in From the Archives

The birth of a genre – Finnish radiophony seeks contact with humankind

by Risto Nieminen

"Out of experiment and splintered ideas has developed a powerful new mode of musical expression commanding its own set of rules – even though now here are these rules written down. The tradition has already started to nourish itself. Now we are entitled to speak of the birth of a genre," writes Risto Nieminen in his article on radiophony in Finland that was first published in 1991.

Woman: I am talking to you now. Come. Come and you will see a dream. Build a ship; make it of gold. Come. Walk into the city of dreams. Come. Come, even as you escape. Denounce your gods of stone. Come and stay and burn the city of dreams where they pray to the stone gods. Build a golden ship. Hold out your hand and fall inside me. Come.

An evocative call from some distant place, from the unknown. An invitation which comes close and which is at one and the same time forceful yet intimate. The woman is inviting us on board the radiophonic composition Faust by Magnus Lindberg and Juha Siltanen.

Faust, completed in 1986, was the first Finnish composition to win the radio music category of the coveted Prix Italia international music awards. Two years later the same prize was awarded to Kaija Saariaho's Stilleben, and in the following year Olli Kortekangas' Memoria won a special prize in the same competition.

All this gave rise very quickly to a myth concerning the high standard of Finnish radiophonic composition or more precisely such composition within the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle. This did not take into account, however, the long history and development of this form, stretching back to Yle’s first participation already in the second year of the competition's existence, in 1950. This was the year when the Finnish composer Tauno Pylkkänen took the third prize with his radio opera The Wolf’s Bride.


Radiophony is not as established as a musical form or genre in the same sense as, say, chamber music, orchestral music or even electronic music. But it's roots still go back as far as the earliest times of the radio medium. In 1929 Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill together created the radio play Der Flug der Lindberghs, which they christened Radiolehrstück.

The term “radiophonic composition” is used simply to mean a piece of music which is intended to be listened to over through the medium of radio. More often than not, it means a tape prepared in the studio, i.e. tape music, but also containing features which distinguish it from works made in the electronic music on musique concrète tradition, though often such a work does bear a close relationship to these forms, especially the latter.

Radiophonic music has its origins in the joining of text and music. The original regulations governing the Prix Italia speak of “a musical work composed to a text”, which in the early years of the competition took on the meaning of a form of radio opera spiced with some effects and speech.

The human voice has in any case remained the central element in radiophony, in spite of the rapid development of both compositional techniques and the technical facilities employed in the studio where it is made. The reason is clearly that the human voice is at its most intimate and expressive when exploited in the radio or radiophonic medium.

In Finland, radiophony has never been analytically defined, nor have any guiding premises or limitations been imposed on it. This has allowed composers a freedom to interpret the relation between the radio medium and their own musical outlook as freely as they wish.

Nevertheless, the fact that radiophony has been practised for forty years in one and the same place, i.e. Finnish radio's music and experimental studios, has ensured a certain continuity and laid a foundation for development. Each new composer who has entered the studio has been aware of what his or her predecessors have been able to make out of the medium. 

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The Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. (Yle Archives)

Prix Italia

An important stimulus for the production of radiophonic work has undoubtedly been the Italian broadcasting authority RAI's Prix Italia competition founded in 1949, with its three competitive categories for music, drama and documentary programmes. The same categories also apply to the competition for television.

The opportunity for radio companies to gather prestige for themselves has been the driving force for them to commission radiophonic music. In Finland at least this has had an influence on musical policy at large, in spite of the fact that the Prix Italia as an event has not always proved to be completely convincing in terms of jury standards or as a meeting ground for the most creatively active personalities in the field.

The music category in particular has been the object of criticism and speculation as to whether the regulations of the event should be so loose that music documentaries, unadorned recordings of concerts and true radiophonic works all end up competing in the same category.

Whatever the case, the truth is that the competition has led to the creation of around twenty commissioned works in Finland alone, which have found a wide public through the medium of radio in many participating countries.


From Pylkkänen to Koskelin

When the composition To Whom It May Concern by the young composer Olli Koskelin was entered for the Prix Italia last autumn, exactly forty years had passed since the success of the pioneering work by Tauno Pylkkänen (1918–1980). Pylkkänen was already known as a composer of opera in his own country at the time of the competition, but The Wolf’s Bride brought him substantial international recognition for the first time.

Pylkkänen later recalled the event in the following words: “The radio ballad The Wolf’s Bride brought me four thousand Swiss Francs and an unforeseen night flight to Torino to accept the prize. It was a quite unbelievable experience to be standing next to Ildebrando Pizzetti ( the winner of the first prize), for whom I had so much respect, in the dazzling halls of the Palazzo Madama blinded by the television lights and photographers’ flashes. I stayed behind for a week by the beach at Santa Margherita, wondering at the soft warmth of the Mediterranean autumn and revelling in the fact that – for the first time – l was abroad with enough money for my needs.”

It is likely that Pylkkänen, innocently enough perhaps, hit here upon the single main reason why the Prix Italia has retained its attraction for all the representatives of the radio companies which participate.

In spite of Pylkkänen's inspiring success, the next Finnish radiophonic work did not come to fruition until twenty years later, but from the early seventies onwards works have been created on a regular basis. One of the stimuli has surely been the foundation of Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. The new studio brought with it advanced equipment, expert technical staff and ample time set aside for working.

The Experimental Studio has played a critical role in the development of Finnish radiophonic composition. One indicator of this has been the intimate collaboration of the studio’s technical assistant Juhani Liimatainen in all three Finnish works to have won prizes in the Prix Italia.

The most ambitious project of the seventies was undertaken by Einojuhani Rautavaara, who created a radiophonic work called True & False Unicorn (1974) from out of his piece for choir, instruments and tape, based on texts by James Broughton. Rautavaara makes true radiophonic use of his resources: he builds up the dramatic form using quick edits and by splicing together different materials and even musical styles in collage-like fashion. The result is a musicianly work embodying both serious mythological overtones and healthy irony.

Aulis Sallinen also realised a work in the middle seventies: the melodrama Chaka (1915) based on an African story. Unfortunately this failed to reach wider public attention because of a dispute over the rights to the text.

The work Maiandros by Paavo Heininen is a finely worked stream of compositional material derived from the piano, though it is in genre terms closer to the musique concrète tradition than radiophony as such.

The Rise of Mr. Jonathan Smith, devised in 1978 by Herman Rechberger is more of a radiophonic drama than a musical composition, but its musical pace and humour earned it the Prix Italia special prize that year.

During the late seventies and into the eighties, composers such as Jarmo Sermilä and Usko Meriläinen were to be seen working regularly in the studio, out of an interest in developing the expressive capacity of both tape music and music for radio. Meriläinen's Oratorio to Picasso (1984) is an example of how an impressive large-scale work can be created out of a modest starting point (two actors and the radio's sound effect archive). Erik Bergman also started from an interesting standpoint when he compiled the work In Springtime (1981) out of his own previous compositions. 

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Juhani Liimatainen at the Finnish Radio Experimental Studio. (Yle Archives)

Music from the word

Baalal (1982) by Esa-Pekka Salonen opened a new era in Finnish radiophony. Young composers owning a background and experience in tape music became actively interested in studio work and already had a vision of what radiophony could offer them.

Salonen wrote in his working notes: “The form to be as it is in composition, not dramatically unambiguous like in radio play etc., but amorphous as multilevelled, in spite of the fact that conceivably intelligible dramatic situations might arise. Must be a plot, also themes – however, treatment of them must be unorthodox.” The “plot” of Baalal takes the form of a five-stage journey further into the depths of human consciousness. Its stages are language, morals, the subconscious, the preverbal condition and “something which is even deeper than that”.

Baalal brought a new aspect into Finnish radiophony, especially in the sense that, even though speech is given a central role, it is more of a timbral than a semantic one. Salonen uses actors like any other instruments in the score. This feature brought the style of Finnish radiophonic music nearer to the French radio atelier tradition than the German Hörstück.

The same type of approach – in which speech, language and words are used as independent, unconnected musical parameters – is taken in other works too, for example in Case (1985) by Pekka Sirén and Trance Dance (1984) by Patrick Kosk.

Faust, by Lindberg  and Siltanen, goes even further, towards the point where intelligible words are spoken but repeated listening reveals endless multiple meanings. Under normal circumstances, for example, speeches are recorded many times and the best take is chosen. In Faust, all the takes may be heard at the same time, Studio techniques have been used to realise a section in which a sentence is compressed further and further from each end until the whole of the information is heard as a single attack.

In Stilleben, Kaija Saariaho developed a technique for using text and speech even further. She uses her own choice of texts from Kafka's letters in three languages, and the counterpoint between them arises more from the languages than the words themselves.

Olli Kortekangas' Memoria (1989) also presents texts from different sources in various languages. While the work is not as many-layered in compositional terms as Stilleben, Kortekangas' intention has rather been to bring out the sensitivity, of children's voices through the commonality of subconscious experience owned by humankind.

To Whom It May Concern (1990) by Olli Koskelin is a masterpiece of modern studio technique. It offers subtle transformations between materials and from one made of expression to another. The ideas in this piece too have been realised in the studio by Juhani Liimatainen.

Forty years is not a long period in musical history as a whole, but taken as the distance between the works of Pylkkänen and Koskelin, it seems long nevertheless. Out of experiment and splintered ideas has developed a powerful new mode of musical expression commanding its own set of rules – even though now here are these rules written down. The tradition has already started to nourish itself. Now we are entitled to speak of the birth of a genre.

Other Finnish radiophonic compositions to win the radio music category of the Prix Italia are Veli-Matti Puumala’s Rajamailla (Borderlands, 2001), Jovanka Trbojević's and Jyrki Kiiskinen’s Creation Game (2009) and Riikka Talvitie’s and Tommi Kinnunen’s The Queen of the Cold Land (2018). The Finnish Radio Experimental Studio was closed in the early 2010s. 

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1991 and is now re-published with the kind permission of the author.

Featured photo: The Finnish Radio Experimental Studio (Yle Archives)