“About three years ago, I realised that my spirit is not at its freest when people commission me to write music,” says composer Outi Tarkiainen. “I thought, if I’m a composer, it makes no sense if I don’t do something for myself, to make my existence worthwhile. If there’s one thing I’m proud of it’s that I’ve had, and plan to have, the courage to speak out with my own voice.”
At around the same time as those thoughts entered Tarkiainen’s head, she decided relocate for a while to the town of her birth – Rovaniemi, “the gateway to the north”, in her own words. There, on the shelves of her local library, she discovered a wealth of Sami poetry old and new that would form the basis of a new work that she effectively commissioned from herself. “I was between projects, and the most important and beautiful way that I could think of using my time was to write a song-cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra using female Sami poets’ texts,” she explains.
With some help from the conductor John Storgårds, Tarkiainen got the Lapland Chamber Orchestra on board. But soon the piece wasn’t the 15-minute score she had promised to deliver. It was 45 minutes: seven songs with an orchestral prologue and epilogue, and a short film accompanying the epilogue. To help pay for the composer’s time, the Norrbotten Chamber Orchestra (Piteå, Sweden) and Arctic Philharmonic (Tromsø, Norway) stepped up. On 1–2 September, The Earth, Spring’s Daughter (Eanan, giđa nieida) was performed for the first time by Virpi Räisänen and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under Storgårds in Rovaniemi and Inari.
The score is Tarkiainen’s most ambitious to date. It took her a year and a half to write. But in a sense, it also set her free. She has a glint in her eye when she talks about it. It may not be her Opus 1 – there are varied, rich and fascinating works from the 31-year-old composer’s pen that precede it. But the piece certainly seems like a milestone: a focusing of Tarkiainen’s connection with the north and maybe, even, her coming of age as a composer.
Rather more tangible than those elements is Tarkiainen’s passionate advocacy of Sami identity and culture. “The Sami minority has been in Lapland for thousands of years, before Finnish and Swedish people came and started to take taxes from them so they lost their land and almost lost their culture,” she says. “That touches me. It gives me this fuel, this longing. The Sami are a minority voice and in a way I am too because I’m a woman in a world made for men. It’s more complicated than that feminist statement of course, but I do feel united with the Sami.”
At times, The Earth, Spring’s Daughter speaks with a raw, natural voice. It also evokes a very particular landscape. “In one of the poems, which are strongly influenced by the Sami mythology, the earth is spring’s daughter. So it’s a story of a chain of powerful women down the generations who are bound by love and care and all the things that happen to them,” Tarkiainen says. She painstakingly researched her texts (translating each word from Sami into Finnish to inform the way she set each stanza), but perhaps more significant than that is the “feeling” of the north in her music: its brutality, beauty, adversity, longing and occasional sparseness.
You can hear some of these elements in the broad horizons and tectonic undertow of Tarkiainen’s accordion work …ja alkoivat laulaa (…and they began to sing, 2015) and perhaps in the wind-blown textures of her solo violin piece Kunnes kivi halkeaa (Until the stone breaks, 2008). Since her decade writing for and working with jazz orchestras, her music has started to explore the earth more – its dark underbelly as well as its rhythmic surface. “The fact that I grew up in Lapland has affected my musical personality and my voice,” she says. “Within me I have this fundamental longing for the northernmost regions, and it has to do with Romance as well. The bareness and the immensity of the Arctic, and the fine line of what is already too bare and too rough to live in. I guess somehow I see the best music almost as a force of nature, which can flood over a person and fill a person and even change entire destinies.”
Music and theatre
There are elements of the creative life in Lapland that have shaped Tarkiainen’s career as well. Rovaniemi’s vibrant arts scene is big enough to encompass everything but opera yet small enough to foster unlikely partnerships. “I have ended up getting to know contemporary circus artists, puppet theatre people, visual artists – encountering them in a bigger city would have taken so much longer,” she says. “Right now I’m planning a chamber opera in which one of the main roles will be composed for a silent aerial acrobat.”
There is, Tarkiainen claims, little chance she would have become involved in such a project without the exchange of ideas that Lapland’s close-knit creative circle offers. But following her Sami song-cycle, expect her to move resolutely in the direction of opera. She cites Alban Berg as a huge influence in her composing life, an influence that her music’s occasional pain and sure sense of longing reveals. “I saw Berg’s opera Lulu when I was 25 and studying in London,” she recalls. “I remember walking in the city that night for hours, thinking whether one can change one’s life at such an old age – whether one can start to do something really different. I realised that music theatre can be so very powerful and thought about how many operas there were about powerful men. ‘Suurmies’ is the Finnish word for it but there’s no equivalent word for a female who has done such things. So somehow I would like to make those powerful women rise up with an opera or a music theatre piece, one with a female voice.”
Despite her outspoken comments, Tarkiainen speaks slowly and quietly – perhaps that northern pace of life is there in her voice and her politely conceived English. But I have met few composers so determined or so convinced that there is societal work to be done through music. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s just what the art form needs.
Photo: Sigel Eschkol
Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations, commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and the Canadian National Arts Centre, will receive its world premiere at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall on August 4, 2019. John Storgårds will conduct the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The premiere will be shown in the UK on BBC TV Channel 4. The Canadian premiere will be in winter 2020, followed by the first US performances in Houston, St. Louis and Detroit in spring 2020.
The Society of Finnish Composers has published a 13-part documentary series on Finnish composers. Outi Tarkiainen is one of them.