As I was advised to include an interview in the presentation of myself I wondered which one to use. I had a choice of some newspaper interviews, but none of them seemed to be of general interest, apt to give a reliable although limited idea of what my music represents. This is why I decided to discard “journalistic” interviews and asked my friend and colleague Juha T. Koskinen to send me 10 questions on my work. Any interested reader may send me other questions (see CONTACT) which I will readily publish in this section with the relative answer.
1) In some of your most recent pieces (String Quartet n.1, Orchestra B), towards the end there is a change of style, a sort of ironical and playful twist. What does this “surprise ending” represent for you?
From a rhetorical point of view the beginning and end of a speech are quite a puzzle. I recall some interesting reflections by Roland Barthes on the subject (in The History of Rhetoric) where he stresses the fact that the leap from the silence before the speech to the first concept of the speech is essentially impossible, unjustifiable. There is an abyss between them and you just have to jump without the illusion that there exists a reason for this. Each composer finds his own solution to this problem, like “let’s make believe this is the beginning” and “let’s make believe this is the end, because I behave as if I were beginning (or ending): say with some long notes, crescendi or diminuendi, static harmonies, an exposition type of music or conclusion type music”. Now, while in music – unlike rhetoric – there exist some more or less acceptable ways to begin a piece - since music can almost produce a transition from silence or from the non-music that precedes the piece - to me, ending a piece has always seemed more problematic. Once I have engendered a certain type of energy, why should I put it back to sleep? Come to think of it, isn’t this a bit absurd, I mean the convention that obliges me to demonstrate that everything leads to a happy end? Of course there exist techniques that allow me to re-neutralise the material and I have often employed them, but at times this kind of “formal necessity” annoys me. We may be able to neutralise the material, but I don’t know if there exists a real transition from fully expressed energy to silence. This is why I sometimes choose a different solution: to end a piece I simply begin another one, so to speak. Surely the effect can be quite ironical, and that is ok by me. Technically speaking, this “new beginning” generally has a strong relation to the rest of the piece, but at times it represents a new point of view on the material, stripping it, exaggerating, making fun of it, eroding it or whatever, and it may also have the effect of creating a certain distance, a perspective, inside the form. While I write this some illustrious precursors of this method in poetry come to my mind…perhaps I got it from there.
Concerning the pieces you name I should mention that the end of HZH was meant to be ironical. It bears the marking “calm and reasonable”, something rigorously “moderate”, which – after the exaggerations of what precedes it - seemed to contain an interesting type of energy: it almost seems as the players have to make a great effort to keep calm and reasonable to the end. For me it is far from being a conclusion or resolution. The music however echoes a passage already heard towards the beginning of the piece, although somewhat transforming it. In the end of Orchestra B I open a window where we can hear the essence of a harmonic progression which actually is hidden in a long passage in the middle part of the work. But why am I saying this?…no one cares (and that’s ok)! In this place I really was looking for a sense of “otherness”, the work is already over…A listener told me this ending gave the idea of an abrupt cut in electronic music (actually he meant popular electronic music).
2) As far as I know your music, it seems to me that in your orchestral piece (Orchestra B) your country, Iceland, comes to the fore for the first time in such an explicit way. At least I think these “landscapes of sound” evolving and breathing without haste are far away from Bologna, so crowded and with its narrow streets. Do you agree or am I wrong?
I have never really asked myself whether my music has an “Icelandic” character or not, but here I think you are referring to landscapes in general. It is true that only in recent years I have begun to see the possibility of interpreting passages of my music in a concrete way as landscapes, although I don’t think the visual image has ever been a point of departure. I remember a pleasant revelation while I worked on the beginning of my string quartet: suddenly, quite a precise image appeared to me – a landscape from the South of Iceland – and maybe this influenced my way of proceeding. I remember in earlier days that geology, with its landscape forming processes, gave me a stimulating metaphor for creation, but I translated these processes in the working method and without any descriptive intentions. This interest in geology is however a typically Icelandic characteristic, since Iceland is a sort of a museum of geology that makes you strongly feel the presence of the formative forces at work in the landscape.
But let us speak of the horizon. Of course I constantly dream of the Icelandic horizon. Probably you are right that this can be heard in my most recent works.
3) Another important component of your music, besides your spectral interests, seems to be jocosity, often appearing in a play of rhythm but also a play with continuity and discontinuity. Perhaps this jocosity also gives a possibility of distachment, to avoid being rhetorical. I don’t know exactly how this is in Iceland, but in Finland there are few composers that possess this jocose and humorous quality.
I wanted to ask if playfulness has always been part of you or whether your stay in Italy has helped you to discover it?
People tend to look at Nordic music as essentially “Sibelian”, serious, profound, even in faster passages, but taking a closer look at the most interesting music coming from Scandinavia we realise this is a commonplace. I don’t know if some other Nordic composers see this serious character as an obliged attitude so as to be defined as Nordic. Personally, if I had written music like that from the beginning I would have been superficial. I do not feel it as “intimately” necessary. We might then ask ourselves why this very narrow definition of a character is stronger in music than in other arts. Take literature as an example: The most Icelandic of writers, Laxness, wrote in a style often colourful, full of playfulness, irony or wit in every phrase, and many other authors write in a rapid, laconic or essential idiom. I could also simply mention the style of the Icelandic Sagas, often concise and essential.
Laxness once even said that all he asked of a literary work was that it possessed a “good text”, and this is where I want to take a closer look. This assumption is misleading. The fact is that there is no such thing as a “good text” and only that. The force of the surface must rest on a solid structural basis. This is not only theory, you notice at once if it isn’t. What does this mean? That the surface is first of all en emanation of something; it’s the pronunciation of an idea. In the work of those who pay much attention to it there is however a dialogue between the surface and the structure, that is to say that the words that make up the surface also influence the “deeper” structure. So, this dialogue between the surface and the structure is something I think much music of the twentieth century ignored, first by choice but then…I don’t know. Perhaps Franco Donatoni’s most important contribution was to tackle this problem in his work. I cannot exclude that my acquaintance with him influenced my work in this sense. This does not mean my music all of a sudden became “Italian”: you just have to listen to the wind quintet I wrote before my studies in Italy to realise that at that time I already paid certain attention to the surface, and had a certain tendency for what you call playfulness, although perhaps it was not fully developed.
But back to the idea of jocosity. On one hand I believe you are speaking simply of a constant quality of the surface and on the other perhaps of the relation between the predictable and the unpredictable in the form (although these are interrelated aspects). I must confess that in recent years I feel I have been constantly pursuing a certain quality of the surface, trying to explicate certain functions of the material as clearly as possible. This implies for example orchestrating or “pronouncing” certain redundant aspects, certain characteristic contours, certain static or evolutionary rhythms, in brief, pursuing an affirmative or “positive” character. And since the evolution of the form is only a game of the spirit the result may be this quality you define as jocosity. Actually there is seldom an openly humorous intention behind my work, although one is free to interpret it as he wishes. Secondly, I pay much attention to the quantity of information of the form, which implies finding a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. This is an important quality in a communicative text although it obviously can result in almost humorous moods even when the subject should be the most serious or even tragic (I greatly admire Laxness’ ability in this respect). Of course, there is a relation with humour here: a fundamental ingredient in a joke is the unexpected.
In general, let’s say that I want to avoid every predefined pose like “now I am joking”, “now I am serious”, “now I will be frightful”, “this is sacred”, “this is profane”. I don’t think the music needs them.
In addition to the above qualities, jocosity may also consist in the tendency to play on words, to combine ideas that seem unrelated, to construct or solve enigmas, tackle impossible questions. Actually all this has for long been part of my work (and maybe I could do without some of these…).
You ask if jocosity has the function of creating a distance and avoiding a rhetoric tone. I have never thought of it like that. I like to think my playing is absolutely sincere and just a part of my way of being. This finally answers your question: jocosity, in all the above meanings, has always been part of me. Music may be seen as just a very serious game.
4) As regards coherence between form and material (I am especially thinking of Object of Terror): some of your pieces seem rather pluridimensional. You use many different materials instead of limiting yourself to a few elements in a more rigorous way. So the real “object of terror” for you is the negative status quo, an arrest of energy to be avoided by all means?
I’m very grateful for this question. The real “object of terror”, according to the text by Hölderlin which suggested to me this title, is what is truly new, or as I see it, what cannot be deduced in a logical way from our preceding experiences. The novelty that stems from the very degeneration/decomposition of the preceding state, and which can only be revealed through decomposition. It is all in one frightful, necessary and vital.
This question gives me a chance to stress a couple of facts on the concept of material.
One of the most important achievements of spectral music was the emancipation from the concept of material as it had been employed in earlier contemporary music. Spectral music aims at realising a real unity between form and material. In fact, identifying straightforwardly the contents of a piece with its harmonic and rhythmical materials was extremely misleading. This identification was due to the need to explain or analyse everything that happened in the music. The liberation from this limited point of view and the realisation that what was being discussed was actually only the pre-material and that the active, living material of music is much more complicated, and generally less definable, was an important achievement in the modern music world. It was however not a new discovery: only an extremely academic view of the music of the past will ignore that the real contents of all music, what the composers are really striving for, can never be reduced to the schematic terms of music analysis. The analytic tools we use, although useful for the apprentice, are only the definition of non-music: “correct” harmonisation, “balanced” orchestration, “coherent” rhythmical writing etc. Because, you see, Harmony is not a synonym of harmonisation, Rhythm is not a synonym of rhythmic hierarchy, Timbre is not a synonym of orchestration and Form is not a synonym of formal order.
So what about the material? I don’t know…various experiences have led me to conclude that the famous unity of the material (a real dogma for many composers) is neither necessary nor sufficient for the unity of form, at least this goes for the conception of material I mentioned above. We may say that by now I feel very far from this kind of structural rigour, not because of a whim but of necessity, my attempt to attain a different type of rigour. Now, describing in detail how I proceed while writing would be very lengthy and tiresome. Let’s just say that the pluri-dimensionality that appears in the pieces is actually always the product of an evolution that is carried out with absolute rigour; that as concerns the harmony the pieces always refer to a unifying matrix, but that the pitch material, for me, is becoming less and less important for the meaning of the form. (Of course it must be organised, but that is so far from being enough.) As an example I tend to use absolutely “smooth” harmonic progressions, that is to say progressions where the chords themselves do not imply an expressive tendency (you may have noticed in Object of Terror that in a long passage the chords move in simple ascending chromatic steps). This is simply because the real point is not to be found in the harmony in those passages.
To conclude I must add that recently my forms tend to travel from a purely timbral state, through a “linguistic” or “logical” state to a rhythmic one: in other words, from a hypersemantic state, to a semantic state and to the anti-semantic state represented by rhythm. The form moves back and forth along this axis. I do not limit myself to a few elements because my rigour does not apply to the elements but to what happens to them on the way.
Of course we were afraid of abandoning the good old safety rope made of the “material”, but at a certain point we realised that it was too short, so it was better to proceed without one rather than stop where we were.
5) Have you noticed a big difference in the way people react to your music in Iceland and in Italy? Are you considered “Italian” in Iceland and “Icelandic in Italy?
There was a time when there were voices in Iceland saying my music was “Italian”. Probably only with the growth of my output could I refute this commonplace. Let me repeat that if my music has anything “Italian” to it, it also had it before my arrival in Italy.
As a kid I was an unbearable punner, I spoke and walked fast, but then I sat on my own in a corner contemplating life as it passed by. Swiftness and tranquillity have always been equally present in my character. In Italy, the problem of the nationality of music is much less important and rarely my music has been referred to as Nordic or not Nordic. This has however occurred, but rather with reference to some details of the technique rather than to formal or expressive characteristics.
6) Have you noticed whether the fact of having learned to speak Italian well has influenced your musical ideas? More generally: do you see a strong relation between linguistical and musical ideas?
I don’t think that just learning a new language can in itself influence much the musical thought. At the most I might say that since I also studied in Italy, when I work I sometimes use Italian concepts for the techniques or processes to be realised. In my sketchbooks there are mostly comments in Icelandic, but you can also find phrases in Italian, French or (less often) in English. Besides being the languages I associate spontaneously with certain techniques, they can also have a mnemonic function. This is why I might also use a language which I do not speak, like German: if I write “vielleicht” at the side of a sketch, that comment serves as a label which will help me remember it in the following phases.
I don’t think we can speak of a strong relation between linguistic and musical thought, that is to say there is no direct correspondence between these two worlds. They are of course largely parallel and one of them can provide many metaphors for the observation of the other. I have done some studies on metrics and I did some metrical analysis inspired by music. I often speak of the influence of metrics on my music. This does not mean I have the illusion of finding a direct correspondence: the rhythm of a poem can never be reduced to a rhythmic or musical description, since such a description can capture and schematise only one aspect of the poem’s rhythm. Other branches of linguistics have sometimes given me useful ideas for my work, but the relation between the two disciplines remains indirect.
7) Have you ever written vocal pieces? If not, why?
My output in the past few years depends almost entirely on specific circumstances and is written on commission. If I haven’t written much for the voice this is simply because I haven’t been asked to. Two small pieces for mixed choir are an exception, setting Icelandic lyrics and written just for fun, without being asked. I have written two vocal pieces on commission, the last one for the Music Biennale in Venice in 2002 (a piece for coloratura soprano, violin, cello and percussion).
I must confess that some years ago I saw the task of writing for voice as something extremely problematic, but little by little my ideas have become clearer, although I still have some unsolved problems which would only be fun to tackle if I were obliged to produce a vocal piece. So, I’m just waiting for the opportunity.
8) Could you think of writing an opera buffa? What is your relation to music theatre?
I am very interested in the theatre in general. I think it can work as a very useful “sanatorium” for music, especially if we free ourselves of all prejudice as to what music is or is supposed to be. I am even more interested in comedy or farce with its disorienting energy. I sometimes think the farce is the only genre that supports extreme gestures, which really allows us to abandon all the senseless and suffocating conventions of traditional music theatre. You may deduce from this that my relation to traditional music theatre is rather problematic…If I had to realise a piece for theatre I would probably choose an anti-theatrical, cruel or farce style, or on the other hand, children’s theatre, which I feel is an open and stimulating field.
9) In different pieces (String Quartet n.1, Object of Terror, Orchestra B), at the beginning, the sound seems to materialise from nothing. Especially during the quartet this situation comes back several times: a sort of border between silence and sound. What is your relation to silence? Do concepts like “fertile silence” or “transcendence in music” have any importance for you?
I would like to distinguish between the play on the border between sound and silence, or between gesture and non-gesture, and silence in the traditional meaning of a rest. The string quartet is probably my first piece that is entirely based on the movement along the timbre-harmony-rhythm axis described in answer 4. I therefore regularly push the form towards the two extremes, where pure timbre/noise reigns and the other where pure rhythm reigns. These extremes, especially the first one, can maintain a close relation to silence, playing around the borderline. In this case we are speaking of a “living” or “active” silence, a silence that speaks, like the sleeper that utters sounds or words which are almost intelligible.
Then there are real rests, general pauses, which are rare in my most recent pieces. I tend to use them only where I am sure they are charged with energy. I never use them simply to punctuate a discourse. Generally they have a formal meaning, especially since in my music “discourse” - the exposition of a discursive idea - is almost disappearing. We know that in contemporary music this type of silence has sometimes been used to punctuate a complex discourse, as if to make it easier to grasp by the listener, or eventually to create an expectation, as if to generate some response from the listener in that space. This is a fully justified approach within a certain poetic but too often the rests, instead of generating curiosity, simply generate weariness. In those cases the silence simply erodes the form, so it’s far from being fertile.
I don’t know if I should add something on metrically organised silence, which can establish a live contact with sound. Actually, this is one of the oldest and most primitive expedients of music…but still very useful. Obviously it requires a certain type of rhythmical organisation which is quite frequent in my work. (Let me tell the truth: from the beginning to the end, my pieces are based on an evolving rhythmic structure. Rhapsodic or improvised rhythms are practically absent.)
In general we may say that I do not attribute any symbolical or transcendental value to silence. It is just one of the elements necessary to create a robust form.
10) If you had all possible means at your disposal (various orchestras, choirs, electronics etc.), what would you like to create as a utopic project, totally outside of all limits?
I don’t think I would rewrite the Symphony of the Thousands! You know I’m not a man who has impossible dreams. I see my work in a different light: the process of composing, creating sense, depends on the coming together of different things: the ego meets with form, filters, restrictions, concepts, - in brief, it meets with the language of music – and then there is the meeting of the composer with reality. I mean that one of the elements that create meaning is how circumstances influence the work. Accounting for this is not simply a question of practicality, since this meeting actually constitutes a positive contribution to the meaning of the work. One of the main aims of the work might then be to jeopardise the limits, stretch them or eventually break them, but you do this from the inside, of course! To put it differently: what I have to say is not so interesting, it’s rather what I am that counts, and what I am is something that comes through only in relation with reality, artistic and external reality. What I am is the only thing I have to express and discover. So, moving in a hypothetical, utopic space does not attract me particularly. Nevertheless, so as not to avoid your question totally, I can say that I would like to realise a theatrical work, and in that case, beside the means to perform it I would need the funding which would allow me to take all the time necessary to make it and to collaborate with the artists I choose. But this is not exaggeratedly utopic. And neither the idea of realising a big work for orchestra…sooner or later it might come true!
Juha T. Koskinen (1972) is a Finnish composer who studied in Finland, France and Italy. Besides several chamber works, his output features four chamber operas, three orchestra pieces and two works for soloist and ensemble www.fimic.fi