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Time of Music festival celebrates diversity in music

by Ainomaija Pennanen

The Time of Music festival built its anniversary festival programme on the theme of diversity. Under the banner ‘Mundi Novi – New Worlds’, the festival showcased ideas and voices that often remain in the shadows.

The Time of Music festival was established in 1982 in a Finland that was largely unaware of international trends in contemporary music – outside the Helsinki area anyway.

In music education in Finnish schools, contemporary music was conspicuous by its absence. The Ears Open Society, established in 1977, or the Helsinki Biennale, first held in 1981, could not address all of the interesting issues in the field, ranging from extended playing techniques to aesthetic issues.

For this, we needed the Time of Music festival, which in its first years was known as the Viitasaari International New Music Summer Academy.

Captained by Jukka Tiensuu and Timo Kinnunen, the event focused on courses rather than concerts. The duo considered that the Viitasaari courses would be the jump start that Finnish musical life required in the field of contemporary music at the time.

The timing was right, certainly. The courses were very popular in the early years, with up to more than 100 participants each summer. The enthusiasm of the attending musicians spread beyond the course sessions and daily concerts into a variety of happenings in and around the central community of Viitasaari.


Shared time is a luxury

Now, forty years on, courses are still a major component of the Time of Music festival.

“When I took up the post of artistic director at the Time of Music festival in 2014, I realised that the annual summer academy is the spearhead on the strength of which the festival could apply for funding for international projects,” says Johan Tallgren. These projects enable the festival to fulfil its mission: to showcase things and phenomena that might otherwise go unnoticed in Finland, and thereby to contribute to the development of the Finnish music community.

The potential for networking has also increased interest in the courses. In recent years, as many as 120 applications a year from 25 countries have been received for the summer courses. This year, there were 37 participants, most of them from outside Finland.

“The Time of Music is not Darmstadt, to be able to admit 400 students each year, and there are no luxury accommodations or services available here. The luxury here is that the students get to know each other and spend quality time with their teacher – which would be impossible elsewhere,” Tallgren explains. He reckons that the Time of Music is one of the very best summer courses in Europe as far as networking potential goes.


Photo by Eeli Järvinen

Curating brings the world to us

In summer 2022, there were four courses at Viitasaari. Three of these – composition, improvisation and instruments – form the core programme, these topics being included every time. This year, the composition course was taught by Mauro Lanza, and there was a music theatre collaboration course led by composer and musician Mark Applebaum and a ‘Contemporary Accordion’ course led by accordionist Andreas Borregaard.

The course offering also included a course titled ‘Curating Diversity’, which forms part of the core of the Sounds Now project, funded in part through the EU’s Creative Europe programme. The plan is to hold the curating course at a different location around Europe each year; this year, Viitasaari was up.

Curating has become something of a trend in the art world. In music, a curator may be an artistic director, a performer, a composer, a collective or a producer. However, curating is always about more than just planning a concert or festival programme.

Toks Dada, Head of Classical Music at the South Bank Centre in London and one of the mentors at the course, described the relationship between curating and programme planning: “For me, they’re two very different kinds of things. Of course, as part of curating we might program a particular concert or a particular event or a programme. That is more about individual pieces you put together to form a programme. But curating is so much bigger than that. For me curating is storytelling in a way, you try to send a message, you try to communicate something. And for me that is about what the world is today.”


Diversity has room for everyone

The curating course at Viitasaari did not focus on technical issues such as fundraising or producing. Over six days, the participants discussed the ethical aspects of the diversity theme and social responsibility from the perspective of contemporary music. Indeed, the curating course in the Sounds Now project emerged from needs to improve and enhance diversity in curating in Europe.

“One of the reasons we are focusing on curating diversity is because that is the world today. The world is made up of so much diversity, vibrancy, there’s so much difference, we are not all the same. And I think that is our responsibility as curators is to reflect that mix, vibrancy in the world that reflects that, in our programmes”, Toks Dada summarises.

Johan Tallgren sees diversity as being above all a generational issue at the moment. “In all public debate, Finland not excepted, you can read between the lines of what creators and opinion leaders are saying that people in their 70s–80s, people in their 50s–60s and people in their 30s–40s think in completely different ways,” he says. “It seems that young composers and performers wish to share and display their value world and their own narrative, while older generations tend to take an existing narrative and go with that.”

Whether this is a real trend that will run through the musical world on its various levels and in its various institutions is something that Tallgren dares not yet predict. The musical world today is in a constant state of flux, and change is more rapid than perhaps ever before.

But something tried and tested can survive and coexist with the new. As Toks Dada notes: “Nobody is talking about replacing what has come before with all these new forms and new formats, it is not a revolution but it is a natural evolution. If you look back at history, classical music has always changed, has always evolved - and so what we are talking about on this curating course at this festival is just the next stage in that evolution.”

Photo by Eeli Järvinen

From shadows to spotlight

The diversity theme took on a concrete shape even for contemporary music friends who come to the Time of Music festival principally for the concerts. ‘Mundi Novi – New Worlds’ provided a forum to topics and voices that often remain in the shadows, whether because of ethnicity, language, nature, gender or power.

One of the highlights of the festival was the hypnotic work Femenine by Julius Eastman, forgotten for years but recently revived. The programme at Viitasaari also featured the world premieres or first performances in Finland of Answer Machine Tape, 1987 by Philip Venables, works by James A.-McEwan and Mioko Yokoyama for the Ulysses Percussion Ensemble and the audiovisual work Hibernation, where animation by Jenny Jokela and music by Sebastian Hilli told a tale of loneliness, isolation and depression – feelings all too familiar to all of us due to the coronavirus pandemic. The string quartet Three Point Eight by Minna Leinonen, commissioned by the festival itself, raised the issue of the bearing capacity of the natural environment.

Building such a plurality of concerts and courses would not be possible without international cooperation. The Time of Music festival has for many years been a member of the Ulysses Network and Sounds Now projects within the EU’s Creative Europe programme. For concert audiences, networks such as these manifest themselves in joint commissions that a single festival would be unable to achieve and in appearances by international guests – there were more of them at Viitasaari in this anniversary year than ever before.

Indeed, the 2022 edition of the Time of Music festival was a sensory-overload-inducing cornucopia that gave listeners and students alike a lot to think about through the long dark winter that is, inevitably, coming.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo by Eeli Järvinen