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A composer of this world (on Lotta Wennäkoski)

by Karoliina Vesa

Prostitutes and jugglers, silent film and poetry. Composer Lotta Wennäkoski boldly tackles social subjects and explores territory between art genres.

‘Poet girl of music’ – ‘sensitive lyricist’ – ‘tonal colour composer’. Lotta Wennäkoski was declared a national musical lyricist soon after her first works emerged in public, and she has been unable to shake off the distinction even though her music has acquired some rough edges since then.

Not that being a lyricist bothers her. “I would prefer to be known as a lyricist rather than a prosaist or a dramatist,” she says with a laugh. “Perhaps at the time I represented something outside the mainstream, but there are other composers like that nowadays.” A typical statement from a composer who is careful to stress that she is not an exceptional figure. But the lady doth protest too much: her music remains original and immediately recognisable to this day.

Listening to the music of Lotta Wennäkoski, such as Hava (2007) for orchestra, it is impossible to avoid impressions related to gravity, or lack thereof. The music is buoyant and lucid, as if waiting for the listener to jump up and grab hold of its sound world. The notes in the texture trace figures and narratives in the mind, in an unending spectrum. What is intriguing is that such associations are not only allowed but encouraged.

“I belong to a generation of composers who see the outside world as an opportunity rather than as a threat. This is true even though my music does not concretely describe anything; it is more about topics and moods,” Wennäkoski says. In Hava, she wanted to explore how
music could illuminate a topic or subject like a novel does, in contrasting lighting and using a language of its own.

Hava is an excellently typical example of her work in that it is spun out of a single gesture: falling or descending. The flute concerto Soie (2009), on the other hand, was inspired by images prompted by fabrics and textures, while the string quartet Culla d’aria (2003-2004) rocks the air as its Italian title states, and Nosztalgiaim (2007) for orchestra lovingly envelopes a fragment of Hungarian folk music. Each of them have a powerful identity of their own, and they are easy to recognise after just a few encounters.

Could that be indicative of the composer having a strong original style? “Oh, that sounds so smug!” Wennäkoski says in evident discomfort. “You cannot create a style. Many of my musical choices are instinctive though,” she admits after prompting.

Whether she likes it or not, originality is a feature commonly cited in connection with her music. Her palette extends from noises to new instrumental techniques, depending on the needs of the work at hand. At times she has probed the very threshold of silence, a case in point being Sade avaa (1999) for bass clarinet and ensemble, a rain-inspired work whose almost inaudible scratches and scrapes keep the listener on the edge of the seat. This is not characteristic of all of Wennäkoski’s music, however. “I love silence, but I have not written completely quiet works. The quietest of all my works is probably the trio Sinne, which I completed this year, but even that has loud moments in it. Maybe someday I will write a really quiet work!” she says with amusement.

The problem of novelty

But Wennäkoski grows serious when contemplating the problem of novelty, a bone of contention brought up with regularity in the debate on contemporary music. “Everything has already been done many times over,” she sighs. Nevertheless, she admits to listening to music written by her colleagues with an ear for new and original things. For herself, she has sought to solve the problem through the practical route of ‘learning how to compose’. What this means is consciously applying musical elements new for herself.

Wennäkoski says that as a composer she is now at a point where she is increasingly preoccupied with the notion of novelty. Who increases knowledge increases sorrow, and with increased competence comes increased difficulty of choice. “Learning how to write music is so incredibly slow and difficult that one simply cannot emphasise its importance enough. It is not until now that I have started to feel that I really know what I am doing,” she says, having turned 42 this year.

An important milestone considering how self-critical she is was writing the aforementioned flute concerto Soie, completed three years ago. Commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and flautist Petri Alanko, it forced her to rethink her identity. “I had come to think of myself as a composer suited for writing slower music. But the process of writing Soie really opened my eyes. I wanted to write an allegro and discovered that, hey, I know how to write for orchestra. This is not just me being pleased with myself; I wanted to bring this up because it illustrates what a difficult process composition is. And I am still happy with the piece,” she says.

A sense of pulse is, more generally, a new feature in Wennäkoski’s recent works. Apart from the fleet-footed flute concerto, the delightful Balai (2009) for solo guitar pulsates in quavers from start to finish. In this work, she also makes use of the most common guitar technique of all, known in layman’s terms as strumming, yet another
unexpected gesture from a lyrical composer.

Wennäkoski began to explore her bolder and coarser side in the Kalevala-inspired wind sextet Suka (2008), whose tension and pace revealed new facets of her personality. For her, this was a natural consequence of seeking out new modes of expression. “I have developed quite an interest in audacity in music. This has to do with becoming more confident in one’s skills: it is really great to make an orchestra play loudly now and again,” she says.

Forced prostitution and other aspects of women’s lives

Social topics are scarcely a big hit in Finnish contemporary music. Whereas visual arts, media art and dance have taken intense looks at topics such as body image, gender, consumerism or ethnic relations, serious composers – with very few exceptions – have avoided topics taken from the world of today.

But could contemporary music have a social function? “Why not?” says Wennäkoski. In her own work, she has touched on certain sore spots in modern society, such as forced prostitution in the monologue opera Lelele (2010) premiered at the Musica nova Helsinki festival. She chose her subject herself and also compiled the libretto from original documents. “It was mentally stressful to converse with these documents for the best part of a year. The musical work process proved challenging too. I set out thinking of myself as a lyricist and imagining that such a musical language would distance me nicely from the subject. But as I read the documents, I soon realised that the music must mirror the brutality of the events. So I started writing modern music – and that is not by any means how I usually set out,” she says with some irony.

Lelele was a new experience for her also because it was accompanied by a video made by Elina Brotherus. The video is as deadpan as the bare-bones facts of the texts in the libretto, and the most violent scenes recounted are accompanied by images of Finnish lakeland scenery. The cross-genre experience was inspiring for Wennäkoski, even if it was not really a collaboration, the video being created after the music was already done. But she enjoyed the rare treat of being part of a team rather than slogging away by herself. “I remember how soprano singer Pia Freund, Elina Brotherus and director Anna-Mari Karvonen sat at our kitchen table and listened to me performing the soprano part, screams and whispers and everything. And I have never had voice lessons. But I had to be able to demonstrate what my music was like.”

Wennäkoski had entered the world of the stage with the chamber opera N! (2003), based on the song cycle Naisen rakkautta ja elämää (A woman’s love and life), which in turn is based on the eponymous Lieder cycle Frauenliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann. She selected poems on similar topics from six women poets of different ages. “I wanted to show that as a composer I am following a specific tradition, whether I like it or not. It inevitably involves dovetailing of and collisions between eras. The poems I chose are much more earthy and brutal than those set by Schumann.”

The topic continues to fascinate her. “I feel it is important to have a dialogue with tradition. I might imagine doing something similar again in the future.”

Words make music

Wennäkoski stands out among Finnish composers in her interest in poetry. She is an active follower of the field of contemporary poetry and selects interesting texts to set. Her feeling for words is also apparent in the beautiful and memorable titles she gives her works, scintillating with hidden meanings. “I envy poets. When I am in my studio, I sometimes open up a book of poems and simply marvel at the silence in which these perfect words exist on the page. You can go back and forth, unlike with music, which has a beginning and an end. And isn’t it just marvellous how some poems and some words can capture exactly what a thing is about?”

She has also long been fascinated by the sounds of words and their networks of meaning. Take the title of her flute concerto, Soie: the word means ‘silk’ in French, but it is no accident that to a Finnish speaker it associates with the verb soida, ‘to ring’ or ‘to resound’. In an ideal scenario, the title and the composition process feed one another. In the case of the flute concerto, though, the idea of fabrics and textures came before the title, which happened to fit the theme in a pleasing way.

Wennäkoski dreams of discovering a way of communicating through music comparable to words. “I would like to write music so that it would create similar fascinating, complex and expanding meanings in which listeners may identify something familiar.”

She tastes words not only when reading but also when writing music. Her process includes singing through all the parts herself. “I always sight-read everything, so at least in that sense I am a rather melodic composer.”

This is a useful habit particularly when writing vocal music, which occupies a considerable amount of space in Wennäkoski’s catalogue. Her elegantly crafted melodic arcs may be heard for instance in the song cycle Le miroir courbe (2010-2011) for mezzosoprano and orchestra, settings of French poet Yves Bonnefoy. She wrote the work just after completing Lelele. “Setting Bonnefoy’s poetry was invigorating, a catharsis. It was a necessary contrast to the horrors of forced prostitution,” she recalls.

In touch with listeners

It has always been important for Lotta Wennäkoski to write music for people and to be a part of society as a composer. The roots of her music are firmly planted in the real world, and she hopes that this will be apparent to listeners too. “I most definitely conceive of music as being communication. I could think of nothing more wonderful than for my music to tell a story, or speak or mean something, while also being innovative,” she muses.

In her everyday life, she approaches this goal from a practical perspective. For years, she has been doing grass-roots work, playing music for children at daycare centres and afternoon clubs and singing songs with them, her aim being to make the language of contemporary music and her profession better known. When presenting her works, she does not resort to techno-babble but instead explains what there might be in the music for listeners to take away. “There is a time and place for professional jargon, of course, but I have occasionally attended ‘meet the composer’ events where I could scarcely even understand the question. That sort of thing alienates the audience rather than engaging them.”

The most concrete vehicle for Wennäkoski to seek contact with her listeners is Kuule II (2005-2006/2007) for bass clarinet and ensemble. Its title means ‘listen!’ in Finnish, and it began life as part of a cello concerto. This music is about emotions. “I wanted to show people that this is music and not a computer printout. Listen!” The piece culminates, rather surprisingly for Wennäkoski, in an almost late Romantic outpouring, concerning which the composer herself had her doubts. “I wondered if I could dare put in something like that. Then I decided not to. And then I decided to do it anyway!”

New challenges spanning genres

Lotta Wennäkoski’s summer holiday this year was rather short, specifically a dozen sunny days with her family in Portugal. While the rest of Finland was on holiday, she sat in her studio grappling with the music commissioned from her for the silent film Amor omnia (1922). Clocking in at 90 minutes, it forms part of the most extensive commission in the history of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, involving newly written music for five silent films from five Finnish composers. The film that she ended up with, Amor omnia, is a morose parlour drama about forbidden love; its dramatis personae include a count, a lieutenant and a maid, very much in keeping with the spirit of the era.

At the time of this interview, the premiere of the work by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is already at hand, but the project has not left her alone. Her studio walls are still decorated with notes storyboarding the film. After spending a year on the project, she is ready to admit that it was a gigantic undertaking. “I began by watching the film over and over again. My first reaction was an immense sense of distance. I thought: How can I possibly relate to this?”

Writing music for a silent film comes with a whole raft of challenges that a composer usually does not have to worry about. The music must sustain the narrative instead of just providing a backdrop as in a ‘talking picture’. The most difficult thing for Wennäkoski was to figure out how to stretch out events and her musical ideas to fit the scale demanded by the film. Producing 90 minutes of music for symphony orchestra is no mean feat for a composer whose catalogue consists mainly of works rich in content but less than 20 minutes in duration, well in proportion to their material. “Any musical idea that I come up with has an optimum length of time for which it can be sustained. Here, I had to abandon that concept. If the structure of the film required a longer development, then that was the way it had to be.”

Wennäkoski is excited about the premiere, though. “This may be the first time that my music reaches completely new listeners and has a chance of making quite a different impact than ever before. Film is an attractive medium, and audiences are prepared to accept somewhat stranger music on the side,” she says mischievously.

She will soon be bridging genres again, now in the world of circus. She has been commissioned by Sakari Männistö, founding member of Agit-Cirk in Rovaniemi, and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra to write a piece for juggler and chamber orchestra, the juggler being cast as the soloist performing with the orchestra.

It is a project that both fascinates and frightens her. “I am anxious about finding out how my music will fit such a context. But a composer must write what she is commissioned to write!” she says with amusement.


Karoliina Vesa is a contemporary music specialist and producer with the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi