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On Nordic collaboration

by Olli Virtaperko

“The Nordic Music Days is the mirror of the Nordic composers’ community. At the same time, it also represents a broader symbol of Nordic collaboration which, despite its challenges in reconciling different interests that sometimes feel insurmountable, can be seen as an example of a universal opportunity for collaboration between nations. As an added bonus, the festival occasionally enables access to interesting music.”

The five so-called Nordic welfare states form an area which is uniquely homogenous in terms of its geography, politics and society. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland are bound together by strong historic, cultural and linguistic ties. The shared activities between these countries are often associated with a specific term, Nordic collaboration. This collaboration manifests most strongly on the cultural scene, with its flagship being the oldest continuous music festival in the world, the Nordic Music Days (Nordiska Musikdagar, NMD) which was first organised in 1888.

During its history, the NMD has provided a comprehensive cross section of each year’s stylistic and aesthetic currents in Nordic art music, as well as featuring all major Nordic composers from Nielsen and Madetoja to Hillborg and Saariaho.

The NMD is an important part of living music history, and that history is very similar to history in general – full of conflicts and quarrelling. Ever since its inception, the festival has remained a target for critical observations by music and composer communities. “In its current form, this festival simply cannot go on”, wrote music critic Evert Katila in 1927 for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper about the festival held that year in Stockholm, continuing by reflecting on “whether the Nordic Music Days are relevant in their current form and whether they are indeed of any use for the purpose of artistic cultural exchange.”

Nearly a century later, the same debate about the NMD is still brewing within the music community. The festival does not seem to provide enough content for all the funds spent, and there is always someone who thinks that the host country’s programming ethos is flawed. The festival is entangled in a net of upset going back a hundred years, woven out of countless minor and major battles. This climate is optimal for the blossoming of national stereotypes – they offer a convenient explanation for universal problems in human encounters and collaboration.


The NMD, however, cannot be blamed for lack of trying. The event has shown interminable resilience in attempting to solve its central problem, namely that a music event committed to showcasing music from five different nations is ultimately an unsatisfactory basis for artistic planning: the demand for democracy and equitability is the worst imaginable starting point for delivering a festival with artistic integrity.

Many different solutions have been attempted. The artistic planning responsibility has shifted from a single artistic director to multiple artistic directors, or to the host country’s composers’ society.  Sometimes an artistic committee formed by members from different countries has been allocated the ungrateful task of planning. At other times, the festival has been piggybacked with an existing festival as a spin-off project, and a few times the whole event has even been staged outside of Scandinavia entirely.

Concert conventions have also been subjected to many and varied modernising attempts which have ranged from structural and conceptual to spatial, sometimes to the degree of wild overcorrection. As a result, composers, myself included, have been submitted to agonising experiences of hearing our pieces performed in entirely unsuitable venues, such as a dope-reeking hippie warehouse in Freetown Christiania or a yellow, five-metre square cubby house in Norrköping. 

(As a side note, let it be said that from a pan-Nordic perspective, the gravest sin committed by the Finnish NMD organisers has traditionally been their tendency to focus their festivals around music and musical substance instead of the more exciting concepts and performances. They have expressed no desire to stage concerts at carparks, saunas, shipping containers or shopping centres, but instead have usually presented music in appropriate spaces custom-made for music performance, such as concert and chamber music halls. How boring, old-fashioned and unimaginative!)


Delivering a Nordic Music Days event which is artistically balanced and successful at every level has proved to be a challenging task, and the critical composers’ community is ready to pounce on the smallest of failures as evidence of an ongoing crisis. For some strange reason, despite wallowing in this alleged ongoing crisis, the NMD has managed to plough ahead for years, decades and even centuries. It is thus without doubt that it must have its own significance.

That significance always eventually returns to the surface within the factious community – as soon as any pressing resentments or feelings of injustice have been duly processed.  The NMD offers composers an opportunity to create, maintain and deepen their networks of professional and collegial networks and friendships. It enables them to keep step with what is happening in each country’s scene. For composers, the NMD offers a break from everyday life. The NMD represents travel, different manifestations of Scandinavian lingo depending on the speaker’s home country, late nights in pubs with colleagues and old and new friends. As an added bonus, the festival occasionally enables access to interesting music. The NMD gathers Nordic composers into a community – a loose one at that, but a community all the same. All of this is valuable.

The Nordic Music Days is the mirror of the Nordic composer community. At the same time, it also represents a broader symbol of Nordic collaboration which, despite its challenges in reconciling different interests that sometimes feel insurmountable, can be seen as an example of a universal opportunity for collaboration between nations. Cooperation is born out of learning to live with the continuous disgruntlement and sulkiness between all parties, and, despite the discord, attempting to discover shared values and goals as the guiding star for working together.

Nordic composer collaboration, which has proved to be fairly tolerant, forbearing, forgiving and at least somewhat caring, provides a safe framework for experiencing one’s inherently human feelings of continuous dissatisfaction, and to advance common endeavours on the side. 

In the case of the NMD, Nordic collaboration as a whole has been fruitful. It has resulted in artistic and communal results whose overall score remains strongly positive.

Olli Virtaperko’s top picks for the 2018 NMD:

Saturday concerts at the Suvilahti district

The very latest sounds from the Uusinta Ensemble, spiced with a splash of Finnish-Swedish prog rock and staged in the old industrial milieu of Helsinki’s Suvilahti.”

Helsinki Chamber Choir – In the Japanese Gardens

”Finland’s leading chamber choir in Japanese-influenced moods at the functionalist setting of the Bio Rex movie theatre.”

defunensemble – Hazardous Tones 

”Clamour and noise produced by the defunensemble, the flagship of electroacoustic music.”

Read also Kimmo Korhonen’s article Similarity and diversity – 130 years of NMD here.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham