhythmic structures. Her poetic approach lends itself to brief phrasing; her music is above all the art of textures and moods. Appropriately enough, the core of her output is in chamber music, including a number of solo works for bass clarinet.
Not only can Wennäkoski’s music be described as poetic, it is also based on actual poetry in some cases, for example the poems of Eeva-Liisa Manner. An early work, Kolme runoa (Three Poems, 1996) for mezzosoprano and chamber ensemble, is a setting of Manner, but it is not a vehicle for conveying the text; instead, the voice is used more like a solo instrument. It is one of the most expressive works in an output strongly characterized by an Impressionist play of colours.
Dans le conte c'est ma voix (1998) for guitar, percussion and tape goes beyond Impressionism. Its static stream-of-consciousness approach is reminiscent of a video installation; it is as if the music is an ‘image’ of itself, a painting with sound.
Many of Wennäkoski’s works have a strong character, with the music woven around a single feature and thus yielding a highly individual composition. A case in point is Veno (Boat, 2000) for flute, saxophone, guitar, percussion and viola. The work is based on the image of the sound of rippling water as heard when lying on the bottom of a rowboat. (The Finnish word veno is actually a poetic archaic variant of the word vene, ‘boat’.) The almost Pointillist use of soft-sounded instruments render Veno an arrestingly effective impression of a mood. A coherent sound world is also present in Ennen vettä (Before the water, 2002), a setting of a poem by Mirkka Rekola for mixed choir, albeit with strong internal tensions.
Similarly coherent yet perhaps not as characteristic are her early trios Läike (1994) for clarinet, violin and piano and Vaie (1995) for oboe, clarinet and cello. They are sensitive tiny works like dewdrops on a petal. Larger (in ensemble, not in length) is Àrva (Orphan, 1997) for chamber ensemble. It is based on a Hungarian folk song which is heard at the end of the work. It is not, however, a detached effect but a dexterously integrated component of the sound world of the work. This work was a conscious effort on Wennäkoski’s part to write ‘beautiful’ music. An antithesis of sorts is Sydänkuu (Heartmoon, 2000) for cello and piano, perhaps more clunky than any other of her works.
The bass clarinet has become an instrument particularly important for Wennäkoski for an obvious reason: her husband Heikki Nikula is an acknowledged virtuoso on the instrument. The most important of the works she has written for him to date is Sade avaa (Rain opens, 1999) for bass clarinet and chamber ensemble, also one of the most extensive of her works to date. The inspiration for the work derives — again — from a poem by Eeva-Liisa Manner, but since no text is involved in the work, the inspiration is indirect. Sade avaa is a meditative work whose most conspicuous feature is the long quiet section towards its middle.
Lotta Wennäkoski is a delightfully individual voice among contemporary composers. If you speak softly, it will be easier for you to get yourself heard, because people will listen more closely.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi