in Columns

The tone of the north in music

by Tapio Tuomela

“If there is much room around a composer’s ‘self’ both in nature and culture, discreteness and the experience of space can probably be heard in her or his music.”

The FMQ issue 3/2010 contemplated what makes music typically “northern”. Common answers to this question are the influences of and references to nature, including the great changes in the light and the seasons of the north. Nature most certainly leaves a trace in the national genotype, but its manifestations in high culture are far from unambiguous, for national traits in music are largely dependent on the language and the subject matters, which is most evident in folk music.

In listening to Kalevala folk music or to folk music from northern Russia, one sometimes wonders how many poems and melodies may have been written in spare evenings during the long winters, to fend off winter depression or while in its throes. The semiotician Eero Tarasti in fact uses the concept of “northern melancholy” and states that socially active cultures and peoples do not have a strong tendency towards melancholy.

It would be interesting to see research providing statistics on where in the world folk melodies and their lyrics deal with the individual or solitude and whether, for example, folk music is generally speaking more community oriented in southern than in northern Europe. Shepherd songs and Lapland yoiks also arise because it is a good idea to make yourself heard when walking alone in the wilderness so that predators stay away, which is not a cliché though it may sound like one. Singing also dispels fear.

In northern Europe, social interaction is not like in southern Europe, for example, and the large distances between people reduce the chances to get together. I have sometimes pondered why Finns and other Scandinavians do not like living in large cities, feel uncomfortable when others are too close, and keep their distance even while communicating. One reason is certainly to be found in the region’s history: the old livelihoods of hunting and fishing required more room per inhabitant than a settled way of life does. The influence of the community was much weaker than in more populous southern countries.

To make living together easier, communities and societies have for thousands of years and in many ways regulated the habits and forms of social intercourse. Think of Japanese tea rituals or of baroque partner dances with their rules of physical contact. Could the smaller influence of Nordic communities and societies on their members have also resulted in less demands on and rules for culture and music, so that there is perhaps more room for freedom of expression?

If there is much room around a composer’s “self” both in nature and culture, discreteness and the experience of space can probably be heard in her or his music. The density of information is perhaps smaller, and there may be less stratification. Rhythms and tempos are however more complex issues – they are connected with language and national character, and geography undoubtedly also plays a role. The tempo of life is slower in rural regions, and their inhabitants are more exposed to and familiar with the peace and sounds of pristine nature than people who live in cities are, where nature has been shaped by humans.

It depends on a composer’s temperament whether a more expansive concept of space is expressed in a more generous use of time or a tendency towards narration. A clear distinction also has to be made between popular and high culture; how much of a work consists of improvisation affects its length, which at least in folk music seems to increase the further east one gets, and can be several hours in India. About harmony, I wouldn’t dare to claim that consonance or bare fifths are somehow Nordic phenomena. 

The newer the music and the more representative of high culture, the fewer common Nordic characteristics it will probably have. Increasing international contacts and globalisation ensure that contemporary art music is becoming more and more uniform. But classification according to geographical location is one way of bringing order into our increasingly complex cultural environment, even if it does not have anything to do with the contents. It’s what I use to organise my records at home too.

Translation: Ekhart Georgi
Featured photo: Saara Vuorjoki / Music Finland

Composer Tapio Tuomela's 60th birthday concert takes place on 16 October at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. The program includes a world premiere: Three Folk Ballads for mezzo-soprano and ensemble written for Virpi Räisänen and the Zagros Quartet. Yle Radio 1's program Ajassa soi broadcasts the concert recording on 30 October. More information about the concert can be found here.