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Touching the void with Selma Savolainen

by Eero Koski

Amidst a global pandemic, jazz vocalist and composer Selma Savolainen (b. 1993) found herself gazing into the abyss. The full stop brought about by the surrounding conditions manifested itself as one-sided conversations with Savolainen’s father, who had passed away in 2009. The musical and artistic testimony of her personal road to restorative healing is documented in a beautiful way in the latest work of her new ensemble, the self-titled album Horror Vacui.


Facing the emptiness


Horror Vacui finds its namesake in both music theory and in the philosophy of antiquity. “In musical counterpoint, you find this innate need to fill the empty spaces within a score. The title of course references the theories of Aristotle about the nature of the physical void.” 


But how does Savolainen reflect on the very human need to fill the void within her own work? “While composing Horror Vacui, I often surprised myself with my thoughts roaming freely from one place to another. Was I simply trying to fill these empty moments with sound? As a time-based art form, music has the very interesting ability to stretch the notion of time. In a way, I was working towards that feeling of losing the sense of time altogether.”


Based in Helsinki, Savolainen made a stir in Finland and abroad with Rubicon Songs in 2019. The ethereal harmonies of her debut quartet Selma Juudit Alessandra charmed the unsuspecting listener and introduced us to her deep understanding of modern harmonies and compositional structures from jazz, indie rock and beyond. The darkest moods on Rubicon Songs are reminiscent of grunge rockmusic from Savolainen’s early childhood. 


In Rubicon Songs, the fluid mix of musical influences is met with the effortless use of electronics and overdubbing. Savolainen produces a mutating choir of voices that works as an intrinsic part of many of the original songs. 


Savolainen reveals that her compositions occasionally spur from musical thought experiments such as “What would Kurt Weill’s piece with an intro by Hanns Eisler sound like?” Similar alternate sonic realities can also be found on her new album.


Horror Vacui is a twofold story of the emptiness followed by the loss of a loved one and the loss of working conditions and opportunities. The ‘fear of the void’ was comprehensive and very tangible for Savolainen in 2020, at a time when she had just made a breakthrough as a composer and a bandleader.



Haunted by a dead man...


To say that Selma Savolainen comes from an artistic background would be an understatement. Her father was pianist and composer Jarmo Savolainen, a renowned figure on the Finnish jazz scene for decades. He enjoyed a brief international recording career that was a welcome exception to the local climate of the times. Selma’s mother Helena Haaranen was a dancer at the Helsinki City Theatre, and Selma was thus brought up at a crossroads between the worlds of music and drama. “I was always backstage, either at a gig or at the theatre,” she remembers.


This artistically favourable background clearly manifests itself in Savolainen’s dramatic vocal style. No means are off limits for her expressive vocal range. Katri Kallionpää, who writes about jazz for the largest newspaper in Finland, was duly impressed with Selma Savolainen’s work as early as in 2019: “There is an astonishing boldness in her lyrics and in the way she performs, a new kind of female perspective...”


At the age of 15, Savolainen made the conscious decision to start practising more seriously in order to acquire professional-level musical abilities. This new phase called for a stricter practising regime. To be fair, though, there never really were very many other career paths on her horizon: “Unlike many of my colleagues, I have never felt the need to justify my decision to pursue an artistic career. I have never felt bad about not waking up for work at the crack of dawn. Some of my colleagues faced a very different path.”


Selma Savolainen by Severi Uusitalo.

Drama and the theatre are a major influence on Selma’s creative thinking, but she does not want to name any specific musical influences. (“Those would end up following me constantly.”) Theatre holds a strong presence in her work to this day, as she has found new artistic opportunities in providing incidental music for plays such as Brechtiä joka naiselle [Brecht for Every Woman], a production by Sirpa Kähkönen about the exile of playwright Bertolt Brecht in Finland in the 1940s.


Classical piano was Savolainen’s first love, but the omnivore love of music found at home was an equally important part of her formative years. While she is an alumna of the Sibelius Academy, her relationship with that prestigious school has always been ambiguous: “For an art school, it is surprisingly set in its ways. On the other hand, the teachers and the teaching are of a really high quality.”


Savolainen studied singing and composition; indeed, some of her favourite teachers were at the Department of Composition. She mentions Kari ‘Sonny’ Heinilä and Marika Haapanen in particular.


Musical composition is a continuous process for Savolainen: “All the time I keep notes and voice memos on everything. I try to keep it continuous. I also sometimes use the technique of ‘hiring myself’, where I commission a composition from myself.” 


Another working method for Savolainen is to conjure up uncanny mashups in the most imaginative genre hopping fashion. These can include such high-flying examples as Bix Beiderbecke at an Indie Rock context: “I want to use everything I have ever heard as a sort of ‘horizon of possibilities’. I have to trust that the end product will sound like me, since it is me creating it. It’s not a thoroughly cerebral exercise, more of the inspired kind.”


With the album Horror Vacui, Savolainen has somewhat ditched the traditional jazz solo format. The focus is more on a collaborative effort. As a leader, Savolainen prefers to keep it that way, although it is fine with her to take a solo when the music really calls for it.


The collaborative effort is equally present in the vocal quartet Signe, of which Savolainen is a founding member. This all-female combo recently finished a triptych of albums. The project of releasing three consecutive albums of original music within one year stands tall in its ambition and effort. “As a concept it was of course completely crazy, but I’m very glad we pulled it off, as each of the three albums is so characteristic and unique.”


Success and motivation in 2023? Goals void of meaning?


But how does a young jazz musician and composer measure success in the times such as 2023, where the visible and quantifiable marks of success in the music business are becoming more and more sporadic? Savolainen has clearly stirred national interest as she was recognised by Finland’s largest jazz festival as a Pori Jazz Rising Talent in 2022.

“Prizes are of course nice to get, but the more time one spends making music, the more it becomes clear that the work itself is the actual reward. It would of course be wonderful to get my music to places like Pitchfork music magazine, but I’ve developed a mindset where it’s equally fine if none of my work will ever be reviewed in something like Pitchfork.”


For Savolainen and her generation, success as such manifests itself in awards and festival spots, but also in grants. “I only ever really discuss these things [=success] with my closest friends within the music scene. In Finland, there are some exceptional opportunities in the form of grants. At the same time, it is a rather deranged measure of success, as it literally is also a question of your daily income.” 


The positive outlook for Selma Savolainen is that the global festival scene presents itself as an open possibility for the new generation of Finnish jazz musicians. Her current dream festival to perform in would be the exquisite avant-garde happening Big Ears in Knoxville in the USA. Is such a thing just a pipe dream for Savolainen and her friends in Helsinki? Even if it were, that is an abyss into which Savolainen for one seems to feel no fear, let alone horror, in gazing.