Olli Koskelin in Profile
by Kimmo Korhonen :: 1995
(b. 1955) belongs to the same generation as the ‘Ears Open’ composers who introduced radical Modernist ideas into Finnish music in the 1980s. Compared with this group, Koskelin is an exception in more ways than one. First, he studied not at the Sibelius Academy but privately (with Jukka Tiensuu and Eero Hämeenniemi). Second, by the time that Koskelin entered the scene in the early 1980s, many of his contemporaries already had a sizable oeuvre to their credit and had achieved national fame. The fact that Koskelin left his début relatively late was, however, evidently a deliberate choice. Then and later, he polished his works meticulously; often this refining process has continued long after the first performance. Explaining his thoroughgoing method of composition, Koskelin once quoted Stravinsky: “I’m somebody who can wait.”
The character of Koskelin’s music placed him somewhat at odds with the mainstream in ‘young Finnish music’ in the 1980s. To be sure, one senses a strong awareness in his music of the means available to contemporary composers, but it also respects the traditional aesthetic values and delicacy. The individual works tend to be highly unified in mood, but many of them differ substantially from one another; on the other hand, Koskelin has occasionally used the same material in more than one work. Instrumental and vocal compositions form the two largest groups of works in his music.
Koskelin made his public début
in summer 1982 with Music for String Quartet (1981), which started out as an exercise in twelve-tone technique for his teacher Hämeenniemi. The music ranges between extremes, alternating impassioned, post-expressionist effusions with static, fragilely beautiful textures made up of long-drawn-out notes.
Both of the key dimensions of Music for String Quartet are audible in the works composed by Koskelin in the following years. The more vehement type of expression dominates the solo instrumental works Act 1 (1982) for cello and Exalté (1985) for clarinet. With its virtuoso figuration and steadily mounting intensity, Exalté is technically one of the most demanding works in clarinet literature. Koskelin later expanded the work into a duo, Pas de deux (1991), and a trio, Pas de trois (1991). Koskelin's more sensitive side is heard in his vocal works, such as the Three Songs (1982), which are of an almost Webernian transparency.
In the late 1980s, Koskelin focused increasingly on lyrical meditation and nuances of colour. Tone fields and timbre play a key role both in the choral work ...with flowers... (1986), which cultivates static sound surfaces reminiscent of Ligeti, and in Sweet Dreams (1987) for female voice and chamber ensemble, one of Koskelin’s most sensitive and poignant compositions. The music creates an unreal but captivating world of its own, with a childlike, at times deliberately naive vocal line supported by a chamber ensemble conjuring up distant worlds of sound, discreetly enriched with a synthesizer.
Tutte le corde (1988) is composed for live guitar and electronically processed guitar sounds on tape; together these produce everything from tinkling, transparent acoustic surfaces to a veritable guitar orchestra.
The principal formal idea is that of a tapering wedge: in the beginning, the guitar and tape sounds are clearly distinct, but in the end they merge. A somewhat similar, lyrical world of sound is explored in the piano piece Courbures (1989), which has a Neo-Impressionist brightness.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s,
Koskelin experimented briefly with quotations and stylistic loans. Such an element already appears in Courbures, a Baroque cadenza in F minor which appears only once. The meditative, delicately outlined vocal work Breaking the Silence... (1991) contains another passing reference, a few bars of pentatonic music associated with the background to the work’s Japanese text.
Quotations play a more conspicuous role in Koskelin’s radiophonic work To whom it may concern (1990). Built up on variation of mood, the work has no plot proper, but includes excerpts from the poetry of W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and – as if from another world – Charles Bukowski. The profound awareness of history in Eliot’s poetry gave Koskelin the idea of using quotations, and the work includes loans from from the music of Bach, Handel and Rameau, as well as from Koskelin’s own earlier works. Instead of abrupt collage-like transitions, Koskelin always seeks to merge his quotations and references as closely and organically as possible with the work as a whole.
The quotation technique represented by To whom it may concern turned out to be only a short-lived phase in Koskelin’s development. However, the composition introduced into his work a multimedia element extending beyond pure music. This element is represented by the music to Juha Siltanen's play Strip-Tease (1991), in which the music has an unusually central dramatic role.
The most important multimedia dimension in Koskelin’s output is dance. Since 1987, he has taught music at the Department of Dance of the Theatre Academy in Helsinki, and is well-acquainted with representatives of the rising Finnish modern dance scene. At his second composer’s concert, in January 1991, he tied the compositions together to form a continuum by means of short dance interludes (which did not find their way into Koskelin’s opus list, however).
Koskelin’s first major dance work Kylmäntähti (Coldstar; 1991–92) was commissioned by the Kuopio Dance Festival and choreographed by Ulla Koivisto. The composer reworked the original music, lasting over one hour, into the chamber orchestra work ...kuin planeetta hiljaa hengittävä (...like a planet silently breathing; 1992–93). Other dance works by Koskelin include Yövartija (The Nightwatchman; 1992) and Minä olen ruumiini (I am my own body; 1994), both choreographed by Alpo Aaltokoski.
In 1986, Koskelin studied
in France with Tristan Murail. It took several years, however, before the influence of Murail’s ideas about spectral music began to emerge in Koskelin’s work. He comes closest to his French masters in the meditative Échos colorés (1991) for clarinet and piano, in which multiphonics played by the clarinet are coupled with spectral notes played directly on the piano strings.
More frequently, however, Koskelin has applied harmonic series based on equal temperament. An excellent example is the previously mentioned ...kuin planeetta hiljaa hengittävä for chamber orchestra, which uses tempered overtones to produce harmonies of almost Neo-Romantic fullness. In fact many of Koskelin’s works from the 1990s have a more mellow sound than his earlier music.
In the 1990s, Koskelin has composed for larger ensembles as well as for solo voice or instruments. His first orchestral work proper was For the time being (1991). The Piano Concerto (1994) brought the two aspects of his work together. The piano part is related to the earlier solo work Courbures, though faster-moving and more virtuosic. The orchestral score, by contrast, has a soft, mellow harmony and sustained pedal points reminiscent of ...kuin planeetta hiljaa hengittävä. There will be more music in the concertante dimension: Koskelin is currently at work on a Concerto for clarinet, his own instrument.
Translation © Timothy Binham