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Hearing the Self through the Other

by Juha Torvinen

Erik Bergman spent nearly half of his life travelling and visited almost every corner of the globe. Although he was a true cosmopolitan and exoticist, he managed to maintain a recognisable and personal musical style in all his compositions. For Bergman, foreign cultures were objects to identify with rather than mere reservoirs for musical ideas.
The significance of Erik Bergman (1911-2006) for Finnish music today is indisputable. He wrote the first known dodecaphonic work in Finland (Espressivo, 1952) and was among the Finnish pioneers of serialism (e.g. Simbolo 1956), aleatorics (e.g. Colori ed improvvisazioni, 1973) and speech choir (e.g. Vier Galgenlieder 1960). A Modernist desire for musical renewal was at the core of his being, and sometimes even the very name of a piece hints at the exploration of a new means of expression, as with Intervalles (1949), Tre aspetti d’una serie dodecafonica (1957) and Silence and Eruptions (1979).

The roots of Bergman’s Modernism lie close to the roots of his exoticism and cosmopolitanism. In the late 1940s, he was at a turning point in his life. The National Romantic style of his previous works did not inspire him any more, nor did it fit into the atmosphere of a world ravaged by war. Also, despite some success as a composer, he had not yet made a real breakthrough. It was indicative that in 1947 the not-yet-Modernist and not-yet-exoticist Bergman, uncertain of his future, wrote a song cycle called ‘Songs of Solitude’ (Ensamhetens sånger). Prophetically, this work based on Modernist poems by Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Edith Södergran included a song called ‘On the steps of the Himalayas’ (‘På Himalayas trappor’).

Post-war Modernism was international music par excellence as it applied aesthetics and techniques, especially serial ones, aiming at universalism independent of nations, languages or geographic circumstances. Internationalism was precisely what Bergman was looking for. He went to study serial techniques with Wladimir Vogel (1896-1984) in Switzerland in the early 1950s, and Vogel became his principal musical mentor for a couple of decades.

Modernist contradiction

There is a certain implicit contradiction in Modernist thought, between its belief in a stable and unified subjectivity (the composer’s self) and its insistence for continuous musical renewal. Bergman was almost like a personification of this contradiction. While always aiming at offering novel musical inventions and challenging common ways of listening, he did it within the limits of the strict aesthetic principles he had set himself.

Examples of typical traits of his style include accelerating rhythmic and/or sequentially rising gestures, distinctively contrasting successive musical ‘moments’, melodies growing gradually from the low register, ‘tone-painting’ as in the opera Det Sjungande Trädet (The Singing Tree, 1986-1988), static fields of sound and pedal points, wedge-like forms, and unconventional use of the human voice. Perhaps the most Bergmanesque musical gesture is the frenzied sighing motif in trochaic rhythm, ‘daaa-da’, in evidence especially in later works but also to be found in his lesser-performed early output. The origins of this gesture may be explored for instance by comparing his Danse fantastique (1943) for violin with Sibelius’s Danse charactéristique (op. 79, no. 3), or his first orchestral work, Burla (1948), with the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

For Bergman, his gradual move away from musical internationalism (e.g. serialism) to cosmopolitanism and exoticism in the 1950s and 1960s was what resulted in a heightened musical self-awareness and a more personal musical style as well as in more frequent use of the Bergman-esque musical elements referred to above.

Hearing the self in the other

Bergman made his breakthrough in 1953 with Rubaiyat for baritone, male choir and orchestra. Based on poems by Persian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), the work incorporated Arabian melodic modes (maqam) and other influences from the music of the Middle East. Bergman, the budding exoticist, made his breakthrough with an exoticist work before he had so much as set foot outside Europe.

It was only a few years after turning to international trends in music that Bergman embarked on his subsequently continuous travels around the globe. His numerous trips include travels to the Balkans and Turkey (1956), the Middle East (1960), Uzbekistan (1964), Turkey (1969), Morocco (1970), Tunisia (1971), the Far East and Tibet (1972), Sri Lanka (1973), Lapland (1974 & 1976) and around the world (1979-1980), to name but a few. At the advanced age of 86 in 1998 he took another trip around the world. Collections of photographs, recordings and musical instruments gathered along his travels filled his apartment literally from floor to ceiling (and now crowd the storage facilities of the Sibelius Museum). He used various exotic influences – including exotic instruments like the daraboka drum, shell trumpet or didgeridoo – in many compositions, such as Aton (1959), Hathor suite (1971), Bardo Thödol (1974) and Le voyage (1999).

Bergman was never a mere tourist. Everywhere he went, he familiarised himself with the local culture with child-like curiosity. In retrospect, it is interesting to note that in all exotic cultures he developed an interest in phenomena that he was in a way already familiar with. By exploring other cultures, he explored himself. Or to put it another way: he sought a transcendental and mythological level shared by different cultures, the foreign and the one closest to him. As music scholar Julia Shpinitskaya has pointed out, in the early 1970s Bergman was enthralled by the drone principles of Buddhist ritual music. Such a principle was, however, very close to the use of pedal points and static sound fields he had applied in his early works, for example in the song ‘Olet tuskani’ (You are my pain) from Rakastetulle (To the loved one, 1942).

Another example of this ‘hearing the self through the other’ principle is to be found in Bergman’s relationship to Sámi music. In the second Movement of Lapponia (1975), ‘Yoik’, Bergman tried to capture, in his own words, “the essence of yoik” by focusing on the two principles he thought were the most prominent in yoiks: a short, two-note motif in iambic rhythm and the phenomenon of the baseline pitch gradually rising in the course of singing. In ‘Yoik’, the pitch in the soloist’s part climbs up a full octave.

Among the various traits of Sámi music Bergman focused on these two precisely because they reminded him most about his own, already-existing musical style. For example, the motif with iambic rhythm formed the basis for the second movement of Colori ed improvvisazioni (1973) and is also a retrograde version of the above-mentioned typical sigh-like motif. Furthermore, a rising pitch, and consequently growing intensity, was a key principle in the fourth movement of the Hathor Suite (1971) for soprano, baritone, mixed choir and instrumental ensemble. Based on ancient Egyptian texts, this work is exotic in many different ways, considering the geographical, cultural and historical distance of its subject matter.

Exoticism extended

Exoticism did not signify just concrete foreign places or cultures for Bergman. It meant detachment from everyday life in many ways – physically, conceptually, geographically, emotionally. Bergman’s exoticism was a pursuit of ecstasy, transcendence, and mythical experience of time and place. He was always going towards something that defies explanation, and this goal remained unchanged throughout his life and in all his works and stylistic phases. For example, one of his reasons for abandoning serial techniques might be that they no longer had an aura of mystery to be resolved.

Bergman’s aspirations were at least as closely related to the world-views of many Eastern religions, shamanism, medieval mystics (Meister Eckhart) and American transcendentalist philosophers (Emerson, Thoreau) as they were to those of Modernist composers. Religions, folktales, mythologies, lyric poetry and burlesque humour, all opposing the norms of the everyday, were as important sources of inspiration to him, as were contemporary trends in music and composing that he explored for example at ISCM Festivals, Darmstadt summer courses and Nordic Music Days.

To describe Bergman in one sentence, one might say that he was a composer who tirelessly searched for new musical methods for capturing his own ecstasy. A good example of Bergman’s rapturous way of experiencing may be found in his travel diary entry for his last morning on a visit to Istanbul in 1956:

Boats bellowing like cows in the morning dusk down there on the Bosporus, bells booming, street peddlers shouting in the alleys, cocks crowing. Istanbul wakes up with a choir of sounds and sudden sunlight. Indescribable atmosphere.

Cars hooting… human voices… din of machines.

An impressionistic tone poem!

A diverse, manifold world, tones here and there, colliding in dissonances; A colourful play in the grey mist. The blaze of the sun flames red in the fog, rising steeply upwards only to soon create a strong and powerful illumination of an Oriental ostentatiousness. Ecstatic! My chest is about to explode because of the rapture this beautiful spectacle evokes.

Following this section, Bergman notated the sounds of the boat horns, “an exotic choir of whistles” that echoed “between European and Asian mountains”.  Eventually these tones formed the first half of the 12-tone-row for Aubade (1958), inspired by this early morning experience. This clearly demonstrates the mutually complementary nature of exoticism and rapture on the one hand and Modernism on the other in Bergman’s comprehensive, almost synaesthetic experiences. It is an interesting detail that the working title for Aubade was ‘Extase’.

A composer of dualism

Two opposite tendencies characterise almost all of Bergman’s music: ritual, mythical and seemingly timeless (ec)static music stands in contrast to music with a sense of direction and presence, often founded on melodic material. The overall impression is of the individual viewed against a collective or mythical background, sometimes merging with it and sometimes standing out. In the scoring of individual works it is common that a chorus and percussive instruments, often seasoned with archaic-ritual spices, represent the collective-mythological plane while the soloists or reciter assume the role of the individual, the conscious subject. This dualistic set-up may be seen as reflecting Bergman’s composer personality as a whole.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi