in Reviews

Charting a musical map of the Nordic countries

by Lasse Lehtonen

"The book is above all a profuse and expert love letter to music and life in the Nordic countries. Mellor’s expertise in and enthusiasm for his subject comes clearly across in the text."

Music journalist Andrew Mellor would probably not consider himself a cartographer, yet this is a title that I would like to bestow on him. His recent book, The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press, 2022), opens up like a map that guides the reader to the musical worlds, societies and cultural histories of the Nordic countries. Mellor does not seek to redefine geography, but he does expand on and further specify views presented in earlier literature. His subjective journey takes the form of a complex mosaic, entwining history and the present, music and life in general, and above all the five countries of northern Europe with all their idiosyncrasies.

But is it even possible to discuss the Nordic countries as a single entity? The Northern Silence seeks to address this question through five partly overlapping thematic modules. In Chapter 1, Mellor cleverly subverts A.A. Gill, who wrote “Scandinavia is a collection of countries we can’t tell apart” in an introduction to the societies and histories of the Nordic countries and to composers from Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen to Kurt Attenberg and Edvard Grieg. Chapter 2 is a survey of performance practices and the social status of music; Chapter 3 focuses on local idiosyncrasies and explores borderlands, including the wilds of Lapland and the Faroe Islands. Chapter 4 paints a conventionally sombre yet nature-entuned image of the Nordic psyche, and the concluding Chapter 5 contemplates the language of Nordic design and architecture vis-à-vis music.

The Northern Silence thus takes a very broad approach, and principally it acquits itself very well. For instance, Mellor manages to tell the tale of post-war political developments and the triumph of the Social Democratic utopia in the various countries while, in almost virtuoso fashion, presenting a counterpoint of phenomena in the world of music and of his own experiences. There is an endless argument to be had about cause and effect, but Mellor has done his homework well: just as the reader feels that the description of cultural life in the Nordic countries is becoming a little too sweet to be true, we are reminded of the threats to disband orchestras and comparisons with conditions elsewhere. Mellor employs a similarly broad brush in transitioning from nyckelharpa to kantele, from folk songs to heavy metal, from Lutheranism to Social Democracy and from Alvar Aalto to IKEA. There are risks involved in such an approach, but Mellor keeps the mosaic admirably coherent. Occasionally, though, the reader is left wishing for a more incisive synthesis amidst this rich swirl of narrative.

Many who are used to reading about music must be familiar with Mellor’s articles on Nordic music, for instance in Classic FM and Gramophone. The backbone of The Northern Silence is made up of interviews made for these various media over the years, offering glimpses behind the scenes of the world of music. Having been based in the Nordic countries for a long time, Mellor is at once an insider and an outside observer. His hybrid role yields him fascinating insights on the various cultural circles in which he moves and on their interactions. For example, Finns speak a completely new kind of English to Mellor, but in a similar fashion he discovers something unique in the sound, national status and interpretations of Nordic orchestras.

But how “unique” are the Nordic countries and their music, really? Is the trope of music reflecting its environment just an adage that governs discussions about music rather than saying anything about the music itself? This is most likely an unanswerable question, but national identity, and in this case specifically ‘Nordic-ness’, easily becomes a framework on which to hang arguments that are thereby constrained by that framework. The Northern Silence treads a fine line between acknowledging conventional perceptions and outright stereotyping. Yet it is all too easy to fall into the trap: at times, Mellor is dazzled by “the allure of the North” as he discusses orchestral culture or describes the morose, silent and nature-attuned denizens of these dark lands – though admittedly the reticence of his interviewees and the composer persona typically ascribed to Sibelius justify his response. Epithets such as “Norwegian” or “Finnish” or even “nature-attuned”, when applied to music and musical styles, are not stereotyping, but they do raise questions about how specific such epithets are and what their purpose is.

In considering a book with a subject as broad as this, it obviously becomes a matter of taste what any particular reader would have liked to see included. However, considering how skilfully Mellor weaves in societal and historical connections, there is one theme conspicuous by its absence: the status of women as musicians and composers in the Nordic countries. This may be a deliberate omission on Mellor’s part; after all, he interviews Kaija Saariaho and Anna Thorvaldsdottir without making a meal out of their gender. And, as Lilli Paasikivi, Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera, remarks to Mellor: “The most beautiful thing is if you don’t have to think about gender anymore.” Perhaps we should, though. Considering how well Nordic societies perform in worldwide rankings on gender equality – and considering, on the other hand, dysfunctionalities in the music industry that have been brought up in recent years – it seems a shame that Mellor did not here explore the parallel between music and societal trends.

At the end of the day, however, there is little point in grumbling about the comprehensiveness or lack thereof of the map that Mellor has drawn in The Northern Silence; his journey is not and does not claim to be an encyclopaedia. The book is above all a profuse and expert love letter to music and life in the Nordic countries. Mellor’s expertise in and enthusiasm for his subject comes clearly across in the text. Nordic readers may view themselves just a bit differently on the map after reading this.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi