About crickets and collaborational composing

This week Helsinki has been buzzing with new music – there has been even abundance of interesting concerts in the Musica Nova-festival. Last week on late Friday evening there was Korvat auki’s concert, a tribute to the pioneering Finnish electronic music duo Pan Sonic in order to honour the memory of the band’s late member, Mika Vainio. The concert was part of the series of Helsinki Philharmonic’s after concert club “Encounters” and in the concert was premiered four new pieces by four composing pairs. The call for works that Korvat auki setup for the concert was very interesting, because it was meant for collaborative works. Composing in collaboration with other composers is still rather unconventional in the context of contemporary classical music whereas in popular music scene it’s been a natural way of working for a long time. The project proposed an intriguing challenge to find ways of working together with a person that comes from a different musical background.

We were in the fortunate situation that we had already collaborated before in a compositional context – we had an idea how the project could be realised, how we both could get our artistic voices heard and at the same time create and learn something new. Our initial idea was to divide our roles within the project very clearly: Þorkell as a composer would focus on writing for the instruments and Tytti as a sound artist would do the electronics for the piece. These roles stayed during the process to some extent, but what was surprising was how much they didn’t.

Our method of working was to “do something”, let the other one see that “something” and comment on it and then either continue on editing the material or let the other one continue with developing the material. Sometimes the procedure was very clear, someone wrote a raw draft which was then processed by the other person. At times we also really composed together, sat couple of hours in front of a blank sheet music paper or a computer, tossing the ideas back and forth. This way of working was very eye-opening, since composing processes are often personal and happen inside one’s mind. Seeing and hearing how the other person thinks and does was in fact a huge learning curve that we both benefited from. Also verbalising one’s own thoughts is always good – it sharpens the mind. The process was in some ways very beautiful, but also extremely demanding, it is sometimes hard to find compromises that both are happy with.

Our piece in the concert was titled “About Crickets”. The insect theme became very crucial in our piece in many ways and it all originates from a song by Pan Sonic called Hyönteisistä / About Insects. We collected the material for our piece through recording humans mimicking the sound of insects and these recordings are in our opinion quite extraordinary, we were both surprised how versatile the human voice actually is! In addition the recorded audio material, Tytti contacted and visited a cricket-growing company located in Espoo, EntoCube, which grows crickets that are mostly sold to fine-dining restaurants. Visiting the premises of the company and meeting the crickets was very intriguing and we got some great but thought-provoking video material on crickets in see-through boxes. Eating insects is actually a current phenomenon and Finland has been one of the front-runners in the innovations of finding ways to grow insect for human nutrition. Our piece wanted to take part of this current dialogue by videoing, recording and projecting these edible crickets on the walls of Musiikkitalo – maybe to cause interest, maybe to cause revulsion or maybe just to show the fascinating fast movements of these small animals.

In addition to the recorded and manipulated audio material and the projected video, a crucial element of our piece was the instrumental parts played by the players of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Working together with professional musicians was a great opportunity for us and the players in our piece, clarinetist Heikki Nikula, cellist Jaani Helander and percussionist Xavi Castelló Aràndiga were all extremely professional but also very fun to work with. The whole experience gave both of us encouragement for future projects, it is very important for young composers to get these positive working experiences – they are the ones that drive you forward.

What will we take with us to future collaborative projects? There are many things to consider, but perhaps it would be clever to start the process focusing more on collaborative working rather than dividing roles. Two brains have twice as many ideas as one brain would have – there is a danger of too much material and too many ideas. In conclusion, what was the most interesting part of this collaboration? Throwing ideas back and forth between our working desks was the most interesting aspect of the collaboration for us: to see ideas that one of us originally came up with being developed by the other and then land on your desk again for further development. After few rounds of back and forth it was difficult to say what is yours and what is mine.

 

Tytti Arola and Thorkell Nordal

Tytti Arola is a sound artist who is interested in doing multisensorial works and recording the environment surrounding her.
Thorkell Nordal is an Icelandic composer residing in Helsinki. His music can be described as tranquil soundscapes but with a strong structural undercurrents that drive the music forward.