Lotta Wennäkoski’s Uniin asti (Until the Dreams) at times feels like a crowd assembled to shout at you, a comic play and a love song to Finland. Composed for the 90th anniversary of the Radio Symphony Orchestra and the 117-year-old Polytech Choir, Wennäkoski writes odes about love that almost soothe you, if her complex rhythms weren’t creating such a sense of excitement, even at times wonder.
To understand her composition, you have to think beyond the production of a typical choir. Wennäkoski explores the new sounds that a human can bring to a composition, as well as introduces texture by allowing shouts and whispers, individual solos and different ways of breathing for singing. The choir members are pulled into the sound production of the orchestra with their own small instruments, which brings the feeling of an integrated unit instead of the orchestra simply backing the choir.
The five sung odes find five dimensions of love, all fitting together to define a very Nordic perspective on love. Wennäkoski chose five different poets to illustrate with the music: Olli Heikonen’s haunting jewel of a love poem, Saila Susiluoto’s soft and moving words on the beauty of love, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Sámi words, seemingly chosen to be short and shocking, Claes Andersson’s Swedish-language etude, almost a universal lover’s admiration, and a traditional and quite rowdy poem to one’s betrothed.
JU: You have taken the choir well beyond simply singing! How much range or variation do you think can be achieved from the human voice? What do the unsung parts add to the sound texture?
LW: Working with the human voice is of course not at all complicated, because I can try everything myself. I tend to sing and hum and murmur my material a lot when I compose vocal music – I try to make everything feel as natural as possible in my own mouth and lungs first. Anyhow, the challenge is often not to invent new sound material but to notate it – first to choose a notehead (there are no standards for the weird sounds) and then to give an explanation in words.
With vocal music that includes text – the main thing is to find one’s way to the poem. What are the sounds that I need to present this or this particular text? Sometimes it’s the ”natural singing”, sometimes some stranger material produced with the mouth, sometimes the non vocal elements. The orchestra is also whispering and singing in Uniin asti– as if the musicians were an echo for the singers. Then I just turned this idea upside down in a passage where the folk poem is rather humoristic – the singers also play some simple instruments like party horns and vibraslaps.
JU: At one point in “Luovutat jasmiinikukkia” (“You scatter jasmine flowers”), even the violins seemed to be playing with bated breath. How do you orchestrate the more unique sounds? Do you work with the conductor, or do you leave everything to the score?
Well, all the information should more or less be in the score – in that sense it is the composer who decides everything. The conductor does not change anything without the composer’s permission – and the other way round: the conductor is always fully responsible of the rehearsal (the composer may of course make wishes and suggestions, but the conductor is the one who decides what happens and how the rehearsal proceeds). I tend to invent more non-conventional sounds for the strings because I used to play the violin myself – and I can try the effects at home when writing the score. The composer’s work is imagining all the sounds and details together – and imagining how the music proceeds in time. It’s easier when one has experience in writing for the orchestra – and it’s easier if you use conventional playing techniques, because there is a huge tradition behind us, and one can learn from the classics how the orchestra sounds good. With the “noise sounds” it’s more difficult, but on the other hand I’ve already gathered own experience considering my own musical language, and I can use that knowledge.
JU: How do you choose the poems that you use in your compositions?
I read a lot of poetry, and I know rather quickly if a poem is suitable for composing or not. I’ve also composed in languages I cannot speak (like Sami in the case in Uniin asti), but usually I choose a language I know (otherwise one needs a lot of help). I tend to avoid too long texts (music needs time and space itself) and poems that contain words that are too complicated. A poem has to feel “likely” in mouth, it should not be too literal.
But of course I also think about the context. I would choose different poems for a solo soprano than for a male choir. Whose voice is it? Perhaps the premier will be in a church – then it’s better to avoid themes that might not be appropriate there. In the case of Uniin astiI knew the premier would be in a very festive concert – I needed to pay attention to that. The selection of languages was here a deliberate choice, because for me it’s important to remember that Finland is and has been a multilingual society.
Hear the premiere of Lotta Wennäkoski’s Uniin asti at the Musikkitalo with the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Polytech Choir at the YLE website.
Olli Piippo, Eight Notes on Oceanic , Feeling, 4.-27.5.2018, Helsinki Contemporary.