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Chamber music, communality and eco-social justice: the case of Our Festival

by Susanna Välimäki

"Through its themes and concert practices, Our Festival keeps building on the experience of living in a shared world and facing common problems."

Among Finland’s music festivals, Our Festival has been leading the way towards a new 21st century concert culture. Directed by musician Pekka Kuusisto, the festival has a strong social agenda and a quest for the experience of communality. This is manifested through highlighting the different contents of the music, adapting a live art and performance art oriented way of presenting concerts, experimenting with venues and creating performance practices that break down hierarchies. The unconventional festival updates our notions of the meaning of chamber music in today’s society and world.

Our Festival has a different societal or cultural-critical theme each year. For instance, the 2009 theme “Help” referred to environmental problems, youth mental health issues, violence against women, children, victims of war, freedom of speech and those living without identification documents. The program was produced in collaboration with seven civic or charity organisations (including WWF Finland, UNICEF, PEN and Amnesty). A full day of concerts was dedicated to each organisation’s cause.

The societal message in the overall theme is sometimes obvious and sometimes more opaque. Rather than making a statement, the theme often poses questions, activating the audiences to search independently for meanings and to discover multi-dimensional experiences. For instance, the 2014 theme “Dissonance” referred to the discrepancy between the words of decision-makers and the reality of arts education.

The 2015 theme “For Aino” was a nod to Aino Sibelius (1871–1969), the wife of composer Jean Sibelius and a Fennoman-minded intellectual, and more broadly to gender discrimination, as well as artistic families and communities. The theme also served as a critical view on the Jean Sibelius jubilee year (2015) and the cult that idolises great men.


Conceptualisation and live art

The festival’s theme provides a conceptual framework for each concert. Individual concerts often have separate titles. The starting point for each concert is an idea based on the content of the music, instead of just programming around a specific musical work or a performer. Music is not considered to be an abstract glass bead game, but a social force which can help people to share experiences and meanings – in other words, discuss their lives in our shared world.

In this sense, Our Festival is a part of the 21st century phenomenon of new conceptualism, or content-aesthetics, and the way of music-making that is live art and performance oriented. Compositions can be subjected to fairly radical arranging and editing processes, or combined with different forms of art, cultural practices or styles of expression.

In addition to live music, a concert can incorporate spatial and video art, installation art, performance art, textile art, circus art, sound art, sound poetry and so on. A concert can include a discussion which expands on the theme of the concert or the entire festival. The ideas that the music communicates are essential. Music is considered to be an open process which is created through interaction between performers, audiences and their surroundings.

Diverse concert environments

Our Festival typically explores a range of different concert venues and experimental concert practices. Space, place and the surrounding environment are understood to be a part of the content of the music. For instance, a concert venue set up in a forest entices the audiences to discover the environmental and nature-related dimensions of music. The historic artist homes around Lake Tuusula (e.g. the museum home of Jean Sibelius, the studio museum of painter Pekka Halonen, and painter Eero Järnefelt’s studio which is currently a private home) sound out the region’s history and create an audible connection to the past.

Some of the concerts embrace participatory elements or community performance dimensions, such as rowing a church boat or tasting different flavours. Some concerts have branched out to local care facilities, such as elderly day care centres or hospitals. Pop-up concerts have been brought into the midst of people’s everyday life at cafes, banks and other urban spaces.

Most of the concerts, however, are presented in non-urban spaces. Concert environments close to nature heighten the listeners’ connection to their environment. A concert in a forest, by a lake, in a park, in a garden or in the countryside merges the music and the listeners with nature and enables sensitive observation of the surroundings. It invigorates the deep-ecological experience where all existence appears to be a part of one single ecological network.


Dismantling the standards

Many of the Our Festival concerts are held in small venues that have a home-like feel. The performers are within an arm’s reach and on the same level with the audiences, without any of the traditional hierarchy-supporting structures of modern concert halls. The interaction is immediate and natural. Instead of a one-way performer-to-audience transfer, a two-way human-to-human communication is prominent.

In other words, the festival avoids traditional concert venues with stages and fixed audience seating which isolate the audiences and performers from each other, forming two separate groups and creating distance and hierarchies.

Our Festival concerts dismantle some other concert culture standards as well, such as being loyal to the score, observing sound norms and genre borders. Works get arranged and mixed with an open mind, allowing space for improvisation. These art practices, which are used to prevent the fossilisation of classical music, increase the sense of being present and leave room for fresh experiences.


Audiences are a part of the music process

Conceptualisation and live or performance art oriented practices contribute to the uniqueness of the music heard at Our Festival. One needs to physically attend the event, as that very music cannot be heard in any other way. The meanings connected with time and place, with the interaction between audiences and performers and with the surrounding environment can only be created during the event through personal experience, and cannot be reproduced through a recording.

The music does not refer just to certain works but to the affective and overwhelming experience of live music, and the audiences are an integral part of the content of the music.

In other words, instead of accepting that compositions are unchangeable, Our Festival highlights the process where musical works are reshaped and transformed into new kinds of signifying unities, as a part of a unique and holistic performance art concert experience. The concerts are characterised by a strong sense of life: those feelings that can be felt only here and now, between these very people.

Understanding that art is a process and an experiential activity enables us to take a stand against the overly commercialised world and the product-centric art it creates. A unique exchange between people cannot be duplicated.

Genre-free chamber music

Our Festival defines the concept of chamber music in a genre-free and experimental manner. In addition to the classical music tradition, performers represent or draw from popular, folk and world music traditions. Each concert, however, is conceptualised to represent the festival’s view on chamber music. This translates to small concert venues and ensembles, the dominance of acoustic instruments and minimal use of [massive] electric sound systems, experimental arrangements and a free and natural interaction with the audiences.

In this sense, the festival’s idea of chamber music comes close to many forms of traditional music. Instead of viewing chamber music as a genre, it is seen as a way to create and communicate through music.

At the same time the festival manages to update the concept of art music to better suit the 21st century. Art music can include any music or listening-focused multi-disciplinary art, representing any genre or style, that is created ambitiously and that focuses primarily on intellectual content and the relationship between content and expression.


Activist contemporary art and communal attitudes

Through its themes and concert practices, Our Festival keeps building on the experience of living in a shared world and facing common problems. In this way it is connected to contemporary activist art, a movement which has shaped the 21st century art culture in a new way. The movement was born as a reaction to the global economic order and its power over our world, where the wellbeing of both the environment and humankind is threatened.

Listening to live art music together with others may invigorate the feeling of community and address some of the traumas of the modern world in a way that cannot be done through politics, journalism or science.

Our Festival’s societal and community-centred attitude towards music-making is crystallised in its name. This is a “festival for all of us”, where matters “relating to all of us” are being processed.

The fact that the festival’s name is grammatically incorrect in Finnish (the possessive suffix has been left out) is another reflection of the event’s tendency to break norms and of its relaxed and unreserved attitude. It takes a stand against the rigid and conservative practices often associated with classical music, and radiates with the joy of playing and making things together.

Main photo: Our Festival 2015 event ”Loistaen olet metsää” arose from a dialogue between poetry and cello music. Mirjami Heikkinen, recital. (By Maarit Kytöharju / Our Festival)

Our Festival 2019 takes place from 28 July to 3 August. Its new artistic director is Kamus String Quartet, and the theme is "Change". The festival program can be found here.

 Our Festival

  • An annual chamber music festival in Tuusula and Järvenpää, around Lake Tuusula (c. 30 km north of Helsinki)
  • Founded in 1997
  • Known as Chamber Music by Lake Tuusula until 2010
  • Around 3,500 visitors each year
  • Some twenty concerts during one week in late July
  • Concerts in many different venues, such as historic artist homes and experimental concert spaces (e.g. forest concerts and pop-up concerts in urban spaces)
  • Music is connected with other forms of art and discussions deepening the festival’s cultural-critical theme, which is different each year
  • Festival of the Year award in 2011 by Finland Festivals
  • Finland’s State Prize for Music in 2013
  • The artistic director of the festivals 2007-2018 was Pekka Kuusisto. The new artistic director Kamus String Quartet starts their tenure in summer 2019.