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Guitarist, catalyst

by Juha Torvinen

Guitarists are unusually keen to commission new compositions. The guitarist, composer and audience all benefit, because the guitar, being a popular instrument, lowers the threshold to listening to new music. Finnish guitarists Petri Kumela, Otto Tolonen and Patrik Kleemola rank among the most active champions of new guitar repertoire.

Guitar repertoire is in short supply. This is often the reason given for the need for new guitar repertoire. And indeed, compared with pianists, guitarists do not have much to play; and the names of major guitar composers would probably all fit on a single A4 sheet.  

Yet no one would ever have time to play the entire available guitar repertoire in the space of a single lifetime – especially since the repertoire is often stretched to take in music for the lute and transcriptions as well. Petri Kumela, himself a guitarist, also suggests other reasons for the keenness to commission.  

“Guitar teaching and its methods are still young. The burden of tradition isn’t as crushing as it is for many other instruments. There is still a lot of experimenting: fingerings, posture and even the guitar’s construction. So guitarists are, I think, more open-minded on average and more liberally disposed to innovation. And much of the material used even in elementary tuition already incorporates devices used in contemporary music.” Another reason is the pervasive role of the guitar in various genres of music.  

“The majority of guitarists have not travelled the pure classical-music path; almost all also have experience of the electric guitar and through it of different genres. Departing from the Classical-Romantic aesthetic possibly does not cause the guitarist as much mental agony as it does, perhaps, those who have been reared exclusively on classical music.”  

A profusion of partnerships  

Kumela has personally collaborated with dozens of composers, especially Pehr Henrik Nordgren (six works), Paavo Korpijaakko (four), Aki Yli-Salomäki (four), Riikka Talvitie (four) and Lotta Wennäkoski (two). These include both solo and chamber works.  

The practice seems set to continue. Works have been written for him by such composers as Osmo Tapio RäihäläPerttu Haapanen and Minna Leinonen. Wennakoski has agreed to let him have a guitar concerto for the 2016/17 season, and this autumn will see the release of an Alba Records disc of chamber music written for him by Tapio TuomelaMarkus Fagerudd and others. Fagerudd’s bass clarinet-and-guitar duet Bluesoresques is an example of the ability of the contemporary classical guitarist to adapt to, say, steel strings, slides, plectra, blues and rock. One of the most unusual composer- player projects is possibly that with Sami Klemola: a concert installation called Zero Friction VIP to be seen and heard next in Peru, and in which 15 motor-prepared guitars shake hands with live electronics.  

It may soon be difficult to find a Finnish composer who has not collaborated with Kumela, and the number of commissioned works will probably shortly top the 50 mark.  

So how can people claim that guitar repertoire is in short supply?  

Small creatures and an open encyclopedia  

“It suddenly struck me about five years ago that there are lots of miniatures portraying small creatures in the guitar repertoire. Julio Salvador Sagreras’s El Colibri, for example, or Francisco Tarrega’s La Mariposa. So I hit on the idea of asking composers to write some more.”  

Thus Kumela describes the start of his project going by the name of Small Creatures – A Musical Encyclopedia in the Making. Composers were asked to submit a miniature lasting not more than two minutes about an animal smaller than a cat. Seventeen have so far been produced, and at least half a dozen more are on the way. There are no deadlines for the Creatures project, and nor is there any fixed cut-off point. It is not a coherent work, suite or concert programme in any traditional sense.  

“What I have in mind is a sort of mosaic. The works differ greatly, from completely experimental to quite tonal, music influenced by jazz, heavy, Latin dance and so on. The pieces may focus on some feature of the creature in question; they may have a plot or some more philosophical slant. The ‘encyclopedia’ will be in the nature of a material bank from which to draw items according to need and to suit the occasion. I have played some of them amongst more traditional repertoire.”  

The whole project began with Nordgren’s Japanese squirrel, which he never had time to complete before his death. Examples of the nearly 20 creatures subsequently born are Calypte anna (Joachim W. Schneider), Hedgehog (Michael Parsons), Coleopteros (Javier Contreras) and Särmäneula (Broad-nosed pipe fish, Olli Virtaperko).  

These creatures will from now on be popping up not only at Kumela’s own recitals but also in schools, in cartoons, and maybe to accompany dance. The project can no doubt be continued ad infinitum, seeing that there is no shortage of small creatures or different- sized composers.  

Learning and teaching Kumela’s role has evolved from performance only to ‘co-composing’. All in all, interacting with composers is, he says, a vital element of musicianship.  

“I can’t imagine playing just the basic standard repertoire, fond of it though I am. I love solving problems and experimenting, exploring unknown territory without any predetermined routes. Sometimes composers demand the impossible, but technical innovations are often the result of agonising over something that may seem crazy. As a rule I try to find two or three different solutions, from which we together then choose the most suitable.”  

Composers’ pragmatic attitudes to instruments and interpretation dispel the mystique that often surrounds creative work. In the process, attitudes change to the works of composers past.  

Kumela has been proclaiming the glad tidings of composer collaboration to the younger generation, both in teaching at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki and at the Guitar+ contemporary chamber music camp, held this year in Denmark on August 11–23. Run jointly by several European conservatories, Guitar+ will next year be held in Würzburg.  

A Finnish speciality  

Petri Kumela is not the only Finnish guitarist to frequently commission repertoire. 

Otto Tolonen is this autumn releasing a disc titled Toccata (SibaRecords) of Finnish music. Among the five premiere recordings are Finland’s first modern work for the guitar, Erik Bergman’s Suite for Guitar (1949), and Jouni Kaipainen’s Tenebrae (1991). The pieces by Adam Vilagi and Jarkko Hartikainen were composed specifically for Tolonen. Also on the disc is Aki Yli-Salomäki’s Odota (2010).  

There are, Tolonen points out, special reasons in Finland for such close guitarist-composer liaisons. In the absence of Finnish repertoire, the previous guitarist generation was, as it were, obliged to turn to composers.  

“Finland quite simply has such a tradition. When I commission and play new music, I feel I am continuing the systematic work begun in the 1970s by the likes of Jukka SavijokiPekka Vesanen and Seppo Siirala,” says Tolonen and, like Kumela, he stresses the guitar’s adaptability.  

“People in Finland have had a liberal attitude to genres and have not been entrenched in the classics alone. Meanwhile, classical guitar has become firmly integrated with the serious music scene and we don’t have a strong, separate guitar culture like they do in, say, the United States.”  

From pragmatic approaches…  

At the composition stage proper, Tolonen prefers to stand aside and let the composer get on with the job. He, too, has noted the different ways composers work and their pragmatic attitudes.  

“Vilagi’s and Hartikainen’s commissions were placed at Urkki (St Urho’s Pub, a Helsinki watering hole popular with musicians). Vilagi sent me his The Threatened Assassin… direct, and there was no need to change a single note, even though he’s not a guitarist. Playing alone, a work with a delicate texture by Hartikainen, who has personal experience of the guitar, is like walking a tightrope. A very modernistic work that tests the player’s technique to the limits.”  

At some point in the future Tolonen will be performing solo works by Antti Auvinen and Sauli Zinovjev, and scheduled to be premiered next year is a duet for bass clarinet and guitar by Matthew Whittall. Another commission, for guitar and electronics, from Tiina Myllärinen is also in the pipeline.  

…to international  

Like Kumela and Tolonen, all the contemporary guitarists have international connections. Patrik Kleemola has found composer partners both in Finland and Italy. His Perchitarrasola disc (Pilfink 2012) presents eight pieces dedicated to him by Finnish and Italian composers. Again, it demonstrates the contemporary guitarist’s flexibility. Among other things, Kleemola sings (Juha T. Koskinen’s Foco interno) and plays in a way influenced by rock (Mauro Porro’s FlankY).  

Kleemola describes working with composers: “It’s exciting being involved in the creative process and watching the work take shape, from the very first embryos to the published score. All the composers on the disc had written for the instrument before, so they were familiar with the guitar. The idea was for the guitar to adapt to the composer’s texture, not the other way around. Some of the fingerings might at first seem unorthodox, but with a bit of hard work you can make them idiomatic!”  

Kleemola is always working on something new. He, too, says that the benefit he derives from this is not restricted solely to performance.  

“Collaborating with composers and on new works provides a perspective and ideas for other kinds of repertoire, too. Composers are often not guitarists, and processing their works to make them idiomatic also broadens my own ‘instrumental lexicon’.”  

One of Kleemola’s upcoming projects is the premiere performance, in Milan, of a work for solo guitar by Mikko Heiniö in March 2014. He has also recorded the guitar concerto by Francesco Maggio, a composer who features on his Perchitarrasola disc, to be released by the Italian Centro Musica Contemporanea this autumn. The guitar sonata A Walk to the Mysterious Woods by Kai Nieminen is likewise also to appear on disc (Toccata Classics) this autumn (See also the article pp. 18–21). We are, according to Kleemola, at present experiencing an exceptional era in the entire history of guitar music.  

“Guitar techniques have developed tremendously over the past few decades, and the new works are developing the instrument’s expressive potential. It’s possible that the backbone of the guitar repertoire is still ‘a project in progress’ and that major works are being composed right now!”  

Guitar music and its future are, in many senses, in players’ own hands.  


Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: Marek Sabogal