in From the Archives

Pioneers and Explorers – Electronic Music in Finland 1958–1998

by Jukka Ruohomäki

The history of electronic music in general is yet a short one, and affords an interesting angle on the passing of time. Experiments made 40 or 50 years ago may seem to us rather primitive now, but how will the high technology of today look to those working in this field fifty years from now?

In the early days Finland was far behind the head of the field, when looked at from a global perspective. The first Finnish electronic music made dates from the end of the 1950s. But the field as a whole was new and only about ten studios for electronic music existed worldwide. In terms of musical styles, modernism arrived on Finnish soil mainly from Germany, and in particular from Darmstadt, whose summer courses had become a Mecca for Finnish contemporary composers. And it was there that they had their first contact with electronic music – of the Germany variety, which was seen as a culmination of the serial tradition. This connection turned out to be a problematic one. In Finland (as elsewhere) there was a strong preconception in people's minds that the prophets of new music – Stockhausen in the forefront of them – wanted to abandon the entire western music tradition, notation, instrumentation, musicians, the lot, all in one fell swoop.

The first Finnish electroacoustic experiments were carried out within Yleisradio, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, a natural consequence of the fact that the equipment necessary for pursuing them – tape recorders, echo units, mixing desks, etc. – was rather hard to come by. Commercial studios were not eager to get their feet wet. The basic equipment and the knowhow to make use of it were essential, and in the early days they were all that was needed to spur interested parties into “having a go”. There were no real electronic musical instruments to speak of, and the early pioneers hardly understood to miss them. What did exist was oscillators and sound generators of different types, along with various pieces of test equipment. The equipment was mono, since stereo did not become widely available until the late 1960s. The analogue tape recorder continued to be a versatile tool right up until the 1990s, and provide a variety of processes such as echo, delay, tape loops, variable speed and, perhaps most essentially, all the possibilities opened up by tape splicing.

The earliest experiment

Martti Vuorenjuuri stepped into the post of chief music critic of the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s most important daily newspaper, in 1955. Around the same time he paid a visit to Darmstadt and became so enthused about the new trends he saw there that he attempted to found Finland’s first electronic music studio. This did not come to fruition, but in 1958 Vuorenjuuri completed an enormous project of creating a nearly 90 minute radio play based on Aldous Huxley’s novel A Brave New World.

Vuorenjuuri did not venture in his experiments beyond standard tape techniques, since an electronic work of such dimensions would have taken years to complete, The actors recorded their lines at separate sessions, in continuous strands and in a neutral and monotonous voice, reflecting the essence of the brave new world and the influence of Soma. The various roles of the drama were brought to life by subjecting these recordings to different processes and combining them finally into a functioning radio play. Sound effects and acoustic landscapes were also created out of the human voices, for which Vuorenjuuri made use of half a dozen tape recorders, modification techniques of his own invention, and a whole studio full of bits of tape with sounds on them. A Brave New World was a considerable achievement. Works as extended and thorough-going as these are a rarity even today. The quality of the work done on a schedule which was, to say the least, tight (under three months) – is inconsistent, but in any case at its best A Brave New World is an impressive portrait of the welfare-state society of the future.

Vuorenjuuri’s radio play had to wait some time for its first broadcast. Permission for the adaptation was not obtained until 1966. And broadcasting problems did not stop there. This year, in 1998, it would seem appropriate to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of A Brave New World – and, with it, Finnish electronic music as a whole – but it seems that we will wait in vain for a revival of it. The work’s artistic credibility has been called into question and its historical value is not understood, from which one can draw conclusions about the status of the entire field in Finland today.

The first electronic pieces

Bengt Johansson (1914–89) was the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s chief music recording engineer and took a natural interest in electronic music as part of his job. In 1960 he set up a small studio for himself, taking advantage of test equipment surplus to the radio’s requirements, and created the first Finnish works of electronic music proper. It is not precisely known what techniques he used, since he did not allow anyone to follow his work. It is known that he made use of a number of electronic generators and tape recorders. Making music with test generators must have been hard work, especially when there were no precedents for it amongst Finnish entrepreneurs.

Johansson’s Three Electronic Studies are short and fairly traditional in their formal approach. Johansson was a fierce opponent of serialism and this got him into trouble with the trendier set of music critics. His work was praised for its technical quality, but the critics took the view that non-serial electronic music made no sense. Johansson should have “changed his way of thinking to fit the new mold”. This he did not do, and his experiments in electronic music came to an abrupt end. Instead he found his own vehicle of expression in choral music. His temporary studio was disbanded some time during autumn 1960.

Music for the theatre

Although the third of our pioneers, Usko Meriläinen, made several works of electroacoustic music during the 1970s and 80s, he actually started out on this path as early as 1961, when he made the music for the play Eros and Psyche by Eeva-Liisa Manner. Meriläinen’s home town was Tampere, away from the facilities of the nation’s capital: a fact which led him to develop his own original “homebrew” solutions based on using an East German tape recorder bearing the brand name Smaragd. Domestic tape recorders started to be more common around the late 1950s. Meriläinen had no access to sound generators or other such fineries, but he made up for it with a strong dose of pioneer spirit. He made use of beeping morse code taken from short wave radio bands and close-miked piano sounds, he fed these through the corridors of the block of flats where he lived in lieu of an echo chamber, and used a pair of kitchen scissors to edit the tape. He turned technical difficiences to his own advantage. His sounds seem to come out of a distant zone, from behind a mask of hum and noise, as if emanating from some far off planet, light years away.

Computer music and digital technology

During the 1960s Finland started to catch up with the mainstream of electronic music progress, especially in terms of computers and the application of digital technology to the musical field. Seppo Mustonen made the first music by computer in the summer of 1962. His machine was an English one, the Elliot 803, which was an ultra-modern piece of equipment in the sense it was fully transistorised. The console contained a small loudspeaker, which produced a click every time the machine executed a jump instruction. Such instructions, if performed at regular intervals, could be heard as a periodic sound of a controllable pitch. Mustonen took advantage of this feature in order to have the machine produce music, compose melodies and make variations upon them. The computer thus actually played the music in real time, which in the 1960s was quite a rarity. The piece Mustonen made was given the title Theme and Variations, and the composer was given as Elliot 803 – a fact which itself caused some curiosity, not to say consternation. At that time there was much more mystique associated with computers than there is at the present day. It was generally assumed that computers would soon develop intelligence to match that of human beings, and eventually outstrip them.

Finnish electronic music technology began to become more specialized in 1962, when Erkki Kurenniemi began to build a studio for the Helsinki University Department of Musicology. Kurenniemi is one of the central figures of early Finnish electronic music, in the multiple role of equipment designer, composer and visionary. Without him Finland would have been a backwater of the electroacoustic field still in the mid-1970s.

The beginnings of the university studio were modest: three tape recorders, oscillators and noise generators and a spring reverberation unit, housed in the corner of an office in the department. But the equipping of the facility began to improve, it was given a better location and many composers began to discover the studio and its merits. This was the earliest studio to be established in the Nordic countries, and it still continues to operate at the present day. Kurenniemi was not so interested in the idea of a studio formed from separate items of equipment, but rather aimed to integrate it into a single musical instrument in the manner of American synthesiser pioneers Robert Moog and Don Buchla. Kurenniemi’s designs differed from their American counterparts, however, by being digital, and Kurenniemi used digital signals both for control and the sound-producing end. His integrated synthesiser never reached its final form, but it did reach the stage which allowed him to make tape music with it and use it in live performance.

1963 – the year of the wild fling

In 1963, some Helsinki composers in their early twenties set about organising a series of concerts, happenings and other events which rocketed Finland into the avant garde spirit of international radicalism. This spirit of experimentation stretched to electronic music too. Between them, composers Otto Donner, Reijo Jyrkiäinen, Erkki Kurenniemi, Ilkka Kuusisto and Erkki Salmenhaara composed more than ten electronic pieces, including works other than tape music. Salmenhaara made live electronic pieces (Pan and Echo for percussion and electronics and Concerto for Two Violins and Loudspeakers). Donner combined instruments and tape, applying the principles of information theory (Ideogramme 1 & 2), in addition to which he made electroacoustic music for the cinema (Two Hens, dir. Eino Ruutsalo). The scene spread to encompass towns other than Helsinki: 1964 saw the premiere of Gottfried Gräsbeck’s Concerto for Tape and Orchestra in Turku.

In other words, electronic music seemed to have established a foothold, but all of a sudden its development came to a halt. During the mid-60s, only a handful of electronic compositions saw the light of day. There was some experimentation with new ideas in Finnish Radio, but the company did not go as far as establishing its own studio. The leading educational institution for music, the Sibelius Academy, stood by and did nothing.

An unsettled period, 1964–68

The Helsinki University studio continued to function, and Kurenniemi began to build small electronic instruments based on the sequencer concept. The first of these was commissioned by the avant-garde figure M.A. Numminen in 1967. It was not a piece of studio equipment but instead a rather useful musical instrument for simultaneous use by four players. Numminen was enchanted by the device because “it could even produce melodies”, and he assembled a regular band to play it: the Electric Quartet (1968–70) became Finland's first-ever live electronic ensemble. Osmo Lindeman was the next person to commission a new instrument, dubbed the DICO, after which Swedish composers Ralph Lundsten and Leo Nilsson put in orders for a machine called the Andromatic. All these sequencers continued to be used long after commercial synthesisers became widespread in the late 1970s. This was due to the fact that Kurenniemi’s machines were capable of doing many things which only became commonly available with the advent of microcomputers in the 1980s.

Pop music, which had spurred on a wave of events of many different kinds during the 1960s, took the lead for a while also in the area of electronic musical techniques. Experimental methods found their way into recording studios and on to concert platforms. In Finland’s relatively parochial circles, pop music did not establish its independence quite as quickly as in the major international centres, but the underground movement was nevertheless very active. A group called The Sperm (1968–70) was responsible for some avant-garde electronic music taking its inspiration from pop and jazz. The primus motor behind the group was Pekka Airaksinen, in whose private studio experiments were made using guitar feedback, tape delays and so on. Airaksinen’s studio was fairly modest, comprising a few tape recorders and guitar effects, but was significant for being Finland’s first private electronic music studio.

An electronic renaissance

At the end of the 60s, the scene hotted up again in the area of electronic music proper. The days of nursery experiments seemed to have been left behind, and electronic music began to enjoy an established status during the 1970s.

In the spring of 1968, Osmo Lindeman (1929–87), an experienced composer of orchestral music and teacher of music theory at the Sibelius Academy, decided he had had enough of bad performances of his instrumental music and vowed to concentrate his efforts on electronic music instead. This difficult transfer from one genre to another bore fruit. In 1972, Lindeman's work Ritual brought him a prize from a major Italian composition competition. Lindeman only managed to compose six electronic works, but nevertheless he became a central authority on the field. In autumn 1972 he began to teach electronic music technology at the Sibelius Academy, and it was on these theoretical courses that a great many young composers had their first contact with the field. In other words, the Academy had at last opened its doors to electronic music, even though it was to be many years before it established a studio of its own.

In the late 1960s the Finnish Broadcasting Company also woke from a period of inactivity and started to organise electronic music concerts. Antero Honkanen and Jarmo Sermilä were behind the revival of the experimental spirit in 1971. Tehosto, the sound effects department of Finnish Radio, had relatively rudimentary equipment, but it was blessed with a fine collection of sound materials and a great deal of experience with working with them. Electroacoustic compositions started to rain down thick and fast. In 1972, the Radio's Experimental Studio was allocated its own rooms and its first member of staff, Pekka Sirén. The studio's profile began to strengthen when Englishman Andrew Bentley arrived in 1976 to stir the studio into greater activity, and Juhani Liimatainen was appointed as the unit's second sound engineer in 1978. The Experimental Studio became a centre which attracted the majority of composers and whose output rose to achieve internationally acknowledged standards.

Erkki Kurenniemi continued to develop new musical machines. In 1970 he completed the DIMI (Digital Musical Instrument), into whose memory an entire 100 play commands could be stored. The DIMI series was extended with the DIMI-0, an electronic organ also incorporating a memory, controlled by a video signal. The next machine, the DIMI-S or Sexophone, transformed electrical skin contact into sounds, while the DIMI-E or Electroencelophone was controlled by electrical impulses from the brain. In 1974, when the first microprocessor chips came on the market, Kurenniemi created the DIMI-6000, a hybrid synthesiser with no less than 4 kilbytes of memory, in which sound circuitry was controlled by an Intel 8008 microprocessor. Kurenniemi began to pull out of his activities at the university studio and concentrate on his own firm, Digelius Electronics. Jukka Ruohomäki started to look after the studio, which continued as a very active centre. It organised courses in which, among others, Lindeman's students were able to gain hands-on experience. The studio was able to improve its equipment base and in 1972 it became home for the country's first voltage-controlled synthesiser, a VCS-3 Putney synthesiser made in England. As the end of the 1970s approached, however, the studio's activity waned for want of sufficient staff.

The 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s saw a major change in the circumstances of Finnish electronic music. Creative possibilities which had previously been the domain of a small minority now became available to everyone. Most electronic music today is made on equipment available for use in the home. It has even become more difficult to define the very concept of what electronic music actually is. Nevertheless, experiments and research into music and sound itself continue unabated, and it is worth giving a resume of the resources currently available. The studio at Helsinki University has started to integrate its activities more closely with the interests of the Department of Musicology as a whole. This pioneering studio is bugged however by a serious shortage of resources, and the same is true of the CARTES centre (Centre for ARt and TEchnology, ESpoo; see FMQ 1/1994) in neighbouring Espoo. The centre was established in 1992 jointly by the Sibelius Academy, the Acoustic Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology and the city of Espoo, during a period of euphoria, but it has yet to establish a properly equipped studio for itself. The Acoustics Laboratory however has a high-powered research project on instrument modelling going on at CARTES, and the centre's current activities are described in more detail elsewhere in this issue. The very existence of the Radio's Experimental Studio was under threat last year, but things are running smoothly again there now. Reequipping of the studio, along with a new production strategy concentrating on the Radio’s own requirements, seems to have created a favourable environment for the development of the radiophonic art there. The Sibelius Academy's computer music studio SACMUS, founded in 1991, is establishing itself as the country's principal home for electronic and computer music production. A lot of works have already been made there, and they have been aired in concerts in the splendid multichannel sound theatre of the Academy's chamber music hall. The Academy is also a home for research and a full five-year degree programme in music technology is being launched there this autumn. The importance of new technology to music has thus now been formally recognised.

New technology has started to spread to regions beyond the capital – a matter of no small import for a country as sparsely populated as Finland is. The studio established at Oulu Conservatory in 1991 is worthy of mention, situated as it is some 600 kilometers to the north of Helsinki.

Jukka Ruohomaki C Vesa Ranta Suomen Saveltajat
Jukka Ruohomäki
Photo: Vesa Ranta / Suomen Säveltäjät

Jukka Ruohomäki

Jukka Ruohomäki has made electronic music since 1970, first at the studio of Helsinki University's Department of Musicology and later at the Experimental Studio of Finnish Radio. He spent the 1980s designing 3D computer graphics, but returned to music in the mid-1990s. He came up with a project of writing a history of Finnish electroacoustic music. Ruohomäki conducted interviews, studied research materials etc., building up his knowledge of the subject. His work has led to various outcomes, such as compiling this article. 

But by 1997 Ruohomäki was back composing again. Around the same time, he moved to Oulu to take up a position as lecturer in electroacoustic music at the conservatory. His book on the history of Finnish electroacoustic music was never completed. Instead, a body of world-class work was produced by him and his students during his time in Oulu, up until his retirement in 2015. His home studio in Oulu remains active.

Featured photo by Kai Lassfolk: The studio of the Helsinki University Department of Musicology