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Music invades the silver screen

by Harri Kuusisaari

Finnish cinema is enjoying a major boom: the higher degree of professionalism and the growing rate of new releases are paying dividends in bigger box-office figures. In the process, music is regaining its status as part of the total experience, and the severed link between directors and composers is being restored again.

During the age of the silent film the Finns did not compose music of their own but relied instead on repertoire imported from the salons of Central Europe. The first films to use optical sound were Yrjö Norta’s Sano se suomeksi (Say It In Finnish) and Erkki Karu’s Tukkipojan morsian (The Lumberjack’s Bride). The music for both of these was composed by Tapio Ilomäki. Among the performers in the former was Zamba, the leading jazz band of the time, while the latter preferred choral music and romantic background music. Ilomäki continued his film career right up to the 1950s.

The first Finnish music film was Georg Malmsten’s SF-paraati (SF Parade) in 1940. Martti Similä and Harry Bergström were also leading names in the cinema of the 1940s, which favoured a national-romantic style and rustic scenes that cried out for earthy dance music. In the 1950s, the golden era of the Finnish film, this catchy, easy-on-the-ear type of music became the dominant genre. It was to counteract it that many ‘serious’ composers felt moved to enter the world of cinema: Uuno Klami, Ahti Sonninen, Osmo Lindeman, Matti Rautio, Jorma Panula, Leonid Bashmakov, Tauno Marttinen, Einar Englund and others besides.

Mostly the music was recorded by a small symphony orchestra. The resources being very limited, the composer himself had to do all the jobs which would in Hollywood be handled by a highly-coordinated team. All the composers complained about the speed at which they had to produce their scores – the films had to start pulling in revenue as soon as possible, and this left no time for ambitious artistic polishing. The way the producers edited the scores without even consulting the composers also rankled with many. Often quoted as among the finest of its kind is Einar Englund’s music for the horror film Valkoinen peura (The White Reindeer, 1952). Here the music is not just of the background variety and instead takes an active part in the drama, following the story with its own Leitmotivs and manipulating the listener. Englund used such devices as Lapp yoik melodies and drumming to create a mythical atmosphere, yet the music is not folklore and tends more towards expressionistic fantasy. He later made an orchestral suite of the film score material.

As of the 1960s, the proportion of popular music elements began to grow, and such representatives of the ‘new song movement’ as Kaj Chydenius, Eero Ojanen and Heikki Valpola lent the Finnish film a touch of their own. Modern jazz was introduced into it by Kalevi Haartti (Yö oli pitkä, The Night Is Long, Aarne Tarkas, 1952). A rift nevertheless emerged between the composers of “serious” music and the directors and the custom was adopted of using ready collages of popular music. By the 1980s it was the exception rather than the rule for music to be composed expressly for a specific film. There are, however, now signs that all this is changing as a result of the unprecedented boom in the Finnish film.


The mindscape of the Finnish soldier

The music of Tuomas Kantelinen performed by the Karelian Symphony Orchestra from Petrozavodsk plays an important role in the war film Rukajärven tie (Ambush) directed by Olli Saarela. The romantic melodies bear echoes both of Sibelius and of the mushy string adagios of the Hollywood of the fifties.

“The themes of the film – loss and longing, the grief of the small person – take precedence over the heroism of war,” is how Tuomas Kantelinen puts it. “Simplicity is not something to be afraid of, because the musical syntax must be so clear that the message is sure to get over.”

Kantelinen and Saarela have already made three films together and in doing so learnt to think along the same lines. The first decision to be made is whether to follow each event as it comes along or whether to create a broader span in order to set the mood. Ambush prefers the latter.

“The music raises the film to a sacral plane, away from realism to some wider context,” says Saarela. “We wanted the music to play along with the emotions, not to vie with them. Sometimes the music comments in retrospect on the consequences of the action. It also gives the audience time to experience what is going on; once in a certain frame of mind, they feel that the accompanying music goes on longer than it actually does.”

Only once does the music engage in counterpoint with what is happening on the screen: during the battle in the burning forest it disregards the action and instead takes the side of the men. Representing diegetic music in Ambush (outside music transferred direct to the world of the film) is the aria Una furtiva lagrima by Donizetti sung at the funeral of a brother-in-arms.

Tuomas Kantelinen was gratified that the director called a halt in the action occasionally to let the music have its say. These scenes were planned at the script-writing stage already.


The end justifies the means

Tuomas Kantelinen got interested in film music while a pupil of Eero Hämeenniemi at the Sibelius Academy. He is pleased to find that working for the cinema has not branded him as a ‘light’ man, for commissions are still coming in from ‘serious’ quarters.

“The function is what matters most, not the style”, Tuomas Kantelinen explains.

The music for films often has to be tonal and easy to understand: is this a bore? “No, because there are so many styles to choose from. I personally have used things like sounds sampled on a computer. The function is what matters most, not the style,” Kantelinen replies.

“You have to decide whether you’re going to produce proper thematic music with Leitmotivs telling a parallel story of their own or whether to create an ambient, background mood as it were. I personally think it’s even more of a challenge to write music that is effective despite being more or less concealed.

“Minimalism has proved to be a useful style: it’s handy for pacing the cuts, and it’s easy to make static shimmering the same length as the narrative. The nature of the film decides the dramatic structure: whether it concentrates on individual moments or on creating a span that is only resolved at the end.”

Kantelinen does not subscribe to the view that directors are all complete thickheads when it comes to music. “They’re not necessarily very much aware of just what you can do with music. Maybe they’ve never had anything to do with a living composer. But when you suggest something, they all, without exception, get enthusiastic.”

In most cases Kantelinen has been given whatever sort of orchestra he has asked for. “Though admittedly it usually means compromising over my own fee. But it’s a sacrifice worth making if the alternative is a synthesiser.

“One thing you just have to get used to in this job is that there are going to be cuts, and lots of them. I must admit it sometimes hurts when my music is chopped beyond recognition. But this can usually be got round by explaining, or by suggesting something else instead. You have to find yourself an idiom with a certain built-in economy so you can if necessary compose very quickly.”


Loss of innocence

Aki Kaurismäki is at the moment the best-known Finnish film director. In his films he has often made use of ready classical music, such as Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony in Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds) to depict what the characters are feeling. He has also worked with composer Anssi Tikanmäki, whose music plays a bigger-than-usual part in Kaurismäki’s most recent – silent! – film, Juha.

“I wanted to paint the Finnish mindscape and the way the characters’ minds worked by unaffected means” says Anssi Tikanmäki.

The story of Juha is based on the novel by Juhani Aho that also inspired the operas of the same name by Aarre Merikanto and Leevi Madetoja. It is a triangle involving Juha, his wife Marja and her seducer, Shemeikka. The themes of the film score by Anssi Tikanmäki are based on Finnish folk music, which he uses first to depict the time of innocence, purity and happiness. With the arrival of Shemeikka, who robs Marja of her peace of mind, Tikanmäki introduces gloomy tones and sampled sounds.

Tikanmäki says of his working process: “First I read the novel by Aho, and this inspired the basic themes. Intuition counted for a lot at this point. I then got Kaurismäki’s script and we began our dialogue. He threw out a few ideas that had occurred to him, but even so I had a completely free hand throughout. Then finally, when the demo tape was ready, we began timing the cuts.”

Although the music of Juha may sound simple, Tikanmäki insists that the seemingly simple and naive is the outcome of endless processing and deliberate calculation. “I wanted to paint the Finnish mindscape and the way the characters’ minds worked by unaffected means. The film was divided into 40 episodes, each of which had its own musical character.

“The pace changes when Marja begins to apply make-up in anticipation of Shemeikka’s return. From then onwards everything becomes more gloomy, the folk tunes in the major acquire a more momentous air. Marja and Shemeikka travel by taxi to the brothel to music I christened The Hades Ferryman. At the end the folk tune is played by a solo violin – the motif that first sprang to mind when I read the novel by Aho.”

Juha was premiered last year at the Berlin Film Festival, where the music acquired new dimensions when played by a live orchestra.


Featured photo: Katri Naukkarinen