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Experimental music in Finland - enjoying a Renaissance?

by Tanja Tiekso

Finnish experimental music has its roots in the early 1960s and the composers and musicians then in their youth. It has since acquired numerous manifestations, from aleatory, free improvisation and sonic art to avant-punk and psychedelic forest-folk.

Experimental music was brought to Finland’s shores by the young musical Finns of the early 1960s. Among the members of an association inspired above all by the philosophy of John Cage were Erkki Salmenhaara and Kaj Chydenius. Through their experimental concerts (which included a series known as Nursery Concerts) and stunts the young composers sought to distance themselves from what they saw as the deadly earnest modernism of the Europe further south. The soil was fertile, since each new work was always the first of its kind in Finland and aroused attention far and wide.

From psychedelia to underground

From the mid-60s onwards more and more collective crossover happenings taking in electronic experiments began to be held in Finland. As the decade drew to a close, ears were tuned increasingly to popular music and such hippie phenomena as mind expansion and psychedelia, which gradually contributed to a vigorous underground culture. Spearheading the underground movement were musicians Pekka Airaksinen, a major factor in the band called Sperm, Erkki Kurenniemi and Mauri Antero Numminen. Kurenniemi also made a name for himself as a photographer of erotic short films and Numminen as the leading light in a musical line-up calling itself Suomen talvisota (Finland’s Winter War).

Underground culture fostered a thriving interest in electronic music. The astounding Electric Quartet (the first electronic instrument in the world to be played collectively) devised by Numminen and Kurenniemi, the tape work Information Explosion composed by Erkki Salmenhaara for the 1967 World Expo and Kurenniemi’s Dimi synthesisers of the late 60s and early 70s are fine examples of the dynamic vigour of Finnish experimental music at that time.

Opening academic ears

As art became political, experimental music lost something of its initial spontaneity. One of its most interesting innovations in the early 1970s was the use of electronics. Another reason for the considerable volume of electro-acoustic music composed in the 1970s was the experimental studio of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) established in 1973. Featuring large in the arts in general were projects combining art and science. The year 1972 saw the founding of an academically-oriented group called Dimensio in which artists and researchers in different disciplines sought to create projects embracing art, science and technology.

In 1977 a group of composition students at the Sibelius Academy founded an avant-gardist association they called Korvat auki meaning Ears Open. Among them were Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. In the early stages experiment was one of the association’s objectives, as were expanding the range of musical resources and enhanced performer-audience interaction.

Ears Open was, however, really concerned most with the revival of modernism. Experiment had more or less been abandoned in Finnish academic music circles after the 1960s. The experimental objectives of the young musical Finns, such as disassociation from academic stiffness and overemphasis on the composer’s formal skills, were not in line with the theorising, determinist, modernist ideology.

There have at the start of the new millennium been signs among the young composers at the Sibelius Academy of something in the nature of an experimentalist renaissance. Crossover and performative elements have emerged along with an increase in sonic art.

Pop, rock and avant-punk

Outside the concert halls bearing high-culture status, “experimental” has, in the course of this decade, become an adjective often used to describe any type of pop music, some of it very ordinary. This “experimentalism” does, however, often simply mean that the music has been slightly enriched with electronic sounds or, for example, “mistuned” guitars. “Experimental” has replaced “alternative”, the fashionable term of the 1990s.

There is, however, often justification for calling a piece of music experimental, and it is by no means unusual for certain musical genres to see their own history as being linked with that of the 20th century avant-garde and the experimentalism of classical music. Such trends include at least industrial, ambient, dark ambient, power electronics, noise and harsh noise music, all of which have devoted followers in Finland.

Experimental music is not dependent on institutional definitions; it constitutes a field, albeit fragmentary, of its own – a no man’s land. The electro-acoustic music of Anton Nikkilä, for example, a musician with an avant-punk background, neatly defies all conventional definitions. His minimalist industrial dada is equally at home in clubs and in concert halls reserved for classical music.

Free improvisation and new community

Free improvisation is one of the leading elements of contemporary Finnish experimental music. It draws on the most varied of genres, and to an increasing extent on folk. An atmosphere of unrestrained, vaguely surrealistic rambling prevails at the random sessions. The collective improvisation may even acquire features of religious ecstasy. Community and experiencing things together are of great significance.

Psychedelic forest-folk, a Finnish brand of music in which improvisational sound events produced with a sensitive, naive-like touch merge to form a shamanistically captivating soundscape, has even won international acclaim. The music often highlights the contrast between acoustic and electronic sounds. Nature mysticism unites with hi-tech daydreams, thereby reflecting the approach to the ambient reality. Representing this live genre are, for example, Lau Nau, Kukkiva Poliisi and Kuupuu.

Sonic art and crossover

Of all the schools of experimental music, that enjoying the greatest popularity since the beginning of the 1990s is sonic art. Like those of many other genres of experimental music, the makers and practitioners of sonic art have often studied a subject other than music. The partnership between sonic and visual arts is obvious; sonic art is, after all, an inherent feature of the video and performance arts. In view of the crossover nature of sonic art, the best places in the Finnish capital for sound installations, sonic art and performance are the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and numerous galleries, such as the Galleria Huuto, Muu galleria, Myymälä 2 and Forum Box.

It is in crossover that the future challenge – or should one say promise – of Finnish experimental music lies. The devotee and researcher of experimental music waits with interest to see what emerges from the unofficial joint projects of the Finnish arts academies. Academic experimentalism is about to experience a renaissance in Finland.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo