Being egregious – Asko Hyvärinen on the tracks of the unheard-of
by Harri Suilamo :: 2004
Were serious music, and contemporary music as one element of it, to be conceived of as a series of cultural margins one within the other, then the music of Asko Hyvärinen would fall on the outermost periphery. For he represents a line of tradition that runs through the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schönberg and quite definitely does not bypass the aesthetics embraced by Webern.
The music of Hyvärinen approaches the present day above all via the aesthetics and works of Luigi Nono and Helmut Lachenmann. This approach is marked by an almost exclusive refusal to compromise artistically and a severity of attitude that nevertheless reveals an open, honest desire to explore new musical territories, even though our cultural environment is speedily becoming increasingly entertainment-oriented and is in the process testing the adaptability of the dissident ever more sorely as the days go by.
From percussionist to composer
Asko Hyvärinen began his career as a percussionist: he was drummer in a number of line-ups, mostly rock, and studied at the Oulunkylä Pop/Jazz Conservatoire in the latter half of the ‘80s. The beginning of the following decade found him at the Turku Conservatoire. This meant not only a change in a more ‘serious’ direction but also a considerable qualitative and quantitative expansion of the percussion battery at his disposal.
A sign of his growing interest in contemporary serious music, and in composing already, was his attendance at the famous Darmstadt summer course in 1990. Not until 1996 did he begin receiving composition tuition proper, on enrolling for a degree in musicology at the University of Turku, which organised composition workshops with a variety of teachers.
Hyvärinen’s composition studies have, right from the outset, been marked by an element of rhapsody: each study period has been relatively short and has in most cases taken the form of a course. His greatest authority has beyond all doubt been Helmut Lachenmann; he has attended courses led by Lachenmann both in Finland and France and also done distance assignments with him.
Focus on timbre
His background (being accustomed as a percussionist to a richly varied and coloured work environment) undoubtedly to some extent accounts for Hyvärinen’s immersion in the problems of timbre and his commitment first and foremost to a colourism that accepts noise as a matter of course. After 'Force, Exactitude & Sensibilité' heading the chronological list of his works, it was admittedly possible to discern the first signs of an estrangement from this in his works of the 1990s, which showed great restraint in his use of percussion instruments proper and unusual playing techniques to produce ‘noise’. True, he was even then analysing various noise-like timbral spaces, but he did it mainly by means relying on the musical texture.
The works of the 21st century have made freer use of resources previously applied more sparingly. Each instrument is like a vault in a timbre or sound bank, its reserves just waiting to be fetched, and each instrumental ensemble is a hyperinstrument repelling any suggestion of timbral greyness. The most rewarding in this respect are, of course, large combinations of instruments. The relationship between the virtuosic solo piano and the orchestra in 'The Sound of Inevitability' is interactive: the parties to the conventional concerto set-up reflect, amplify, process and distort one another’s sounds. And the work would not be Hyvärinen’s did it not demand of the pianist a radical expansion of the customary affective scale (such as various pedal techniques and unusual articulations) that fully brings out the percussive character of the instrument.
Tangible kantele and the human body as instrument
On the other hand, Asko Hyvärinen does not necessarily need a sizeable collective in order to put his timbral ideas into practice, as demonstrated by, for example, the solo 'valse griffyre' for concert kantele composed in 2002. Here this most Finnish of folk instruments is assigned a role that is anything but the traditional tinkling of penta- or heptatonic scales and broken chords. For Hyvärinen conjures forth almost tangible sounds from the wood and metal of his kantele. The result is a very concrete sound world, in the spirit of the French musique concrète of around the mid-20th century. These strivings have had very special repercussions for his meticulous hand-written notation, adding elements of ‘actionation’ to his scores: many of the graphic symbols carry meanings referring to the way or method by which a sound is produced.
In addition to his instrumental output, Asko Hyvärinen has produced settings of poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Pablo Neruda, Göran Sonnevi and others. In some of his vocal works he has, however, totally dispensed with texts based on natural language. In other words, he “composes” (in the manner of Ligeti) purely phonetic texts, transforming the human voice into a quasi-instrument. In doing so he thus makes the voice an equal member of the chamber ensemble, stripped of its semantic buoyancy. A good example of this is 'Egregious' (1999), in which the mezzo-soprano surrounded by fourteen musicians is an interpreter of her own bodily instrument rather than a singer in the conventional sense.
'Spring Contours' (2001), one the key works by Asko Hyvärinen to date, pushes its tonality beyond the traditional 12-note total chromaticism by exploiting not only various noises but microtonality as well. It is a work that makes full allowance for the applicability of the material level to the instrumentation. Thus, for example, the pitches falling in between the equal-tempered semitones are assigned mainly to the strings and woodwinds, while the production of the most varied of noises is shared more evenly by the entire 11-member ensemble. 'Spring Contours' also seeks to approach the concept of melody from a broader perspective than ever: instead of the customary motifs or themes based on durations and intervals, it focuses on melodic paths, spans and contours, as the title suggests.
Towards a vocal and timbral synthesis
The expansion of tonality visible in the recent works of Asko Hyvärinen is manifest more generally as a complex network of related sounds rather than of individual notes or timbrally neutral instrumental parts. The harmonies and colours thus merge, as they have from time immemorial, but because this is now a conscious, interiorised way of thinking, it makes his art something very special, adding a new dimension to Finnish music.
This brings the music of Asko Hyvärinen relatively close to a vocal and timbral synthesis, even though he has so far confined himself to traditional acoustic instruments and shunned the digital world of bits. Despite its sumptuous colours, his music is not graphic tone-painting in the Romantic sense; ultimately, it is still art of classical design – architecture in music. The modern project has the look of the new millennium in the music of Asko Hyvärinen.
Translation © Susan Sinisalo