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Anssi Karttunen: Discovering the music around myself

by Anssi Karttunen

The Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen is equally at home in a Romantic concerto as in music of the Baroque or the present day. When this article was published, he had just premiered Magnus Lindberg’s Cello Concerto in Paris, on 6 May 1999. He here describes how working with composers of his own day and age can help the performer to enter into the minds of composers who lived and died long ago.

For many years I have been described as a cellist who specialises in contemporary music. This may be true, but I have yet to fully understand what is meant by “specialising” and what is meant by “contemporary”. I developed quite early an interest in fresh music, music to which my ears were not yet accustomed. This led to a desire to know the people behind this music, which in turn led to many other things. Curiosity is the key word behind this personal journey in time. In this article I will elaborate on some of my views about interpreting, composing and performing. I admit that at times my views are a touch idealistic, but that, I think, is my real speciality.

On the relation between composer and performer

The relation between composer and performer is very complex. Although the role of the instrumentalist may be very important, it is rarely that of an inventor. In fact, it usually works the other way round. If an instrumentalist writes music for his own instrument, the result is often not interesting in the technical sense, for he tends to write something that is comfortable to perform or to over-exploit certain personal facilities. On the other hand, a non-performing composer often comes up with ideas that will force the player to look for new solutions on the instrument. Later, the composer faces the question of what is possible to perform within a certain context. There may be a hundred books about writing for the cello, but everything is a question of context. Nobody will ever be able to list all the possible – or impossible – ways of combining things. The performer steps in to sort out the innovative from the impossible. This is the moment when the role of the performer is crucial, the moment of trying out new ways of approaching an instrument.

If the instrumentalist has no personal relation with the composer, he will not necessarily know what the composer is looking for. If there is a passage that is not instantly playable, the interpreter can do a lot of damage by declaring it impossible to play. Many composers have suffered from not having trusting relationships with players. The ideas of a composer may be excellent but need some fine tuning. However, after the flat assertion that something cannot be done, the composer may abandon what could have become a whole new world. He may also feel hurt and decide to leave the work just as it is, and this may be both musically and technically regrettable. It will be extremely difficult to repair the damage later. A future performer may never have the opportunity to discuss the matter with the composer and will lack authorisation for his solutions.

The solution for a seemingly impossible passage may be extremely simple, but one has to have experience to find it. Often changing the order of two notes in a passage is all that is needed. There are composers who may use completely new ways of using the instrument, yet there is no need to ask for changes. On the other hand there are other composers who write more “absolute” music without thinking of the instrument, and this may lead to problems of execution. In this case one has to work very hard. There are times when a composer may trust a performer so much that he believes anything must be possible, and that raises some surprising problems.

This personal relationship, such as I have been able to develop with many composers, is very important to me. I try to place myself in their worlds, each completely different. They may be looking for something through my cello that has nothing to do with what anyone else is doing. So when I talk to them and try out their ideas, I have a tremendous responsibility to look behind the notes, to understand what they are looking for, why it sounds like that and whether it could possibly be even more effective.

Looking back is looking into the future

I cannot talk to composers who have long been dead and ask what they meant with a certain passage. However, when I take up a score by Brahms, Beethoven or Schumann, I can use my experience with living composers. I try to understand their way of using notation, how much they left out of the score, how far what they wrote on paper is a compromise between an idea and a transcript. Each composer has his own way of doing this. I can, naturally, never be sure with Schumann, for example, but from my experience with composer friends I do have a better chance of finding the right answer. Composers are often very strict about some aspect of their music but may be surprisingly open about others: the performer has to be able to imagine where the border lies.

The reason for playing different music on different instruments springs from the idea that composers have a particular sound in mind when composing a piece. When a composer is writing a new piece for me, it is possible that he will hear the sound of my cello in his mind, not some future ideal of the instrument. This does not mean that another cellist on another cello cannot play the piece, but it does mean I can feel fairly secure in knowing that the sounds I make on my cello are probably quite close to the ones the composer had in mind.

If I take a Bach suite and try to get close to its composer, I might manage to get a little further in his direction by using the kind of instrument he would have heard himself. It does not guarantee anything other than just a slightly better chance of getting the right idea. Also, by knowing as much as possible about his way of committing his ideas to paper, I have a better chance of playing the piece he imagined. When one knows the sound one instrument makes, one can look for a corresponding sound on another instrument and not be hampered by acquired habits.

Why am I talking about Baroque instruments in the context of modern music? What can I contribute to the music of today by knowing the cello of Bach’s day? A Baroque instrument has different kinds of strings, a different kind of bow. A number of things are different in the sound, the overtones, in the way a tone is produced. The strings start producing noise if you apply just a little too much pressure. All these aspects interest composers today. In looking for the perfect sound, I can start with the normal cello, maybe change the strings, use gut instead of metal. We might suddenly find we have discovered exactly the sound they imagined. So, looking back and looking into the future is a constant two-way exercise that makes life much richer.

Is beauty only a habit?

Beauty can be found in the most surprising places. Kaija Saariaho, for example, is a composer who has changed our conception of many sounds. We might take a look at any of her string pieces in which the tone becomes noise under extreme bow pressure. Even though we, as instrumentalists, were taught at the conservatory that one should never make that kind of sound, it is beautiful here; it is not a note that is destroyed but a beautiful sound in itself. This very sound in a piece by another composer might be painful, just as the same note played by someone who does not feel its beauty would sound painful.

Our conception of beauty changes all the time. For some, beauty may be in the forbidden, for others it is in the repetition. Music that is shocking today may sound beautiful tomorrow. Something that in one piece sounds painful today will be transformed into something else when I play it tomorrow. Why or when this happens I cannot say. Impressing by shocking is difficult in the long run, because it only works once. The same happens in trying to make the biggest effect; tomorrow somebody will be even bigger and your effort will have acquired new meaning.

As a performer I must try to imagine how the music sounded in the composers ears, or to the audiences that heard it for the first time. I must then find a way of shocking with music that may have become acceptable. I do not do this by adding some effect that I think should shock today; I must do it mentally. If I can feel the pain myself, others should feel it, too.

On freedom and its restrictions

Being totally free is the most difficult state for us. We must first define what we mean by freedom. In the history of music, it was often during the times with most restrictions and rules that the most interesting music was written. The fact that composers had to write according to certain rules did not necessarily limit them. On the contrary, they had to find more ways of getting round the rules. Somehow, the imagination works well in these circumstances. It is easier to try to avoid something, to find how to be cleverer than others in getting round a certain restriction than it is to have no rules and be completely free. Being a composer today must be very demanding because you have to define everything yourself: style, beauty, form, notation, etc.

Each instrumentalist is a physical being who makes music with an object that has certain physical limitations. If we add to this the rules set by the composer in his work, the boundaries within which we must make music may seem quite restricting. But it is these limitations that give us our freedom. When I jump to a note very far away on the finger-board and actually have no time to get there, I have to fool myself and forget the physical impossibility. I also have to fool the listener and make him/her forget that I actually spent more time getting there than I was supposed to. Often we have to be magicians and let the listeners brain fill in the parts that are not really there. We create an illusion of a work that does not necessarily exist.

The role of the performer

What is the role of the performer in this triangle of audience, performer and composer? The old question is: who is the most important? We, the interpreters, are at the service of the composer, but we are also at the service of the public, and of an abstract idea of music. We can only be at the service of the composer if we take an active part in this triangle. We should understand somebody else’s mind more than is really possible. First we must enter the mind of the composer, then that of our fellow musicians, and finally penetrate that of the individuals that form the audience.

I believe that in order to interpret music with the greatest freedom, we have to be as faithful as possible to the composer. In doing so we create for ourselves a certain structure within which we can operate at liberty. From this starting point our decisions sound like free choice, like inspiration and improvisation instead of the carrying out of instructions.

I disagree with musicians who say that we just need to let our imagination flow freely and forget the composer’s instructions. They believe that by regarding the composer’s instructions too highly, we limit our expression and hide our own personality. It is true that there will always be some geniuses who can perform any piece in their own personal style and be convincing, but that does not mean that we should all behave like that. At the very least we should give the composer a chance to convince us, and maybe we will then be able to convince the listener.

My personality will always be present in any performance I give. I cannot separate it from anything I do. If, for example, I play a simple long note according to strict instructions, pianissimo, no vibrato, it will still always be my interpretation of that note. Within the context of the work as a whole, the ultimate authority will nevertheless be the composer.

Performers often fall into the trap of trying to sound interesting. In order to impress, they try to add something to the music to make sure that it is interesting. For generations, players have been afraid of boring audiences with masterpieces, adding little personal touches to such an extent that after a couple of generations it is difficult to recognise the original composition. Actually, the piece becomes boring because it belongs to no one any longer, and certainly not to the composer.

Understanding the process of interpretation is complicated and will always remain somehow metaphysical. We are alchemists of a kind: the clearer an idea we have of the basic principles of musicianship, the more we have room to operate. The more we remove the mysteries about music, the closer we can get to pinpointing those things that should always remain a mystery.

The relation with the audience

All our senses are intensely stimulated in so many different ways today: at home, in the car, at the office, wherever, all the time. Paradoxically, this creates an enormous threat of boredom. The main concern of people in their free time is to be entertained, to not be bored. They feel that if they go to a concert, they must be entertained and stimulated all the time. They compare the stimulation they receive at a concert with other kinds of stimulation in everyday life which have nothing to do with music. I am playing to people who most of the time are used to having all sorts of mega-stimulation without even paying attention to it. Even opera houses are installing earthquake simulators to impress people more. “Big” seems to be the only measurable effect.

So when I am playing a new piece for solo cello, I am competing with Jurassic Park, with three tenors singing to 500,000 people in a park, with the World Cup. How do we compete with that? It should not be a problem, but the knowledge of what goes on around us can sometimes be difficult to ignore. For me just as much as for the audience. It often leads us to strive for effect even in the most intimate piece. However, as a performer I do have the privilege of allowing the audience to forget that life exists outside this piece of music. I only have to seize the moment.

Where has music taken the cello?

It is interesting to see how cello techniques have developed this century. Many parallel paths have been followed: Ysaÿe, Enescu, Ustvolskaya, Dallapiccola, Zimmermann, Dutilleux and Saariaho are just some of the important composers who have contributed to the development of the cello. Yet one cannot say that any composer takes over where his/her predecessors left off. Just as they all had to invent their musical idiom, they also had to invent the instrumental idiom that goes with it. I am sure they all carefully studied what had been done with the cello before, but it is very difficult to point out parallels between them. This century has been a time of diversification and multiplication as much in the musical as in the technical sense.

While the 20th century has produced more styles of playing and composing than any previous era, there is a tendency to give everything a label. Nothing is more frustrating than explaining what contemporary, avant-garde, modern, post-modern, spectral, west-coast, up-town etc., means, and why one cannot cohabit with another. I am convinced that there is no such thing as modern – or even classical – music; these terms exist only in our prejudiced minds. For me there is only music that already inspires me and music that hopefully one day will.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1999.

Featured photo: Irmeli Jung.