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Hyperventilation and other funny noises

by Aarne Toivonen

Schubert plays while you are threatened at gunpoint. A Saami yoik is refined into Japanese temple music. The soundscape for Le sacre du printemps is created from the rasping breathing of dancers. The sounds of contemporary dance works increasingly occupy a no-man’s-land between conventional composition and sound art.

Elina Pirinen: Using Shostakovich to plumb the core of humanity

Elina Pirinen (b. 1981) is a dancer-choreographer poised on the brink of an international career. She has a solid background in music: she originally meant to become a violinist, but then she chose the Theatre Academy and dance studies. Music remains an important part of her profile and her personality.

Pirinen’s works divide opinion. She has never pulled her punches in front of an audience. In Lover of the Pianist (2011), a work of personal importance, she constructs and deconstructs the relationship between performer and audience.

Lover made me think about the role of the audience a lot. I treat the audience inconsistently and arbitrarily: I get them to create the signature of the work gradually, in various ways; I get them to make music for their own dancing, and finally I point a gun at them to the tune of Schubert. Who is whose ‘lover’? And what is the power relationship between performer and audience, and why?”

Lover of the Pianist will travel to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in spring 2014.

Another major work is Napoleon Pink Horse, something between a rock concert and performance art, completed in spring 2012. It is being taken to Italy and France next year.

“We wanted to undermine the conventions of a rock concert and create a performance where movement material, textual content and sound world form a single, enormous band instrument. We consciously positioned ourselves within the canon of similar concepts.”

Elina Pirinen’s most extensive work to date, Personal Symphonic Moment, was premiered at the beginning of November 2013.

“Here I don’t write music or text. This is about Dmitri Shostakovich and [author] Heidi Väätänen. I am just the director and the dancer.”

The material for this work is Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, a massive 80-minute monolith that is demanding in many ways. Pirinen makes a humorous reference to the brief shelf life of dance works: since the performance cycles of dance works in Finland are rather short, “we’ll make people sit down for a longer time at one go”.

“We have observed that grand emotions may perhaps not be in keeping with the spirit of the times. We have noticed a certain rationality prevalent in art at the moment. This work is about something quite different. Shostakovich is pompous, overly sentimental, fierce and massive. It affects me, and there is something very universally human about it. The material we worked with stemmed largely from the unconscious.”

Preparing the work involved challenges such as overcoming the strong interpretative tradition associated with the work and its programmatic content. “We started with what each movement of the symphony seems to suggest we should do. I create physical contemporary art that plays around with the relationship with the expressive material selected, trying to shake it into something sensible or insane. I do not build a coherent narrative or work with a single theme. The subconscious does not work like that.”

The third movement incorporates texts written by Heidi Väätänen. “Shosta and I present them using speech-song and with a strong physical presence, even though the texts in themselves explore territory that movement perhaps cannot. Hopefully the audience will perceive this as a humorous take on the spirit of the times. There are monologues with titles such as ‘Once I tried to write about war’, ‘Dear Nietzsche’ and ‘Secretly I am sentimental too’.”

Shostakovich has been an important composer for Pirinen ever since childhood. “I believe that all people are secretly pompous and banal, and this music may touch something of that in a person’s soul.”

Elina Pirinen: Lover of the Pianist – Interview & Trailer


Ervi Sirén and Aake Otsala: Movement and sound build form

Dancer and choreographer Ervi Sirén (b. 1948) and musician and sound designer Aake Otsala (b. 1976) began their collaboration in 2007 and have created several works together to date.

Ervi Sirén admits that her method of working is very slow. Kite is a Finnish-Japanese dance work that evolved through the extensive rehearsal process. “I started by giving the Japanese dancers a task, for instance the hand. First you have to sense the hand, then move it freely, and then allow the hand to move the body. I play different kinds of music and issue new tasks: follow the movement of the fingers, of the feet, of the top of your head. In these exercises I observe how the dancers treat each topic and then begin to guide the material in a direction that makes the most sense for each dancer.”

Aake Otsala finds this method ideal. “Ervi’s process is the best I can think of, because it gives me time. I have to come up with my ideas based on what she is doing, and this gives me time to make observations.”

Otsala has been a musician for a long time. He and his friends founded a band called Absoluuttinen Nollapiste (‘Absolute zero’) while still at school in Rovaniemi. The band is still alive and well.

While studying at the Department of Sound and Lighting Design at the Theatre Academy, he encountered the world of dance. “I thought, wow, what an interesting art form. Dance gives you the freedom to create space: it fosters a symbiosis with the stage that no other genre of performing arts can achieve.”

With Kite, the collaboration was obvious from the start. “I wanted Aake to do this before I even started to plan the work,” says Sirén. “Aake had some wonderful ideas, and the reference music he played for me connected immediately with the mood of the project. It combined Japanese and Finnish sounds in an exquisite way.” Indeed, one of the reviews of the piece mentioned Japanese temple music, even though the basic material for the soundscape was very Finnish.

Otsala began his part of the project on his own. “I just made wild guesses with the material. I had this idea of a landscape in Lapland, with a distant horizon. I phoned a singer I know who is from Lapland, remembering some yoik-like improvisations. We spent two evenings recording minimalist, simple, incredibly spacious stuff. I attended rehearsals in Japan for a couple of days and selected this yoik-based stuff out of a pile of material for Ervi to listen to. They were an immediate fit.”

Since the rehearsal process for Kite largely depended on exercises, the form of the work emerged in collaboration. Ervi Sirén is, however, responsible for the final shape of the piece. “I would still say the form is a collaboration. Some bits slot in quite naturally, but sometimes we shift things around at the last moment. We talk about things at this point in the process, although as a rule we avoid talking to one another. Aake may notice that something would work musically better in another position.”

Kite will be performed again at the TPAM event in Yokohama in February 2014.

Viita by Ervi Sirén & Aake Otsala

Mikko Hynninen: Surprising performance concepts and ballet for a theatre space

While Otsala has a musical background and considers himself also a composer, Mikko Hynninen (b. 1972) prefers to stay in lighting and sound design territory. Hynninen is perhaps the Finnish lighting and sound designer in highest demand internationally just now. He studied at the Theatre Academy and also at the Department of Time and Space Arts at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts.

“When I began my studies, it seemed that designing sound for a dance work was just about editing existing material and as such not very attractive. But when the tools became more diverse and more democratic with the digital revolution, things began to change. For a small investment, you could get equipment with which you could do any number of things. But I had no master plan about getting into dance productions in particular.”

Hynninen’s portfolio includes animations, radio plays and sound design for exhibitions, but dance works are his major speciality. His Finnish choreographer partners include Kirsi Monni, Alpo Aaltokoski, Mikko Orpana and Mammu Rankanen. Nowadays he works almost exclusively abroad.

Hynninen also creates works of his own with a strong space and time art flavour. “KIASMA-teatteri is a performance that is something between an installation and a performance, an electromechanical ballet. It was performed at the Avanto festival in 2005 and has since visited Brussels, Paris and Berlin. The title of the work changes to that of the venue where it is performed. Its main element consists of the technological equipment and the space. I put mikes on all the spotlights and the devices and create a ballet out of the machinery. All the sounds and all the movements come from the functioning of the machines.”

One of his most prominent recent collaborators is the French dancer-choreographer David Wampach, who comes up with rather exceptional concepts and dramaturgical ideas. “David wanted to set his Nutcracker in the world of show dancing and the circus. We used themes by Tchaikovsky set to Latin rhythms. It was a weird production, but a lot of fun. It was more a sound work than a movement work. David just stands still, and his breathing creates a soundtrack in real time.

“In a new work, developing the concept is for me the most important stage. If there is no overall sound concept, it makes no difference how wonderful the material is. If the concept so requires – and it usually does – I will write something myself. But I have no need to profile myself as a composer. The sound worlds of my works generally do not work if separated from their context.”

A concept may change dramatically en route. “About a year ago, Wampach and I created a version of Le sacre du printemps. At first, I thought of scoring the entire work for a heavy rock band. But ultimately, all that was left of the musical material was the first note and the final bang. The rest of the soundscape is based on the dancers’ hyperventilation. Any other sound material would have been just too much.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

In the main photo: Kite by Ervi Sirén (choreography) and Aake Otsala (sound design). Photo: Hanaco.