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Contemporary music finds new stages

by Merja Hottinen

The nature of contemporary Finnish music festivals is in transition. Festivals are adapting to the situation where they no longer are the only place to hear the latest in contemporary music. Each festival is now finding its own niche.

The field of contemporary music festivals in Finland has changed considerably in recent years. In the 1980s, it rested solidly on three pillars: the Helsinki Biennale (founded in 1981), the Time of Music festival in Viitasaari (1982) and the Tampere Biennale (1986).

Initially, the principal purpose of these festivals was to provide a forum for performances of contemporary music in Finland and to introduce audiences to the latest and most important works in the genre.

Recently, the field has diversified. The Helsinki Biennale was converted into the annual Musica nova Helsinki, which has now reverted to a biennial schedule, alternating with the Tampere Biennale. A more northern dimension has been added with the founding of the Uuden musiikin lokakuu (October of Contemporary Music) festival, with a focus on local contemporary music.

In the 2000s, contemporary music has acquired a broader presence on the Finnish musical scene, and it is no longer unusual to hear contemporary works performed outside of specialised festivals. Have the festivals become redundant then?

Tampere focuses on Finnish

The policy of the Tampere Biennale is a clear one: showcasing contemporary Finnish music with a different theme each time.

Designing her first Tampere Biennale as artistic planner, composer Lotta Wennäkoski considers Finnish music the best possible basis for the festival.

“What is great about the Tampere Biennale is that it is the only festival which specifically focuses on Finnish contemporary music,” she says.

Over the years, the festival has aimed to present a pluralist and even-handed selection of Finnish music. Instead of highlighting individual composers, the festival is conceived more as a smorgasbord.

“We have never had composer concerts at the Tampere Biennale, whereas the Helsinki Biennale and Musica nova have always had featured composers. There is a major difference in profile between these festivals,” Wennäkoski explains.

The Tampere Biennale has also aimed at giving ‘second premieres’ of works ever since the time when the late Usko Meriläinen was its director.

“It would be nice if audiences were interested in second and third performances too instead of just ‘farewell premieres’,” Wennäkoski notes.

Naturally, there will be world premieres on the programme, some produced by the festival’s partners and other commissioned by the festival itself. Wennäkoski considers it a particular benefit of festivals that the concerts may attract non-specialist audiences simply by being part of a festival.

“For instance, we have a lunchtime concert with free entry almost every day, which is one way of bringing in people off the street,” Wennäkoski explains.

The Tampere Biennale is an emphatically Finnish event and a forum for contemporary music professionals, who congregate from all over the country to meet colleagues and to listen to each other’s compositions.

“The festival offers the opportunity to listen to a lot of music within a short space of time. The percentage of contemporary music performed in the concert programmes of conventional institutions is quite low,” Wennäkoski says.

Viitasaari targets pros

The Time of Music festival in Viitasaari has acquired a reputation for heavy-duty performances of contemporary music. Every summer, the festival attracts a considerable crowd of contemporary music enthusiasts and professionals to a small city with a almost 8,000 inhabitants in central Finland. Everyone who shows up is there specifically to listen to contemporary music.

“We do not need to go to people’s homes to get them to come to us,” says Tapio Tuomela, artistic director of the festival.

The challenge faced by the organisers is to provide the holidaymakers with a memorable enough series of experiences to bring them back again.

The festival has consciously aimed its programme at professionals. During its 25 years, the Time of Music festival has become known as an uncompromising presenter of the newest trends in contemporary concert music, giving concerts featuring legendary international guest composers as well as carefully designed series of themed concerts.

“It is an investigative and curious festival interested in anything that is new,” Tuomela sums up.

For the contemporary music professional, Viitasaari offers not only collegial encounters and a sense of community, but also a series of popular and well-established courses. The composition classes given by guest composers have been particularly popular.

Musica nova thinks internationally

While the Tampere Biennale and the Time of Music are well established on the Finnish musical scene, the oldest surviving contemporary music festival in the country, Musica nova Helsinki, has undergone yet another major change. After ten years of annual festivals, it has returned to its original biennial concept.

One reason for this was no doubt the musical upheavals that are occurring in Helsinki. The concert house construction project is a drain on the resources of a number of institutions which participate in Musica nova Helsinki. But the trend could also be seen as a positive sign: perhaps contemporary music is now so well represented in Helsinki that an annual festival is no longer required?

Johan Tallgren, appointed as the artistic director of Musica nova Helsinki for 2009, does not see it quite so favourably. His criticism is that instead of Finnish contemporary music concerts evolving into a viable continuum, the festivals have remained isolated.

“With Musica nova too, it has become unclear what things should be a part of the musical scene all year round and what should be provided by the festival,” Tallgren says.

The director misses the intensive and international atmosphere that characterised the Helsinki Biennale, the predecessor of Musica nova. Well-known international composers visited the festival, and there was a feeling of “things happening now”.

“This has always been the festival which shows Finland what is happening out there in the rest of the world,” Tallgren explains. “It has featured major international contemporary works that one could not hear anywhere else.”

The festival has featured Finnish music too, but set in an international context.

Tallgren, a composer who has lived abroad for twelve years, feels that Finnish music needs real internationalisation.

“Finnish music has become more national than ever. So much music is written in Finland that no one has time to find out what is going on abroad,” he says.

Under his guidance, the festival is again taking a more international approach.

“Although Finland is now a pluralist society, an internationally oriented contemporary music festival can show us what pluralism means elsewhere,” Tallgren says.

New northern spirit

The most recent entrant in the field of contemporary music festivals is the October of Contemporary Music in northern Finland. Organized three times so far, the festival is centred on the city of Oulu but has an added geographical dimension, with a different partner town each year: in 2007, it was Kokkola.

According to artistic director Olli Roman, the festival is specifically aimed at the people of northern Finland.

“Although of course we welcome people from the south too to come and see what is happening up here,” he adds.

Roman notes that contemporary music has not been featured very much at all in concerts in northern Finland. The festival has demonstrated its necessity in that over three years it has rapidly grown from a two-day mini-event to a ten-day showcase of contemporary music. The 2007 festival saw the participation of local orchestras, the Oulu Sinfonia and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, and there were several distinguished musicians and ensembles on the programme.

For composers and musicians in northern Finland, the festival is a valuable opportunity to meet like-minded people and to learn new things.

“Our programming prioritises northern Finnish composers, at least until the nationwide distribution of grants to composers becomes more equitable and until other festivals begin to commission and perform more music by northern Finnish composers,” Roman adds.

However, the festival is not a single-cause movement.

“Our slogan could be: Only change is permanent,” Roman says.

Understanding the Zeitgeist

Contemporary music festivals are based on a strong conviction of contemporary music having value and significance in and of itself. Although such ideological approaches are no longer common in today’s society, the October of Contemporary Music festival at least still swears by the importance of contemporary music. Olli Roman describes the function of such festivals as the ability to detach the listener, if only for a moment, from “the turmoil of market forces”.

According to Roman, a contemporary music festival can also challenge and motivate a listener to expand the boundaries of his experience.

“In the context of music, these festivals are pioneers and leaders. They are a reminder that music is continuously evolving,” he says.

Over the past decades, however, the role of these festivals has changed. Communicating information is no longer their principal task now that recent works can be accessed through new technology.

However, festivals have become increasingly important as awakeners of interest and as analysers of the Zeitgeist in today’s world. Thematic programmes make it easier to approach and discuss the hugely diverse field of contemporary music. At their best, the festivals can pick out ‘currents’ in the flow of trends – pointing at similar directions taken by different people in different places.

Festivals also tend to get more attention from the general public, from the media and from actors in the field, thus providing a general sort of lift for the music sector.

“My worry is that festivals may trespass on the territory of regular concert programmes and that contemporary music may end up being performed only at festivals, living in a sort of ghetto, as it were,” says Lotta Wennäkoski.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Katri Naukkarinen



Tampere Biennale

Musica nova Helsinki

The Time of Music Festival

Uuden musiikin lokakuu -The October of Contemporary Music