Interview by Julie Uusinarkaus | Collage art by Riikka Fransila

Just scrolling through the news on your phone is not enough. Images may contain some feeling about the issues important today, but there is a sensual barrier that is not crossed. Developing a passion about environmental issues needs a fuller response. This is only one of the reasons that the work of Ville Raasakka is so important.

Raasakka forms music out of material ecology. He records sounds directly from the fieldand uses archived field recordings: in the case of his recent work Black Cloud, Under Ground, he studied archived field recordings of sounds in mines in Pennsylvania, analyzing them to recreate them musically. Water dripping, the sound of machines breaking up the coal, the sound of burning coal – all recreated in an intense sound production. In this case, the intensity means more than just the sound of a mine: the work is an image of the tragedy of the Centralia mine fire. This fire started in 1962 and devastated the lives and health of the residents of an entire mining town. The fire cannot be put out, and is expected to burn for at least 200 more years. 

Collage by Riikka Fransila.

Notable other compositions include an exploration of the natural resources used to make personal hygienic products in Everyday Etudes No. 2: Personal Possessions (2016). The piano concerto Hypermarket and Hypercommodity(2015) came out of an investigation of packaging materials. Previous to the current work, Raasakka’s composition Du trüber nebel hüllst mir (2016) was Finnish focused, for which he made field recordings of the sounds over one full day in each reactor room of the Hanasaari power plant in Helsinki. 

Black Cloud, Under Groundrecently premiered at the Helsinki Music Centre with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on the 27thof February. You can listen to the performance of the premiere here at 01:23:25.

Can you tell us more about material ecology? What does that mean to you in terms of your art? In terms of what is happening with the environment currently?

In my works I am concentrating on oil, coal and wood. I’m interested in their whole time span or life span, including the products made from them. Their existence expands to and affects countless areas and species, in a timeline unimaginable in relation to the ephemerality of the products. What I aim for is to present listeners to an everyday action, and immerse them in the ecological entanglements and timelines connected to these actions. I don’t believe in shock value, but in creating a deeper impact with aesthetic, analytic and reflective means.

The timespans and scales seem immeasurable. If you think about oil, the dead plankton sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the organic matter crushing and condensing, turning into oil, the refining of oil, making synthetic rubber out of it, manufacturing a car tire, the abrasion of small particles from the tire to the road, the particles washing out to the sea with rainfall, the ingestion of the particles by marine animals. So, plankton eating itself as car tires.

Collage by Riikka Fransila.

What draws you to the material you collect? What do the materials and sounds say to you, and what do you want to say through them?

I need to work with materials that are real. Tangible, tactile materials. Real also in the sense that they do not exist in some areas of life, like music, but in all of them, at once, like sound. Timothy Morton writes about hyperobjects, objects that surpass our sensory perception of place or time. Like plastic, with its incomprehensible timescale, or climate, with its incomprehensible physical scale. One could argument that they are more real than many other real objects, because they permeate everything.

Presenting such timelines or endless variations of a raw material is impossible in one musical composition, so I try to distribute one material to many compositions. In regard to petrochemical by-products I’ve so far written a work about packaging materials, another one about personal hygienic products, one about plastic kitchenware and at the moment, a work about antibacterial washing agents.

You could ask why I engage emotionally with antibacterial soap or a black plastic package? If these materials and products are capable of destroying entire ecosystems, they certainly need to be dealt with emotionally, not brushed off as unimportant ephemera. Decision made about everyday items are no less emotionally based. These “small emotions” are much more real and destructive than we can imagine, and in my opinion we would need to immerse ourselves completely with them in order to change the path we are on.

What led you to the topic of the mine in Centralia? 

Coal is imported to Finland from numerous countries. Among them is the United States, where the coal production and its history have been thoroughly documented. An important area for coal is Pennsylvania, more specifically the northeastern part that is called the Coal Region. A specific type of coal called anthracite is found in this area. It is a glass-like, glossy type of coal that is of high value. Centralia is a town situated at the heart of the Coal Region. 

Centralia lays on top of old abandoned coal mines and between many operating coal mines. In 1962 a fire broke out in a mine nearby. Little by little, the fire spread through to the labyrinth of mines just underneath the town. People began feeling ill because of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide seeping through the ground to their homes. Almost all residents were relocated 22 years later in 1984. The fire could not be put out, and it continued to burn for an estimated 200–250 years. 

Did you create the final results of the sound together with Hannu Lintu and the Radio Symphony Orchestra musicians? What was the process?

My work is based on field recordings. In this case, field recordings from four coal mines surrounding Centralia, Pennsylvania. I process the sounds with software, filter them and try to find what is essential in them. This process is like making concrete music. But then I transcribe the sounds to acoustic instruments, which as a genre is called instrumental concrete music.

With Hannu Lintu we discussed strategies of notation. What is essential to the musician, what is too complex or too scarce as notation. Usually musicians like to read a lot of instructions in the preface, and find the sounds with time. But in the performance, the actual part should be very concise, since the musicians not only play, but also follow the conductors gestures, the part, the musicians around them and the overall sound, reacting to all of these. 

In the rehearsals together, we focused on the characteristics of the resulting sound objects and sound phenomena, their temperaments and their projection in space.You can listen to the composition here and read the score of the piece here.

Collage by Riikka Fransila.