20 Apr 2010
Osmo Tapio Räihälä: An interview by Tom Moore
Osmo Tapio Räihälä is a Finnish composer of contemporary music, and was the founder of Uusinta, a collaborative group of composers and musicians.
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Anna Prohaska sings Sister Constance in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House. In the same month, she’s also in London to sing a recital with Eric Schneider at the Wigmore Hall, and to sing Henze with Sir Simon Rattle at the Barbican Hall.
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On a personal level, I feel that Dolores is almost like Emmeline grown up. Their circumstances are not exactly parallel, but they are both women at very different points in their lives whose stories involve dilemmas with life-changing outcomes.
Osmo Tapio Räihälä is a Finnish composer of contemporary music, and was the founder of Uusinta, a collaborative group of composers and musicians.
This was an epistolary interview via email.
TM: What was the musical environment when you were growing up? Did your parents or close relatives play music, as amateurs or professional?
OTR: I come from a very middle class family. My mum comes from Kaustinen in Finland. That doesn’t usually say a lot to people, but to people in the folk music circles worldwide it’s almost the same as what Haight-Ashbury is to hippies... However, in my mum’s close family there weren’t any professional or semi-professional musicians. My grandpa from my dad’s side was an active accordionist, who gigged a lot as a folk dance musician. But that all belongs to the past of long ago.
I was raised in a family where my mother listened to to classical music from records and from the radio. When I was seven, my parents sent me to piano lessons... and I hated it. I stopped as soon as possible! However, I couldn’t avoid hearing my mum listening to Mozart, Brahms, Sibelius etc. We lived in the countryside in Northern Finland, where I would never hear classical music live. I think I must have been in my teens (something like 15-16) when I first heard classical music live.
When I was 15 I got myself a guitar, and started a punk band. I was a rock musician for a few years (I was a singer; we played first punk, then heavy rock), and in my late teens I discovered jazz. I got interested in Bird and Trane, started playing a saxophone, and within a year or two in my early twenties, I first noticed that all those things that I was longing for in (progressive) rock music had existed for almost 100 years in classical music... when I heard The Rite of Spring.
Well, that’s the very obvious story, which I share with a million others. But I can’t help it. Thanks, Igor Fedorovich!
Having written my rock-group’s music, it was very natural to start thinking about writing art music. For a while I dreamed about a career as an opera singer, but I soon realized that only writing music myself would soothe my thirst for working in music.
TM: Where did you live in northern Finland? Was it a small town, or medium-size?
OTR: I lived in Suomussalmi, which is a large municipality in North-East Finland. The town where I lived in was called Ämmänsaari, which is a center for the municipality, with some 6-7 thousand inhabitants. Suomussalmi had something like 13 thousand inhabitants. The place is famous for the big battles that were fought there during the Finnish Winter War in 1939-40, especially the Battle of Raate, which practically stopped the Russian offensive.
TM: How long had the family been there? was your grandfather the musician from the same town?
OTR: My parents moved there in 1960, and I was born in 64. I had three elder sisters, and later had a little sister and a brother. My grandparents lived in western Finland, some 200 miles from our hometown.
TM: What was it that prompted you to start playing punk? What was the rock scene there like?
OTR: I didn’t get classical training. Suomussalmi wasn’t, and still isn’t, a hotbed of classical music. Starting a rock band was the natural thing to do if you wanted to play music. And being in a rock band is great when you’re a teenager.
Punk rock was something that just hit the right note with my generation in the late 70’s. The rock scene wasn’t very big, but there were a few bands and we were active locally. My band even released one self-published single, which has now become a punk collectors’ gem worldwide.
TM: Did your town also have active folk musicians? the group Värttinä and others had some international success... were they known in Finland?
OTR: Folk music wasn’t “the thing” in Suomussalmi. Groups like Värttinä appeared much later. The folk music boom started in the 90’s.
TM: How did you discover jazz? what did you listen to initially?
OTR: A fellow rock musician showed me Ross Russell’s “Bird Lives” and raved about bebop. I just got interested and started listening to Parker, Gillespie etc., and soon found cool, free, hard bop and so on. John Coltrane became a big favorite to me, and I still enjoy his music very much, as well as the fusion of the seventies, like Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Al Di Meola et al. However, nowadays the best new jazz comes from Scandinavia and Finland, although few Americans know that.
TM: I would certainly agree with you that American jazz has been decadent in terms of innovation for decades now, as American pop has been, for that matter.
What was the path you took from punk-rocker and jazz saxophonist to classical composition? Where did you study? Who did you study with? Were there models which you wanted to emulate in terms of composition? What were you listening to after “Rite of Spring”?
OTR: Classical music was always there. My mum listened to classical from the radio and from records, and my older sister studied the piano very keenly until she quit when aged around 20. I “knew” composers by names; I had always been interested in them.
I got myself a tenor sax when I was nineteen or so, but it was too late to learn it properly. I graduated from the local high school in 1985, and moved with my girlfriend to Stockholm, Sweden. I became very interested in opera, and for a while I dreamed of becoming an opera singer. I lived three years in Stockholm, listened only to classical music, mainly romantic and early 20th century. I knew a fellow Finn, who had been studying in the university, and took theory lessons from him. I played the piano, studied counterpoint, harmony and all that typical stuff.
In 1987 I started at the University of Turku (Finland), majoring in musicology. There studying music theory, history etc. became more systematic. While living in Stockholm, I realized that I would never (want to) be a performing musician — that wasn’t my path. Rather, I wanted to write music myself. And once back in Finland and in university, I dived deep into modern music. My professor was himself a noted composer, and a scholar of contemporary music. At that point I still just wrote stuff myself, but didn’t actually study composing.
TM: What was the musical scene like at the University in Turku? In the city generally? Who was your professor? What was his pedagogical approach to composition and music history? When did you start to study composition? With whom?
OTR: Turku was a city with some 170,000 inhabitants, and as the former capital of Finland, there is a lively music scene, with a local philharmonic orchestra, conservatory and a few chamber ensembles. The local orchestra is a direct heir to the orchestra that was founded in 1790 — at a time, when Mozart was still alive. That orchestra also played Haydn’s symphonies already during the composer’s lifetime.
The faculty of musicology was (and is) very small, with only handful of new students enrolling every year. On the other hand, there is a Swedish speaking university in Turku as well, and the two faculties of musicology co-operate a lot.
The professor was Mr. Mikko Heiniö, who is a well known composer and a musicologist. At my time there, he was still in his most hectic period studying contemporary Finnish music, which was my main interest as well. We had guest lecturers every now and then, even from places like Paris (Ivanka Stoianova) or Berlin (Witted Szalonek) etc., but mostly the scene wasn’t very big.
I got my first public performances among the music student circles, but the music I wrote at that time was clumsy, since I was “blind”, and just finding my staggering feet. However, I think I was quite active, and around that time the biggest local newspaper asked me to start writing critics, reviews and previews of concert life. I did that for a couple of years there, until I moved to Helsinki in late 1991.
I organized a concert of my early works, and the manager of the Turku Philharmonic happened to hear it. Although my music was very badly written and rough, he commissioned a piece for string orchestra from me. It was premiered in ‘91, and the reception was ok, although I didn’t feel that I had achieved what I had wanted with the work.
Mr. Heiniö didn’t take any composition pupils, and my first and only composition teacher was Mr. Harri Vuori, who was/is a lecturer at the Helsinki University’s faculty of musicology. I continued my studies in Helsinki, and wrote reviews for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Scandinavia for a year, until ‘92. Since then I haven’t worked as a critic — it is very hard, when you try to stand on both sides of the barricade, so to say.
I studied only two years with Mr. Vuori. The method was very practical: I wrote music, then he read it, asked questions, pointed at details and larger lines, and taught me generally “how to work as a composer”. Despite my many and lengthy discussions with him, I still consider myself mostly an self-taught composer, because most of the things that I’ve learned I’ve snapped up myself from reading scores, listening to music, talking to musicians etc.
TM: How would you describe your style in your works from the early nineties?
OTR: Hmmm.... Maybe “trying to find my feet” is still a good description of my early style. I admired modern composers, and wanted to become one. On the other hand, I knew that some of the craziest things and experiments in music had already been done
during the 60’s, and that it would be almost impossible to find something that had been unheard of previously.
TM: Are they still in your catalog? What work would you describe as your “opus one”, and why?
OTR: I don’t consider any work as opus 1, but the earliest works that have survived in my list of works are Five Characters for solo flute (1993) and Sarment for harp, marimba and vibraphone (1993), both of which have been performed quite recently, and maybe also the short orchestral piece Hinchcliffe Thumper — tha’ Bloody Intermezzo (1993). From there on, I think the next few works that are still somewhat worthwhile are from 96/97, so obviously 1993 was a good and productive year for me.
Hinchcliffe Thumper was my first piece for a symphony orchestra, and hearing it in the Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic Music) festival in Malmö, Sweden, in 1994 was a big eye-opener for me. It is always terribly exciting to hear one’s own works for the first time played by living musicians, no matter how well notation programs like Sibelius playback nowadays. There are always surprises, pleasant and unpleasant...
TM: I note that the first string quartet in your list of works is no. 2. Was no. 1 withdrawn?
OTR: Well, not definitely. For years I’ve been a bit unsure whether I should revise the first in some way, but haven’t done so, because the music I wrote feels a bit out-dated.
TM: No. 2 is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, but such works must be rare. What is the story behind the string quartet? Did you visit Brazil? Or is there a friend of yours who did? I find it fascinating that a Finnish string quartet is dedicated to a giant of Brazilian popular music as is your no. 2 (Jobimao). I know of an as yet unpublished and unperformed piano concerto by a Brazilian composer also.
OTR: No, I just liked Jobim’s music a lot, and at some point got an idea that I should write a work in his style just to prove myself I could do it. If you listen to the 2nd string quartet at http://www.myspace.com/otraihala, you’ll notice that the first 5-6 minutes of the quartet sound like contemporary art music, and the final third is a straight bossa nova, but the material of the more modern sounding part of the piece is taken directly from the latter part and its melodies.
The quartet was once performed at the President’s Castle, where the president of Republic of Finland had her annual dinner with all of the foreign ambassadors who are based in Finland. I was present, although not among the dining guests, and the Brazilian ambassador sought me out to shake my hand! He was so thrilled that someone from Finland was honoring the music of his countryman.
TM: A question about compositional technique/practice. Composers often can be divided between two groups: those who have an “architectural” approach, designing the large scale scheme, and then filling the details, and those who have a more organic, or narrative approach, inventing the details, and then seeing what sort of larger schema those details grown into. How would you describe your approach?
OTR: Definitely “organic”. I have only ever written one work (a trio for clarinet, horn & violin titled “Spinoza’s Web”), where I made a strict structure first, and then filled in the “slots”. To me it’s natural to let the work flow relatively freely and act as a midwife, as Einojuhani Rautavaara put it. However, I want to control the overall structure, but not to forge it.
TM: Please talk a little about Rock Painting;. How do you combine the improvisatory sections with the composed portions? How much direction do you give to the players regarding the improvisations?
OTR: Well, “Rock Painting” was a big thing to me, when I wrote it in 2003, because that was the first piece where I openly wanted to integrate rock music into my own music.
Stravinsky is obviously a very important composer to me, especially his earlier output. As much as I admire Messiaen’s instrumentation, his way of thinking about music is too “religious” to me. It seems to me that all his music is more or less sacred, and I, on the contrary, don’t think there are any sacred things in life, and most certainly not in my music.
The first four or so minutes of the work are just creating a volatile soundscape, and when the 7/8 rock section starts, it is like, “what the hell is this”...I don’t really give any direction to the soloists for the improvised sections, other than that they can hear the supporting music played by others in the chamber orchestra, and can adjust their solos accordingly. Everything else is written in the score except the solos. In the recording you can hear the viola player has listened a lot to metal, and the flutist surely knows his Jethro Tull... the clarinet player played a solo that was a bit more jazzy, which suited me fine, since it was good to not have direct rock solos by all three players.
TM: Please talk about your work with Uusinta.
OTR: In fact I’m the original founder of the ensemble. In July 98, I dreamed at night that I said to a colleague of mine: “This can’t go on. We must form a band!” When I woke up, I called the viola player / composer Max Savikangas and said these words to him. He thought about it for a nanosecond (I think) and answered: “Yeah, let’s do that.”
In the beginning we called first and foremost composers who were performing musicians as well, but it very soon appeared that the interest from outside the composer circles was so big, that we by and by dropped the idea of an ensemble consisting of composers only. I was the manager of this ensemble until I started at my current position (producer for classical music and jazz for the Finnish National TV (YLE)) in 2005. Since then I have collaborated with the ensemble but from the “outside”. In 2000, Uusinta was made into a limited company, and we broadened our actions to music publishing and some record releases.
The Finnish word “uusinta” is a homonym, meaning “the newest” and “a re-run”. The idea behind the band was to premier new works and give these same works a second (3rd, 4th etc.) performance. It is not difficult to get a first performance, but already the second is very hard to get.
Uusinta has premiered and re-performed a few of my works, but it has not been my own “tool”. There are about dozen active members. I met my second wife, the violinist Maria Puusaari through working with Uusinta. Up to this date, Uusinta has premiered more than 100 works and played over 100 concerts in six countries, and published over 100 works.
I have to say that when I think about a new chamber work, I think first about whether Uusinta might perform it, although I try to think broader, and not intentionally restrict anything to suit only Uusinta.
TM: Would you like to talk about your recent orchestral works? Do you know of other orchestral pieces dedicated to football (or as the Americans call it, soccer?)
OTR: Sure. Although I don’t think other orchestral works than “The Iron Rain” (2008) are very recent... as for example Barlinnie Nine was written in 1999 and slightly re-worked in 2005 and Ardbeg in 2003. Most certainly there aren’t a plenty of contemporary music works inspired by soccer, although there are some, as can be read from this Guardian article (might be familiar to you already):
Strictly speaking, Barlinnie Nine isn’t inspired by soccer, but rather Duncan Ferguson the man himself. I don’t know Ferguson personally, but as I was a devoted fan of Everton FC, I proverbially spent many years with him. A person with a fantastic talent, that never fulfilled his promise, a hard man on the pitch with no comparison, who breeds pigeons, spends some time incarcerated for his troubles, yet all his fellow pros say he’s the nicest colleague you can wish to have... and a cult figure among the punters. One should be aware of the amazing scene that is English soccer world since the 1880’s to really understand why/how can a composer of so called contemporary art music get inspired to write a tribute to a soccer player...
Barlinnie Nine is a chain of stop-starts, an apotheosis of under-achieving.
Well, what could I say about The Iron Rain? It is like a picture, or a play, that “opens up” slowly. To me, music is part of visual arts. I “see” music as pictures, lights, shadows, points, lines etc. Iron Rain is like a picture that you may see at one glance, but when have a closer look, a lot of details appear; in some way it is like a Kandinsky painting. Of course the thing that a listener will remember of it afterwards is the string players quietly humming a vocalise in the closing bars.
“Ardbeg — the Ultimate Piece for Orchestra” — unfortunately I don’t have a recording of it, although making one with the Finnish RSO has been on cards for some time now. This 17-minutes work was written as an homage to the tiny Scottish island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, where they make the best single malt whiskies in the world, its people, the sheep, and of course that one special malt called Ardbeg. I’ve visited Islay and its distilleries twice just because I’m a huge single malt fan. Ardbeg (the orchestral work, not the malt) is maybe the most easy-to-approach of my recent orchestral works. I wish I could get it performed in Scotland by a Scottish orchestra!
TM: Do you have plans to explore areas and genres that are new to you? What are some current and upcoming projects?
OTR: I’ve eschewed vocal music for a long time. Only recently I finished a six-minutes piece for a chamber choir (SATB, will be premiered next October by the Helsinki Chamber Choir), and within a short time I intend to write a semi-operatic work for a female solo voice and two accompanying instruments, and furthermore, later this year I’ll write a libretto for a chamber opera comprising short stories, to be composed in 2011. ATM I think it will be a series of absurd sketches in style of Monty Python
In fact there’s a myriad of ideas teeming in my head all the time... I get approximately two or three divine ideas every week, and about every tenth of them materialize at some point. But that’s typical artist life, I guess.
TM: Any advice to young composers who are just starting out?
OTR: Dear me, what a terrible question. Well, if a young person wants to become a dull and predictable composer, then my advice is to follow all the famous names and try to emulate all what they’ve done... And that suits me, as a composer’s path is a constant competition with everybody else, even with your best friends...
My advice for a young composer, and for myself, would be: do whatever you feel is your honest call. That’s so bloody obvious, but I can’t help it. I think what is the difference between myself and most of my colleagues is, that I dare to say aloud that my music is some kind of prog. Not prog rock, but my ethos is that all good music is progressive and vice versa. I think most contemporary composers would be scared to admit that they’ve ever learned anything from jazz or rock, and yet I think amalgamating everything good is simply crucial (as long as it comes from yourself!). Along the lines of Gertrude Stein: “Good music is good music is good music”, never mind if it’s bossa nova, punk rock or Stockhausen.
TM: But haven’t we entered the ‘post-modern’ age, where nothing is new and everything is recycled? Is it still possible to progress, to move forward?
OTR: Of course we live in post-modern times now, and my conviction has been for a long time that it’s impossible to find anything completely new in art music, because since we have taken on board all kinds of unpitched/synthetic/whatever noises, nothing we write sounds completely new. We have to play with the toys we’ve got now — or re-define the meaning of music.
With “prog” I don’t mean exploring new sounds for the sake of it, but rather the ethos — that a constant change is needed, even if the steps of change are small. On the other hand, when a colleague writes a post-serialist work (which is still quite commonplace in Finland) or otherwise terribly ugly music (which is a norm in Central Europe, probably because of the unbearable weight of classical tradition in German-speaking world), it is in no way progressive, but rather regressive.
At the moment Carlo Gesualdo sounds more modern than 90% of the living “modernists”.
TM: I couldn’t agree more. Gesualdo is one of those figures who is outside time. Final thoughts?
OTR: Well, I don’t have any special declarations.
Tomorrow I will be moderating a seminar about music journalism at the Tampere Biennale contemporary music festival, and I have just realized that what you are doing right now is a most representative form of music journalism. The title of the seminar is “Music journalism — an impossibility?”, and one of the topics is, whether music journalism is possible, because everything extra-musical is also considered as music journalism. Another typical sign of times is that this interview will be online.
As a composer, I am an artist who believes that a piece of art is the reason and the consequence of itself, a piece of art has a self-value. I also believe, that “true” art is possible only if the artist (composer) MUST make the work into what it becomes; I believe a good piece of art (composition) is done “inconsciously”. If a composer models his/her work on some specific style, the composer doesn’t create new art. This leads to the notion that a new piece of art can be made from almost any materials or inspirations whatsoever, which I admit is a post-modern way of seeing things.
As a composer, I see myself as a progressive musician. Not that my music would sound like prog rock (that’s not my aim), but in the way classic prog could make a piece of art out of anything. And to me, Gesualdo is the most modern composer, and Stravinsky is the prog musician number one.
-An interview by Tom Moore