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Kalevi Aho: “Music must communicate”

by Juha Torvinen

For Aho, composing music is an inevitable way of contemplating existential questions and of taking responsability for what is happening in the world.
Composer Kalevi Aho laments that musicians no longer engage in social criticism. He believes music should embrace a universal level, and not simply be an outpouring of personal emotion. There are many reasons for interviewing a composer, and a landmark birthday is one of the most common. But Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) plays down the significance of turning 60.

‘”It is more a symbolic thing. Of course, turning 50 or 60 means that one’s music may get performed a bit more. But I would personally like to see more performances in other years, too”, he says with a smile. 

Perhaps Aho protests too much, as he is currently one of Finland’s most frequently performed composers worldwide, and he has to turn down commissions, because there simply is not enough time to do everything. His new works for 2009 include a concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra, sub-titled Kellot (The Bells), an orchestral work entitled Minea for the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, an organ symphony and a string quintet.

After the string quintet, he will focus on his Fifteenth Symphony, commissioned jointly by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Sinfonia Lahti. Also in the pipeline are a trombone concerto and a concerto for viol, flute and small orchestra.

Considering further that the recording of his Twelfht Symhony, Luosto, was acclaimed by critics internationally and that his Oboe Concerto, premiered in Antwerp last April, was nominated best new instrumental concerto of the year in Belgium, there are many other reasons besides something as mundane as a birthday to interview this composer. Particularly interesting are his thoughts on the importance of composition and music.

Compulsion to compose

”The compulsion to compose is personal and different for each composer. For me, it has something to do with particular traumatic experiences that I have sought to compose my way out of. However, a composition cannot be just an outpouring of personal emotion – it must embrace a more universal level. This form of expression is a way of life for me.”

Aho strives to say something in his works in a way, where the private combines with the universal, the social or the cultural. A case in point is his Fifth Symphony, written in 1975–1976.

”I hide personal references in my works, which serve to create a personal bond between me and the music. In my Fifth Symphony, there is a passage into which I have written all the people close to me who had died by the time I wrote that music. But there is no way for the listener to realize that this is what is going on,” he says.

The work also reflects the conflicts of communities through superimposed and independent musical events. This is not polyphonic music in the conventional sense but a ‘polyphony of musics’ illustrating people not being able to understand one another. A similar approach is found in the Cello Concerto (1983–1984), where the juxtaposition of instrumental layers mirrors social and ideological clashes.

In his more recent works, Aho’s commentary on the world is even more indirect. The Oboe Concerto (2008) addresses the issue of cultural biopolarity in the world.

”I used a darabuka drum and Arabic rhythms. It is a subversive device for introducing other cultural spheres to the genre, even though it makes no pretense at being Arabic music as such. The objective is more to dissolve prejudices by marrying different musical traditions,” he says.

More dehumanisation required

The state of society has a direct bearing on the quality of its art, Aho says.

”It is a paradox that bad times in society are good for art and vice versa. When things are bad, people have a greater need to express things. This was the case in Finland before our independence, after which a musical regression set in, particularly in the 1930s. We saw the same thing happen in Estonia after the country became independent in 1991.”

In one of his many writings, Aho discussed the situation in the former East Germany in the 1960s. At that time, modern music was a sort of protest against the official and approved (music) policy, which made it a socially significant phenomenon. However, total dictatorship usually paralyzes the arts. If anyone dares create independent art under such circumstances, it inevitably acquires huge social significance but may also lead to the suffering of individuals, as in the case of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union.

But should art not be doing really well now, with the climate disaster, never-ending wars and the idolisation of blinkered financial success? No, says Aho. One reason for this is the Modernist mindset, according to which music should not be about anything but itself.

”The purebred aesthetics of Modernism has led to a situation where any meaning other than musical is prohibited. Everything has to be pure and absolute. In this shape, Modernism has become so firmly institutionalised that the entire genre of concert music has been marginalised. It is illustrative of this idealisation of complete objectivity that an Austrian critic once considered my works well crafted and expressive but crucially flawed in that they were not dehumanised enough (‘Nicht entmenschlicht genug’).

The marginalisation of concert music is also due to composers themselves.

”They have detached themselves from society and no longer engage in social criticism. Composers have relinquished this role to other artists such as authors and musicians in the popular music sector,” Aho continues.

Of course Aho himself has made use of Modernist means. But he is equally adept at approaches akin to Neo-Classicism, or even to sound art. In the absence of a convenient label, Aho has been described as a pluralist or a postmodernist. Such pigeon-holing is perhaps too restrictive for a composer who contemplates the relationship between music and the many facets of reality. The one-track mind of the aesthetics of Modernism is another reason why this ism holds little interest for Aho.

”I have become estranged from the aesthetics of purebred Modernism perhaps for the very reason that it is so pure. I favour impure aesthetics myself.”

Skip the sketches

Aho’s method of working resembles the narrative nature of his music. He writes directly in full score, two or three pages a day, with no sketch stage.

”As I have numerous commissions and they all have deadlines, I simply have to go ahead and begin a new work even if I have no idea what its fundamental idea will be. That idea will surface in the course of the process, but sometimes it can happen that the original opening no longer serves the purposes of the rest of the piece. Then there is nothing for it but to rewrite the opening (and sometimes the entire first movement). With my Sixth Symphony, I had to write the first movement three times,” he says.

It follows from this method that Aho does not have a separate orchestration stage in his process. He does not distinguish melody or harmony from tonal colour – all parameters coexist from the first. He does not use notation software, as he feels more in touch with his material when writing by hand. He likes the hands-on-feel and complete control over the music on the page, which can contain a lot of additional information that a sterile computer printout cannot convey. As for proofreading the score by computer, which notation software enables, he considers it potentially misleading.

”If a composer has to have a computer to tell him what his music sounds like, he is not a good composer,” Aho states.

To balance his original compositions, Aho has also orchestrated and completed works by other composers. For example, he completed the unfinished ballet Pyörteitä (Swirls) by Uuno Klami, orchestrating Act I and writing the planned Act III which Klami had never even begun. Aho’s version of Act III is included in his own catalogue as Sinfonisia tansseja: Hommage à Uuno Klami (Symphonic dances: Hommage à Uuno Klami, 2001).

Aho also orchestrated what is probably the most frequently performed composition by Jean Sibelius, Kallion kirkon kellosävelmä (Tune for the Bells of Kallio Church), which still rings out every day from Kallio Church in Helsinki. He also relates a curious anecdote about being approached by violinist Jari Valo to write cadenzas for Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major.

”I happened to be in Vienna at the time, so I went to the celebrated artist cafés to work. I wrote one of the cadenzas in a café where we know that Mozart was once a customer.”

Is opera the future?

In his operas too – Avain (The Key, 1977–1978), Hyönteiselämää (Insect Life, 1985–1987), Salaisuuksien kirja (The Book of Secrets, 1998) and Ennen kuin me kaikki olemme hukkuneet (Before We All Have Drowned, 1995/1999) – Aho has explored the sore sports of the human condition, community and reality (see FMQ 2/2003). He says that opera is a wonderful vehicle for contemporary composers to address today’s world.

”Opera is an art form where you can say exactly what you think of the world. A contemporary composer could gain social importance, if he only dared to take up topical and burning issues. But opera houses are rather conservative institutions, and it would be a riskto commission something like this!”

Aho himself has two opera projects lined up. The first one is not doing so well. It is an opera based on the lives of painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to an award-winning text by Peruvian-born Maritza Nuñez. The project started life as a joint commission by the Finnish National Opera and the Volksoper in Vienna, but eight years later the FNO lost interest when Dominique Mentha, the then manager of the Volksoper, was forced to resign. The FNO too is now under new management, who are not very keen on the project. Since there is no point in writing a work as extensive as an opera without a commission and the assurance of the opera eventually being produced on stage, the project is currently on ice. [The opera Frida y Diego by Kalevi Aho was premiered at the Helsinki Musiikkitalo in October 2014, see the article in FMQ 3-4/2014, Ed.]

The other opera project has to do with the Finnish Civil War in 1918. This bitterly divisive war is to this day a sensitive subject in Finnish society. So far, it has not been addressed in the genre of concert music at all. As is typical for Aho’s work, in this project too the social aspect combines with his personal history.

”In my native town of Forssa, more than 200 people were executed without a trial at the end of the war. Some of my relatives were among these. Two of my maternal grandfather’s brothers fled to the Soviet Union, one died in an accident and the other was executed in Stalin’s purges. My father’s father was sentenced to be shot for his political opinions in Jokioinen, but the sentence was commuted at the last moment because he was a good carpenter and as such was needed. He was taken to the prison camp in Tammisaari, where he was released when he contracted a pulmonary oedema that was thought to be fatal. He was sent home to Jokioinen to die, but miraculously he survived. All this, and he never even fought in the Civil War!”

This is a project that he definitely intends to complete. And it is a subject that suits him excellently.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

This article was first published in FMQ 1/2009.