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The tone of the north

by Juha Torvinen

The north is a regular theme in Finnish music. But it is also more. It is the main myth of the region’s inhabitants, an undertone that determines their thoughts and way of life. That is why the north can be heard in Finnish music even when it is not explicitly the theme.

Northern nature and folklore have been depicted in and been the inspiration for countless Finnish compositions. Of the vast number of possible examples one could mention Uuno Klami‘s orchestral fantasy Revontulet (Aurore boréale – Northern Lights), Yrjö Kilpinen‘s Tunturilauluja (Songs of the Fells), Einar Englund‘s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Einojuhani Rautavaara‘s Cantus arcticus, and Olli Virtaperko‘s orchestral work Kuru.

What is the north anyway? In traditional European thinking, the north is often roughly defined as the part of continental Europe north of the Alps, inhabited by hard-working, dependable, and rational (Protestant) people, who listen to Bach and Brahms. This concept did not however include the cultural and geographical area also called the “true north” until the nineteen hundreds (and often still does not today), which in Europe consists only of northern Scandinavia. Influences seeping in from there have usually been pigeonholed in the south under the safe label of exoticism. For this extreme north has been considered strange, foreign, and primitive – and therefore non-European, culturally speaking. No wonder this kind of north has been the topic more of Scandinavian (and, for example, Canadian) than of continental European discourse. It is especially relevant in searching for the northern tone of Finnish music.

So what is this kind of north? It is full of extremes, for example. The polar day lasts for months in the summer, as does the polar night in the winter, when the sun never rises. Weather conditions and distances are also extreme, taxing the stamina of even the toughest travellers. The stark beauty of the northern landscape is also extreme.

Our concepts of the north are also contradictory. In the course of history, it has been populated with cyclopses, yetis, and dangerous spirits such as those of madness, drunkenness, and death. But it has also been seen as something quite different. In antiquity, the happy Hyperboreans were said to live beyond the north wind, and the region’s wonders and riches have delighted both ancient explorers and modern tourists.

The north is also immaterial, timeless, and placeless; full of immemorial traditions and beliefs. There are witches, shamans, and religious ecstasies. In the north, things are known without need of proof. In addition, as the compass shows, the north is always somewhere else. It is present by being absent. As Peter Davidson points out in his book The Idea of North, the ultima Thule, the most distant place on earth, has long served as a metaphor and reference point for the end of the knowable world.

Time, place, matter, logic – such southern categories falter in the myth of the north, where things are given meanings in preconceptual ways that do not follow normal, everyday logic. After all, myths are never logical.

The north in music

The northern tone in music cannot be unambiguously perceived. There is no list of “northern” timbres, musical forms, or harmonies that one can stick together to create northern music. Like the north itself, northern music is always “somewhere else”, in an area of experience that is hard to approach with generalising terms.

But we have to try to ask and define what the northern tone in music is. Otherwise we would be denying what can be clearly experienced, that it does exist. If the need to ask remains, so does the (musical) challenge of the north.

In any case, the north and music have a lot in common. Music, too, is extreme in its effects – it can intoxicate, excite, oppress, and frighten, for example. Following Peter Davidson’s characterisation of the north, one can say that music has long functioned as a metaphor for the boundaries of the comprehensible world. This can be seen in common expressions such as “music is the language of emotions” and “music says what words cannot”. In addition, music is also contradictory. Throughout history, music has been considered dangerous and capable of making listeners go crazy, but it has also been used to calm and heal, even to reveal the universe’s secrets. After all, the happy Hyperboreans mentioned above worshipped Apollo, who is also the god of music.

A special relationship to time and place is undeniably a characteristic of northern music. Northern music’s transparency or obscurity is always extreme, and frozen pedal points blur the sense of time. Static landscape upstages movement.

The northern tone in music also includes remnants of non-southern (non-European) ways of thinking and experiencing such as the wish to avoid either/or situations. These would resemble the mind/body, subject/object, true/untrue, and masculine/feminine dualisms of Western thinking. Northern music avoids sharp divisions into melody and accompaniment, foreground and background, major and minor, or contrasting themes and motifs.

In addition, northern music avoids musical subjects, musical centres that get too dominant. One has to adapt to the north; no one and nothing can imagine dominating it. For example, what southern thinking calls organic development in Sibelius‘s Tapiola sounds to northern ears like avoidance of excessive individualisation.

In northern music, presentation is more important than depiction. In other words, northern music does not simply describe northern phenomena; instead, it presents them as direct experiences to the listener. Samis don’t yoik about something, they yoik it. In fact, a yoik becomes what it is “about”.

Armas Launis: Aslak Hetta

The opera Aslak Hetta (1930) by Armas Launis (1884-1959) is one of the most extensive works in the history of Finnish music with the north as its theme. In addition to being a composer, Launis was a writer and a folk music scholar, who travelled all the way from Lapland to North Africa for his research. (More on Launis, see FMQ 2/2004).

The opera’s libretto is based on the 1852 conflict in Kautokeino, Norway, in which socially and economically oppressed Sami rose up in arms against the Norwegian settlers on religious and nationalist grounds. The uprising was suppressed, and five Sami were executed, including Aslak Hætta, one of the leaders. The skulls of the executed were given to “scientific” research, and they were not buried in their home soil until the 2000s.

Like Wagner, Launis wrote his own opera librettos. The revolt’s real course of events is mainly preserved in Aslak Hetta, but the events are spiced up with a love story and an extra portion of mysticism. The point of view is sympathetic towards the Sami, and the opera presents Aslak Hætta more as a freedom fighter than a rebel.

Launis agreed with Wagner’s basic concepts of the opera and used, for example, leitmotifs, rich orchestration, and long melodic lines. In Aslak Hetta, he also used as leitmotifs six original yoik melodies (collected by himself) that present, for example, Kautokeino, a fell, and the local government official.

Aslak Hetta is an example of music whose northernness is strongly dependant on the topic. In other respects, the opera is clearly southern (European) – as is only fitting for the cosmopolitan Launis. Aslak Hetta indeed raises the question to what degree the genre of opera – which calls for some degree of linearity and for actions carried out by clearly recognisable individuals – can at all be northern in the abovementioned sense of a direct experience.

Erik Bergman: music of the north’s north

Though Finland as a whole is a northern country, its northern part, Lapland, with its hard-pressed vestiges of Sami culture is a “foreign” culture to inhabitants of southern parts of Finland. Lapland is the north’s north. Therefore it also interested Erik Bergman (1911-2006), who was well-informed about foreign (musical) cultures in general.

Bergman’s oeuvre includes about ten works or movements that are connected with the theme of the north. One should mention for example the early song “Mot nord” (To the North), which belongs to opus 4 (1940) for piano and voice. Arvid Mörne’s text tells of a dream voyage to the north, and Bergman creates a northern feeling of space and light with a pedal-point-like accompaniment and wide-spaced chords with impressionistic (tonal) harmonies.

Especially interesting in terms of the northern tone of their music are however Bergman’s works Loleilā (1974), Lapponia (1975), Arctica (1979), and Borealis (1983).

In the 1970s, Bergman familiarised himself with Lapland and Sami music traditions with the help of recordings and literature. But the most rewarding experiences were two trips to the north of Finland and Norway. The first one was in the summer of 1974, when he was asked to write a composition for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. He travelled to Enontekiö and on through the village of Näkkälä to Norway. Besides observing the northern nature about him, Bergman also listened to and recorded yoiks.

He completed Loleilā for girl soprano, girls’ choir, boys’ choir, tenor, and orchestra right after the trip. The work belongs to Bergman’s finest, but it has not yet been recorded and only rarely performed, perhaps due to its unusual line-up. The vocal parts’ text consists of sounds chosen by the composer, not real words.

The work is like a musical portrait of Norway. In typical Bergman style, the first movement is like a large wedge that increases the sound mass, and its general impression is similar to that of Bergman’s orchestral work Colori ed improvvisazioni, composed a couple of years before. The choir part consists of clusters based on the Norwegian national anthem. The movement is thus a depiction of “cultural” Norway. The second movement is a statically beautiful and open space in which long vocal lines of women’s voices wind around each other like fjords in canyons, echoing off the walls. This movement can be heard as a vocalisation of Norwegian landscapes.

Loleilā‘s third movement is connected with northern folk tradition. The yoik allusion at the beginning soon receives a percussion background reminiscent of reindeer or cow bells. The mood soon becomes more primordial and ritualistic as the yoik element slowly recedes. The subject has to become a part of nature and respect its hidden forces.

From Lapponia to Borealis

Bergman himself considered the a cappella Lapponia for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and mixed choir to be one of his best works. Commissioned by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, the work was completed in January/February 1975 and has the four movements “Midwinter”, “Yoik”, “Midsummer Night”, and “Storm on the Fells”. Despite the descriptive titles, this work’s text also consists of sounds chosen by the composer, not real words.

The second movement, “Yoik”, is not a real yoik but Bergman’s interpretation of the essence of yoiks. He had noticed that the pitch of yoiks often rises unnoticed when the singers’ intensity and bodily tension increase while yoiking. This movement is based on that phenomenon. The baritone soloist’s part imperceptibly rises microtone by microtone. At the end, the voice has climbed through all the tones of an octave – the entire world has been yoiked.

According to the Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz, the uniqueness of the north is due to its special light. In the south, the sun shines from high above and distinguishes each creature as an individual with its own character and form. In the north, the sun always remains low in the sky and cuts through all creatures from the side, fusing them together. At the same time, the low light leaves shadows in the world, all kinds of vague and dusky shapes. These hidden things become the realm of shamans, spirits, and strange natural forces.

Lapponia‘s third movement, “Midsummer Night” is an excellent musical example of the fusing nature of light in the north. The movement is dominated from beginning to end by a pedal point consisting of the mezzos’ interval of a third, c-e. As the Swiss musicologist Hans Oesch (who accompanied Bergman on his second trip to Lapland in 1976) points out in his analysis of Lapponia, the third brings to mind C major, which has traditionally been the key of light and brightness. The mezzos’ third is the all-enveloping midnight sun’s light, whose different hues are reflected by the thirds in the sopranos and altos. The dissonances and low male voices at the end of the movement in turn hint at what always stays obscure and in the shadows. Bergman reused material from this movement a few years later in his orchestral work Arctica.

Borealis is a chamber music work written for percussion and two pianos, one of which is played percussively inside the instrument. The first of the work’s three movements is dominated by shamanistic rhythms that gradually arise out of nothing and develop into a wild ritual. Especially interesting is the work’s second movement, whose quiet coldness downright burns the listener’s ears. The movement is like an aural version of night frost, ice glistening in the moonlight, and different forms and reflections of snow flakes.

Aki Yli-Salomäki: Random Layers on Open Space

Many works of Aki Yli-Salomäki (b. 1972) can be called “deep northern” slow-listening music. He prefers long lines and comprehensive timbre solutions. Music’s different parameters are subjected to timbral thinking, blurring the boundaries between melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. Yli-Salomäki also does not use musical motifs or themes that are too pronounced. Transitions are also broad, and the boundaries of different sections serve more to fuse than to contrast them. Examples that come to mind are Uumenissa (In the Depths) (2008) for mixed choir, Täplät (Spots) (2009) for oboe and orchestra, the string quartet Täälläolo (Being Here) (2010), and the orchestral work Speak, Memory (2007).

Yli-Salomäki’s compositions are often musical landscapes (mindscapes) that shun the supremacy of any (musical) subject. Being comes before properties. The open space of the works tempts one to take a closer look. By squinting and by peering into the shadows one can however make out rich details that form the texture of the landscape. This is counterpoint in the broad, very northern sense. Counterpoint as a manifestation of equality between sounds is a specifically northern characteristic – at least if we believe the pianist Glenn Gould.

An example of this kind of counterpoint is found at the beginning of the orchestral work Colours in Linear Landscapes (2005-2006). A theme beginning with an interval of a second wanders from one instrument to another, always changing a bit and forming irregular canons. Soon only the signal of the initial interval is recognisable, and this also soon disappears as it merges into the landscape. The subjects merge into a single mood.

In terms of the concept of the north, Yli-Salomäki’s orchestral piece Random Layers on Open Space (2006) is especially interesting. In addition to the open space promised by the name, a basic feature of the work is a slow pace of events. Its beginning is one of the coldest in the composer’s oeuvre. Frost creaks in the harmonics of the strings and the crotales (antique cymbals) played with a bow. Soon the temperature rises for a while as the melting drops of the harp, marimba, and vibraphone increase. It never gets very warm, however, and downright freezing temperatures resume at the latest in the strings’ arpeggios of harmonics at the end of the work.

As a whole, the piece is a single, large space in which here and there appear random layers of the harp’s, the marimba’s, and the vibraphone’s regular rhythm ostinatos. These layers function as the fixed points for the listener’s experience of the work, but they are at the same time fascinatingly contradictory. They assuage the agoraphobia caused by the wide open music, but being wooden (bony) and ritualistic, they produce archaic and even uncanny feelings. They are glimpses of the dusk and the unknown, of something “other” – the north.


Translation: Ekhart Georgi