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Northern Connection – Nordic cooperation to combat throwaway compositions and touring emissions

by Hanna Isolammi

Northern Connection is a project that brings together composers, ensembles and festivals, energises contemporary music communities and provides solutions to the conundrum of the ‘farewell premiere’ while also seeking to reduce emissions from international touring. While this cooperation is rooted in the concept of the northern identity, it is hoped that the best practices established will find more widespread application.

The old saying “ignorance is bliss” seems more relevant than ever. The climate crisis and biodiversity loss have an increasingly conspicuous and anxiety-inducing presence in our everyday lives. Awareness of increasing social inequality is also growing, and latent institutional discriminatory practices and human rights violations are being exposed. Responsible individuals are driven by their conscience to explore ways in which they can make a positive contribution for their part and in their respective fields. Durable instead of disposable is now a key pursuit worldwide, and the music sector is no exception.

Multiple sustainable development projects have been seen in the Finnish music sector in recent years. Most of them have focused on ecological sustainability, but increasingly attention is being paid to economic and social sustainability and to the wellbeing of the individual as well. To be sure, there is much overlap between the various component areas of sustainable development, and best practices can benefit all of them.

Air travel is one of the major contributors to the burden on the climate, and many people in the music industry feel uneasy about the emissions generated by travel on tour. Yet music is fundamentally an international pursuit: since time immemorial, musicians and composers have travelled far and wide to study, to find new influences and to work. You cannot simply discontinue all travel without drastically changing the nature of the entire sector – but how to resolve this dilemma?

In the particular case of new art music, it is a peculiar but real sustainability issue that many works on which people spend a lot of time and effort composing and rehearsing only get performed once. While a world premiere does have novelty value, a ‘farewell premiere’ represents a waste of effort on part of both composer and performers. We should note that this is by no means a new phenomenon: in Finland as elsewhere, composers have been talking about the difficulty of getting a second performance for well over a century.

Northern Connection, a project conceived by the Music Finland export organisation, proposes a solution to the two aforementioned sustainability issues.


Northern Connection – what is it all about?

“The Northern Connection project started with the idea of promoting cooperation in neighbouring regions and bringing together ensembles and composers at the grassroots level in contemporary music,” says Heli Lampi, Head of Communications and Promotion at Music Finland. “Another idea was to extend the life span of individual works,” adds Tuuli Elo, Export Manager for contemporary and classical music. The point underlying cooperation with neighbouring regions was to reduce emissions from travel by favouring surface travel instead of flying. Also, initially the product that would be travelling would be compositions, not ensembles.

There were already robust cooperation networks in place between the Nordic countries, so defining ‘neighbouring regions’ as the other Nordic countries was a self-evident approach. After being mulled over at Music Finland, the idea began to take shape some 18 months ago with the first negotiations between Music Finland, Music Norway and the Scottish Music Centre in November 2021. Scotland had positioned itself among the Nordic countries in the context of contemporary music quite some time earlier, and this connection has only become stronger with Brexit. It was agreed that export and publicity organisations would take the role of facilitators and practical organisers in the project. In addition to reaching out to composers and ensembles, it was decided to involve one contemporary music festival in each participating country, because these are the most convenient channels for getting performances. 

The selected participants were Musica nova Helsinki and defunensemble in Finland, the Ultima Festival and Ensemble Temporum in Norway, and the Sound Festival and the Red Note Ensemble in Scotland. There are plans to expand this lineup, with preliminary plans in place to bring in Iceland and Denmark. “We don’t want to delimit how the project evolves in practice,” says Lampi. “It’s intended to develop organically, through the involvement of local contemporary music communities.”

Despite the number of moving parts involved, the project has proceeded at a brisk pace: about six months after the first talks, a call for works was announced for composers in each participating country. The criteria were quite specific as to instrumentation, duration and topic, the latter being – of course – the North. A jury consisting of representatives of the participating festivals selected Lisa Robertson from Scotland, Tine Surel Lange from Norway and Lauri Supponen from Finland.


A permanent place in the repertoire

The first musical performances under this project were heard at the opening club of the Musica nova Helsinki festival at the G Livelab on 1 March 2023. The first work to receive its world premiere was am fàsach for flute, clarinet, cello and electronics by Lisa Robertsonperformed by the Finnish defunensemble, which specialises in contemporary music incorporating electronics.

Robertson and defunensemble mainly collaborated remotely during the writing process, and no travel at all was required before the week of the premiere. “Lisa was a pleasure to work with,” says Sami Klemola, artistic director of defunensemble. “Our communication was good, and she contacted us whenever she had any questions. Then she attended our rehearsals in the week of the premiere.”

Robertson’s piece ticked at least one of the main boxes of the Northern Connection project, since Klemola notes that defunensemble will keep the piece in their repertoire. “It’s an original and innovative piece, linked to both the Scottish tradition and the Nordic scene in exciting ways.” More generally, defunensemble always prefers to perform pieces more than once: “We perform a lot of works written for defunensemble and never shy away from performing the same works again. It’s good for the musicians too,” explains Klemola.

The new work by Tine Surel Lange will be performed by the Red Note Ensemble at the SOUND Festival in Scotland in October 2023, and the new work by Lauri Supponen will be performed by Ensemble Temporum at the Ultima Festival in Oslo in September 2023. In the second stage of the project, all participating composers and ensembles will meet – travelling by land and by sea if at all possible – at the Nordic Music Days in Scotland, where all the works will be performed again.

The compositions created within the project are all scored for the same instruments, so any participating ensemble will have no trouble performing them. All ensembles are prepared to perform the works more than once, even if the project in itself requires them to do no more than perform the world premiere. In fact, defunensemble and Musica nova took their commitment a step further: in addition to the Robertson premiere, defunensemble took up already existing works by Tine Surel Lange and Lauri Supponen. This strengthened links within the project from the very beginning.

Audience following defunensemble's concert at Glivelab on March 1st. Photo by Julius Töyrylä.
Audience following defunensemble's concert at G Livelab on March 1st. Photo by Julius Töyrylä.

Awareness of the North

Lauri Supponen reports that the criteria in the call for works of the Northern Connection project were a good fit for his timetable and in relation to his recent projects. “I was working on an orchestral work about the North anyway,” he says. Writing a sibling work on the same theme for a smaller ensemble helped with the writing of the orchestral piece. “I’d been collecting material for this subject for years.” Supponen was already familiar with Ensemble Temporum and was pleased to be writing for them.

His work in progress has the working title north, but according to Supponen his approach is not one reflecting a landscape or a mood or cultural features. “For me, the North is a point of presence and orientation,” he says. “Being aware of the North is being aware of where I am in space, in time, right now. In a way, I’m writing music that gives you an awareness of the North, an awareness of yourself here and now.”

Supponen says that he will probably travel to Oslo a couple of times to work on the material of the piece with the musicians of Ensemble Temporum, as and when the composition process so requires. “Workshops and recordings made there help me keep the actual sound of the music in my mind during the writing process, especially in the case of delicate or unusual sounds,” he explains. Supponen has made a habit of choosing surface travel within Europe for several years now: he responded to this interview in Glasgow, where he was on a working trip – having travelled by train.


Sharing best practices

In addition to pieces of music and performer collaboration, the Northern Connection project aims for participants to learn things together and to brainstorm good sustainable practices for the sector. A steering group made up of representatives of the project partners holds meetings over remote connections, and panel discussions and workshops are arranged in conjunction with events as and when possible. The first of these panel discussions, ‘Sustaining – and sustainable – collaboration and co-operation in new music’, was held at the Musica nova festival on 2 March 2023. The participants included people from contemporary music festivals and the media in Estonia, Denmark, Germany and the UK.

This was a general discussion of ecological sustainability actions that the panel members’ respective organisations had taken or not taken. Points raised by the panel members included conflicts in practices in the digital and green transitions (the environmental impacts of digitalisation are greater than is commonly thought) and clashes between ecological aspects and the realities of personal wellbeing (as an example, longer travel times bring considerable complications for musicians with families), not to speak of a sense of unfairness (why are demands like this imposed on the music sector but not on big corporations?). The discussion revealed troubled consciences and frustration in the face of a crisis that seems too big and incomprehensible to handle. Frustration with the state of affairs and with the panel discussion itself was also apparent in remarks from the audience. 

The most practical approach was presented by Helena Tulve, composer and artistic director of the Estonian Music Days festival. According to her, the only thing that a small contemporary music festival can actually do is to use its limited resources as sustainably as possible. This, of course, requires a thorough familiarity with the structures and practices of one’s own operations and a constant vigilance for sensing changes in the operating environment.

Despite the frustration and resulting inconclusiveness of the panel discussion at Musica nova Helsinki, it is important to keep organising events like this. Sharing ideas and best practices is the best way to achieve change efficiently – and sustainably in view of the resources available. The Northern Connection project is in its early stages, but if the model is found to work well and can be propagated, it may have a broader impact in encouraging multiple performances of new music and in organising concerts in ecologically more sustainable ways.


List of other sustainable music industry projects in Finland: 

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi