BY Kai Amberla
Everything would seem to have been simpler 30 years ago when the FMQ was launched. No one had ever even dreamt of an octopus-like internet, and social media was unknown; the printed word was solemn and reliable, and the mainstream media was in a sovereign position to decide what was in the news and what was not. Its authority was absolute: the editorial boards even determined which readers’ comments they would publish and which they would not.
Even though the FMQ was never part of the mainstream media, it did act as an established authority and specified more or less unchallenged what was actually meant by “Finnish music”.
All this was radically changed by the digital world with its tentacles reaching out in all directions.
According to the philosopher Yves Michaud, the arts world has turned into a sort of supermarket in which the shopper can select anything whatsoever at any time. In his recent Narcisse et ses avatars he examines the contemporary reality of modern man. Identity is replaced by avatar, art by design, public spaces by websites, happiness by hedonism, responsibility by freedom – and so on.
Michaud is not hankering after or waxing nostalgic about the past; he is simply analysing the present. We live in a supermarket in which we can stock up on goodies without being afraid that anything will disappear, because everything can always be retrieved on YouTube or at least with a search on Google.
Yet in a world such as this – if we believe in Michaud’s analysis – we are still expected to say what we really mean by “Finnish music”. I don’t even want to try. I just have a horrible feeling that the word “music” has, in this context, been replaced by “product”, and that it has a going price in the supermarket of the arts.
The word “Finnish” has been baffling me for years. Ages ago, I headed an organisation called the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. I then moved on to an establishment by the name of the Finnish Music Information Centre. And what do I do now? I’m the Executive Director of Finland Festivals. And that’s not all: between 1997 and 2003 I was part-time editor-in-chief of this journal, Finnish Music Quarterly.
All nice jobs. But I still don’t quite understand what “Finland” or “Finnish” really means in speaking of music. The whole word is, in fact, an awkward one.
Let me explain.
Any national characterisation is doomed to failure, especially if we are speaking of music. What on earth does “Finnish music” mean? Though I’m a big boy now with a university degree, I still don’t understand what is “Finnish” in the music of, say, Magnus Lindberg, Ville Valo, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Henrik Otto Donner, Konsta Jylhä, Kaija Saariaho or Matthew Whittall. To me, the only thing they have in common is either a Finnish passport or the fact that they just happen to have chosen to live in a neck of the woods commonly known as Finland.
My ears cannot detect anything “Finnish”. All music is part of an ongoing process within some tradition, school or genre, and the processes are all international, totally interconnected and indebted solely to their own specific discourse.
All talk of “Finnish” is, it would seem, just one way of branding, marketing and packaging in the hope this will help the product find a place on the most eye-catching stand right by the checkout. And with any luck some shopper, reacting on a mere whim, will spot it and pop it into his cart.
Am I being over-cynical? Yes and no. There is much that is good in the supermarketised era, and I at least have no desire whatsoever to revert to the former world in which “Finnish” possibly still meant something. In other words, to the world in which “national identity” was still being used as a weapon in the fight against alien influences, in building a “nation” and supplying it with a “history”.
No, this present, infinitely messy global world is preferable.
Nevertheless, I suspect that we folk in our fifties still do not grasp what a very different world today’s highly educated twenties-plus generation inhabits. Internationalism is something they take for granted; the very word is no longer one they use. The world is open in every direction.
Next year Finland will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius, its “national composer” (what a delightfully antiquated term!). Is the younger generation really interested in Sibelius 150? No doubt it will be, but only if the story is well packaged and presented. So throw the bronze busts into the dustbin and let Sibelius just be himself: a bohemian with a penchant for the bottle and straying from home who was politically naïve, eternally restless, always cosmopolitan, unpredictable, dangerous and totally immoderate. Surely this would appeal to our youngsters – and they might even listen to a few symphonic soundbites in the YouTube supermarket.
Perhaps, after all, the word “Finnish” should not be made into an issue. Maybe the phrase “made in Finland” would help to make things clearer and be easier to package as a fathomable entity. It would at least be a small step towards creating order in a wild world of the arts that sprawls in all directions. And the 30-year-old FMQ is still going strong, trying to create order out of chaos and to replace fiction with fact in telling about the numerous varieties of music made in this northerly country.
Kai Amberla is Executive Director of Finland Festivals. He was part-time editor-in-chief of FMQ from 1997 to 2003.
Translation: Susan Sinisalo