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Conveying the inexpressible

Rich Heffern interviewed composer Einojuhani Rautavaara by phone in his home in Helsinki, Finland.

NCR: Music reviewers talk of the sense of religious awe, wonder and enchantment in your music, which is very popular in this country because of its “spiritual” nature. Where does this spiritual influence come from?

Rautavaara: I’ve always been fascinated with the metaphysical and with religious texts. “Vigilia,” a large choral work I wrote recently, uses texts from the Russian Orthodox church. I have used many Roman Catholic texts also, as well as shamanistic tales from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Composers, of course, have always been interested in these kinds of subjects and religious texts, but I don’t use, like my good friend Arvo Pärt does, many Eastern meditative texts. My influences are more Western European.

Your admirers say that your music is about the heart and spirit, and that by contrast contemporary music has become so discordant and intellectual that it is hard to listen to.

Music is always in crisis. There was a crisis in the 1950s when I started to compose. The new methods of modernism -- 12-tone technique and serialism -- were advancing. I was interested in those, of course. My early symphonies used serialist techniques, but in the end this way of composing was not my way; it wasn’t the road for me to follow. Though the 12 tempered tones of serialism are the vocabulary of the century just past, my solution was to seek for a synthesis of modernism and tonal harmony.

I still use the 12-tone technique. My seventh symphony, “Angel of Light,” opens with a series of mostly minor chords with always a new harmony in each bar, but the root notes of those chords follow a 12-tone pattern. This kind of synthesis of two different techniques is very typical of my creation. I often read critics who say Rautavaara has been using so many different styles in his output. I have certainly used many compositional techniques, but always inside one personal style. Style and technique are different things.

You have said that music is composed organically, that it grows by its own laws and genetics. How does that work? You start with a phrase or melody and the whole work is there like a tree is there in the acorn?

It happens in three steps. First, almost always there is some kind of atmosphere or mood, which is for me the original idea or impetus behind a work. I can find it in a poem, a text or a memory. Quite often in improvising at the piano an idea comes to mind and it starts to grow. That idea dictates to me the choice of certain musical material, which corresponds to the original idea, some harmonic symmetry or certain motifs and themes. The genetic code of the piece is there from the beginning. The chosen material seems to have its own will, which I, the composer, must respect and follow.

I used to say to my composition students: “Don’t ever force your music! Listen to your music, to your first ideas. Music is full of wisdom.”

The second step involves environmental factors, the cultural climate of the time, the zeitgeist. For example, being Finnish influences my work, as do the things that are going on in the world. Then, third, the ability of the composer and that composer’s experience in music come into play.

In the end, though, the work of art is unpredictable and creates its own laws. When it’s complete, then there is nothing to add, nothing to take away. When the work is performed, I’m always full of admiration for it. I ask: How is it possible for this to be born? I am not able to make anything like that. It must have been somewhere, somehow in existence even before I found it. I’m not really mother or father but the midwife. I am just a nourishing medium for it.

Your music reminds me of the natural world, a representation in music of the way nature is -- the way a landscape or seascape or a cloudy autumn sky appears. One of my favorite works is “Autumn Gardens.” It’s music that is full of peace, acceptance and reconciliation, just like an autumn garden.

I am glad to hear that. For every Finn, nature is very close and there is so much of it here. Nature, of course, is an organic thing. The genesis of music reminds me of how nature works. I see in my own garden how the trees and flowers grow; my compositions grow and build in the same way. A composer is not so much an architect as a gardener.

Much of the new “spiritual” music is coming from the Baltic countries like Finland, Estonia or Latvia. Why?

This part of the world is a crossroads of religious and cultural traditions. I belong to the Lutheran church, but one of my key formative experiences as an artist happened when my parents took me to Karelia, which then still belonged to Finland. After the “Winter War” of 1939, it became part of Russia. In the middle of Lake Ladoga is an island called Valaam with an Orthodox monastery on it. We went to the island and stayed overnight in the monastery. I had never seen Orthodox churches and services before; it was strange to me. When we came to the island, I saw the onion domes and towers on the chapels, painted with bright colors. The bells started to ring for the morning matins. The universe seemed to be full of bright sounds and colors. There were monks with dark beards and dour countenances, icons with saints’ faces and candles burning everywhere. The sensuous mystery of the place made a profound impression on me.

Fifteen years later in New York I was studying at Juilliard and I found a book full of Byzantine icons. I composed a suite for pianos called “Ikon.” Forty years later the Orthodox church in Finland commissioned a large-scale choral work from me. I was happy to have that task, because those bells and colorful towers were with me.

Many of your popular works refer to angels. What do angels mean to you?

I have set several of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems to music. He speaks of angels as terrifying archetypes common to all civilizations. My conviction is that there are other kinds of realities, other kinds of consciousness. They are real but beyond rational approach. If you want to use words you can say “angel,” for lack of a better word.

Music is a language where we can probe those other realities, without words. Besides immense pleasure, music gives to the listener information. The information is not anything you can transcribe in words.

As a young man I went with a friend to a piano concert. The pianist played very well. When we left the hall, my friend, who was a pianist also, said: “Did you notice he did everything right, with very good command of technique and style, but he didn’t really understand what he was playing? He just played without understanding anything.” My friend said he couldn’t put it in words but he could readily sit at the piano and play what he meant. “It’s this,” he said … and he played it, this specific information that could not be expressed in words. That was the first time I came to this idea that there is another reality expressed in music.

A scientist once wrote, “The existence of music is a continuous intellectual scandal.” He understood there is a message in music, and there are no words for that message. It’s from another world.

In the newspapers recently there was a story about archeologists finding a primitive flute -- a section of bear thigh-bone pierced with holes -- in a hunter-gatherer site that was dated as 43,000 years old. Music has been with us a long time.

Yes, and why did they play that flute? Because it conveyed to them something that is inexpressible in words.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002