Juha T. Koskinen: Innovation within the context of the tradition
by Liisamaija Hautsalo :: 2005
Juha T. Koskinen (b. 1972) has so far composed five operas and some forty works ranging from solo pieces to concertos and choral music. "The emphasis in my composing is, at the moment, shifting more and more towards orchestral and chamber music," he says.
Koskinen’s path to becoming a composer led from violin lessons given by his father to the Sibelius Academy, where he took composition as his main subject. This he studied with Kalevi Aho and Paavo Heininen in 1990–1996. He spent the 1996–1997 academic year at the Conservatoire in Lyon as a pupil of Philippe Manoury. Another major mentor has been Kaija Saariaho, with whom he studied both at summer courses during the Avanti! chamber orchestra’s Summer Sounds festival in Porvoo and at the Sibelius Academy in 1997–1998.
Stylistically the music of Koskinen is difficult to categorise. His first big orchestral work, the monumental Fatalité – commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company for the Finnish RSO in 1995, when he was only 23 – got an excellent reception but as a result of it he was unequivocally branded a Modernist. This is something he finds difficult to understand.
"What is Modernism?"
"The label is too confined, because my sources of inspiration are far more widespread than Modernism," he says. "I have never felt any great pull towards serialism, and nor do I use dodecaphony. Though my music is not traditional, it does often have tonal centres. I feel a particular affinity for music composed before the Second World War.
"Another thing that has interested me recently is Venetian opera of the early Baroque. Monteverdi and his successors, such as Francesco Cavalli or the Renaissance composer Ockeghem have been among my sources of inspiration, and I have also alluded to them in some of my works. Just recently I have also alluded to myself, as in Piccarda on the Moon (2005) for piano, which harks back to the works of my youth. I might ask just what Modernism is in fact, and how one is to define it."
Koskinen cannot be considered a Modernist in the narrowest sense, since timbre has occupied a central place in his output ever since Ambra of 1996. His formal solutions have, by contrast, been a law unto themselves, in the spirit of Modernism.
"Each of my pieces has sought its own form. In composing a work, I never begin by first deciding on the form; instead, I gather material and wait to see what form it arrives at. My works defy being pressed into any formal scheme, at least in the classical sense."
The orchestral works have been commissions from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) with the exception of Eclysis, which won second prize in the International Rostrum of Young Composers in 1995 and was premiered at the Tampere Biennale in 1994. Koskinen wrote Narciso for the Finnish RSO in 1996–1997, and the festive cantata Hehkuva graniitti (Incandescent Granite), to poems by Elmer Diktonius, was commissioned for the 75th anniversary concert of YLE in 2001. Koskinen’s latest commission is for a symphony scheduled for the 2007–2008 season.
Operas, a life-long passion
Koskinen’s enthusiasm for opera has its roots in the Finnish opera boom beginning in the 1970s, his childhood summers having been spent in the orchestra enclosure at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. "It was the Savonlinna Opera Festival that really aroused my interest. My father played in the Festival Orchestra, which meant I had a chance to attend rehearsals and performances for a number of summers. It was there that I saw the great 1970s operas, by Aulis Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen. But as a young man I also came into contact with the Modernistic operas of Paavo Heininen, such as Silkkirumpu (The Damask Drum) and Veitsi (The Knife)."
For Koskinen, composition means innovation, but within the traditional context. His debut opera Velhosiskot (The Witch Company, 1995–1996) led to the emergence of the Helsinki Skaala Opera, a group seeking new and ground-breaking solutions.
"The Skaala is a laboratory for new operatic expression and works as a team. Being in close contact with others means a lot to me as a composer. Only too often you can see from operas that the composer has spent his whole time shut away in his garret and has come out with a finished score no one is allowed to touch even for practical reasons."
Libretti focusing on dichotomies
Typical features of Koskinen’s operas are the chamber format and an ambitious literary-dramatic stimulus. His librettos all focus on such dichotomies as the rational vs. the irrational, order vs. chaos, or the conscious vs. the subconscious. Madame de Sade, after the play by Yukio Mishima, was a commission from the European Academy of Music and premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1998. For the Skaala Opera he then wrote EUKKO – pidättekö vainajista (Old Woman – Are you Fond of Dead People, 2000) based on an absurd short story by Daniil Harms, and the “operatic ritual” Brunelda (2002) after the novel America by Franz Kafka.
"My works have been written partly because I have found subjects or texts that have been such powerful experiences that they have “compelled” me to write them. On the other hand, a big work such as an opera makes heavy demands on its text, because it must have enough potential interest to see the composer through the long process of writing the opera."
Koskinen’s fifth operatic work was his 15-minute contribution to the international Kommander Kobayashi opera series and it was premiered at the Hamburg State Opera in early 2005.
Violin, Koskinen's own instrument
It has seemed only natural for Koskinen to compose for his own instrument, too: the violin. "One way or another, the violin has accompanied me all through my career. In the early days I played in my own premieres. My last public appearance as a violinist was at a concert of the Ears Open society in 1994 that included the first performance of my Sapfo (Sappho) suite for mezzo-soprano, violin, cello and piano. During the performance I broke a string and this symbolically marked the end of my career as a violinist."
Koskinen’s close relationship with the violin is reflected in his idiomatic writing for strings. His biggest work for the instrument, Omaggio a Smilla (2002), is a concerto-like work for violin, trumpet and strings.
"My early works are string pieces, and Soleil noir (1997–1999), for example, is for quartet. Thanks to my violinist background, I feel at home writing for string quartet."
Hamlet-machine: “giving everything I've got”
The viola, which Koskinen feels is by nature more subtle than the violin, also appeals to him.
"I could describe the viola as a pleasant diversion, because the violin is sometimes almost too familiar. With the viola I can distance myself from the violin while still being “violinistic”.
Apart from his operas, Koskinen reckons his most significant work to date is the Hamlet-machine (1998–1999) for viola and string ensemble that forms a mirror-like diptych with Omaggio a Smilla.
"Complex in form, Hamlet-machine was a commission from Musica nova Helsinki in 1999 and was performed at a concert of music by me at the festival. The Hamlet Machine by Heiner Müller on which the work is based is shocking in its violence and its attitude to Shakespeare. Mine is in many ways an extreme work, because I had to give it “everything I’ve got” as a composer.
"Having thrown myself wholeheartedly into Müller’s work, I found it difficult to extricate myself. This is typical of me as a composer: I have to grow out of works with a strong emotional charge and distance myself from them. Sometimes this takes time."
Music by Koskinen has been performed at festivals in Europe and Japan. Sogni di Dante for chamber ensemble won the Takefu International Composition Award in 2004 and the festival has commissioned him to write a new work going by the name of String Quartet No. 1.
Juha T. Koskinen has been composer-in-residence at the Huittinen Music Institute since 2004.
Translation © Susan Sinisalo