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Electronic sounds and vintage machines

by Kimmo Korhonen

The University of Helsinki’s Music Research Laboratory & Electronic Music Studio celebrates its 60th anniversary this autumn. Over the decades, it has expanded its activities to become a versatile, wide-ranging music and sound research laboratory.

Depending on one’s perspective, 60 years may seem like a short or long time. As it covers most of the history of electroacoustic music, the 60th anniversary of the University of Helsinki’s Music Research Laboratory & Electronic Music Studio (UHMRL) is a significant milestone. From a Finnish perspective, it has been a pioneer in the field.

The university’s electronic music studio was born just after the first wave of electroacoustic music. Its operation has gone through many phases over the decades, evolving from a workshop for creative work to, above all, a research infrastructure where sound and music are studied and research methods such as sound analysis are developed. Nowadays, the studio’s activities are characterised by a breadth that serves many sciences and perspectives.

The university’s Head of Musicology, Associate Professor Susanna Välimäki, emphasises the studio’s central, multifaceted mission.

“After all, musicology encompasses an extremely broad area, from acoustics to history and aesthetics. That is encapsulated in the studio’s operations, because for example, sound is studied there from a physics perspective, as sound waves and frequencies, but also music production and technology, as well as the related cultural, social and historical perspectives,” she says.

And since it is a 60-year-old institution, it is also a cultural practice in itself that is being studied – “for example, how it has influenced the history of Finnish music and electroacoustic music in particular,” notes Välimäki.

A university electronic music studio is born

The University of Helsinki’s electronic music studio was born in 1962, when three young students, Erkki SalmenhaaraIlkka Oramo and Ilpo Saunio proposed the idea to professor of musicology Erik Tawaststjerna, renowned for his research on Jean Sibelius. Also invited to join in as a technical expert was Erkki Kurenniemi. Salmenhaara, Oramo and Kurenniemi had been classmates at the Normal Lyceum of Helsinki. In the spring of 1960, they had been featured in the newspaper Uusi Suomi’s youth column for their experimentation with electronic devices in the school’s organ loft.

The University of Helsinki’s electronic music studio is the oldest active facility of its kind in the Nordic region. Electronic sounds created in the studio were first heard in public in January 1963 as part of the Helsinki Student Theatre production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Death of Tintagiles (La Mort de Tintagiles).

The university studio’s early history has been studied by Mikko Ojanen, Ph.D., a university lecturer in musicology who is responsible for the studio’s operations and related teaching work. His 2020 dissertation on the history of Finnish electroacoustic music focused on Erkki Kurenniemi (1941–2017), the driving force of the institution in its early years.

“Kurenniemi was a theoretical physics student and amateur radio operator, but he was also familiar with music, and for instance had listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen as a schoolboy. He combined technical and artistic know-how,” says Ojanen.

Kurenniemi is remembered perhaps more as a developer of many electronic instruments than as a composer. He worked at the university studio without pay, as a “volunteer assistant”.

“Kurenniemi wanted to break away from the more traditional approach based on tape editing and instead turned to computational, computer-controlled sound production. Kurenniemi’s method of device construction is comparable to today’s DIY electronic instrument trend. His devices look very much like prototypes and did not have labels to indicate what each button did. So he always had to be on hand at the studio to help when someone wanted to use the equipment that he had developed and built,” explains Ojanen. 

Adjunct Professor Susanna Välimäki, with Erik Tawaststjerna in the background. Photo by Lasse Lehtonen.

Pioneering operations 

In the early years, works were created in the studio by Kurenniemi and Salmenhaara as well as Henrik Otto Donner and Jukka Ruohomäki. Swedish composer Folke Rabe also created two pieces at the University of Helsinki studio.

“Two other Swedes, Ralph Lundsten and Leo Nilsson, also came to Helsinki in search of sounds. They obtained synthetic and automatically sequenced sounds here that were only possible a bit later in Stockholm,” says Ojanen.

Besides the university, it was also possible to create electroacoustic music at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) and at the Sibelius Academy. However neither institution had its own regular studio in the 1960s.

“At Yle, projects were implemented as individual composers’ projects beginning in the late 1950s, but the equipment was always assembled for each project and dismantled again afterwards. Yle’s experimental studio was not established until 1972, and it did not begin full-fledged operations until the mid-70s,” explains Ojanen.

“Another difference was that it was much more difficult to get into Yle to do projects. In comparison, the university studio was a low-threshold place that was easier to enter.”

Electronic music instruction began at the Sibelius Academy in 1972, but the school did not get its own studio until 1978. Before that, Sibelius Academy students went to the university studio to do practical work.

Kurenniemi gradually withdrew from activities at the university studio in the 1970s after he set up his own company, Digelius Electronics Finland. Emerging in his place was Jukka Ruohomäki (1947–2022), who maintained the equipment and provided instruction but was also a significant electroacoustic composer in his own right. He was nominally responsible for the studio’s operations until the mid-1980s, but his contribution decreased after he started working in 1978 at Tööt-Filmi, which focused on animated films. In the early ‘80s, the studio was maintained by British-born Andrew Bentley (b. 1952), later a professor of music technology at the Sibelius Academy.

After Kurenniemi and Ruohomäki, the third major figure in the university studio’s history was Kai Lassfolk (1961–2021). He began his studies in 1983, becoming a teacher himself within a few years. As a university lecturer, he was responsible for the operation of the studio for more than 30 years, until his untimely death from a serious illness. In 2012, during his tenure, the studio moved to its current premises, adjacent to other arts research facilities.

Broad-based operations

Although the early development of electroacoustic music was closely connected to the modernism project and the avant-garde, the university studio operated across a stylistically broad field without prejudice.

“This shows the essence of the studio’s low-threshold, open-minded character,” says Ojanen. “For example, Einojuhani Rautavaara worked there with tape recorders, but so did popular music producers. For example, Ruohomäki made electronic sounds for several pop records. Sounds were also made at the university studio for plays, radio plays and exhibitions.”

Naturally for a university studio, this broad scope was also realised on a more general level, not only in creative work but also in the study of music technology and various music research projects. Such research focused on both electroacoustic music and highly traditional acoustic music. As an example, Ojanen cites Lassfolk’s studies on evaluating sound quality.

“Kai wrote programmes for sound quality visualisation that reveal a lot about the works or instruments. As a code writer, he was on a level of his own. For instance, he evaluated the sound quality of a violin and studied the components of a good instrument’s sound. Using computational methods, he was able to create an image of what happens to a violin sound during the first 10 or 20 milliseconds, how that sound is aroused and so on.”

Välimäki provides another example of the studio’s breadth.

“In one of Lassfolk’s courses, the students recorded a Beatles song as an experiment,” she recalls. “The students investigated it from the inside out to figure out how it was constructed. There were the musicians, using microphones and equipment from that era. They studied how they were placed in the space and recorded the performance, reconstructing the original recording event. This was practical, phenomenological research that expanded their historical understanding.”

The opportunities offered by the studio extend beyond music research to supplement other arts and interdisciplinary research, for instance. The studio is used for phonetics and cognitive science, as well as strands of historical, archaeological and cultural studies that study sound, such as archaeoacoustics (sound archaeology), developed at the University of Helsinki by Riitta Rainio, Ph.D.

Susanna Välimäki and university lecturer Mikko Ojanen working at the studio. Photo by Lasse Lehtonen.

Today’s challenges

The university studio’s current operating environment is completely different from when it was founded six decades ago. One major change is linked to the explosive proliferation of home computers. Does that pose a challenge to the studio’s operations?

“You can do amazing things with home computers these days, but I still don't see them as a threat to the studio and its work,” says Ojanen. “We also look at things critically, and many people focused on artistic work get new ideas here. We’ve had excellent courses where almost half of the participants have been from the Sibelius Academy and half from the university. We’ve gotten creators and researchers to talk to each other.”

Ojanen points out that the facilities and equipment, including the range of microphones, are exceptionally good. When you get good musicians into the studio, what they create ideally complements the purely machine-made music. 

“And even though the reel-to-reel recorders and synthesisers are old devices, handling them is highly educational and also helps advance the work done on the computer,” he says. “At the same time, of course, they teach students about the history of music technology.”

At the same time, there is concern about cuts in the University of Helsinki's budget for arts research programmes.

 “After all, we have a collection that’s completely unique in terms of cultural history, about 400 tapes including many unreleased electronic works, as well as most of the electronic instruments built by Kurenniemi 50-60 years ago, along with other more conventional instruments. The studio also has a mission to preserve tangible, intangible and digital cultural heritage, and the studio's instruments must be used and repaired so that they stay in good condition.”

Välimäki emphasises the meaning and importance of the studio in today's scientific research into music.

“The essence of musicology is how the sound material is conceptualised; musicology develops concepts and methods to explain why something sounds the way it does. The studio offers research and teaching opportunities that are essential for this.”

Välimäki stresses the societal networking of music technology. After all, society has very rapidly become oriented toward technology and media.

“Nowadays, music technology is a central issue throughout the cultural sector. Musicologists must know at least something about music technology and its development and understand the connection between music and technology,” she says.


Translation: Wif Stenger

Feature photo: The University of Helsinki