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Einojuhani Rautaavara discusses his new percussion concerto Incantations performed this season by Colin Currie in London, Rotterdam, Tampere and Baltimore.

Incantations draws us towards your particular fascination with shamanism. How is this manifest in the new concerto?

A shaman – in Siberia or within the Sami culture in Finnish Lapland – wants to act as a mediator between us humans and the transcendental world, often through the act of singing an incantation. This relates to my work as a composer, but I have always felt, after completing a score, that I had not ‘made’ a whole, living being. It must have existed ‘somewhere’, so my music could only aim to bring it out. As a Finn I became aware how this ancient shamanistic culture had been embattled on two fronts, caught between Christian conquerors from the Catholic west and the Orthodox east, a conflict that I described in my opera Thomas.

As a matter of fact I did not start composing this concerto with the intention of writing an ‘incantation’. As usual, I tried to listen to my first ideas, motives and types of textures, mostly inspired by percussion instruments, and then to follow these ideas. Even later, when the title came to my mind, I wanted to avoid the standard ‘shamanism’ in music – the endless ostinati, repetitions etc which many of my senior Finnish composing colleagues perhaps overused.

Shamanism sits alongside your exploration of religion, magic, memories and premonitions. How did these other-worldly interests come about?

As a schoolboy I started to compose small piano pieces and songs. The experience was strange, because a very special state of mind was required, a kind of trance, which I learned to achieve by improvising at the piano. I knew exactly when I had reached the right atmosphere: the moment was there, I was in it.

Consequently religion was interesting – but always as an aesthetic phenomenon. For example my largest sacred work, the Orthodox Vigilia, got its inspiration from two experiences: the first as a 10-year-old boy visiting the old island monastery in the middle of the huge Ladoga lake. (There were churches full of icons, colours, and blackbearded monks, hundreds of bells, small and large, were tolling.) Fifteen years later in New York I saw Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, where the deacon sings with a deep, loud, unforgettable voice – this made me promise to compose for a voice like that, which I did in Vigilia. But I could just as well compose a Roman Catholic Canticum Mariae Virginis, or a Buddhist Nirvana Dharma.

I agree with the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher when he says that “religion is interest in and inclination to the infinite”.

What role does the soloist have in summoning musical life into being?

In my young years I did not understand how important it was to have the right performer. (Of course, at that time I was happy enough if anybody would play my music!) If the result was not good, I accused myself of writing a bad piece. But later, when the right performer was found, I realised that the music now sounded just as wonderful as it had in my mind’s ear…

How did you work with Colin Currie in developing the concerto?

Colin Currie visited me in Helsinki in 2007 when I had already composed a sketch for the first movement. I played it for him and Colin was enthusiastic about my ideas. We were in correspondence, and a few details were changed according to his wishes. For instance he wanted to use rototoms instead of tomtoms, and ‘thunderstick’ was added to a boisterous passage.

How do the soloist and orchestra interact?

Despite the title Incantations, the intended genre is clearly expressed in the subtitle, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Some composers like to mix forms, like ‘symphony-concerto’ or ‘sinfonia concertante’, but I prefer to define the genre (for myself) and then stick to it. The symphony is a musical epic, whereas a concerto like Incantations can be understood to study the situation of an individual in his surroundings, his contacts with the community.

How does the concerto explore the rhythmic and melodic characteristics of percussion?

Melody is always the central element in my work. For me music without melody can be interesting, but too often sounds hopelessly untalented. Incantations opens with a repeated melodic motif in the orchestra. Then marimba comes in with a rhythmically capricious texture. Soon the melodic marimba is replaced with rototoms, bongos and congas, with a few lines for cymbals - the percussive character has been introduced gradually. The second movement is played espressivo and here the vibraphone dominates. The final movement starts with the marimba leading to a cadenza which the soloist should improvise. In the end we meet the opening motif again, but now the soloist joins with virtuosic passages with marimba and bells.

Your music has sought to combine intuition with structure. How do you balance these forces?
The German composer Ernst Pepping wrote: “Kunst ist Aussage im Spiel” – which I like to translate as “art is expression in structure” – and he went on to describe how “expression and structure condition each other”. This means that the structure of the work, or part of it, cannot be decided in advance (as happens often in so-called serial music or conservatory fugues). It must be born together with its expression, and be conditioned by it. This is why the composer should carefully listen to the music being called into life – to discover how to go on.

Interviewed by David Allenby


Concerto for percussion and orchestra
Performances with Colin Currie

24 October 2009 (world premiere)
Royal Festival Hall, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Buy Tickets

22 November 2009 (Dutch premiere)
De Doelen, Rotterdam
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Shi-Yeon Sung

4 December 2009 (Finnish premiere)
Tampere Hall
Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/Hannu Lintu

8/9 April 2010 (US premiere)
Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu

>  Further information on Work: Incantations

Rautavaraa photo: Maarit Kytöharju/Ondine Records

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