Uljas Pulkkis in Profile
by Osmo Tapio Räihälä :: 2002
Pain, anguish and an obsession with profundity are often seen as the hallmarks of a true artist. How, then, is it possible for a completely opposite approach to produce art that fascinates, surprises and captivates the listener, leaving him waiting for more?
Uljas Pulkkis (b. 1975) is a fine example of a new set of ideals: a composer who does not wallow in squalor. Compared with many of his colleagues, Pulkkis as a person comes across as something of a dandy, and it would be easy to dismiss both the man and his music as superficial. However, a closer look will prove the opposite. Pulkkis simply knows exactly what he is doing.
Pulkkis first studied mathematics at the University of Helsinki but soon shifted to musicology and began to study composition too, first with Harri Vuori and then with Tapani Länsiö. He went on to study with Länsiö at the Sibelius Academy, but he soon outgrew his tuition thanks to his ability to learn new things with phenomenal rapidity. He also has an enviable capacity for focusing on his work to the exclusion of everything else. Thus, in a short space of time he has achieved more than many others do in an entire career. Although the media — and the music media in particular — carries a lot of clout, Pulkkis’s success is solidly grounded in his own achievements. His idiom has clearly struck a nerve: it is a blend of so many influences that no one feels it is completely alien. At the same time, however, this blend is whipped up so that the music outright sparkles with freshness.
Although the output of a young composer usually focuses on chamber music, Pulkkis has from the very first written for larger ensembles too. Of course, his output also includes solo works and chamber music, vocal works and compositions involving electronics.
Pulkkis attained widespread attention with the very first public performance of his work. His Octet (1997) attained the finals of a composition competition adjudicated live on TV. In this, a work based on the tonality of natural triads, Pulkkis showcased what were to remain his interests: a nobility of sound, a departure from equal temperament, and an abundance of detail. Unlike many Post-Serialists, Pulkkis does not use masses of detail to create rough textures or bloated shapes.
Equal temperament is not easy to shake off, especially in a piano piece. Sonata (1997) is latently tonal in a fascinating way: under the centrifugal surface there is a solid structure which, while not being exactly tonal, nevertheless has a clear tonal centre. Here, Pulkkis also demonstrates that he is not averse to a regular pulse.
Pulkkis’s departure from equal temperament perhaps derives from his penchant for Renaissance polyphony, which is based on natural tuning. Tomas Luis de Victoria, an early idol of his, inspired him to write Tears of Ludovico (1998) for piano and small orchestra. This gem of a work became Pulkkis’s ultimate breakthrough, winning first prize in the Queen Elisabeth competition in 1999. The prize gained a lot of publicity and of course spawned new commissions; but it was the violin concerto Enchanted Garden (2000) that really broke the bank. Premiered at the Ung Nordisk Musik festival in 2000, it won the general category at the Unesco rostrum in 2001. Enchanted Garden is a radiant work replete with a hedonism of sound, cross-breeding the passionate glittering Expressionism of early Stravinsky and Szymanowski, the mysterious flashes of Messiaen and the fine dramaturgical sense of Boulez. Like Duett für Eine (1999) for contralto and an 11-piece ensemble, which did well in the Mahler competition, Enchanted Garden is based on overtone series in a manner familiar from spectral music, using these series also as melodic elements.
Pulkkis has not stuck to this formula for success, however. In his cello concerto Madrigal (2001) and the chamber-orchestra work At the Scarlet Sage (2000), spectral harmonies are no longer present. They are more instrumentally oriented, with tonal colour and tiny, nimble gestures replacing expansive harmonic fields. Music for Clarinet and Double Bass (1999), by comparison, is fascinatingly asymmetrical in its ‘limping’ rhythms.
There is a polished surface to Pulkkis’s music, but it rests on a solid core — he has turned superficiality into an asset. It is indicative that his middle name is Voitto. (The Finnish word voitto means ‘victory’.)
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi