interview: Finnish Composer Olli Kortekangas talks about “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” his new cantata about respecting our planet
The Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas is little known in the U.S. but all that should change. His “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” a sweeping symphonic cantata, which had its West Coast Premiere this weekend at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church, revealed his ability to craft contemporary classical music of enormous complexity and beauty. The tonal nature of “Seven Songs” intrigued and delighted both the musicians and audience and introduced some new primal sounds to the Bay Area, including yoiking, a tradition of the the Sámi, the indigenous people of Kortekangas’s home country. “Seven Songs” was commissioned by one of America’s leading symphonic choirs, The Choral Arts Society of Washington, along with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Francisco Choral Society. Kortekanagas is well known to Robert Geary, the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Society who had previously conducted five of his works but none as expansive as “Seven Songs,” which was performed with the San Francisco Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, the California Chamber Symphony, and soloists soprano Shauna Fallihee and baritone Nikolas Nackley. “Seven Songs” is centered on four poems by American agrarian poet and farmer Wendell Berry and draws on a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi and a collage of short texts written and sung by the children in the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Kortekangas worked on this “green” piece for three years, striving to celebrate man’s relationship with nature as well as to convey a message about our obligations for living on and honoring our planet. ARThound had a chance to interview Kortekangas on Friday, before his performances. The fascinating Finnish composer revealed a bit of his creative approach to crafting music. (Click here to read ARThound’s previous coverage of Kortekangas.)
About the commission that resulted in “Seven Songs”─How free were you? Were you commissioned to do a piece in general, or, specifically a piece addressing the theme of ecology? Can you give us a sense of how it developed?
Olli Kortekangas: It all started with the Choral Arts Society of Washington getting interested in Finnish music. They had these theme concerts with music from different countries and, 4 or 5 years ago, it was Finland 4 or 5. The Finnish cultural attaché at the Finnish Embassy in Washington the time, Pekka Hako, was key in bringing me and the chorus together. It began with a great discussion with Norman Scribner, their artistic director, but that was 2008 and the recession and economy in the States prohibited any new commissions. The project was basically saved when Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland decided to co-commission it. Then Robert Geary, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Society, came along and that made it all possible.
The idea of something in that direction already existed before they contacted me. So an ecological theme wasn’t a pre-condition but it was their wish from the beginning. I am personally interested in these issues too so was happy to go that way.
Can you speak some to the goal of the work? Is it meant to be overtly political about “saving the planet” or more subtle in its message? My take on Berry is that he’s making a statement through his poetry and his other writings that we as culture need to understand and respect that all things are connected. We have really broken that. The way we live now is not sustainable and we are starting to see this because things on all levels are starting to buckle.
Olli Kortekangas: Rather than a political message per se, I wanted to convey something that would inspire people. In some of the poems I am using, there is also a political dimension but it is not the most essential thing. Music, for me, is about construction and a lot of thinking, of course, but I believe that in the end it is, like every form of art, very much about emotions. Music goes straight there. This is emotion and that emotion drives other important things.
Why are there seven songs?
Olli Kortekangas: I wanted to have the four poems by Wendell Berry serve as cornerstones and I needed something in between and I wanted three different things. I like that number too.
When did you first become acquainted with Wendell Berry?
Olli Kortekangas: The Way to the Woods (2007), my first U.S. commission, was an a cappella work I wrote for the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble in New York State using Wendell Berry’s poetry. I was looking for a suitable text and someone in the choir came up to me–she was librarian–and she started looking for different texts and sending them to me and that’s how it began. He’s a very special poet and so when I got this commission from Washington, I turned to his work right away.
You’re bringing in a lot of music, words and texts from different traditions, but they all seem to deal with nature and the earth. How did you decide on those four Wendall Berry poems among his large oeuvre, and then specifically to draw from the St. Francis Canticle of the Creatures, the Sámi-influenced yoik and the voices of the children? It’s quite an interesting mix.
Olli Kortekangas: A lot of Berry’s work is about finding peace and sustenance in nature. I was looking for different poems that would somehow connect with the overall theme from different angles—one poem is more political, one more atmospheric and then one conveys emotions─very deep feelings about fears of death, personal fears about losing one’s family, and so forth. The St. Francis of Assisi text is a very old text. It basically addresses the same things as Wendell Berry does but in a different way and there is something very European in its feel. The Sámi thing is primitive, spiritual and representative of an indigenous culture, in this case, my own country, Finnish-Lapland. My yoik is not a semantic text, it’s basically onomatopoeic, so it doesn’t make perfect sense. I believe there is a connection between different Northern cultures around the globe, so using material of one indigenous people, the Sámi, is in a way a tribute to any indigenous people.
The third element is the texts written by the kids, the young people of today, and the idea is having a very contemporary element. In the original version, the texts were written by the kids in the Children’s Chorus of Washington but Robert Geary came to me and said the San Francisco kids wanted to write and speak their own texts and I liked that idea very much.
Were you able to meet any of the children?
Olli Kortekangas: Actually, I haven’t had a chance to work with these exact kids yet but I will meet them all tomorrow (Saturday). In Washington, I was able to work with the children’s choir. I enjoy working with kids and I’ve done a lot of that. It was a long time ago that I started working with the Tapiola Choir (Tapiolan Kuoro), which is one of best-known and largest children’s choirs in my country and probably in the world. I’ve worked with children and youth in workshops and written music for them too. Writing music for children can be very challenging in itself. And working with kids, well, it’s actually more difficult in some ways than working with adults but then, it’s also fun because they are not as conservative as adults tend to be. This sounds like a cliché, but clichés have their basis in truth. Anyway, sharing a creative process with young performers requires a certain attitude but it can lead to great results.
Since “Seven Songs” was written for an American audience, did that consciously factor into this into the piece? Did you write it any differently?
Olli Kortekangas: I believe I was chosen to do this job and they, the commissioners, thought that I would write music that would resonate with the American audience and musical scene here but, no, I didn’t try to do anything special. Of course, I am using poems by an American poet and that’s one thing, actually the only thing, so no, I didn’t really think about that at all.
Stylistically, how does “Seven Songs” compare with your operas and other choral pieces?
Olli Kortekangas: It’s my largest choral work so far. Actually, it’s got an orchestra and two soloists and it kind of borders on a cantata, not an oratorio because there’s no real story here, but it’s big. For me, it almost has symphonic dimensions. It’s not as dramatic as an opera. Of course, it has contrasts and a dramatic arch and a sequence of events musically and text wise, it’s fairly lyrical in character. The duration is close to 40 minutes.
If I were to compare it to my other works, it’s not that different. My music is usually influenced by many musical styles which I am pulling together but (I hope) it is still unified structurally. I am using certain harmonies, certain ideas throughout the piece which glue it together. In that sense, then, it’s not so different from my operas but it’s different in the level of drama and lyricism.
You’ve written a lot of different types of music—orchestral, chamber, etc.— but I sense that vocal music is very special to your heart. Is vocal music a particular specialty of yours and, if so, why?
Olli Kortekangas: I’ve written all types of music, practically every thinkable combination—choral, opera, chamber, orchestral─but any music with the human voice is special. I guess you would say the human voice is my favorite instrument. It has to do with my history. There was a lot of music and singing in my family and I sang in choirs when I was a kid. I’m not a trained singer but you never forget that experience of singing in a choir. The other thing is that I’ve always been a great reader and the texts, which are integral to choral music, also have a lot to do with this.
I know you are very interested in other art forms and that you like to collaborate with non-musicians. I know you’ve worked closely with painters (also choreographers and playwrights) but I am interested in your collaboration with visual artists. What does that bring to the table for you?
Olli Kortekangas: Composing is a pretty lonely job and when I have the chance to be part of a group, I like that. To be able to exchange ideas and discuss things—that’s certainly part of my inspiration for writing operas, not the only, but it factors in. There’s also the excitement of being influenced by different fields of art. I am a visual person and architecture has been very important for me, as well as visual art. At one point, I was very interested in the work of M.C. Escher and his graphics, his ideas overall, the logic and the surprising effects you find in Escher once you get into him. I’d say, for me, his metamorphosis idea in particular [Metamorphosis I, II, and III, series of woodcuts from 1937-1968] is the most important and interesting concept in his works. I wrote a couple of works inspired by Escher’s graphics.
And, then I wrote a piece, A (1987-88) for the Tapiola Choir which was created together with the chorus and Raija Malka a Finnish painter. And a couple of years ago, I wrote my second organ sonata which has the subtitle “Stargazer” (Sonata for Organ No. 2, Stargazer) and its inspiration came from a 5,000 year old little sculpture in the Ancient Near East collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s not one to one but the overall spirit of visual art somehow feeds me and I express this in my music in many ways.
One thing I’m dying to ask you about is film—you said you have not done any music for film. Would you like to? And if you could work with any director, who would that be?
That’s something I’m really interested I and I would really like to do it. I am a film freak, I guess, and there are lots of interesting directors out there. When I see a film and hear the music, I am sometimes thinking about how I would have done the music differently. If I could work with anyone, well, one of them, unfortunately, is gone, but Tarkovsky is someone whose work I like very much, especially Andrei Rublev (1966). I’d also choose Mike Leigh, the British director.
Mike Leigh is improvisational in terms of his own actors not really working off of scripts or knowing what will happen in the film. He tells them at the last minute and they act out their fates spontaneously. I wonder what it might be like to make music for a film like that. What do you think about when you think about making music for a film?
Working like that would be spontaneously interesting. My favorite Mike Leigh films are Naked (1993) and Career Girls (1997) (very different!). In my latest opera, One-Night Stand, we were actually working a bit like Mike Leigh with our singers and we used Naked as a reference work.
When you think of San Francisco and music what comes to mind?
Olli Kortekangas: While I was growing up I listened to a lot of hard rock and punk and played aome too. It’s really this period of the late 1960’s and 70’s─Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and others that I associate with San Francisco. And the other thing is that, at some point, I was very interested in American minimalism too, this very experimental music which has a lot to do with California. I am not at all familiar with the classical scene.
What’s ahead in the coming year?
Olli Kortekangas: Well, I’ve written four pretty extensive works in the past four years─a piano concerto, a choral piece, this one, and then a new opera. The piano concerto premiered this past spring with Paavali Jumppanen and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. My latest opera Yhden yön juttu (One-Night Stand) which I wrote along with librettist Michael Baran (dramaturge of the Finnish National Theatre), is for the new Helsinki Music Center. It’s a kind of spin off of my earlier opera Isän tyttö, (Daddy’s Girl) which premiered at Savonlinna Opera Festival in 2007. The voice students at the Sibelius Academy, our music conservatory, have collaborated, and it’s very experimental and it’s been fun in terms of the story and the whole process.