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Notes from the borderland - An interview with Jukka Tiensuu

by Risto Nieminen

Jukka Tiensuu has, like the music he composes, always defied classification in a single category. The most fitting words to describe him might be "a universal musician" or "the best-kept secret in Finnish music". Hence Tiensuu, if anyone, is the person par excellence to open the discussion about Finnish avant-garde today.

RN: Avant-garde is a concept to which people ascribe different meanings. What, do you think, has it meant at different times and how do you personally define it?

JT: It literally means the ‘advance guard’ or the scout who first gets to know the borderland. The main thing in art is whether the trail-blazer is followed, whether he can make the change. Just being ahead of the field, or a freak, a cautionary example, clowning around with exoticism or suchlike is not enough. Broadly speaking, avant-gardists are those who look ahead and are the first significant protagonists of a new trend.

The avant-gardist explores new avenues on others’ behalf. If what he discovers gets adopted, the range of experience expands and we can speak of progress. On the other hand, if the scout just seeks but does not find, there is nothing to be gained for others.

I personally don’t think about whether I’m an avant-gardist or plot my own position on the musical map. In the literature on music I seem to be categorised in all kinds of groups. Well, the more the merrier!


RN: Who, would you say, rate as avant-gardists in the history of music?

JT: People have always been renewing and developing models and rules. Aristophanes the philosopher (c. 446-388 BC) already expressed his concern at the disrespect shown by musicians for the ancient values. For they were not beyond adding strings to the lyre or testing to see what effects they could get out of their instruments by the most varied of techniques. Aristophanes was afraid the craze would spread and lead to rack and ruin. Sound familiar? The fear of change stretches back thousands of years and is undoubtedly eternal. Change is, it is true, tolerated better in the West these days than in certain more uncompromising cultures.

Composers have, from time immemorial, been writing intricate works for one another demonstrating their skill, erudition and genius, and such works are not necessarily even intended to be performed. To quote an example: the composer writing in the Ars subtilior style of the late Middle Ages could be called the Brian Ferneyhough of his day. He created masterly, rhythmically complex compositions that are difficult to perform even now.

I could give you lots more examples from different periods in history. The Ars nova of the 14th century (banned by the Pope), Vicentino, who composed instrumental and even choral works using polyphonic micro-intervals in the late 16th century (and was summoned as a result), the great early 19th century avant-gardist Beethoven (whose audience might leave when the performance of a work by him had scarcely begun). Then came the futurists at the beginning of the 20th century, the Darmstadt school and Xenakis in the 1950s, Cage and Fluxus in the following decade, and so on. As in science, so in art: the merit of the new is initially recognised by only a small peer group. Johann Sebastian Bach was always respected by the great composers but did not gain widespread recognition until the 20th century.


RN: Some say that Modernism and Avant-gardism are no longer possible. All the sounds, chords and rhythms have already been heard. Can a composer still do something that has never been done before?

JT: How can everything have been heard when we have only just scratched the surface? In art, science, technology and philosophy we are only just at the beginning. The evolution of mankind did not really get under way until about a million years ago. Just what will the next million years bring with it? True, progress is better than stagnation. Unless the unknown is explored, its potential will never be tapped. And there’s no shortage of antagonists and sceptics. The engineers in Ancient Rome already believed there was nothing left to invent. Today, as before, many people are appalled by the very idea that someone, even in the future, might be more inventive than them. Dictators, in particular – both temporal and spiritual ones – fear progressiveness in art.

Music is not so much about notes as about the mutual relationships between ideas. True, sound has proved to be an unparalleled medium for expressing these relations. Pythagoras was already claiming that the purest music is that which we can experience only in our minds, without sounds to disturb it. The true avant-gardist can, and always will, make musical experience more profound.


RN: Avant-gardism can also be regarded as an attitude. In this sense Cage, for example, was an avant-gardist. How can the modern listener tell when something is avant-garde?

JT: A vanguard by definition implies that there are others following along behind, so the avant-garde is really only recognisable in retrospect. The scout puts out feelers, and the others draw conclusions from the information he brings back. The avant-gardist is the first to venture into new territory. The others follow if they trust what he has found. Just being different is not enough unless it opens up new potential.


RN: Could you give some concrete examples of ways of discovering new things?

JT: In the works of Kagel the material is often familiar, but the components are in unexpected relationships. As the work proceeds, it affords one surprise after another, so long as the listener recognises the elements and is beginning to expect a conventional outcome before the rug is suddenly pulled from beneath his feet.

Xenakis took as his starting point phenomena of the natural and physical world. These he translated into music, made them audible by means that were often traditional – even a symphony orchestra. He created new content with familiar tools and his music does not require knowledge of traditional music in order to be fully enjoyed.

Stockhausen set in motion more styles than anyone else. In Stimmung, for example, he uses only one chord, a dominant ninth, which is probably the chord that, more than any other in tonal music, cries out to be resolved. But that chord never once resolves in a work lasting over an hour; it lives, but it does not yield. This provided the impetus for the spectral music of France.

Cage in turn questioned almost all musical conventions and thus instigated a constant reassessment of phenomena.


RN: A style is something established, lasting, whereas avant-gardism is heard for the first time. It is difficult to imagine how a style could exist in contemporary music. Should the composer begin with a clean sheet in each work or can he carry on from where he left off in the previous one?

JT: The thing that matters in art is not style but content. Commercial entertainment is different. There the consumer is profiled according to objective parameters, and musicians, too, as a rule define their music in terms of style. The borders between ‘genres’ of music are then sometimes very precise, and crossing them is commercially risky.

The latest art music is the only genre of music that is stylistically boundless. It may sound medieval, Sibelian, like rock, an old hit, jazz, folk music… or silence – even within the confines of one and the same work. It cannot be classified on hearing and does not therefore ‘sell’.

There is no such thing as a clean sheet, but that does not mean the composer has to carry on from where he left off the time before. Because compositions are created for others. Composing is a continual, ‘everlasting’ process and compositions just morsels isolated from this stream.

Mozart composed in the same style as his contemporaries. Few, if any, can say with certainty whether a fragment of music heard out of context is by Mozart. Defining Mozart’s style is not what counts, but his ability to operate within it, to make diversions and arrive at unexpected destinations.

Ideally music would be anonymous, because it’s the work that’s interesting, not the maker. I doubt I would be particularly thrilled to meet the grumpy Beethoven in person, but I greatly enjoy listening to, studying and playing his music.


RN: Let us assume that a composer wants to try something new, something that’s never been done before. Is it then better for him to know what has gone before or as little as possible, so as not to be influenced by it?

JT: You have to be aware of what has been done before so that you don’t accidentally compose something known to others from a different context. Knowing many different cultures is also a great source of inspiration. I personally am fascinated by anything that goes by the name of culture anywhere, and by making over a thousand library loans a year in addition to reading the books I buy, I keep making discoveries, nowadays in non-European cultures in particular. My recent immersions in the ancient court music of China and have, for example, touched me deeply. My understanding is enhanced by the awareness of just how greatly music can vary from one culture and era to another. The potential of the human voice, especially, seems to know no limits.

Generally speaking, the more we know and are aware of, the better. There is no point putting up fences. Greater understanding brings greater torment, but it also brings greater freedom and ecstasy.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju