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Tampere Biennale: Approachable musical diversity

by Hanna Isolammi

The theme of the Tampere Biennale contemporary music festival in April 2024 was ‘Worlds in Metamorphosis’. The event approached the theme through works with a strong societal message, multi-faceted aesthetics, compositional pedagogy and multidisciplinary collaborative projects. The concert programmes were fascinating, and helped the festival reach new audiences.

The Tampere Biennale is the most Finnish of the country’s contemporary music festivals. Founded in 1986, the festival has always featured a Finnish composer as artistic director and a strong focus on domestic music. Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, Executive Director of Tampere Music Festivals, which organises the Tampere Biennale,says that over the years, the core of the festival has remained faithful to the spirit of its founder, composer Usko Meriläinen (1930–2004), as a forum for presenting Finnish art music. However, it has also broadened in terms of the nationality, gender and aesthetics of composers, for example. This year’s festival, held 10–14 April, was the 20th, with a programme designed by its new artistic director, composer Minna Leinonen

Leinonen chose ‘Worlds in Metamorphosis’ as the theme of her first festival. In addition to the turbulent, rapidly changing world situation, the choice of theme was inspired by fellow composer Riikka Talvitie’s artistic doctoral research project which examines changes in the composer’s job description and dialogical practices in composing. 

“There are changes in every area: society, art and pedagogy,” says Leinonen. “There has also been a big leap in the perception of composership over the last decade.”

In Finnish contemporary music, the change may also be seen in the liberation of aesthetics from relative like-mindedness towards diversity. Leinonen says that when studying the works of her fellow composers, she noticed that all the compositions, regardless of their starting points, were linked to contemporary times. 

“While institutions can sometimes be slow, music and art themselves are quick to respond to time. That’s why the programme was so diverse,” she says.

“While institutions can sometimes be slow, music and art themselves are quick to respond to time,” says Minna Leinonen, the new artistic director of Tampere Biennale. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Collaboration and audience records

The Tampere Biennale concert programmes were based on diversity. Juxtaposing compositions of different styles in the same concert showcased the newest music in an approachable way and maintained listeners’ interest. According to Kuivalainen, the festival’s artistic content and accessible concert packages, along with communications and marketing, brought the Biennale more visibility.

“Once again, the festival gained new audiences,” says Kuivalainen, who has led the Tampere Music Festivals for 20 years. Indeed, the festival attracted plenty of attendees for all events, with some lunchtime concerts standing-room only.

For Leinonen, it is important that new music is approachable – without compromising on its substance. In addition to putting together diverse, high-profile concerts, she sought to bring the festival to local residents and settings outside of concert halls. For example, passers-by could hear singing statues on the Hämeensilta Bridge in the centre of Tampere, and many stopped to listen with apparent interest. 

In two other concepts conceived by Leinonen, members of the public could experience art while walking. The Sara Hildén Art Museum hosted a record-breaking walking concert where cellist Sirja Nironen and actor Antti Tiensuu led the audience from one exhibition room to another with new cello works and a space conjured up by Eeva-Liisa Manner’s grotesquely dreamlike short story “Passacaglia for Small Hippopotami”. The atmosphere was otherworldly, and even moving 185 listeners from one place to another didn’t break the intensity. 

Audio Story by Tammerkoski, a mystery experience combining dance, music and installation art, was also impressive. It was created by composers and sound artists Tytti Arola and Þorkell Nordal, choreographer Samuli Roininen and author Salla Simukka, whose text was read by the actor Seela Sella, along with a group of musicians and young dancers. 

“Audio Story by Tammerkoski” combined dance, music and installation art. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

“Nowadays, this type of cooperation is possible and advantageous,” says Leinonen. “The people who created it all interacted well from the start, and it was a meaningful and exciting moment for me to get the pieces of the concept to fall into place.”

Cooperation – in both artistic and practical terms – is an essential part of putting a festival together. 

“Artistic planning is always dialogue,” says Leinonen. “With chamber ensembles, it’s usually quite straightforward, but orchestras’ programmes, for example, are shaped by many people and factors, such as the orchestra’s pre-existing contracts and the conductor’s wishes.” 

It’s impossible to know how in advance well a collaboration will go, but the successful matches are delightful: “For example, Antti Auvinen’s Boundary Bourrée, which was commissioned by the Tampere Biennale, seemed to suit Crash Ensemble from Ireland very well. They plan to perform it elsewhere later.”

Cooperation was also discussed at a seminar organised by the Society of Finnish Composers, which has been part of the Tampere Biennale programme for at least three decades. The festival serves as a collegial meeting place for composers, with more than 50 composers based in Finland attending this year.


At the Heart of the Fantastic

The Tampere Biennale’s theme of change was also appropriate in that the festival featured for the first time a guest composer: Spanish-born Mikel Urquiza, who lives in France. Leinonen says that she invited Urquiza to take part in the festival after being impressed by his surprising work with musical textures. Most of the music performed at Tampere Biennale is Finnish, but there have always been works by composers from other countries as well. 

“I asked Mikel to be a guest with the idea that a foreign composer who’s visible at the festival through their works could also be present and approachable,” Leinonen explains. 

Urquiza says he was pleased to come to Tampere.

“I was very flattered by Minna’s email, especially since we didn’t know each other. My music is programmed in many countries, but mostly by musicians or programmers that I already know. Music can bring us together in surprising ways,” he says.

Urquiza’s compositions were performed at three concerts during the Biennale, in addition to which he gave a master class for composition students at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences and a public lecture entitled “At the Heart of the Fantastic”. He attended nearly all of the festival’s concerts, especially the club events.

“I loved the late-evening concerts, the one with jazz musicians at the TTT-Klubi [“Hietsu is Happening!”] and the one with defunensemble. I think contemporary music works well in a lighter atmosphere,” says Urquiza. 

Urquiza’s own works were performed at the festival by the Central Ostrobothnia Chamber Orchestra, cellist Marko Ylönen and Crash Ensemble pianist Andrew Zolinsky. It is too early to say whether the Tampere Biennale will lead to new collaborations between the guest composer and Finnish musicians, but there was such interest in Urquiza’s music that it is quite possible. 

“I very much enjoyed collaborating with Finnish musicians,” he says. “I found them very professional and invested. I’d love to come back soon.”

For Urquiza, the Tampere Biennale also served as an in-depth course on his Finnish colleagues’ music. 

“I have indeed listened to a lot of music by Finnish composers in the last days,” he says. “But I can’t say I have identified something that was common to all or most of them. Matilda Seppälä’s For the win and Antti Auvinen’s Boundary Bourrée seem to me quite different, for example. But I see that as something positive, a sign that Finnish new music is alive and diverse.”

Central Ostrobothnia Chamber Orchestra performing. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Hearing boosts understanding

Leinonen teaches composition and composition pedagogy at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and the Pirkanmaa Music Institute in Tampere. As she has been strongly involved in various compositional pedagogical projects, she wanted to bring a pedagogical perspective to Tampere Biennale as well. The subject is also timely, as the festival’s pre-event launched the Year of Composition, organised by the Association of Finnish Music Schools.

The concerts at the pre-event featured several premieres and new compositions by composition students and professional composers. 

“At the pedagogical concerts, young people learned a lot about musical language and ways of doing things by rehearsing each other’s works and those of professional composers,” she says. 

Leinonen points to an example of the importance of approachability that arose in this context. 

“One of Kalevi Aho’s pedagogical works was premiered at a pre-event concert, and Kalevi attended because of this two-minute composition. It was a great experience for young composers, performers and audiences that one of Finland’s best-known composers was present. One music teacher told me that they had previously only seen Kalevi Aho in the pages of a magazine or a book.”

According to Leinonen, these types of events increase the approachability of contemporary music in many ways. 

“Young people’s parents and friends came to listen, so they also get used to hearing new music,” she notes. “And hearing boosts understanding – it gradually changes the perception of who can be a composer and what contemporary music can be like.”

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju Translation: Wif Stenger