Tapiola Chamber Choir/Hannu Norjanen
150 in Grandsire Triples & in Kent
Treble Bob Minor
Jaakko MÄNTYJÄRVI (b. 1963) came to my awareness as a wise and witty lecturer at the CORK INTERNATIONAL CHORAL FESTIVAL, May 2002, presenting himself over-modestly as a part-time composer of music for amateur singers; his lecture notes are appended below.
These two CDs belie that modesty; although Mäntyjärvi has a full-time job as a professional translator, his compositions have made important contributions to a musical world which is unduly segregated from the contemporary classical music mainstream. The music collected here has a great deal to offer the adventurous listener.
English enthusiasms are evident in his Eclectica collection. There are Shakespeare songs and settings based on bell-changing sequences (with scores included in the well-packed booklet). Canticum Calamatatis Maritimae is based on the Estonia shipwreck of 1994. Kouta uses a small orchestra; female voices representing Earth-Spirits and Mother Time, hover over a tracery of instrumental sound. Pseudo-Yoik is a nonsense song composed as an encore for this choir, and its equally 'meaningless' sequel El Hambo has joined it as a best-seller. Seventy minutes of assured pleasure for everyone in this superbly sung, recorded and comprehensively annotated collection, with essays, illustrations and texts in English and Finnish.
In spring 1710, the then tiny town of Helsinki (population 1,2OO) was visited by the plague; before petering out at the end of the year, it had killed half of the town's population and 500 aliens. The Governor General issued a proclamation on measures to combat the plague and prevent contagion, its dry pedantic directives of as little immediate comfort to the citizens as the sermons of the which blame the plague upon the sins of its people. In their desperation, the citizens flock to church to seek strength in numbers, though this is just what they should not do, and this is the imagined setting for Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's creation, SALVAT 1701, "a semi-dramatised concert or choral drama, or perhaps a hymn-oratorio, based on the Finnish Old Hymnal of 1701 - - a study of hymn singing and a sense of community filtered through my own personal experiences".
Browsing through the Old Hymnal yielded texts that are rather more forceful and earthy than the versions known today. Summing up the genesis of this, his most substantial work to date, Mäntyjärvi characterises SALVAT 1701 as "an hour of immersion in old texts and tunes, arranged in a variety of styles - - human anguish, the sense of community and the need for closeness are timeless - as indeed is the human voice". It is a remarkable creation, with three interlocking threads which work each on the others. The 'official' gives the government bureaucrats edicts and instructions, filling in for us the horror of the circumstances during the plague; the savagery of the priest's sermons give us to ponder about the power of the Church over the populous, and the harshness and deception of religious intimidation; the hymns give an all too obvious illusion of release from suffering in a future life to compensate for this one. The settings (one to a Bach chorale) are firm, strong and in an idiom that does not strive for modernity or to stake a claim to a recognisable personal musical language, nor to draw attention to their composer/arranger. It is a timeless work which should endure and travel.
On this first recording SALVAT 1701 is held together by the conviction and expertise of the reciters and by the singing of the superlative Tapiola Chamber Choir, which had just made a first UK visit to sing at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival before I received this CD. The Tapiola Chamber Choir is 'semi-professional' (only the conductor is paid) but works to a professional standard of excellence, and frequently appears with professional orchestras. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi sings in it, as did the British Ambassador to Finland on the Salvat 1701 disc !
The Finnish is delightful to hear, and with the perfectly aligned parallel texts, translated into English by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, easy to follow. The recording is impeccable, vivid and direct, and supported by meticulous presentation. SALVAT 1701 is eminently worth consideration for performance in UK & USA. Mäntyjärvi's current view is that for performance to English-speakers the best solution would be for the spoken texts to be given in their English translations, but he would prefer the 17th-century hymns to be sung in the original (with the translations in the programme notes) so as not to lose their 'archaic' flavour.
CORK INTERNATIONAL CHORAL FESTIVAL (Excerpts from report in Seen&Heard) May 2002
Two exemplary seminars during our first full day affected my listening to the choirs in competition and concert. These were two of the best educational sessions intended for a public audience that I have been to for several years, informative and thought provoking.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi from Finland, an experienced choral conductor and composer with a wide knowledge of contemporary composing idioms, raised for intending composers of choral music some 'taboo' issues and inherent paradoxes, his wisdom tempered by dry wit, viz.
" The best is that choral singers are mostly amateur", bringing a better attitude and extra enthusiasm to music making; a 'grape-vine' effect disseminates good new repertoire widely, and composers can find themselves surprised to receive royalties for performances of which they had been unaware in far away countries.
" The worst is that choral singers are mostly amateur", with extremely variable technical levels of accomplishment and capability.
- - There are very few fully professional choirs in the world, so tailoring music for specific choirs can lead to the common experience of 'farewell premieres'. Not many composers are comfortable with writing for choirs and personal co-operation is highly recommendable for commissions to succeed. Performance targets should be slightly higher than current levels - 'feasible, not unreachable'. There is 'a fine line between challenge and frustration'.
In the technical part of his talk, Mr Mäntyjärvi discussed questions of register, notation and presentation, which are not to be found readily in composing textbooks. But for the outsider, it was Mäntyjärvi's frank and open discussion of ethical and philosophical considerations which coloured one's listening to all the choirs at Cork and, a few days afterwards, those competing in the fledgling competition at Rhodes.
- - Choral music is held low in public estimation and there is often a contextual subtext, such as church or a political movement, which informs how it is listened to and has to be taken into account. This 'assumed ideological base' affects its image; e.g. he quoted a German composer who in the '70s had said that 'it would be professional suicide to compose for a children's choir'! Drawing on the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's Values and the Composer , Mäntyjärvi emphasised the primacy of 'style and technique' for 'modernist' composers. Often avoided in discussion are matters of 'meaningful content', pertinent 'social/political values', 'occasional music' for specific events and 'entertainment music'. Important to Aho, and to Mäntyjärvi, is a sense of history - 'to deny everything old is to deny history'. A social dimension may be paramount; questions of 'emotionally meaningful content' - why do people listen, for 'solace, strength, drama', or for 'tranquillity and sacrality (the mythical, mysterious and holy)'?
Those thoughts helped me towards a more benign understanding that most of the pieces offered in both competitions have strong tonal roots. They led Mäntyjärvi on to discussing the ideal v. the practical; 'integrity' v. compromise - adaptability as part of professional competence, writing different music to develop 'plurality and flexibility' - 'strategies for dismantling the ivory tower'. The choral conductor has to exercise good control but this depends upon maintenance of motivation - the composer of a newly commissioned work needs to be able to answer the singers' implied question 'why are we doing this piece'?. Music should be a shared goal, 'not a common enemy'!
(The slides that Mr Mäntyjärvi's projected for his lecture are copied in full as an Appendix to this report. His website is well worth exploring!)
Composing for choir by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Ideals and Practicalities
Cork International Choral Festival 2002
Who am I?
The domain consists mostly of amateurs.
Amateurism in the positive sense of the word.
The domain consists mostly of amateurs.
Choral music seen as a hobby or as an ideological vehicle (church, politics, etc.).
Erkki Pohjola tells of a German composer who in the 1970s said that it would be professional suicide to write music for children's choir.
Values and the composer (from an essay by Kalevi Aho) :
"To believe in progress is to not believe that progress has already happened." (Franz Kafka)
Values unrelated to style and technique still seem to be somehow shameful or taboo in modern music. It seems as if many composers are afraid that they would make themselves look ridiculous in the eyes of their colleagues if they suddenly began talking for instance about meaningful content.
Technical progress in one matter causes regression in others. The introduction of equal temperament in the early 18th century eliminated differences in sonority between keys. Schönberg's twelve-tone approach discarded all the countless nuances incorporated in the tradition of tonal music. Total Serialism went even further and completely mechanized the process of composition.
If the control of a composer extends to the tiniest details of a composition, as is often the case in contemporary music, there is nothing left for the performer to do except to reproduce the music with machine-like precision.
Progress is a form of denial.
Functions needed in contemporary music:
"I would prefer my music to be timeless rather than in tune with the times." (Einojuhani Rautavaara)
Salmenhaara: When we had for decades chased feverishly after something new and unprecedented, there was only one thing left that was new: that which was old.
Social dimension? Politics? Even denying the social dimension is a social statement, because it means that the artist silently approves everything that is going on.
Why do people listen to music? They may wish to take time out from their everyday lives and seek beauty or solace. They may be emotionally distraught and seek comfort. They may be happy and in love and seek reflection of these feelings. They may seek new vitality, energy and strength. Or they may seek a strong sense of drama in music.
There is a huge demand for music reaching into the remote past, because it provides listeners with an opportunity to take time out from the hectic pace of life and return to an experience of the mythical, the mysterious and the holy. It is, however, possible to experience a feeling of the sacred and the mysterious without limiting oneself to the distant past.
Expanding the domain of the composer:
"Strategies for dismantling the ivory tower" (Harri Wessman)
Sibelius wrote music on a variety of levels: serious instrumental and vocal music; lighter salon music and entertainment music; incidental music for plays and tableaux; and occasional music for a variety of purposes. He was also a performing artist (a conductor). Working on several levels adds to the composer's flexibility.
Composing for choir
Know your instrument:
It is a common error to assume that the choral range is more or less homogeneous throughout. Actually, the use of extremities is more limited than it is in instrumental music: the extreme low registers tend to be much less audible and are hard to balance if there are voices in higher registers; the extreme high registers, if used consistently, lead to problems with stamina and keeping pitch.
Voice leading, etc.
Singers do not have buttons to push!
If technical eclipses artistic, performance becomes execution.
On piano and organ, all you have to do is hit a key. Winds, particularly brass, are more closely related to singers in their sound production.
"Your entry note is the second note in the sextuplet that the second trombone plays in the measure immediately before you."
Practical experience of singing in a choir is invaluable for perceiving how things work within the choir. Surprising things can be audible or inaudible; a fuzzy chord may work perfectly well with different voicing.
Choir: Voice leading, etc.
Voice leading and melodic profiles:
Again, singers do not have buttons to push; all wide intervals need to be seen in the context of the surrounding texture.
Parallel leaps with no stable reference points are risky.
. graphic appearance (messy photocopy of dodgy handwriting vs. fair copy)
. economy of notation
Extreme control is not a bad thing per se; certain types of music require mechanical precision to make an impact. Extreme freedom can be just as bewildering and frustrating.
Balance & sonority
Stamina, social function
Already referred to under Range. Breathing is an important consideration, because singers will make time to breathe if the music does not allow for it! Staggered breathing is a skill unto itself; in choirs unused to it, it may cause the pitch to go flat.
If an amateur choir loses its motivation, it is extremely difficult to regain it. The conductor's responsibility in this is huge, because one cannot simply say to an amateur choir: "We are doing this piece and that's that."
This is not to say that all music should be comfortable and familiar. Challenges and new types of music are more than welcome, provided that they are scaled to the choir's abilities. In an ideal case, the target would be slightly above the level of achievement that the choir is used to.
A conductor once said that the only difference between conducting a children's choir and conducting an adult choir is that the adults are much more childish.
Composing for choir
Know your instrument; be aware of:
Premieres of works by well-known composers (even of choral works!) attract a fair amount of publicity.
From the composer's point of view, the crux is whether the work stays in the repertoire ('farewell premiere').
Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware)
Some composers like detailed specifications, others do not. If you do not give specifications, you may receive anything at all!
Some composers like attending rehearsals, others do not. Sometimes even a single rehearsal reveals things the composer had not considered.
The workshop approach is rare, but is used for instance with children's choirs.
If the piece does not work, return it for rewriting. Or, if the composer does not agree to rewrite, get out early: admit that you cannot perform the piece rather than going for a half-baked premiere requiring a huge chunk of the choir's resources. The responsibility here lies, again, with the conductor.
WHAT DOES THE COMPOSER NEED TO KNOW?
The composer does need to know the choir, even if only superficially. It is no good writing on the basis of a dated impression ("Oh yeah, I saw them on TV last year, there were about 60 of them and they were brilliant" ... and then there were 24) or on the conductor's say-so ("Oh sure, they'll complain but they'll do it").
Strengths can be played on, weaknesses should be avoided. Divided tenors, for example.
If the work is intended for example for massed choirs at a festival, this gives quite some leeway; but it should be considered whether the commissioning choir also wants to perform it on its own.
Composing for choir
"Generally, the range of a choir is dependent on the strength of the catapult." (Anon. on Usenet)
How far a choir can go depends on how strong its motivation is. At times there may be a thin line between gearing up for a challenge and resigning in disgust.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh!
© Peter Grahame Woolf