in From the Archives

Sermilä “the All-rounder”

by Anu Karlson

It is improvisatory music, such as jazz, that Jarmo Sermilä plays best on the trumpet and flugelhorn, and his status and focus as a musician is also probably slightly unconventional compared with the normal art music enthusiast.

He has been Executive Director of the Finnish Music Information centre and the Finnish Time of Music Festival, acted as spokesman for the Society of Finnish Composers, was involved in a cultural exchange with Czechoslovakia, and has published music and made recordings. And he has lived his whole life far way from Helsinki, in the small town of Hämeenlinna.

When he was still at school, Jarmo Sermilä had violin lessons, as befitted the child of a cultivated family in the petit bourgeois town of Hämeenlinna. But then he heard Dizzy Gillespie play on a BBC Finnish language broadcast, and he just had to get a horn straight away.

After passing his school exams he supported himself for a while as a musician in a dance restaurant. This exhausting occupation would, to all intents and purposes, have meant the end of a beautiful relationship with music but for the fact that he again heard something ” on the radio again. The Radio Contemporary Music Ensemble were playing Edgar Varèse’s Octandre. “It gave me back my belief that there was still something new and stimulating to be found in music.”


Distance Learning with the Sibelius Academy

Sermilä became a student of music, even it was a slightly unorthodox arrangement from the modern viewpoint. At that time it was possible to take the exams of the Sibelius Academy at the School of Music in Hämeenlinna on a sort of distance learning basis. It meant the actual examination could be taken either by playing one’s instrument in Helsinki or having the examiner from the academy visit Hämeenlinna. “I must be the only composer who graduated from the Sibelius Academy without appearing once on their register.”

Sermilä wrote counterpoint for his officially retired professor, Eino Linnala, and at one stage the latter remarked that the work he had accomplished in his study book would get him into university immediately. So Sermilä also enrolled at the university as a student of musicology. And when Ilkka Oramo -” employed at the time as a musicology assistant “- wrote a list of topics for a master’s thesis to choose from on the board and Varèse was one of them, Sermilä decided to make this composer the object of serious scrutiny. “Then many years went by, and I didn’t listen to anything else except Varèse.”

Helping to Establish Finnish Musical Life

Sermilä did not hurry in his studies, and was gainfully employed the whole time. He saw an advertisement in a magazine in which Yleisradio (the Finnish Broadcasting Company) were looking for participants in courses for sound engineers. He sent off an application and was accepted.

After that he worked as the curator of the Sibelius Museum in Hämeenlinna until he received an offer he could not refuse. The Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Music were reorganising, and that meant that the Finnish Music Information Centre was without a manager. As the salary was almost four times what he was getting at the museum, it did not take him long to make up his mind. “And I’ve never regretted that decision; during those years I got to know anyone who was anyone in Finnish musical life.”

It was 1971. Sermilä and his people spread the news about Finnish music, first by urging composers to send their compositions to the centre. From that point they then made progress in collaboration with other centres in other countries. At the same time Paavo Helistö, music producer with Finnish Radio, asked him whether he felt like starting an electronic music studio at the radio station ” such as any self-respecting radio company should have these days, they say. Sermilä agreed, and got to work with Antero Honkanen, then in charge of the sound effects department. The two of them gradually put together the equipment they needed. “Although the studio at that time was quite modestly equipped, compared to what there is these days, we got some results from it that we do not need to feel ashamed of even now. Quality is not so closely dependent on state-of the-art equipment as you would think,” muses Sermilä.

Jarmo Sermilä began his composition studies as a private pupil of Joonas Kokkonen. Kokkonen was already an Academician at that time, but he felt it an academic’s duty to have five students of composition. As it happened, when Sermilä asked, one place had become free, and because he had passed the exams that Kokkonen specified, the place was his.

Kokkonen was himself a symphonist and writer of large-scale works. Anything that had any reference to improvisation he viewed with suspicion. “But he did respect the convictions of others, and he understood Varèse’s importance, especially as I used to go on about him so much at the time.” Sermilä then wrote the work for his diploma: an orchestral piece he called Mimesis II. He never even dreamed it would be performed, but the conductor Leif Segerstam one day found it lying on his desk in the Music Information Centre and asked if he could perform it with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sermilä asked Kokkonen for his advice, and Kokkonen replied: “Why not? They’ve played worse things!”

In the end the first public performance of the work was not given by the RSO but the Helsinki City Orchestra, so, in any case, it did get played.

Modern Music from Prague

When he was just a young student, Sermilä received a letter from Czechoslovakia. Its writer wanted his help to get hold of new American jazz records and offered to send him some interesting Czech jazz in exchange. Sermilä was broad-minded enough to admit that Czechoslovakia was a virtually unknown quantity as far as music was concerned, and therefore interesting. This trading relationship suited both sides and lasted some time, but then came the message from Czechoslovakia that their stock of jazz discs was running low. Sermilä came up with an answer: send any of the latest music that had been composed in Czechoslovakia.

He got what he wanted, and so discovered, through their recordings on disc, the Czech new music group, Musica Viva Pragensis. It was an ensemble of very skilled players, whose line-up changed, and who were very earnestly involved in new music. The music itself was very diverse in style, a little like it was in Finland too at the time, Sermilä observes. “No one school was prominent, and in fact there was hardly one single composer whose entire output might have stood out, but good pieces were to be found here and there.”

Sermilä got so interested in Czechoslovakia that he began planning a study tour there as a composer. This finally came about in the form of a short visit later on during the 1970s, but he was working at the Finnish Music Information Centre at the time and could not get away for any longer then two months. The tour proved nevertheless to be very useful to him. To provide some light relief from his composition studies he had his horn with him and he joined some local jazz musicians. 1978 saw the issue of the Grand Old Circus, an LP that is famous in the world of free jazz and was the result of an international collaboration.

“In no way did jazz musicians in Czechoslovakia get locked into their own style of jazz,” says Jarmo Sermilä of his colleagues’ broad approach to the music there. “Since the underground music of the 70s the alternative music movement -” underground, avantgarde, improvisation “- has been kept alive and well there. Those guys are still asking me to go over there.”

Winds of Change at Viitasaari

Improvisation came into Sermilä’s life with renewed vigour in summer 1982, when he played at the Time of Music Festival in Viitasaari for the first time. At the time Vinko Globokar, who was a major influence in the life of many other Finnish composers and performing artists, was guest composer.

”I discovered how improvisation could sometimes be used in a proper composition. Secondly, I got to play with some excellent musicians, using my comparatively modest skills,” the modest Sermilä explains.

He was faced with a real challenge when the festival’s artistic director, Jukka Tiensuu, went off to the USA and asked him to look after things. After much hesitation Sermilä agreed, as Tiensuu promised to help out if it was necessary. “But it was awkward handling things from another continent “- there was no email then and it was not so easy to use the phone as it is nowadays. My time at Viitasaari was very important to me, though, because I met composers and musicians from around the world, and I had to keep an eye on everything.”

But before Viitasaari there had been ISCM. When the Finnish division of the International Society for Contemporary Music was founded in association with the Society of Finnish Composers, Jarmo Sermilä became its chairman. Its secretary was music producer Sisko Ramsay and it had been her idea to try and bring the festival to Finland. After some initial hesitation, Sermilä warmed to the idea and so the ISCM Festival was held in Finland in 1978. Although the facilities and level of the performances seen from today’s point of view seem unpretentious in Sermilä’s opinion, he thinks the festival was an impetus, one of many, to the establishment of the Helsinki Biennale, and later, the annual Musica Nova Helsinki.

Music Publishing

While Sermilä was employed by the Finnish Music Information Centre he had been wondering why music publishing in Finland was such a lethargic business. It mainly seemed to focus on collections of works for study purposes and music by composers who had died a long time ago. “What can be so difficult about giving it a go?” thought Sermilä, and when he was appointed Artist-in-Residence of the province of Häme he decided to do just that.

At the time the artist-in-residence was a specialist at the disposal of the Arts Council of the province and spent half of his working time engaged in his or her own creative work. The other half consisted of making decisions in agreement with the arts committee on “almost anything, from matters of education to organising concerts.” Later the institution changed its policy and the holder of the post is now called Managing Artist-in-Residence and works on the committee the whole year long. Sermilä thinks the change was badly considered as less professionally oriented artists now apply for the job. “To my mind, it would have been better if the artists-in-residence had been made provincial honorary arts professors whose words and deeds would have carried more weight. In my time I had such colleagues as the poet Väinö Kirstinä and the painter Matti Koskela, who even then had made a name for themselves.”

So Sermilä founded the publishing house, Jasemusiikki, securely based on three activities: publishing, and the option to release discs and act as concert agent. The last formed one of the cornerstones of the company’s activities, as Sermilä kept his company on its feet by organising a regular series of concerts to take place in Hämeenlinna. Meanwhile the catalogue of published works grew rapidly. Sermilä only had to ring a composer and say “Hi! I saw that piece of yours at the Information Centre ” would it be worth publishing, do you think?” and the answer was “Yes, of course.”

The recording business started in the 80s when the reform in musical education that had got under way ten years before began to bear visible -” and audible -” fruit. Suddenly there were dozens of musicians in Finland who could play anything! While there were still LPs they released the first records of Finnish / Czech jazz collaborations, and these were followed by a chamber music disc featuring the cellist Risto Poutanen and the pianist Ilmo Ranta. The first CD contained electronic music by Usko Meriläinen, and the second was a disc of brass music. The story behind that is that the trumpeter Jouko Harjanne happened to get on the same train as Sermilä and decided to ask on the off chance whether Jasemusiikki would record a disc of him playing. “Why not?” replied Sermilä. The disc, entitled Total Trumpet, contains classical trumpet repertoire with both piano and orchestral accompaniment. It proved to be a splendid start not only to Harjanne’s recording career but also to Jasemusiikki’s very respectable catalogue of recordings of brass music. The latest additions are solo discs by the French horn player Esa Tapani, and the young trumpeter Pasi Pirinen.

Except for two short spells away from home -” a year of study in Helsinki in the 60s, and the trip to Prague -” Sermilä has lived his whole life in Hämeenlinna. Nowadays it is not so unusual to commute such long distances to the capital, but 30 years ago it was less common. The train journey took ages because the train used to stand a whole hour at Riihimäki – hardly an important stop! “You even had time to go and have a bite to eat in the station buffet.”

44 Horns and Other Brass Music

As a composer, Sermilä certainly has not neglected brass music: he even had a concert consisting entirely of his own works given at the Lieksa Brass Week in 1998.

“My first piece for brass I wrote for Edward Vesala, the percussion player, who wanted to play something from music: it was a work called Monody for French horn and percussion; I myself played the horn part on the mellophone, and we made a recording of it.”

After that came various works of different types for small and large ensembles, some of which included a part for tape. The strangest commission Sermilä has had was from the Finnish Horn Society once: they wanted a piece in which all the members of the club, both professional and amateur, would have something to play. “I asked their leader at the time, Mikko Hynninen, how many of these members there might be, and he said 44,” laughs Sermilä. “So I then wrote a piece I called Cornology. Perhaps the work focused more on the amateur parts, but that is all to the good.”

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland


List of his compositions for brass

Large ensembles

Cornologia (1975, 18′)
24-44 horns
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Time Machine (1978, 18′)
4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 4 horns, euphonium, tuba, percussion (4 players)
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Pentagram (1972, 11′)
trumpet solo, 0002 4000 12 6vc 2cb
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

On the Road – a Concerto of Our Time (1993, 17′)
trumpet solo (+ el. processor), percussion (1), mixed choir
Commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company

Un’asserzione di una signora (1994, 11′)
horn solo, string orchestra
Commissioned by Lieksa Brass Week

Train Of Thoughts (1999, 15′)
fluegelhorn solo, 2000 0000 strings
Commissioned by the Hämeenlinna City Orchestra
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Chamber music

Monody (1970, 7′)
horn, percussion (1)
Publisher: Warner Chappell Finland

Homage to EV (1971, 8′)
2 trumpets, 2 horns, 3 trombones, percussion (2)
Commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company

Contemplation 1 (1976, 11′)
fluegelhorn, pre-recorded electronics
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Rotations (1981, 12′)
2 trumpets, 2 trombones
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Musique aerée (1982, 7´-12´)
4 undefined brass instruments
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

…and an elk was formed by Hiisi (1984, 13′)
2 trombones, percussion (2), pre-recorded electronics
Commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Co.

Diary Fragments by Kilgore Trout 2 (1988, 5′)
2 trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Final Conclusion (1988, 7′)
trumpet, pre-recorded electronics
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Das Gebläse (1989, 6′)
horn, percussion (1)
Commisioned by VEB DVfM Leipzig
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Trocortro (1990, 13′)
trumpet, horn, trombone
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

But I Didn’t Know It Was Spring (1995, 10′)
trumpet, pre-recorded electronics

Quasi come Quasimodo (1997,10′)
tuba, percussion (1)
Publisher: Jasemusiikki

Intermezzo (1997, 9′)
trombone, marimba, harp

Samurai Song (2000, 9′)
trombone, pre-recorded electronics

Translation: Spencer Allman


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/2001

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