Helsinki memories

(Written by James Andean)

Last autumn, after more than a decade immersed in the Helsinki new music community, I left Finland to move to the UK, not without a certain degree of reluctance and regret. Now, one year later, with a bit of distance, looking back I am struck by how much the Finnish new music scene has changed over those years. It looks to me, that the scene that I have recently left, is in a better place than the scene that I arrived to more than a decade ago. And there is every indication that this happy condition will continue to grow and expand in the coming years.

I have been mulling over the question of where the differences lie: what has changed in those ten years? I can propose a number of factors that, in my opinion, have contributed to this improved outlook.

– First of all, there is simply ‘more’. More artists, more composers, more concerts, more events, more exhibitions, more activity across the board. This can only be a good thing. And, for a city the modest size of Helsinki, the current level of activity is truly remarkable.

– Of course, it is not just that the quantity has increased dramatically; there is also a great deal more breadth. There has been an explosion of diversity of style and genre, that has grown almost exponentially over this period: gallery-based sound art, acousmatic music, improvisation, live electronics, noise, minimalism, spectralism, and any of a number of post-modern or more contextual approaches, and every kind of hybrid you can imagine, all while retaining core strengths in some of the modernist traditions with which Finland previously made its name on the world stage. This remarkable range and breadth offers something of a contrast to an earlier time, when the focus was perhaps more on nurturing a more nascent community by stressing a cohesive musical outlook.

– Part of this remarkable breadth is an explosion in the number and diversity of collaborations and cross-disciplinarity. This is nothing new, in that the Finnish scene has shown an enthusiasm for multidisciplinary work for many decades; however, I would argue that here again we have seen an enormous upswing in activity, projects, and performances. This is perhaps a natural upshot of the more general increase in overall musical activity, or perhaps a consequence of an increase in the number of platforms and opportunities for such collaborations to take place.

– Another aspect of the greater diversity described above, is the degree of internationalism – both in the diversity of the community, and in outlook. To begin with, there are simply a great many more international artists, musicians, performers, composers, and students active in Helsinki than there once were; this appears to be as true for music, as it is for the other art forms. In my opinion, there are a number of positive results from this diversification of the community; for example it brings in a diversity of views, approaches and outlooks, stimulating and fomenting the community as a whole.

– I also have the impression that Helsinki’s increasing internationalisation is not only a question of intake, but also of outflow. This is perhaps less a matter of quantity, and again more of a broadening: what was once limited to a few well-travelled routes of pilgrimage to for example Ircam or Germany, has now expanded to any number of international exchanges and collaborations all around the world. Whether this has resulted in a more international outlook, or is on the other hand the consequence of a more international outlook, is an interesting question.

– Above I described a move away from an earlier focus on “nurturing a more nascent community by stressing a cohesive musical outlook”. I’d like to return to this, as I think it is a notable shift in the zeitgeist. I would argue that, ten years ago, there was still something of a sense of ‘living in the shadows of the greats’: new music in Finland had at one time exploded internationally with a very specific generation of composers (and conductors), offering a vision of what ‘Finnish music’ might be; later composers were perhaps somewhat burdened by the need to maintain, or to live up to, their legacy. My feeling is that this ‘long shadow’ has largely evaporated, leading to the sense of a more open invitation to follow a very different path, if one so desires.

– This is closely linked to the idea of ‘Finnishness’ in music: I feel that there is now less stress on making ‘Finnish’ music, or on defining ‘Finnish’ music, or even on wondering what ‘Finnish’ music is or should be. I don’t think that this reflects a ‘de-Fennicizing’ of music in Finland, but rather a comfort and confidence in the Finnish musical environment: Finnish music is alive and well, and has been for long enough that we are now confident that the music we make is naturally ‘Finnish music’, without needing to labour the point.

One might be tempted to ask, where has this all come from? Who or what is responsible for these changes? Some of it of course is simply a natural evolution, or the trail left as Finnish new music wanders its own meandering path. In part, however, these changes are the fruits of long years – in some cases, decades – of the efforts and labours of artists, performers, and composers, but also very significantly of producers and organisers, who have worked hard to break down walls and barriers and to open up new opportunities. On the other hand, it is also possible that it is simply that the time has come. We have recently seen a generation come up that simply exhibits and embodies these changes quite naturally. Korvat Auki is, in fact, a prime example of both of the above: working for change and for new opportunities, but also reflecting, in its current generation, a very strong, broad, and diverse collection of musical and artistic visions and impulses.

I think, in other words, that Finnish new music is currently in very good hands indeed.

James ANDEAN (UK / CA)
composer and sound artist
formerly active at Korvat auki,
now active at De Montfort University