Expanding the concept of Finnish music
by Juha Torvinen :: 2010
For Finns, music is an identity factor that is right up there with our national epic the Kalevala, our pinewood forests, our top-ranking school system and our Olympic athletes. In the Finnish arts world championships, music is the undisputed leader, though design comes a very close second. One of the slogans encapsulating the essence of being Finnish is ‘Sibelius, sauna and sisu’.
When discussing Finnish classical music, it is a commonplace to refer to Jean Sibelius and to how Finnish music is performed all around the world. The Finnish music education system is also praised time and again. It is further pointed out that new Finnish works of music are being premiered every other day on average. Not bad for a nation of only five million or so.
Where does this active music-making come from? And is there something quintessentially Finnish in our music – some feature or sound that makes music such an important defining phenomenon for us Finns?
From international to expatriate
Nowadays, clichés of internationalisation are unavoidable. Whether music in itself is an international language or not (and let’s not open that can of worms), Finnish music certainly is international in historical terms. We have taken on board influences from both the Swedes and the Russians, who governed our land in turn – not to speak of the first real organiser on the Finnish musical scene, German-born composer Fredrik Pacius. And the most famous Finn of all time, Sibelius, is a composer.
The music being written by today’s best-known Finnish composers such as Kalevi Aho, Magnus Lindberg, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Kaija Saariaho knows no national boundaries. A composer writing music today occupies the whole world, so to speak, drawing influences from various localities either in person or through the media. For Finnish composers to go abroad to study is a time-honoured tradition, but these days they do not necessarily come back: a study trip may turn into decades of residence and work abroad. A Finnish composer may easily become an expatriate Finnish composer.
The world conquest of Finnish music has been hugely abetted by a crack team of Finnish conductors, including composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, contemporary music specialist Susanna Mälkki and maestros such as Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Mikko Franck.
A contemporary composer is neither a Modernist radical nor a traditionalist epigonist. Contemporary music cannot be pinned down using traditional aesthetic norms. A composer identity, a composer’s voice, emerges as a nexus of the barrage of influences flung out by a media-infused and shrinking world, and the national tradition is simply one influence among many. Musical genres and styles have multiplied exponentially and all but disappeared in the process.
In this sense, Finnish music is very much in touch with the plurality of the times. We have Neo-Baroque musician-composer Olli Mustonen, electro-acoustic urban minimalist Juhani Nuorvala and lyrical colourist Lotta Wennäkoski. We have quarter-tone virtuoso Sampo Haapamäki, spatial flow architect Sebastian Fagerlund and soaring arc constructor Aki Yli-Salomäki. We have musico-cultural integrationists Mikko Heiniö and Kimmo Hakola, whose leaps of imagination we have long since given up trying to anticipate.
Modernism, formerly the cutting edge of musical innovation, is today a part of tradition, and as such simply one of the styles and approaches on offer. Composers such as Perttu Haapanen and Lauri Kilpiö have demonstrated a fresh breeze in the Modernist camp in recent years. Time will tell what the generation of composers born in the 1980s will do with their music.
Will the Finnish voice survive?
Finnish opera is one of the few genres where a national approach is still going strong, as witness Isän tyttö (Daddy’s Girl) by Olli Kortekangas or Anna Liisa by Veli-Matti Puumala. The Finnish National Opera and the two dozen small opera companies active in Finland ensure that performers can be found even for bold and experimental opera projects. It is also a demonstration of an interest in continuity and tradition-consciousness that the symphonic genre is again attracting interest.
National permanence may also be found in other institutions, such as the active contemporary music festivals – Musica nova Helsinki, Tampere Biennale, the Time of Music in Viitasaari and UML in Oulu. Contemporary music also occupies a central role in our much-admired music education institutions.
But does Finnish music in itself, for all its internationalisation, contain a through-going Finnish pedal point of some kind, something that makes it essentially Finnish? Absolutely. But what is it? That can only be discovered by listening. And will it still be there 50 years from now? No one knows.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi