Perhaps one of the most important issues currently facing symphony orchestras and contemporary classical music ensembles alike is projecting an image of accessibility; for Musica nova Helsinki, performance venues were a piece of the solution. Part club, part bar, and part performance space, Helsinki’s brand new G Livelab substituted the potentially uninviting concert hall with a more relaxed and familiar environment. The trendy vibe brought a noticeably younger crowd to the concerts held there over the first few days of the festival, but ambience did not come at the cost of performance quality—the space hosts an incredible sound system and intelligent acoustic design. Throughout the opening weekend, a versatile array of both electronic and acoustic musicians took the G Livelab stage, including Jan St. Werner, Tyondai Braxton, and Uusinta Ensemble.
Jan St. Werner performed as a surprise opener for Tyondai Braxton on Friday, February 3rd, and his short set provided a useful point of contrast to demonstrate the versatility of electronic music. Werner built several distinct soundscapes, and each one served as an exploration of layered pitch, duration, and timbre. Werner’s was largely crouched behind a table, thus one could not see precisely how he was able to produce and manipulate these sounds. This established a bit of a barrier between Werner and the audience, yet at the same time, the lack of interaction afforded the opportunity to simply listen.
After a short break, Tyondai Braxton unceremoniously took the stage and unleashed a series of low drones into the room. As the thickness of this drone-based texture grew, the once-stationary projection behind him came alive. A hint of a groove emerged, then, the projection screen exploded with color on an ever-satisfying bass drop. The interaction of the visual projections and the music played a fascinating role. On a simplistic level, there were times where the visual and musical elements mirrored one another: flashing vertical white bars on a black background partnered with rapidly subdivided beats, or single lines morphing into webs of geometric shapes as disparate musicals elements joined to become a coherent whole. On a more abstract level, however, many of the projections seemed to suggest physical landscapes, which reflected the constantly changing topography of the multi-layered music.
What is most impressive about Braxton as a musician is his sense of intuition. He was able to start with short motivic ideas and develop them into complex soundscapes. Then, he isolated a single element from that intricate texture, transformed it, and used it as a pivot point, which effectively bridged the gap between sections. In any genre, the ability to develop a simple idea using coherent and perceptible logic is the mark of fine musicianship. All together, the combination of the music, projections, and being able to watch Braxton manipulating his modular synth made for a spectacular experience.
Having showcased an entirely electronic concert at G Livelab on Friday, the Uusinta Ensemble concert on Saturday, February 4th gave festival-goers the opportunity to hear an acoustic ensemble in the same space. Founded in 1998, Uusinta Ensemble is one of Finland’s premiere contemporary chamber ensembles whose membership includes József Hárs (conductor), Malla Vivolin (flute), Max Savikangas (viola), Markus Hohti (cello), Aapo Juutilainen (double bass), and Libero Mureddu (electronics). Joined by clarinetist Angel Molinos and pianist Emil Holmström, their program featured pieces by Nordic composers that all attempted to capture a state of mind or a sense of place.
The program opened with Hafdís Bjarnadóttir’s Wind Roses (2016). Wind roses show the relative frequency of wind directions and speeds, and the source material for the melodies and rhythms in this work were extracted from wind roses in Iceland. The distinctly layered composition featured a piano melody, double bass foundation, pointed flute and clarinet interjections, sul ponticello viola glissandi, and cello “seagull” harmonics. Ville Raasakka’s Traeumerei (2016) for solo cello explores insomnia and sleep paralysis through field recordings of apartments, pre-recorded spoken word, and a slew of extended cello techniques including knocking on the body of the instrument, scratching the strings and body of the instrument, aggressive sul ponticello, and ricochet bowing. The cello line remained mostly percussive and textural in nature, and Hohti demonstrated a virtuosic command over the demanding techniques.
Mette Nielsen’s Odense Havn (1991/2016) attempts to reconstruct a fractured childhood memory of the port of Odense, Denmark. The work successfully combined folk-like melodies with sampled sounds of the industrial harbor and the wind. Acoustically, the clanging of prepared piano mirrored the sounds of industry, and aeolian tones in the woodwinds emulated the wind. Lars Petter Hagen’s Hymn (2008) originated as a challenging work for solo double bass, but was presented in a trio arrangement for viola, cello, and bass. Long sustained tones and melodies successfully conveyed the intended sense of the free collective improvisation found in traditional Norwegian folk music.
The concert concluded with Ida Lundén’s Tyska Mossarnas Sugluft (2016), which incorporated a sample of the composer playing a suction reed organ in her parents’ Swedish summer home. Flutist Malla Vivolin performed this demanding flute feature with aplomb, superbly navigating pizzicato tonguing, key clicks, whispered syllables, timbral trills, multiphonics, singing while playing, and more. The rest of the ensemble took up harmonicas and gently accompanied the flute solo with softly sustained chords, which complemented the aspirating and creaking sounds of the organ sample. The piece concluded with the ensemble wandering out into the audience playing their harmonicas and sitting amongst the crowd while the flute solo dissipated into ever-softening key clicks.
The theme of this year’s festival, “open spaces,” was felt at these performances in terms of the open and inviting nature of the venue. By placing contemporary classical music in a more familiar physical space, Musica nova Helsinki successfully captured an audience that was different from the typical concert-going types and provided them with a high-caliber new music experience.