It’s mid-March. I’m sitting in Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church, in one of the last public concerts in the city before the coronavirus shutdown. The final notes of my recent piece Five Windows on Winter fade away. A concerto for chromatic kantele and string orchestra, the piece presents contrasting stylistic impressions of our cultural ideas of winter. The fifth and last movement, Remembering, is a meditation on the end of winter in the cyclical sense, and the coming of spring.
It’s a recurrent theme in my work. I’ve always been taken with the slow, grudging Nordic progression from inert cold to warmth and new life. But the movement is also an elegy for the end of winter in our time. Hearing it at the end of the snowless winter of 2020, the warmest, rainiest in living memory, and amid the dawning, belated awareness of the climate crisis at hand, I wonder: have I written a political statement?
Insofar as art placed before an audience can be private, I meant it as a personal expression on the loss of the snowy, invigorating winters of my Canadian childhood, and my early years in Finland. Watching winter fade from collective experience and memory fills me with sadness, yet the music does not rage. It is gentle, resigned, and what some might call “unashamedly beautiful”. (That shame over beauty still haunts new music is a topic for another article.) But it is not overtly political.
There is certainly cause for activism in art at the moment, given the series of humblings dealt us by the natural world, brought about to a great degree by mundane politics. I’m currently at work on a solo piece for harp named after a favorite early wildflower, music once again inhabiting the poetic space between winter and spring. In the face of the magnitude of the climate and pandemic crises, I find myself wondering if I’m being frivolous. But despite being something of a pessimist by (and about) nature, my music rarely reflects that. “I wish you could live the way you write,” a friend once told me. “It’s so hopeful.”
I’ve been working with nature themes for as long as I’ve been composing. It’s a subject of endless fascination for the different perspectives one can take on it, from emotive to objective. But it’s also a theme fraught with risk. To openly invoke natural beauty in concert music is often seen as romantic, nostalgic, sentimental, or even worse: programmatic. My work has been labeled as such many times. It’s not that I reject these descriptions, only the binaries they imply. My music is all those qualities, but it is also empirical, affectless, abstract. Polarities can co-exist and illuminate one another. (One might as well ask if I feel more Canadian or Finnish, North American or European. The two are parts of a whole. Only the “or” doesn’t fit.)
My outlook is rooted in an aesthetics divergent from timely activism, a 19th-century tradition of nature depiction adapted and modernized from Mahler, in whose music we hear the dichotomy between humanity and nature in real time. Think of the “Naturlaut”, the sound of nature in his first symphony: a curtain of string harmonics, still, distant, impassive, both permeating the bustling humanity of the symphonic argument and superseding it.
Nature is a starting point for me because it is dissonant with abstract musical processes: theme, motive, development, counterpoint. Such ideas in isolation yield to my mind music that is ordinary, earthbound, about itself and its materials, and very much about its creator. Nature forces me to question why such things are necessary at all, to pry open the self-referential structure of the musical work and let in the world. Nature exposes the artifice of art, the craftedness of it, the smallness and egotism of it before the vastness of creation. To invoke nature is to admit the wild, the unplanned, into art.
Compared with these romantic ideals, overt political activism in music, it seems to me, is a safe way of bringing nature into art: a trendy cover for a “regressive”, anachronistic act. Art can rage at the destruction of nature without being seen as sentimental. But does artistic protest by itself alter anything? Does it move the audience to reconsider its relationship to the natural world, or merely register the artist’s own raw frustration? What vision, what path forward can art present? What can I offer our trying times other than sermonizing? (And other than irony, in the inevitability later this year of a flood of works for spatialized ensemble titled Social Distancing.)
The solution may lie in accepting another dichotomy: that it is both possible and desirable to express an appreciation of the natural world in the awareness that its beauty is a sentimental illusion. Nature is not there to move us, to serve our ego. Nature just is. But we are here to be moved by nature. Therein lies the wonder: our human subjectivity, our ability to be awed and inspired by the beauty and majesty of nature, our overwhelming need to communicate that sentiment to each other through our art, form a gateway to preservation and renewal. We cannot conserve that which we do not love. In this sense, any artistic presentation of nature is by default sentimental. Only nature is nature. All else is artifice.
So should art provide a common space to vent our anguish at environmental degradation, our frustration at the lack of political will to address the problems facing our civilization, to give voice to the betrayal we rightly feel at the placing of short-term profit ahead of human wellbeing and beneficial technological change? Perhaps. Anger is part of grief, and my music has shown anger on occasion. But another, more restorative part is fond remembrance of that which we have lost. In the expression of grief, there must be room for sentiment, and for looking toward a brighter, healthier future. For this reason, my music will remain what it has always been: a repository of hope.
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju