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FMQ Playlist: Contemporary period music – is that a thing?

by Tove Djupsjöbacka

Harpsichord, viol, recorder... many instruments are associated with a specific epoch and its music. Why could they not be contemporary instruments?

Many Finnish contemporary composers have written music for instruments generally firmly associated with a specific era in the distant past and its musical style. In later times, these instruments have been either completely discarded or else updated and modernised. Yet for contemporary music these ‘period instruments’ offer a fresh sound palette and an invitation to explore.

Such new works have been commissioned and performed by a number of leading period instrumentalists. In FMQ 1/1998, Harri Kuusisaari explained this broad-minded approach as partly being the product of the early music genre lacking robust institutions and government support. Because no one could make a living performing early music only, it was only natural for these musicians to cast their net wider on the musical scene. Although it has now become viable for some musicians to focus exclusively on early music, the connection between contemporary composers and early music specialists continues to thrive.

From harpsichord to viol

One of Finland’s earliest pioneers in the performance practice of early music was organist Enzio Forsblom (1920–1996), who blew fresh air into the genre in the 1950s and also taught the harpsichord. Etude für Cembalo (1969) by Erkki Salmenhaara is one of the earliest Finnish works for solo harpsichord; it was premiered by Marketta Valve, a student of Forsblom’s, who also premiered Fantasien (1970) by Erik Bergman, originally commissioned for Swiss harpsichord player Antoinette Vischer.

Subsequently, Jukka Tiensuu emerged as one of the key figures in this movement in Finland. Actively combining the roles of composer and performer, he boldly experimented with things like microtonally tuned harpsichords and live electronics. The three solo discs that he recorded between 1988 and 1999 celebrated the incredibly wide range of the harpsichord, from Couperin to Saariaho, and made a major contribution to raising the profile of the instrument. Most Finnish contemporary harpsichord music consists of solo pieces and chamber music, but the harpsichord has also been used as an important colour element in orchestral scoring, one of the principal early examples being ...durch einen Spiegel (1977) for strings and harpsichord by Joonas Kokkonen.

In viol repertoire, the prominent Finnish pioneer is Markku Luolajan-Mikkola. A frequent performer of contemporary music on the cello, he later discovered the viol and incorporated it into his contemporary pursuits. One of the first composers he collaborated with was Jukka Tiensuu, who by that time was already familiar with the world of period instruments. Markku Luolajan-Mikkola has also had pieces written for him by Eero Hämeenniemi (Valkalam, 1996) and Harri Vuori (From Day to Dream, 1999) and, a bit later, Lotta Wennäkoski (Procris, 2003).

Tiensuu’s suite Musica ambigua for recorder, violin, viol and harpsichord dates from 1998. Its first movement, Yksin? [Alone?], can be performed as a solo or with a harpsichord obligato. Its concluding movement, Veto, can be performed in any of up to 15 ensemble combinations. Tiensuu’s approach thus shows not only a familiarity with the sonorities and tuning systems of period instruments but also an affinity with the ensemble concept of past times where instrumentation was pragmatic and not necessarily set in stone by the composer.

Olli Virtaperko is a somewhat younger composer who has written music for various period instruments. His earliest harpsichord works date from the mid-1990s, and his work Skärgården [Archipelago] for guitar, kantele and harpsichord was premiered in summer 2019. Virtaperko himself plays Baroque cello and is also familiar with the viol. In the 2010s, he has written several works for viol consort, such as In nomine revised (2013). An interesting combination of period instruments and innovation may be found in Virtaperko’s Ambrosian Delights, a concerto for knifonium (an analogue synthesiser built by Jonte Knif) and Baroque orchestra, commissioned by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra. Virtaperko conducts Ensemble Ambrosius, who perform contemporary music on period instruments but also other attention-catching repertoire such as versions of pieces by Frank Zappa.

Ensemble Cornucopia / Olli Virtaperko: In nomine revised (2013)

Mikko Perkola is in a class of his own in the viol world, being not only an early music specialist but also a composer and singer who has performed his own works for instance as a soloist with the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra.

Mikko Perkola & UMO (2015)

Instrumental and vocal adventures

While recorder players have recently been shaking up outdated conceptions of their instrument being confined to early music, it is worthwhile to remember that Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote a piece for recorder quartet as early as in the 1950s, Pöytämusiikkia Herttua Juhanalle [Table Music for Duke John]. Herman Rechberger reigns supreme as a composer of recorder music in Finland, having included the instrument in numerous works such as Eyktime (1990). The Bravade recorder quartet includes in its repertoire Meeli (1998) by Lotta Wennäkoski and Under the Apple Tree (2001/2004) by Tomi Räisänen, and the ensemble has recently been active in commissioning new music and working on cross-discipline projects.

There are many musicians in the youngest generation of early music performers who actively explore contemporary music as well, Ensemble Cornucopia being a case in point. The Finnish Baroque Orchestra has also commissioned several new orchestral pieces from Finnish and foreign composers. Mora (2012), written by Jukka Tiensuu for the Finnish Baroque Orchestra, includes a singer from whom a wide range of vocal expression is required.

Many of our leading singers of early music also frequently perform contemporary music, such as Tuuli Lindeberg and Topi Lehtipuu, who came together in the opera scene 7.13 (2001) by Juhani Nuorvala. Nuorvala likes to work with various tuning systems, and the domain of period instruments is well suited to such experiments. A good example is his Solo per viola da gamba (2008), which requires the viol to be unconventionally tuned and to have its frets repositioned as well.

Plenty of music continues to be written for the harpsichord, including recent contributions by Juhani Nuorvala, Eero Hämeenniemi, Uljas Pulkkis, Perttu Haapanen, Juha T. Koskinen and Maria Kallionpää. The viol has been written for in the 2000s for instance by Sampsa Ertamo, Harri Wessman and Olli Kortekangas (Crossing the Five Rivers, 2008).

Juha T. Koskinen & Rameau: Superborea (2018)

Period instruments, in a broader sense

Ultimately, we may well ask exactly where the limits of the period instrument domain are. Generally, organ music is not considered period music, even though many church organs are based on very old instrument-building traditions. Eero Hämeenniemi’s Passacaglia (2004) is here performed on the organ in Naantali Church, which is modelled on the 17th-century Dutch school of organ building.

The decacorde is a ten-string guitar with an extensive history, albeit its modern model is based on an instrument developed in the early 19th century. Finnish decacorde virtuoso Mari Mäntylä has commissioned a lot of new music for her instrument from a wide variety of composers, including the jazz-oriented Sid Hille (Impromptu, 2015).

And finally, we could easily include folk instruments in the domain of period instruments, such as the jouhikko. Pehr Henrik Nordgren added a jouhikko and folk wind instruments as colour elements to a chamber ensemble for instance in his extensive work Taivaanvalot [Heavenly Lights] (1984). More recently, Krishna Nagaraja has written a Concerto for jouhikko and Baroque orchestra (2017).

Krishna Nagaraja's concerto

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi