Olli Kortekangas in Profile
by Kimmo Korhonen :: 2001
When the name of Olli Kortekangas (b. 1955) first emerged from the younger generation of composers at the end of the 1970s, he belonged to the influential new music society Korvat Auki (Ears Open, est. 1977). He does, however, seem to have been something of a dissident in their ranks. Whereas most of the other members of the society leapt in and experimented broadly with a variety of modernist styles and techniques, Kortekangas maintained a cool critical distance and was even known to question modernism itself on occasions.
Humour was often one of the most prominent weapons used by the young Kortekangas in questioning the approaches to composition, but in the early 1980s he underwent a fairly major change in his musical thinking. The former humorist began to develop into a thinker and philosopher. He retained his critical stance - and he could never be said to have become stuffy or bookish - but in place of irony, humour and mere calling the beliefs of others into question, he began increasingly to search out positive solutions, alternative ways of hearing and experiencing.
In his music, Olli Kortekangas has applied a very wide variety of styles and techniques, but the material of each individual work has generally been carefully limited. Features that often stand out include static surfaces composed of drawn-out sounds, a simplicity and transparency of texture, a spare idiom, and the importance he gives to small gestures. With brief yet carefully considered brush-strokes, he paints enigmatic and captivating moods, often with more than a hint of mystery to them. Another typical trademark has been his use of theatrical or visual elements to broaden the expressive range.
Kortekangas’s career took a significant change of direction in 1997, when he was installed as composer-in-residence of the Oulu Symphony Orchestra. Even before this, he had been eager to assign instrumental music an increasingly important role, and the appointment allowed him to fulfil his wishes. Works for orchestra, in particular, have in fact acquired a status on a part with vocal music in his recent output. Meanwhile, his expressive range has become far wider, aspiring towards a fuller, richer ideal of sound and a more pronounced dramatic structure.
Works for voice constitute the largest category in Kortekangas's output. His choice of texts reflects a leaning towards things ethical and philosophical, and a desire to produce ones that carry a meaning, not just phonetic material as a medium for the music.
In his choral works, Olli Kortekangas has experimented with a huge variety of expressive means. One example is the 'Kalevala soundscape' of Lumen valo (The Glow of Snow, written for male choir in 1984), which uses as its textual material only differing vowel sounds that colour the work's slowly shifting tone-fields. In Verbum (1987) for double mixed choir, the expression covers a broad palette from normal song via Sprechgesang to speech and whispers. The music is given an added sense of drama by glissandi and loosely defined extremely high and low sounds.
A central strand running through Kortekangas's composing career is the fruitful collaboration he has enjoyed with the near-legendary Tapiola Choir. His first work with this children's choir was MAA (Earth) for children's chorus and assorted instruments. Musically the work is built up for the most part of static, in places minimalist-hued sound-surfaces, which are enriched with a variety of 'primitive' sources of sound, among them a five-stringed kantele, clay ocarinas, and the rattling of natural pebbles. The relationship built up during the fine-tuning of MAA went even deeper in the next work for the Tapiola Choir, entitled A (1988). Kortekangas now collaborated with the choir from the very outset, and much of the textual material was produced by the children themselves. An important component of this multimedia piece was the visual aspect, lights and colours, by designer Raija Malka. A also makes use of the element of space, since in performance the singers spread themselves out around the audience.
The most touching collaboration between Kortekangas and the Tapiola choristers to date is the radiophonic Memoria (1989), which was awarded the Gian Franco Zaffrani Prize at the 1989 Prix Italia. Kortekangas etches out an intriguing soundscape that combines children reading aloud, a children's choir, and percussion, fusing speech and music, sometimes in their natural form and elsewhere given a range of electronic treatments. The fact that it is children who are speaking of Etruscan tombs, of the distant past, throws a striking double light on the work, where the despondency at the limitations of life and the hope for the future found in children merge to become one.
The Tapiola Choir was also involved in Kajo (1996), a work for several ensembles that each take turns at performing rather than joining in consort, since Kortekangas tried to create segments that each of the five parties commissioning the work could pick out for their own use. Another work requiring a wide range of performers is the cantata Iloveisulla (With Songs of Gladness, 2000) for baritone, boys’ choir and orchestra based on a text from the old Finnish hymnbook.
Vocal works for solo voice have been occupying more and more space in Kortekangas’s output since the late 1980s. Some (such as Amores, 1989 and the cantata Sanat, Words, 1992) have an orchestral accompaniment, while others come closer to Lieder (Syvä ilo, Profound Joy, 1996), Ecrit sur le vent et l’eau (2000) represents an approach more akin to chamber music, for the soprano and mezzo-soprano are part of the chamber ensemble.
The early Short Story (1980) already demonstrated Kortekangas's interest in opera, and the fact that he was keen to find an alternative perspective on the genre. He wrote the libretto in a peculiar, made-up fantasy language that consisted only of the names of various strains of roses.
The next opera, the TV-opera Grand Hotel (1985) also drew inspiration from the theatre of the absurd. The libretto, by Finnish poet Arto Melleri, is set 'Before the First World War after World War III' and does not follow a storyline built up on the traditional logic of cause and effect. Instead it is made up of eleven poems. Grand Hotel is very much a television opera: the scenes follow on from one another in very rapid cross-cuts, and the various male and female characters in the drama are played by just two singers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano. There is also one speaking role. The central pairs of opposites in the work are man and woman, movement and stillness or stagnation, dream and reality.
Joonan kirja (The Book of Jonah, 1995) is closer to a traditional stage work than Grand Hotel. When Kortekangas received a commission from the Finnish National Opera in 1992 he turned first to Raija Malka, who would be responsible for the stage and costume design. Only then did he start looking around for the subject and the librettist. In its own odd fashion the topsy-turvy genesis of Joonan kirja reflects the composer's determination to find a fresh approach to opera. The basis for the work is the Old Testament story of Jonah appealing to God from the belly of the whale. The story is nevertheless enriched with numerous variations on and around the same theme, the most significant of which is the monomaniacal figure of Captain Ahab, borrowed from Melville's Moby Dick.
The latest Kortekangas opera, Marian rakkaus (Maria’s Love, 1999) was originally commissioned as the middle component of the operatic trilogy premiered at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in summer 2000 along with operas by Herman Rechberger and Kalevi Aho. It can, however, be performed on its own. It is a love story set in a totalitarian state and poses many ethical questions, such as whether the end justifies the means. Musically it represents the more concentrated idiom adopted by Kortekangas in recent years, and in its flowing melodies it even comes close in places to a romantic aesthetic not previously encountered in Kortekangas.
As recently as the early 1990s, instrumental music still constituted a relatively peripheral region of Kortekangas’s oeuvre – what he himself described as being in the nature of a second subject, sometimes even only a countersubject to the main theme proper. Dating from this period are Ökologie 1: Vorspiel (1983), which still contains snatches of the early humorist, and the more dramatic, modernistic Ökologie 2: Konzert (1987. Of the later orchestral works, the Mukka Suite (1996) for chamber orchestra is based on The Land You Long For (1996), scored for speaker and chamber orchestra, in which the orchestral sections alternate with readings from the work of writer Timo K. Mukka.
The spare, Webern-like Iscrizione (1990) for clarinet and cello served as a springboard and inspiration for the larger Konzertstück for clarinet, cello and orchestra (1993). The fragility and translucency of these compositions acquire an added lyrical sensitivity in Arabesken der Nacht (1995) for guitar and chamber ensemble, one of Kortekangas's most atmospheric pieces. The composer's line of works with a soloistic component continues with his Organ Concerto (1997), which marks a turn in a more musicianly direction. In terms of overall feel, it comes closer to a Baroque concerto than a virtuoso work in the grand Romantic style.
The orchestral Ark (1998) sets off in a new direction again. It was the first work to be written by Kortekangas in his new post as composer-in-residence of the Oulu Symphony Orchestra and it also signifies a stylistic turn towards a broader range of more flowing expression, but without abandoning the fragile soundscapes of his earlier works. Other examples of works representing this recent era are Charms for piano trio and orchestra (1998), the overture-like Talvimusiikki (Winter Music, 1999) and the cello concerto (2000), Charms being more extrovert. The mood of the cello concerto, which also has an obbligato-like role for horn, is more introspective and, in the composer’s own words, more 'Nordic' in mood.
Translation © Susan Sinisalo