Sampo Haapamäki: Quarter-tone miracle man
by Anu Ahola :: 2012
Sampo Haapamäki (b. 1979) has quickly become one of Finland's most talked about young composers. He has studied music’s different manifestations in Helsinki, New York, and Leipzig, for example, and has steadily consolidated his own varied and vivid idiom.
Sampo Haapamäki's musical journey began in earnest at the beginning of the 1990s in his very small home town of Toholampi in western Finland, where according to him there are more cows than people. The church organist, Osmo Jämsä, was looking for players for his concert band and succeeded in recruiting Sampo.
"Osmo stuck a tuba in my hands and said 'play this an hour a day, boy'", Haapamäki recalls.
Playing the tuba got him interested in the piano. Haapamäki first studied very classical pieces but soon also free accompaniment, so the piano became a more important part of his daily music making. Later piano teachers included Outi Kangas at the Kaustinen College of Music, and the jazz pianist Sid Hille.
Haapamäki’s interest in composing developed slowly, almost naturally, in the high school’s piano class. Free accompaniment lessons first led to improvisation. His first compositions were for piano and brass trio, and he showed them to the famous composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren, who lived in Kaustinen.
During the third year of high school, Haapamäki decided to apply to the Sibelius Academy to study composition. His studies in Helsinki began in 1998, and his teacher was first Tapio Nevanlinna and then later Veli-Matti Puumala. At the academy, he also studied violin and piano.
Nordgren characterised the young composer was “definitely a great talent” and commissioned a work from him for the Kaustinen Chamber Music Week only three years after Haapamäki began studying composition. Avenue for alto saxophone and piano was premiered by John-Edward Kelly and Bob Versteegh.
Haapamäki picks elements that especially interest him from certain composers. An unofficial list of influences on Haapamäki could look like this: Helmut Lachenmann (noise), Iannis Xenakis (architectural “three-dimensional” shapes), György Ligeti (additive rhythms and form), Tristan Murail (spectral harmonies and orchestration) and Brian Ferneyhough (polyrhythms). And Haapamäki has learned the lessons of eg. Magnus Lindberg, Jouni Kaipainen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Noël Lee, Peter Eötvös and Jonathan Harvey by attending master classes led by them.
In studying composition and in his work as a composer, Haapamäki has always taken a determinedly calm approach, preferring to concentrate on one musical issue at a time. In his earliest works, he was especially interested in twelve-tone harmonies and in the growth process of intensity. He has written works for different kinds of chamber music ensembles, big bands, and orchestras.
Highway for flute and piano was a clear turning point in 2002.
"At the time, I began to get more interested in rhythms and rhythm construction, and the first thing I wrote in Highway was in fact a rhythm. It was by the way one of the last pieces in which I still played the piano myself."
The next big turning point in Haapamäki’s musical thinking is represented by his first vocal work, Haljennut (Split, 2004) for sopranist baritone, violin, viola, and cello. This is his first work in which quarter tones play a major role.
In the same year, Haapamäki won the Dutch composition award Gaudeamus with his piece Signature. The award brought fame and glory and spawned new commissions and performances both in Finland and abroad.
With Haljennut, Haapamäki however started down a road that he is in fact still travelling on. After graduating from the Sibelius Academy in 2005, he applied to Columbia University in New York to study with the guru of spectral music, Tristan Murail.
"When I left for New York, I had only quarter tones in my mind", Haapamäki recalls with a tinge of irony in his voice. "Only later did I realise you can find almost anything there!"
The move to Helsinki had already been a big change for the small-town kid, but New York was truly mind-expanding. The incredibly large variety of concerts in this melting pot of different peoples and cultures provided seemingly limitless experiences and influences. The composer received much food for thought on the new continent, and ended up calling into question many of his own ideas.
Haapamäki’s concerto for bass clarinet, Kirjo (Spectrum), which he wrote in New York, can be seen as an analogy for the city. It is a breathtaking combination of spectral harmony, polyrhythms, jazz improvisation, and a whole range of stylistic borrowings, which for example remind the listener of the world of the musical. The work was commissioned by the bass clarinet virtuoso Heikki Nikula, a former fellow musician. Kirjo’s sparkling premiere was at the Helsinki Festival in summer 2006, and it received the prestigious Finnish Teosto Prize the same year.
Besides being rewarding, the year in New York’s hectic pulse was also extremely demanding. Haapamäki felt he needed a year off, and he found a suitable nook in Leipzig, where he spent the winter 2006–2007 composing and continuing his studies, this time with the composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig. During these months, Haapamäki finished his first string quartet, Connection, which was premiered by the Quatuor Diotima. Connection was a continuation of his explorations in the wondrous universe of quarter tones.
In September 2008, Haapamäki’s concerto for quarter-tone accordion, Velinikka, was performed in the opening ceremony of Amsterdam’s Gaudeamus Music Week. Listeners and critics were convinced by the piece's classical-like form but also its enormous energy, which dazed listeners and is characteristic of Haapamäki.
The name of the piece refers to Veli Kujala, an accordion virtuoso specialised in Finnish contemporary music, who played the concerto’s demanding solo part and to whom the work is dedicated.
In terms of composition techniques, the concerto can probably be considered a kind of synthesis and culmination of all that Haapaamäki has written so far. It required, in addition to an accordion wizard like Kujala, a completely new kind of instrument. The multistage process leading to the creation of the concerto and the instrument had already begun years before. In 2001, Haapamäki had composed the solo accordion piece Power for Veli and Susanne Kujala.
"At the time, I’d just begun to go wild about quarter tones, and Veli and Susanne and I pondered the possibility of tuning one of the accordions one quarter tone higher."
Careful consideration showed it would not work as planned, so he did not compose the double concerto. In 2004 Veli Kujala had a brilliant idea: The accordion’s reed banks could be replaced completely so that there would be 24 instead of 12 tones in an octave. This was the origin of the idea of a completely new instrument, the quarter tone accordion.
Veli Kujala next made designs of the instrument and sent them to the Italian accordion manufacturer Pigini. The new accordion was finished in 2006.
'Velinikka grows process-like and is a unified whole. My compositions can be roughly divided into two categories. Those in the first group strive like the quarter-tone accordion concerto in a relatively traditional manner towards cohesion, coherence. Those in the second group are diverse and use many different styles, and they also exhibit so-called overfeeding. By living in different places, I’ve had to deal with a lot of change, and the works in the second group no doubt also express these changes.'
Haapamäki has borrowed one of his fundamental composing ideas from cubism.
"I was impressed by a painting in a cubist exhibition that portrayed a face that had, as it were, splintered – the face could be seen from different angles simultaneously. In the same way, I’d like to myself bend and turn a theme or a motif in music, study it and expose it from different angles."
This is a shortened version of an article originally published in FMQ 3/2009.
Translation: Ekhart Georgi
© Saara Vuorjoki