COMPOSING ON THIN ICE – about the music of Juha T. Koskinen

Juha T. Koskinen (*1972), a Finnish man and a European composer, has created a deeply singular body of work over the past three decades. As he is celebrating an important anniversary year, a comprehensive approach to his music is oddly lacking: this will be an attempt at an overview, resulting from the ten years of exchanges and collaboration I have shared with him. Not a testimony and not a study, which are left for better commentators of music to write, this text is rather a portrait and an investigation – a tentative approach of an object that remains fascinatingly mysterious, partly because it is still an open creative process that will keep on surprising its listeners and its creator too.

Koskinen’s catalogue is fully rooted in historical moments to which it has also been a contribution: not just the international rise of Finnish contemporary music, but on a larger scale the multiplication of musical idioms in the 1990s in the wake of the perceived dead-end of post-Serialism, the boom of new music theatre at the turn of the 21st century, and the current growing intercultural dialogue between East Asia and the global West, to name a few. Koskinen’s involvement with the zeitgeist is noteworthy because it resulted in profoundly personal musical responses, all while stemming from a cosmopolitan attitude that comes not from a syncretic mishmash of exotic influences, but lengthy impregnation with foreign cultures and languages. Often perceived as something of a 20th-century European intellectual, he is amongst his colleagues particularly deserving of the title.

It is easy, in trying to describe and eventually pigeon-hole a composer, to rely on contextual evidence and on the elements emerging from a superficial listening. In trying to reach what is at the core of Koskinen’s music, I will start from what is most obvious to me as a writer-director, namely this music’s deep relation to text and the stage, and from there hopefully not reduce the music to the most obvious, but instead gradually unveil its many dimensions.

1. The attraction of text

A textless piece for viola and ensemble called Hamlet-Machine (1999) after a theatre play by Heiner Müller; an instrumental work for septet titled Sogni di Dante inspired by a segment of the Purgatorio (2004); a cycle for solo organ, Ormhuvud, inspired by the bead-structure of a poetry cycle by Gunnar Ekelöf and its titular recurring “snake head” (2006); a trio for guitar, kantele and harpsichord constructed around the friction of a Noh play and a notation by Leonardo da Vinci both reflecting on the depths of the ocean (Unabara, 2020)… These are a few typical examples over the years of works by Koskinen that engage with a literary source or inspiration without being text-centered. Even outside his works of music theatre and song cycles that are actual settings of text, Koskinen’s output is suffused with literary inspiration – of broad variety, as can be noticed from this short sampling alone. The contrasted colors of different languages also matter greatly to him.

The first component of these textual connections is the composer’s thirst for extra-musical references, impulses and inspirations, even in the making of so-called absolute music. These inspirations are not necessarily textual, either: some are visual or spatial in nature, although they are not conceived for a visualized setting. For instance, to quote only landmark works, the Soleil noir miniatures for string quartet (1999, rev. 2006) found a model to their scintillating color shifts in Odilon Redon’s colorful pastel paintings; the five movements of Nequaquam for ensemble (2000) are imaginations of five spaces dominated by different lightings and colors; Omaggio a Smilla (2002) is something like an anti-concerto for violin and trumpet, where the solo instruments, instead of being main protagonists, create a negative space for the orchestra to unfold – the guiding principle is a sentence from Giordano Bruno’s De Umbris idearum (1582): “Nothing is the opposite of a shadow” (“Umbrae enim nihil est contrarium”). That impossible opposite is in this piece performed by the trumpet, which is also placed behind the orchestra and playing with sordino – a taste for spatialization and, later on, rituals, follows the same train of thought.

In all these instances, whether or not elements of text and space are ultimately integrated into the piece, Koskinen’s formal solutions are first and foremost musical in nature, and in a certain way inherently referential, as they draw from a broad historical toolbox that ranges from Renaissance antiphonies to Klangfarbenmelodie, and an extremely versatile harmonic palette flirting with Spectralism, expanded or rather colored by a curious form of harmonic sampling from works that serve as an inspiration, so brittle it barely can ever be considered quotational. In this context the extra-musical references and impulses act, according to the composer’s repeated narrative, as a means to unblock the material’s potential, a way to articulate through analogy the possibilities of its development.

This search for extra-musical prompts is something that has been noted already by Koskinen’s teachers as a consistent peculiarity of his. Composer Philippe Schoeller was, alongside Philippe Manoury and Gilbert Amy, one of those teachers in the years 1996-1997, which Koskinen spent at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon, as an Erasmus student – the first of many extended contacts with French culture that left a lasting imprint on him.

In a recent conversation, Schoeller recalled his first impressions of his favorite student: “He came to me with an orchestra work, Fatalité, that already showed an incredibly mature synthesis of musical influences at the age of 23, and a minimalistic piano piece that displayed how much he was able to do with little material. But also he had a Baudelaire poem he was working on, Correspondances, which is about synesthesia. Deleuze says that good music comes outside of music, that one must depart from music to find music anew. You cannot solve everything through musical technicity, you need something else, be it literature, nature, madness, violence… Juha understood that on a deep level.”

Baudelaire’s Correspondances eventually inspired Koskinen’s piece Ambra for ensemble (1997), a study in colors and textures premiered in Lyon in the course of his studies. It also contains elements developed in his first opera, which was composed in the same period.

Another mentor figure was composer Kaija Saariaho, whose masterclass Koskinen attended at the Suvisoitto summer festival in Porvoo in 1996, before studying with her during her visiting professorship at the Sibelius Academy in 97-98, and then further following her footsteps in studying computer music within courses at the IRCAM in Paris in the late 90s (where Koskinen was also reunited with Philippe Schoeller). In those years Saariaho hadn’t herself ventured into writing operas yet, or conceived of a way of doing so.

“At the time such strong attraction to literature and to theatre was a peculiarity in new music circles”, she recalls when asked about it. “Juha really stood out as a theatre person, in addition to his musical gifts. I admired him for it since he seemed much more at ease with working for the stage than I did.”

Amongst the new generation of the Korvat Auki association of Finnish composers, co-founded by Saariaho and of which Koskinen had assumed the rotating chairmanship in 1994-1995, the interest for opera was a trait that would come to define him.

2. Opera as a calling

This duality between a rich taste for extra-musical prompts and the clarity of self-sufficient musical discourse is something that I find very characteristic of Koskinen’s artistic sensitivity. Koskinen understands his medium as a purely aural one and maintains a strong divide between his music intended for the stage (or other forms of multimedia interaction) and the rest of his output, which could seem surprising given the defining centrality of music theatre, or dialogue between the arts in general, in his work. As was already in 2002 assessed in a study on New Music of the Nordic Countries: “the opera (…) may be [Koskinen’s] most characteristic genre”[1], a label that has sticked with him since, for good reason.

As is shown by his works that refer to text without necessarily setting it to music, the inclusion of text is not only for a composer a way to convey meaning and take stands in a way that is not directly available through music alone; in Koskinen’s case, it also expresses the need to confront impulses that provoke the compositional process into new paths. This characteristic trait is a symptom of a broader need of constantly renewing material. An invariable stand of Koskinen’s over the years has been the refusal of repetition and imitation of oneself or others, whether in the form of traditionalism or fashionable systems and formulas that come and go in the musical avant-garde – or anything that comes to be formatted by market forces / inspires some to format themselves for them, as he would write himself in an article about the imitators of Einojuhani Rautavaara who aspired to the Finnish master’s commercial success[2]. Koskinen’s own path has been a constant navigation of this principle and a struggle against global cultural uniformization and homogenization driven by market forces and hegemonies, of which music and languages are a symptom and a vehicle as their diversity is threatened. Such a path could find its originality through external influences, in particular extra-musical ones, and thus opera has been a natural part of that process.

It is no surprise that someone as versed in literature, theatre and the visual arts would be one of the leading composers of music theatre of his generation: smaller experiments and installations/exhibitions put aside, he is the creator of six works of music theatre, and engaged in multiple upcoming projects. This journey could be said to have started already in 1994, with the completion of a 10-minute cycle on poetry by Sappho, scored for mezzosoprano, violin, cello and piano, that was crafted as a form of small monodrama.

Koskinen was literally born into what has been called the Finnish Opera Boom of the 1970s, and got to witness it from up close at the same time as he got acquainted with the classical repertoire: his father, a violinist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, performed every summer in the pit at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. “There I could see the landmark works by Aulis Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen. I also had a chance to encounter in my youth the modernist works of Paavo Heininen, such as The Damask Drum and The Knife.”[3] Koskinen later studied in Heininen’s composition class at the Sibelius Academy (like Kaija Saariaho and many other Finnish composers), and acknowledged in particular the importance to him of his opera Veitsi (The Knife, premiered in Savonlinna in 1989). In Finland as elsewhere, the interest of modernist composers in opera did a lot to break with the previous norm of the avant-garde that deemed opera a dead form: maybe it could be redeemed, provided it could secede from post-romantic heaviness and the stiffness of old-fashioned stage productions that had mostly grown oblivious of anything happening in the field of theatre. This has resulted, in the early 21st century, in a global renewed interest for opera, a form that young composers nowadays tend to tackle early in their careers, instead of viewing it as a crowning achievement.

One could then say that, regarding his background and his own taste for extra-musical influences, Koskinen was in good dispositions to participate in what musicologist Liisamaija Hautsalo termed ‘the New Finnish Opera Boom’ in a 2000 article[4], describing the heavy slate of fourteen new Finnish productions of music theatre that were premiered within that year alone, including Koskinen’s first full-evening opera Eukko.

Since the mid 1990s, Koskinen had been collaborating closely with one of the major fringe opera instances of that era, the independent company Ooppera Skaala. The company’s first project in 1996 was also Koskinen’s first foray into opera: the 30-minute long Velhosiskot (The Witch Company) for six singers and ensemble, a somewhat Jungian fantasy of a young girl’s transition from childhood into the realm of adulthood, for which Koskinen crafted his own libretto.

By the early 2000s, both Ooppera Skaala and Koskinen had grown into experienced professionals, and presented broader productions together: in 2000 at the Finnish National Opera, Eukko – pidättekö vainajista? (The Old Woman – Are You Fond Of Dead People?) based on a story by Daniil Harms, and in 2002 at the Kaapelitehdas in Helsinki, Brunelda – Amerikan sydän (Brunelda – The Heart of America), after Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Koskinen’s operatic adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s play Madame de Sade, of which he created a fragment in the framework of the Festival of Aix-en-Provence’s Académie européenne de Musique in 1998, was also premiered by Ooppera Skaala in its full version, in 2010 at the Korjaamo theatre in Helsinki. This series of works, mostly created with director/co-librettist Janne Lehmusvuo (*1967), brought together the opera makers of a new generation, and catalyzed a peculiar atmosphere of creativity in Finland.

Miika Hyytiäinen, a Finnish composer ten years younger than Koskinen who has made music theatre the pivot of his own work, recalls the tremendous influence of the New Opera Boom and of Koskinen’s work in particular. “This movement made the Finnish opera scene more diverse on a structural level, but it also inspired individuals. In a deep way my own understanding of the possibilities of music theatre was influenced by the way Koskinen’s operas clarified their position as part of a European tradition.”

Hyytiäinen, who is now based in Berlin, one of the current European capitals of new music theatre, elaborates: “The worst judgement you can receive amongst German Musiktheater composers and dramaturges is ‘Mozart with the wrong notes’, meaning doing opera in the classical form with only the surface of music changing over the centuries. This is never the case in Koskinen’s operas, the dramaturgy and the way of thinking of music theatre are always thoroughly rethought. That specific relation to the text, to performance, to the human voice and to humor could simply not have existed a century ago. Those works were like a breath of fresh air to me, and a sign that slowly other winds were blowing even into Finland.”[5]

Koskinen has, too, moved to Berlin in the 2010s, and in addition to a lasting attraction to German-language literature from Kleist to Kafka and Heiner Müller, he has indeed kept a constant relationship to the German new music and new music theatre scenes ever since his discovery of the oeuvre of Helmut Lachenmann in the 90s. Not just a ‘Finnish composer’, Koskinen came to belong to that cultural landscape and tradition too. It is only natural to find him in the midst of the German new music theatre renewal movement of the 2000s as well: already in 2005 he contributed with a segment to Commander Kobayashi, an operatic science-fiction series created by the Berlin-based music theatre company Novoflot, in which each episode was authored by a different composer.

Being basically constantly involved in stage productions in the past twenty-five years undoubtedly had a transformative effect on Koskinen’s development as a composer. In Eukko, under the influence of the broken, diffracted reality portrayed in Daniil Harms’s text, one can already hear the broad dynamic range and sparse pointillism in orchestration of his later compositions, combined with the search for a clarity of lines that he developed through his interest for the operas of Francesco Cavalli and the Baroque era more generally, in quest of countermodels to the heavier Wagnerian paradigm that has long dominated operatic imagination, but without forsaking Wagner’s lessons in orchestration. Eukko unfolds like a lush miniature Wozzeck from a young composer on his way towards a concentration of means akin to those of Webern and Stravinsky in their rediscovery of Baroque forms.

A lasting interest for Baroque opera is one of the many threads that span throughout Koskinen’s output in more or less obvious forms, fueled by a general interest in classical Italian culture and long stays in Italy. Recently it has manifested itself most explicitly in the opera Lusia Rusintytär (Oulunsalo Soi Festival and on tour in Finland, 2015), the re-telling of a real 17th-century witch trial with partly Baroque instrumentation, and Superborea (Cirko – Center for New Circus, Helsinki, 2017), a dance project in which Koskinen’s music for Baroque ensemble was intertwined with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. An opera project based on the writings of Johannes Kepler, scheduled for 2024, will be an opportunity to keep exploring these associations by collaging 17th-century music with original new music, written for a mix of period and contemporary instruments, and folk techniques.

While sharing the stage with material from another composer might be the most extreme form it takes, Koskinen’s stage work is in general striking – and increasingly so over time – in its openness to collaborative effort instead of imposing a through-composed gesamtkunstwerk. By the time of Brunelda in 2002, Koskinen had fully developed a methodology for working on the stage that relies on collaboration – in this instance, by preparing ‘blocks of music’[6] to be manipulated in rehearsals until the piece finds its form in live reality.

3. Ophelia and the Abyss

I was myself surprised, when creating the libretto and the staging for Ophelia/Tiefsee (first version premiered at the Maison de la Radio in Paris in 2017; final version premiered at the Finnish National Opera in 2019), by how much Juha relied on the work we were doing on stage before he put the finishing touch to his score.

The history of the piece is itself one of constant recombinations. Intrigued by Koskinen’s piece for viola and ensemble Hamlet-Machine (1999), conductor Clément Mao-Takacs and myself requested in 2015 his permission to perform it within a series we were curating of new music with original video work. He accepted on the condition of revising the work, and soon delivered a 2-minute version of the 16-minute original, focusing on the viola cadenza that he associated with the character of Ophelia. From there was born the idea of rebuilding a new piece of music theatre starting from this rescued building block, and to reintegrate elements of the Heiner Müller play that had served as Koskinen’s original inspiration almost twenty years earlier, but had never been combined with his music.

The idea of a recentering of the narrative on Ophelia inspired us to create a piece entirely about different versions of the character, Heiner Müller’s being only one of them, although his technique of building a dramaturgical machine out of separate fragments would be the key to our own method. Such a machine functions effectively because, like Müller’s, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is constructed around the performative quality of its main protagonist, his theatre-within-theatre being the ‘mousetrap’ he sets up to advance the play’s main plot – and Ophelia being, in that regard, treated as mere collateral damage. She is constantly denied the right to perform, or even to speak, until she eventually erupts in the ‘mad scene’ that is the theatrical and operatic archetype of male-written female hysteria. We emphasized this by borrowing text material not only from Shakespeare and Müller, but also from Jules Laforgue’s decadent and satirical Hamlet, ou les suites de la piété filiale and from an anonymous theatre review from a 1827 performance of Hamlet, that puts to note the differences between male and female depictions of madness. In the resulting kaleidoscope, rather than pretending we might speak in the place of Ophelia, we reflect on the narratives imposed on her, both by male characters and by male writers who try to redeem her, through either sacrifice or revolt. To make this variety of points of view transparent, we decided to have the role of Ophelia and those revolving around her played by one male actor – following Shakespeare’s practice, but also underlining the male gaze – who would perform each text in its original language (contrasted language colors are also as ever crucial to Koskinen’s palette). The combination of actor and orchestra was a nod to the ancient form of the ‘melologue’, one example of which is Berlioz’s Lélio (a work incidentally inspired by the composer’s relationship with actress Harriet Smithson, whose performance of Ophelia was reviewed in the text we used, and revered by Berlioz).

The kaleidoscopic form combined with the ‘melologic’ separation of speech and music (meaning text is free in its movement and not constricted by any form of sprechgesang or other rhythmical notation) left a lot of room for Koskinen to build his own musical machine in a unifying and articulating manner. It soon became clear that the seed – the 2-minute fragment created in 2015 – would be the final musical number and that everything would grow towards that point. Koskinen created material that matched the needs of the overall form, in reaction to the text, but it is in the rehearsal room only that finer adjustment happened: fermatas that suspended time and overall placements of text in the score (in cases of overlaps of text and music) were decided on the stage after trying things out with actor Thomas Kellner, who performed the part, and sections involving the orchestra as a chorus were notated only after rehearsals with Clément Mao-Takacs and his Secession Orchestra. Even the solo viola part, which in this theatrical iteration of the earlier material became an on-stage musical shadow of the actor, was developed and expanded according to the feedback of the soloist Vladimir Percevic, and Ophelia’s mad song was built on a lullaby tune from the actor’s childhood. Earlier I described my reaction to this as ‘surprise’, but that is only because as a theatre-maker I have seldom met a composer working on his material to that point as a theatre-maker, calibrating things on the stage, letting them breathe and fall into place in live situations, all while having very precise musical ideas they were pursuing independently from the needs of the stage, within a thoroughly notated score.

This was embodied in particular by the versatility of Koskinen’s use of the orchestra, a band of 16 players (later expanded with more strings) which was in our production set center-stage, with all the elements of the set built around it, as the central piece of a machine. The orchestral prelude paints a broad landscape, with minimal resources stretched to grandiose scales: two notes hammered on the piano with the support of loud string harmonics, alternating with pointillistic gestures from the winds, the harp and the percussion, are enough to weave what turns out to be shimmering textures, effortlessly and organically opening and closing gaps that are filled by the solo viola and, eventually, the speaking voice, which unfolds at natural volume over atmospheric held string notes. Within a couple of minutes, the nature of this music is made crystal clear: it will without a build-up unleash its power and dominate the space, and then in the blink of an eye bend and serve the text, only to suddenly assume control over time again. Ophelia’s heart, says Müller’s text spoken by the orchestra, “is a clock”, and the character moves physically and aurally in an environment that will grind her alive if given the occasion, even and especially as it forces her to dance. In the scenes of dialogue, the repetition of short rhythmical noises and melodic motives gives the impression of a nightmarish clockwork – not manmade but of elemental proportions – inside which the solo viola oddly enough manages to breathe at its own pace. The orchestra seems to break apart when it is comically used as individual instruments characterizing different characters or as a ‘stage band’, but acting as the relentless chorus or rebuilding into a larger mass it always returns to its role of the hostile crowd. Only the viola cadenza seems to tame and harness it towards the end of the piece, like the dream of a successful revolution, achieved in cantabile softness, leading to Ophelia (turned Elektra by Müller) finally taking control over the machine for her last monologue, merging with it harmonically, and turning the threat against us, her oppressors. In this last movement – the ‘Abyss’ (Tiefsee) that gives its name to the work – the whole clockwork, with its unpredictable, shrill outbursts of violence, seems to have sunk underwater and to bubble and sigh, together with the invisible life of its new oceanic environment.

This talent for portraying a texture of potencies and potentials, flexing and bursting into violent explosions without ever reaching a resolution that would result in peaceful stasis, is something that characterizes the mood of most of Koskinen’s works. Thinking in particular of Ophelia/Tiefsee which he premiered, conductor Clément Mao-Takacs calls Koskinen’s “a music of secrets”. He unfolds this association thus:

“What I mean is that it is full of secrets – hints, [self-]quotations, memories… – but they are so well hidden that even a trained ear cannot easily recognize them. And yet something within us perceives them and it feels like this music secretes something both strangely familiar and absolutely new. (…) Juha’s science is that of a crafty and mischievous inventor in search of the right dosage. (…) He knows when to stop, frustrate, hold back, avoid, contain, refuse – always with reason. He can assume any tone, but never overdoes it; in the contrary, he always displaces things (especially in his stage music), offering to performers and spectators both an additional space, dimension, opening. Which doesn’t mean that his music is without depth or coldly intellectual: I’d rather say it is an exploration of the depths, steady and obstinate (…) Patient observation is required to understand that what we thought was vegetative is in actuality alive, that what we thought was blind is a source of light, that the smallest plankton, alga or coral is as necessary as the rest of sea-life – at the same time resulting from its environment and participating in its conservation and its evolution. Depth, depths are not for Juha synonymous of heaviness, but rather pressure and impressions, unsuspected and shattering revelations. Whether we are dealing with high sea or a goldfish bowl – and it is not the least of Juha’s talents to suggest the oceanic when dealing with an aquarium – what he offers to our seeing and hearing is life itself and the observation of life, access to the unspoken, the unspeakable, the invisible, that which is ordinarily silent or concealed from our senses.”[7]

The sea and its secret life, it turns out, is a recurring metaphor in Koskinen’s music – deep down a composer of big cities and of restless overlapping sonic layers, who rejoices in the immersive urban multilingual soundscape of his home neighborhood in Berlin’s Kreuzberg. The sea is present in the Hamlet-Machine material and its variations, of course, and in works such at the Piano Trio No. 2 (2017) introduced as three variations on water, but also recently in all the variations on water myths of Japanese Buddhism that pervades his later output: at the mercy of (the waves) for daegum, koto and double bass (2017), Unabara (lit. ‘deep sea’) for guitar, kantele and cembalo (2020), Fundamenta – de profundis (2020), the central fragment of the piano cycle Hoshi Mandara, or the myth of the underwater Dragon God Ryūjin, that plays a preeminent role in an upcoming opera based on the life of the Buddhist monk Myōe Shonin. In this context the sea is suggestive, as Mao-Takacs points out, of the invisible life beneath the surface, but also of ever-shifting shadow plays, moving layers and slow harmonic transitions that are otherwise characteristic of Koskinen’s music. Focused and minimalistic in his chamber music, these textures are expanded and diffracted to their most impressive proportions in orchestra pieces such as the double-anti-concerto Omaggio a Smilla (2002), a fascinating hall of mirrors and shadows, and Seishin (lit. ‘the heart’s voice’) for wind orchestra and percussion (2010, rev. 2022). The latter is inspired by a poem from Japanese Buddhist monk Kūkai describing the listening of sounds in the forest, which is much like the oceanic abyss treated with pointillism and occasional organ-like lush as a mysterious swarming ‘urban’ environment full of invisible forces – another similarity being that Ophelia’s emerging viola ostinato motive is replaced by a piccolo ostinato suggestive of a bird. It is no coincidence that both Omaggio a Smilla and Seishin (or the later Bushukan, a ritual listening session of its own kind) all contain elements of immersive instrument spatialization, putting the spectator in the position of a landscape’s observer gone a-hunting after mysteries.

One additional dimension that is specifically characteristic of Koskinen’s works for the stage is the confrontation with otherness. It is perhaps no coincidence that all his operas to date are centered not just on female characters, but on ostracized, ‘othered’ versions of them, whether through only superficially harmless male gaze or proactive witch trials. The stage, for composers who usually work in solitary confinement and rule alone over their musical world, and for anyone else involved in it, is a place of encounter, or departure from comfort zones, where separate entities, individualities, art forms and languages engage in dialogue and friction. This movement towards the other is one of tremendous importance in the way Koskinen engages with the world through his music, but also as a matrix that carries that music forward creatively. For instance his flamboyant tone poem Hehkuva graniitti (The Glowing Granite, 2001), commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and combining orchestra, choir and soloist in the setting of a poem by Elmer Diktonius on the sacred and solitary task of the artist, stands apart from Koskinen’s creations for the stage precisely because it doesn’t present a figure of alterity, that type of crack and opening to the outside that theatre commands, although it is also not devoid of wackiness. I would argue that having learned from this, Koskinen has eventually not only pursued this outside-of-comfort-zone quality through stage works, where it is more naturally achieved, but has been trying to reach it even without the prompt of the stage, in all of his music.

“In composing you need to think from the outside, take some distance, alternate between the magnifying glass and the bird’s-eye-view”[8], he states, about the musical process in general.

4. Building bridges in music

Concerning the dialectics of otherness, it is impossible to not delve into Koskinen’s growingly intense relationship to Japan and the Japanese music scene. Japanese culture being often subjected to superficial Orientalism, it is of note that Koskinen found a different, more personal and engaging path: “over [multiple stays] Japan has become an actual, real place to me, with its light and darker sides, instead of an exotic story-land on which to project one’s own fantasies”[9].

In 2004 Koskinen’s work for septet Sogni di Dante was premiered by Ensemble Recherche at the Takefu International Festival in Japan and was awarded the festival’s First Prize, which came with a stipend and a commission for the following year’s festival – resulting in the premiere of Koskinen’s String Quartet No. 1 at Takefu in 2005, at the hands of Quatuor Diotima. This was the starting point of regular visits to Japan, including in the form of a residency at Tokyo Wonder Site in the summer of 2010 and an engagement as a teacher of composition at the Aichi University of the Arts starting from 2016. Gradually Koskinen developed a distinctive knowledge of Japanese culture, and multiple collaborations with Japanese musicians and institutions.

Koskinen’s interest in Japanese culture has been manifold, and of course channeled first by the widening of aesthetic horizons through musical experiences: discovering classical Japanese instruments, witnessing the melodic recitation and instrumental playing in performances of Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku, and the chanting and percussions of religious rituals, such as the Goma feast which Koskinen attended in a Shingon temple during his stay in 2010. As always the specific spectrum of a new language (phonologically, and in its ideogrammatic manifestations) was also bound to open new musical horizons, as did French, Italian and German earlier. These experiences have resulted in multiple musical collaborations with Japanese musicians which are also a learning curve: Koskinen has become very knowledgeable in the techniques of koto through his work with several koto players, and has studied for many years classical liturgical shōmyō singing with the master Suehiro Shoei[10]. But one could say that what ties these endeavors together and makes them more than disparate exotic barrowings is the interest for Japanese Buddhism that connects them on a cultural and intellectual level.

At the core of classical Japanese poetry, Noh theatre, art of calligraphy, but also omnipresent shrines and statues of deities in the cities and even names of certain plants, lies Buddhism, its corpus of sutras, its internal controversies and its ambivalent relationship with the pagan Shinto religion, all of which express themselves in ritual music but also visual elements such as choreography and mandalas. It is a rich world of concepts and images. It also transcends the interest in Japan and defeats any kind of chauvinism, since it stems from continuous and fruitful cultural exchanges with China, Korea and India at least.  

A distinct limitation of the Western interest for Japanese Buddhism is its almost exclusive focus on Zen. This focus, informed by a seemingly compact and relatable set of conceptual tools (vacuity, centering on the here and now) and preference for paradoxes and meditation over doctrinal discussion, has a history, mostly channeled by the teachings of D.T. Suzuki and their influence on the like of the Beat Generation, John Cage, Morton Feldman or Giacinto Scelsi, aligning a variation of Zen with a critique of Western value systems, which was also the case of Martin Heidegger in the field of philosophy; not to speak of artists who had some form of contact with Japan and were seduced by an aesthetics of emptiness (from the Western discovery of minimalistic ink wash painting to Yves Klein) or later by such imported concepts as Zen gardens or wabi sabi. Most of the Western knowledge of Japanese Buddhism amounts to Orientalist clichés based on third-hand notions of Zen. Whether or not one embraces the contended idea that Zen and its derivatives constitute a form of boiled down ‘essence’ of Buddhism, the reality of Buddhism in Japan, in its history as much as in its practices and its pervasive influence on Japanese culture, is much more complex and colorful. This is one reason Koskinen has been most interested in Shingon Buddhism as opposed to Zen, and on the musical side in Shingon and Tendai shōmyō singing and their repertoire, their koshiki (narrative songs) and mudra (ritual hand positions). Noh theatre, in which Koskinen has taken interest both by working with Noh singers and as a dramaturgical inspiration, is also carrying strong philosophical and religious influences from Pure Land Buddhism, and cannot be understood through the lens of Zen alone.

Koskinen’s attempt has been to create a more profound intercultural dialogue than is customary in Western works that are adaptations of Japanese material or elements, even revered operatic examples from mentor figures such as Paavo Heininen’s Silkkirumpu (The Damask Drum, 1983) and Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains (2016), or indeed Koskinen’s own Madame de Sade (a French story told through a Japanese filter). This renewed profundity comes both from rigorous engagement with actual Japanese material and Japanese artists and with the underlying Buddhist material as a matrix and inspiration.

One early example of what that could mean is the Bashō Fragments (2010), where the acoustic music, scored for bass clarinet and cello, runs parallel to a recording of a Japanese person speaking three poems by Bashō in the original Japanese, in which case the friction of cultures is obvious. Similarly the work Bushukan, to be premiered in October 2022, is scored for shōmyō singer (Koskinen’s teacher Suehiro Shoei) and string trio, and built entirely around a performance of a shōmyō hymn and mantra performed in their original forms. The traditional chant’s complex colors are mirrored and diffracted in the string writing to create new music wreathed around it, while syllables of the Japanese text also reassemble into Finnish words from Reetta Pekkanen’s poem Katoaminen (Disappearing).

As Koskinen himself explains: “I see no reason to actually start copying a distant culture’s exoticized musical expression in my music. What matters is the process of the encounter, the gradual reach and growth towards each other. One shouldn’t aspire to abolish differences nor try to force them to integrate into a familiar identity.”[11]

One key concept used on a compositional level by Koskinen is that of intertwining, which is a way of favoring complexity and dialectics over ‘fusion’ and syncretism, in the same way he always prefers the friction of languages to watered-down Globish and other forces of capitalistic uniformization. This is a method to acknowledge the difficulty of intercultural dialogue all while offering new bridges that advance it, and creating new musical colors born from the overlaps and gaps created by this intertwining. And within such a paradigm the Buddhist search for the cracks within the fabric of reality meets Koskinen’s musical research on harmonic shadow plays, superpositions and transitions, in the same way his ostinati and erupting force fields find new motivation in mantras that carry intent and devotion. In Koskinen’s works inspired by Buddhism, traditional mantras are often quoted, as are poetic texts by Buddhist religious figures (Kūkai, Dōgen, Myōe), never in an uprooted fashion that would disconnect them from their original culture, but also providing them with a new context, as comments on the existential and manmade chaos of existence, not abstractly, but in our day. Although earlier cultural references in Koskinen’s work could betray a taste for the tragic and a leaning towards an absurdist worldview calling for an aesthetics of cruelty, especially in his operas, this corpus lays open the underlying ethics that his music expresses since its beginnings on its own terms: a dire yearning for the luminous power of compassion in the face of destruction and self-destruction, and more specifically an urge to side with the deject and repair the broken, within individuals, societies and environments. Analyzing the status of repairing and mending in this music would in itself be a lengthy and rewarding task for those willing and able.

Among the major works of this thread, the seven-part piano cycle Hoshi Mandara (2017-2020) articulates in aphoristic concision fragments from both European and Japanese musical traditions into Koskinen’s own musical matrix, and memories from some of his other works serve as a mesh-thin connective tissue; pianist Kyoko Fukushi describes performing it as a form of meditation leading to silence. The music Koskinen wrote for koto, including two solo pieces written for Nobutaka Yoshizawa, connects with his writing for guitar, kantele, piano and cembalo in a thoughtful dialogue between various plucked string techniques that truly creates concrete bridges between traditions – two notable examples being the aforementioned at the mercy of (the waves) for daegum, koto and double bass (2017), commissioned by the AsianArt Ensemble in Berlin, and Unabara for guitar, kantele and harpsichord (2020), written for Trio Superpluck in Helsinki. One another important constellation of works, exploring connection between woodwind writing traditions and ritualistic aspects of performance, has been created with the clarinetist Lauri Sallinen since 2019, in different settings (Dream Transmission with electronics, Seirei with string quartet, Heart of Light with violin and piano) and will find its climax in 2023 with the creation of an ambulatory piece of music theatre, Jaman-pahta, inspired by the Noh play Yamanba, in which the actual Finnish landscape of the premiere into which the audience will follow the performers will mirror the original story’s mountains where the witch Yama-uba has her lair. Again, transposition, translation and rewriting are preferred over mimicry.

Another major culmination of Koskinen’s work on Japan and Japanese Buddhism will be the upcoming opera *Waterfire, a variation on the monk Myōe Shonin’s dream diary in the form of an intercultural dialogue and examination of our society’s suppressed nightmares, as well as a new exploration, through the guise of the hinin, the outcast that the Buddhist monk named as his paradigm, of the pariah figure that has been central to all of Koskinen’s stage works. I will myself be involved in this cross-cultural effort as a librettist and stage director.

5. Periods / Quartets

We have surveyed many of Koskinen’s thematic threads and inspirations, in the order in which they have chronologically appeared and shaped his music. I would however prefer, in order to be truthful to the very nature of said music, to avoid the common-place artificial subdivision of the composer’s career into periods. It appears to me that if the concept of period should be used here, as with most artists it should rather be utilized in its chemical sense: a periodic table of elements that combine differently over time, with prospective room always left to discover new elements too. These Koskinen himself calls ‘seeds’, or bīja in the Sanskrit Buddhist vocabulary, in relation to the way a mantra for instance grows. Figures, whether understood as character archetypes or musical motives, seem to have their own life in the whole of Koskinen’s music, and like his secret quotations and the epigraphs he inscribes in his scores they reappear in unexpected and at first sight unrelated places over the course of three decades, as discrete signs of the continuity of his obsessions. ‘Dream’ is one of these elements of which there are too many to list here, and also the method by which these elements are always recombined. This is expressed in a quote from Madame de Sade that Koskinen included in the opera he made out of Mishima’s play, and has mentioned to me as a personal motto: “… his purpose was not to win affection but to transfer from his imagination to a particular time and place on earth the dreams that obsessed him.”  (Koskinen actually first discovered the play in Paris, in the French translation of André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and, in accordance with his taste for each language’s color and sensitivity, prefers quoting it in that version: “… son but n’était pas une séduction, mais le transfert, dans un temps et dans un lieu particulier de la terre, du rêve qui l’avait obsédé.”)

In a body of work so occupied with hidden influences, in which ideas continue their manifold underground growth over years, both chronological segmentation and the idea of linear progress seem just as vain. If we think of this body as a rhizomatic root system, constantly rewiring some of its growths on others and creating new bypasses and intertwinings, where exploratory shoots that seem disconnected actually all feed each other even if they do turn out to be dead ends, we might have a better glimpse at what an oeuvre is. In that metaphor, some roots ‘tuberize’ to form ‘reserve organs’ that feed the others, and I suggest describing one class of works as such ‘tubers’ that concentrate elements of Koskinen’s music: rather than defining periods, they define subsystems in his work; these have chronological significance but are more interesting to understand in ramifications that defy periodization.

The string quartet, the most canonical of genres in Western chamber music, is a perfect context to observe a composer’s work in purely music terms, and avoid the reduction of his output to limited hashtags such as ‘music theatre’, ‘Baroque’ and ‘Japanese’. Apart from works that use string combinations or the string quartet in combination with other instruments (or within broader orchestrations that use the quartet as their centerpiece), Koskinen has written four string quartets that will serve as our tubers in this reading, where we shall attempt to see in them more than just markers from four distinct decades.

Soleil noir (premiered by the Zagros Quartet at the Musica Nova Festival in Helsinki in 1999) is something of a Quartet Number Zero, as unlike its followers it doesn’t bear a number and is instead subtitled “Five miniatures”. As such it doesn’t have claims at being inscribed in the string quartet tradition, although it obviously makes full use of that specific instrumentation’s range. Albeit very characteristic of Koskinen’s pointillism, it strongly bears the mark of his studies under the guidance of Kaija Saariaho, her play with the transition between pitch and noise and her understanding of timbre as a tool for building harmonies, all while making a distinctive use of melodic material and a more condensed and dramatic use of time. Like Saariaho’s first string quartet Nymphéa, named after Claude Monet’s water-lilies, its color-plays are rooted in a visual inspiration, namely Odilon Redon’s works, as well as a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva (“… Night, like a black sun.”). One of Koskinen’s fellow computer music students at the IRCAM, François Sarhan, calls Soleil noir “one of my favorite works of his”[12], and recalls the discussions they had at the time about the possible nature of the missing fifth movement/miniature (which Koskinen composed only later in 2006), showing the process was spread over time. As it is in many ways a sister work to the contemporaneous Hamlet-Machine for viola and ensemble, displaying similar material and a comparable structure of individual voice(s) diffracted by other instruments throughout ephemeral solos, one could say that its elements have kept proliferating in Koskinen’s music even in the later music theatre work Ophelia/Tiefsee (2017).

The String Quartet No. 1 (premiered by Quatuor Diotima at the Takefu International Music Festival in Japan in 2005) is ostentatious in embracing for the first time in all of Koskinen’s output a traditional name and numbering, and this can only stand as a statement. Rather than as a ‘phase’ or even a ‘fit’ of Neoclassicism in the composer’s career, this should be understood as crystallizing his constant need to mold his research in a dialogue with tradition(s), a dialogue that is spoken in the language of forms. Tellingly, the opus was followed by other numbered works for classical instrumentations, including most importantly a Symphony No. 1 (2006) that explored the possibilities of the symphonic form as a kind of ‘urban polyphonic novel’, and like the many organ works also written by Koskinen in the same period, the first quartet and symphony toy with the idea of subverting a traditional linear sense of time with cyclical structures. But although playing with harmonies more euphonic than previously and a more linear arc, and coming from an obvious student of Haydn (on whose Quartet opus 103 he would later write a variation), the String Quartet No. 1 is rather reminiscent of another student’s, Anton Webern’s, string quartet opus 28, in its moody and atmospheric alternation of chord expositions and harmonic landslides. The fact that the first movement quotes Koskinen’s own Madame de Sade (in its first 1998 version) is both a reminder of the work’s connection to earlier material and an explanation to the cantabile and dramatic quality of a quartet that never lingers in scholarly variations, but as in the composer’s ulterior orchestration always darts towards a seemingly unattainable climax located in the high register, and ends instead in the mellifluous but interrupted exposition of a melody.

The String Quartet No. 2 (premiered by the Borea Quartet at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland in 2016, composed 2014 and workshopped in Japan in 2016) combines from the onset characteristics from the two previous, since besides its catalogue number it also holds a more elaborate subtitle: Under a Ginkgo Tree in Tiergarten. In a most literal interpretation, the double title would suggest a mature synthesis between youthful post-Spectral color-painting and later interest for classical form, and the subtitle would reflect both the composer’s move to Berlin and his new Japanese connection. Although this is biographically correct – Koskinen speaks of the resilience of the ginkgo tree historically adapting to European climate as a model for himself settling in a new country[13] – this No. 2 is leaning much more than its predecessor towards a classical melodic sound world and linear development. The work’s three movements, unfolding each in a continuous flow that barely ever pauses for a beat of silence, first seem far away from Koskinen’s usual broken, somewhat voluntarily breathless quality – that is, until realizing each movement ends on a pianissimo interruption, reframing the entire work as the offering, from the same aphoristic compositional mind, of a virtuoso study in elasticity, which upon a closer listen relishes in angular twists and turns and pizzicati. Definitely a curiosity in Koskinen’s output, this quartet is again more interestingly understood as a mood in a palette than as a phase: a presentation of the dance-composer Koskinen, whose taste for a clearly yet nervously drawn musical idea, as in a calligrapher’s brushstroke, takes its most solar and generous form. It is to be noted that there is again an explicit connection to other work: a lot of the material is shared with the opera Lusia Rusintytär, which was composed at the same time.

The String Quartet No. 3 is a novelty that was completed in July 2022 and hasn’t been premiered yet. Its title marks a return to dry numbering, but it contains an epigraph from Georg Trakl’s poem Frühling der Seele that ends with an exclamation that seems to tie a lot of previous threads together: Strahlender Sonnenabgrund – “Radiant abyss of the sun”. The music does shine in a manner more misty than sunny, and as a whole hovers calmly out of silence and back into silence with sparse shimmers of melody and color. Much more typical both of Koskinen’s harmonic transition work and of his pointillistic and at times explosive string orchestration than the previous quartet, this opus reaches back to Soleil noir all while owning the full-blown condensed energy of his mature pieces. Koskinen’s dialogue with Japanese culture is also elusively – secretly, as Clément Mao-Takacs would say – present through the ghostly transposition of shō harmonies and of the Shingon Mantra of Light. Although some other components connect with Koskinen’s Japanese works, the latter alone is sufficient to tie this quartet to an operatic project like its predecessors: the mantra was popularized in Japan by the monk Myōe Shonin, whose dream diary is the basis of a broader work-in-progress. Although all of the shoots of this specific tuber in Koskinen’s rhizome haven’t yet sprung – and it might be bold to assume that any of the previous quartets are any different in this respect, since their material and themes continue their growth somewhere – we can already see it connect with multiple existing developments, and probably many that have not been identified yet. It does confirm once again the manifold inner connections within a composer’s body of work that need to be assessed in their interconnectedness, and as a centerless field of possibilities, like Koskinen’s music itself, ready as it is to explode in unexpected eruptions.

6. Turning points & Continuities

Having now a more general view on Koskinen’s body of work, it seems that the characteristics of his treatment of the rich material at hand appear more clearly.

In a 2015 interview for the Finnish broadcasting company YLE, recorded between the premiere of his fifth opera and his first teaching semester in Aichi, Koskinen reflected on his art and gave a list of what he thought important to pass on in the field of music: “Motion, metamorphosis, erosion, weathering, flow.”[14] The list was provocatively laconic, even more so because it was made in the context of the Jean Sibelius jubilee and originally responded to a prompt to talk about Finnish music – Koskinen’s answer instead insisted on the importance of other cultures in his own background and the development of music in general, and spoke of “Finnish-European-global” music. The statement, apart from its value in dismantling chauvinistic thinking about music (which in Finland has political importance regarding the way the figure of Sibelius is instrumentalized by the far-right), can go both ways: Koskinen’s interest in musical processes of transformation/erosion was nurtured by the way they are realized in different traditions and with different tools, and the same interest also allowed him to connect these tools and traditions within his music in an organic way, as another (meta-)erosion of pre-existing boundaries.

A manifesto of sorts is the six-minute piece TEN, scored for five instruments (including Japanese percussions) and soprano, which was premiered by the Japanese Ensemble [H]akka in Hiroshima in 2019. The piece is written in full awareness of the shadows haunting the location of its premiere, and as it slowly unfolds an esoteric mantra in a fragile interstate between European and Japanese vocal techniques, the text seems to be surrounded by destruction that could – to the listener’s unease – be either past or impending, or both. Not only an example of weathered intersecting layers and of musical bīja/seeds, TEN exemplifies another key feature of Koskinen’s music, contained in the Japanese meaning of its title: ‘turning point’.

Turning points could be said to be central to Koskinen’s macrostructures in general. His works are typically not built towards a final climax – the climax, when it occurs, comes towards the middle of the piece, and the final section is devoted to unwinding it, to processing a high-intensity event closer to a surge of violence than an orgasmic resolution. In TEN, the titular turning point comes in the middle too, on a silent fermata that follows an intense recitative reminiscent of Noh theatre (and indeed announced by a traditional taiko drum). The fermata bears the unusual instruction: “During this long fermata all the performers make a silent prayer.” Unabara for plucked-string instrument trio (2020) contains a similar moment in a structurally similar middle-spot, offering the performers a one-minute-long Katve-kadenssi (Cadence of shade, or of in-between) in which they are free to retune, pray, meditate, read a favorite text or “wave at their support-person in the audience”.

This turning point is not always manifested in such a stretched-out silence, but it can always be understood as a process of ‘loading’ the silence that follows the end of the performance, in another trait that is broadly cross-cultural and of particular weight in Japan.[15] The replacement of the climax with a turning point also means embracing the ambiguity of a conclusion that cannot be said to be victorious and that doesn’t make Manichean choices about the state of mind in which one should return to one’s everyday life. It resembles grieving: an unresolved state that can turn to extremes, and that contains both anxiety and hope. Many musical gestures that Koskinen typically uses in the final sections of his pieces, such as the high-pitched airy flute calls repeated in Sogni di Dante (2004), Sogni di Myoe (2015) and in Ophelia/Tiefsee (2017), that could be either a tired victory call or an emergency post, but are simply marked in the score as luminoso.

The epigraph of the koto-piece Usugōri (2018) is a quotation from the Noh play Tatsuta that is originally a quotation from the Chinese Buddhist monk Zhiyi – it describes the light of Buddha as always appearing ‘tempered’ and ‘merged with dust’, and hence difficult to recognize but ready to be uncovered even in lowliest places. This is also why light never appears at full intensity in Koskinen’s music: instead it always shines through textures and cracks, and commands focused attention to be perceived. That state of attention into which the composer tries to invite us has its counterpart in his own attitude made present in the careful, always clearly delineated gestures in which he takes each step together with his listeners. The title Usugōri, that means ‘thin ice’, is a good emblem of such a compositional attitude, and to a Finnish listener is reminiscent both of cautious footsteps and stops on the frozen sea, and of the finest cracking sounds that resound in a damp snowy silence. Composing on thin ice is an attitude and a method for times of distress and announced collapse such as ours.

These cautious steps cannot come with big breaks and leaps, and it is no surprise that Koskinen’s music, both in each separate piece and in his career as a whole, is structured like a search of continuity within interruption. Whether we are talking about harmony or a relationship to historical traditions, it always looks for inflexion points instead of either repetition or clean breaks and slates. As we have established, some lines or shoots have been spanning decades worth of his music.

Lines are continued in the form of collaborations, as well. We have already mentioned the fact that for instance Koskinen’s opera work, his music for Baroque instruments or his music for Japanese instruments has developed over the course of multiple collaborations with the same artists, and the same can be said of the cycle of works for clarinet created with Lauri Sallinen, or earlier his organ music written for Jan Lehtola. Another fascinating ten-year collaboration is Koskinen’s association with Finnish guitarist Patrik Kleemola.

Koskinen’s music for guitar is a musical trail in itself, connected to all of his music for plucked strings throughout Baroque and Japanese instrumentation too. One of its starting points or seeds is the short guitar piece Der Bau (premiered in 2009 by Rody van Gemert) and its derivatives erBa (2009, for two guitars) and Cinq fontaines de la fortune (2014, for guitar and cembalo), all concerned with both ancient musical inspiration[16] and Franz Kafka’s short story Der Bau (The Burrow), in which the first-person narrator is a creature digging himself a safe space underground, only to be threatened by the approach of a potentially hostile sound source. The sensorial associations are obvious, from the gestures of kratzen (scraping) and scharren (scratching) that are transposed on the instrument to a thoroughly intimate blind world of sonic impressions and threats. This line is continued in the work with Patrik Kleemola first in the solo piece Foco interno (2011), an 11-minute-long somewhat immersive sensorial experience that reminds of Kafka’s animal’s anxious digging, augmented with extended techniques and humming. As the collaboration continued Kleemola could see the material transform: “Maybe it is thanks to his Japanese influences that the expressive power of silence in Juha’s music for guitar has grown”, he ponders. “This suits very well an instrument whose dynamics must be built by hand precisely from the silence.”[17] In Taizōkai (2015), whose title refers to the mandala of the ‘Womb Realm’ used in Shingon Buddhism, the blind underground burrow-tomb merges into the more promising image of the pre-natal matrix, and ends in the memory of a Bach chorale celebrating the mystery of nativity. This idea was continued in das zur Ruhe kommen der Mondscheibe im Herzen for guitar, violin and cello (2019) that incorporates elements of a shōmyō hymn connected to the same mandala. In this piece a ‘Tuning cadenza’ similar to that of Unabara also incorporates an element of humor that is equally present in Ramento for solo guitar (2020), a prayer for compassion that seems comically stuck between Finnish Lutheranism and Buddhism. Although the way these works connect with contemporaneous pieces for other instrumentations is pretty easy to trace, the influence of the performer’s personality should not be overlooked, as Koskinen has endowed the works he wrote for Kleemola with a particular tone. These latest miniatures that experiment freely with the intertwining of his own various influences open the door to new music that is yet to be imagined.

Open endings

The clearest last impression and aftertaste left by many of Koskinen’s works’ lack of classical resolution is the sense of an open ending – the acknowledgement of the fact that we are not done making music, even as we collectively walk on thin ice indeed. The continued life on the same material over decades, including after years of invisible growth, also is an indication that the process is never completed for good. And collaborations, old and new, also create a chain of transmission for music to continue.

Not only constantly going ‘back to school’ to study new sources of inspirations, Koskinen has also become a figure inspirational for younger Finnish composers for his broad perspectives, his music theatre work, his inventiveness within craftsmanship, patient attitude in building towards new horizons, and the advice he always offers to those who ask.

Miika Hyytiäinen underlines: “Insightful use of vocal registers, skillful orchestration, internalized compositional technique are not self-evident things in the field of experimental music theatre. It’s only now that I can appreciate how Koskinen has early on found a balance in truly looking for something new and interdisciplinary all while carrying technical sovereignty. This is the position from which he still seems to create art that as gesamtkunstwerk levels solitary and collective work, and condenses both humor and a certain discreet wisdom.”

Outi Tarkiainen, a successful younger colleague who is also making a breakthrough as an opera composer, reminisces along the same lines: “Koskinen is a major Finnish composer of his generation, idiosyncratic, invariably surprising and truly cosmopolitan. Juha’s music takes hold of the heart just as it challenges the mind – the infinite richness of details, the inventive orchestration and the infallible sense of drama are to me the main characteristics of his musical language. I am thankful for all of his advice.”[18]

Some of Koskinen’s works keep growing in the repertoire of ensembles and soloists, and a lot remains to be unearthed as it has disappeared after the premiere, according to the senseless custom of the new music economy, of which in particular orchestra music suffers immensely – as is demonstrated by Koskinen’s many gems for orchestra and ensemble, of which I mentioned a few, that are awaiting a revival. Much is also left to be written. Hopefully this essay can contribute to the acknowledgement of the wide existing range of his works, and help spark curiosity for a music that is itself curious in all the meanings of that word.

Aleksi Barrière, October 2022

Aleksi Barrière & Juha T. Koskinen © Julia Schroeder

Additional ressources:
Juha T. Koskinen’s website
Music Finland score

[1] Kimmo Korhonen, “New music of Finland”, New Music of the Nordic Countries, John D. White (ed.), Hillsdale (NY, USA), Pendragon Press, 2002, pp. 121–286.

[2] Sibis 1/2002, quoted by Vesa Sirén, “Nuoret paheksuvat Rautavaara-ilmiötä”, Helsingin Sanomat, 08/05/2002.

[3] From Liisamaija Hautsalo’s interview article “Juha T. Koskinen: Säveltäminen on uudistamista – tradition rajoissa”, FIMIC, 2005.

[4] Liisamaija Hautsalo, “The New Finnish Opera Boom”, Finnish Music Quarterly, March 2000.

[5] Quotations from Miika Hyytiäinen are from his tribute text (see Appendix).

[6] Vesa Sirén, “Voiko ooppera olla nopeaa ja terävää?”, Helsingin Sanomat, 06/11/2002.

[7] Quotations from Clément Mao-Takacs are from his tribute text (see Appendix).

[8] Auli Särkiö, “Säveltäminen on purjehdusta halki kaaoksen”, Verkko-Särö, 09/09/2019.

[9] Juha T. Koskinen, “Metropolista Keski-Suomeen”, Amfion, 15/07/2009.

[10] See both of his articles on the subject in the musicological review Musiikin suunta: “Säveltäjä shōmyōn johdattelemana” (2018) and “Näkökulmia Tendai-shōmyōn perusteisiin” (2019).

[11] Juha T. Koskinen, “Toista kohti kurkottaen”, Rondo Classic, 30/11/2019. (Also archived on the composer’s website.)

[12] Quotations from François Sarhan are from his tribute text (see Appendix).

[13] Kimmo Korhonen, “Monien merkitysten jousikvartetto”, Rondo Classic, 01/07/2016.

[14] “Säveltäjänä Suomessa – Juha T. Koskisen puheenvuoro”, YLE, 30/09/2015.

[15] On the Japanese perception of this silence, one can read Lasse Lehtonen’s article “TEN (転)—between two worlds” published on the composer’s website, containing also interviews of the Japanese performers of the piece.

[16] Auli Särkiö, op. cit.

[17] Quotations from Patrik Kleemola are from his tribute text (see Appendix).

[18] Quotations from Outi Tarkiainen are from her tribute text (see Appendix).

APPENDIX: Tribute texts

As I was researching this essay, I suggested a few of Juha T. Koskinen’s colleagues and collaborators to write a short testimony that would also serve as a tribute on his 50th birthday. They are to be found below in their entirety and original languages.

Miika Hyytiäinen:

Jo useamman vuoden ajan on maantieteellisesti ja esteettisesti lähelläni majaillut eräs Juha, jolta olen saanut tarkkoja älykkäitä huomioita aiheesta kuin aiheesta. Tämän herrasmiesmäisen ja hieman pidättyväisenkin taiteilijan kanssa en kuitenkaan puhu eräästä Juha T. Koskisesta, vuosituhannen taitteen oopperasäveltäjästä, joka sai melkeinpä myyttisen sädekehän.

Syynä tämän hahmon tarunhohtoisuuteen olivat erityisesti Ooppera Skaalan kanssa tuotetut musiikkiteatteriteokset Velhosiskot (1996), Eukko – pidättekö vainajista (2000), Brunelda – Amerikan sydän (2002) sekä Madame de Sade (eri versioina, viimeinen 2010). Ne kuuluvat siihen suomalaisen oopperan buumiin, joka huipentui vuonna 2000 peräti 14 suomalaisen oopperan kantaesitykseen, joista Eukko siis oli yksi. Tämä liike teki varmasti suomalaisesta oopperakentästä moniäänisemmän, mutta rakenteiden lisäksi se vaikutti myös yksilöihin. Syvällisellä tavalla omaan käsitykseeni musiikkiteatterin mahdollisuuksista vaikutti Koskisen oopperoiden sijoittuminen itsestäänselvästi osaksi eurooppalaista oopperatraditiota.

Erityisesti Saksalaisten musiikkiteatterisäveltäjien ja dramaturgien synkin tuomio on “Mozartia väärillä nuoteilla”, siis oopperaa, jossa vain musiikin pintakerros on vuosisatojen saatussa muuttunut. Koskisen oopperoissa näin ei koskaan ole, vaan dramaturgia ja tapa ajatella musiikkiteatteria ovat aina syvällisellä tavalla uusia. Tällaista suhdetta tekstiin, esittäjyyteen, ihmisääneen ja huumoriin ei yksinkertaisesti olisi voinut olla olemassa vielä sata vuotta aiemmin. Näistä teoksista tuli itselleni jonkinlainen henkireikä ja osoitus siitä, että hitaasti muualla puhaltavat tuulet vaikuttavat myös Suomen ilmanalaan.

Oikeastaan vasta siirryttyäni itse keski-Eurooppaan, havaitsin Koskisen musiikin toisen puolen. Se on yksinkertaisesti taitavasti ja huolella tehtyä. Sibelius-Akatemian taikapiirissä tämä saattaa tuntua triviaalilta, mutta tarkkanäköinen laulurekisterien käyttö, sujuva orkestraatio ja satsiopin sisäistynyt käsityötaito eivät olekaan kokeellisen musiikkiteatterin kontekstissa itsestäänselvyyksiä. Siksi osaan vasta jälkeenpäin arvostaa sitä, että Koskinen on löytänyt jo varhain tasapainon, jossa voidaan etsiä aidosti uutta ja poikkitaiteellista, mutta silti kannatella mukana teknistä suvereeniutta. Tästä positiosta hän tuntuu luovan nykyäänkin taidettaan, joka tasapainoilee kokonaistaideteoksena itsenäisen ja yhteistyön välillä, kiteyttää huumorin ja hillittyn viisauden.

Patrik Kleemola:

Yhteistyöni Juhan kanssa alkoi sooloteoksen Foco interno (2011) myötä. Teoksen ensimmäinen osa Foco on todellakin nimensä mukaisesti tuskallisesti polttavaa musiikkkia. Teoksen piinallisen repetiiviset motiivit herättivät huomiota ihan kotipiirissäkin teosta harjoitellessa. Toisessa osassa Interno on jäljellä enää tyhjyys säveltäjän lainatessa otsikossa Paul Celania:

“In der Mandel – was steht in der Mandel? Das Nichts.”

Juhan toinen minulle kirjoittama soolokitarakappale Taizõkai (2015) tietyllä tavalla muistuttaa Foco internon muotoa pienoiskoossa, mutta merkittävin eroin. Foco internon lopun“ei-mikyys” saa Taizõkaissa huomattavasti toiveikkaamman lopun Bach koraalimukaelman muodossa. Pohjalla oleva koraali on Bachin kantaatista BWV 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, jonka voi myös ajatella heijastelevan laajemminkin syntymän ihmettä. Taizõkai-nimi viittaa japanilaisen shingon- buddhalaisuuden mandala-kuvioon ja siihen liittyvän “kohtumaailmaan”.

Japanilaiset vaikutelmat Juhan teoksissa ovat korostuneet tuoreimmissa teoksissa Das zur Ruhe kommen der Mondscheibe im Herzen (2019) viululle, kitaralle ja sellolle sekä Ramento (2019- 2021) soolokitaralle. Ehkäpä juuri japanilaisvaikutteista johtuen Juhan kitaramusiikissa hiljaisuuden ilmaisuvoima on kasvanut. Ja tämä sopii erinomaisesti soittimelle, jonka dynamiikka täytyy rakentaa nimenomaan hiljaisuudesta käsin. Pitkä matka on tultu yli kymmenen vuoden takaisesta intensiivisen piinavasta Foco internon musiikista viimeisimpiin teoksiin, joihin on tullut tilan tuntua ja hengittävyyttä teos teokselta. Vuosien varrella olen tutustunut Juhaan paremmin ja hän on monesti käynyt luonani Turussa ja olemme nähneet myös Helsingissä kuin Milanossakin. En kutsuisi Juhaa ehkä romantikoksi, mutta oman elämän tapahtumat kuuluvat hänen musiikissaan, valitsemissaan aiheissa kuin itse sävelkielessä, sanattomana ilmaisuna.

Turussa 27.9.2022

Clément Mao-Takacs:

La musique de Juha est secrète. Je veux dire par là qu’elle renferme des secrets – allusions, [auto]citations, souvenirs… – mais si bien cachés que même une oreille avertie ne peut les reconnaître aisément. Pourtant, quelque chose en nous les perçoit, et il semble bien que cette musique sécrète quelque chose qui nous est étrangement familier et cependant absolument neuf. La musique de Juha est une armoire à poisons, où chaque fiole semble un inoffensif sirop aux couleurs attrayantes qu’on désire boire ; et c’est seulement lorsqu’il est trop tard que l’on comprend que l’on a goûté un liquide fatal, qui laissera traces et séquelles en nous. Une lente sécrétion des poisons dans le secret de notre corps entendant : voilà le mal délicieux que maîtrise à merveille Juha T. Koskinen. Si l’on ne se méfie pas, on prend cette musique à la légère (car elle sait se faire légère comme plume, translucide comme un disque de glace ou de sucre filé) : on aurait grand tort. Car le compositeur et sa musique poursuivent un but que seuls ils pressentent et parfois connaissent, un art des mystérieux dosages subtils. D’un geste malencontreux, nous pourrions mourir d’un coup ou bien ne rien ressentir ; or toute la science de Juha est celle d’un inventeur malin et malicieux, qui veille à trouver la juste proportion. Juha est un disciple de l’Apollon delphique – « Mêden agan » pourrait être son credo – ; il sait s’arrêter, frustrer, retenir, éviter, contenir, refuser – et il a toujours raison. Il sait adopter tous les tons, mais ne force jamais le trait ; au contraire, il a soin de toujours légèrement décaler les choses (notamment dans sa musique dramatique), offrant ainsi aux interprètes comme aux spectateurs un espace, une dimension, une ouverture supplémentaires. N’en déduisez pas que sa musique est sans profondeur ou froidement intellectuelle : je dirais bien plutôt qu’elle visite les profondeurs, avec constance et obstination, mais comme le ferait un sous-marin si perfectionné qu’il ne dérangerait pas la vie sous-marine qu’il nous donnerait à voir. Chaque œuvre du compositeur ressemble à une plongée explorant un recoin inconnu où l’on croit reconnaître des formes familières ; et il faut une patiente observation pour comprendre que ce qu’on croyait végétatif est en réalité vivant, que ce qu’on croyait aveugle est source de lumière, que le moindre plancton, la moindre algue, le moindre corail sont aussi nécessaires que l’immensité marine qui les entourent – à la fois résultant de cet environnement et participant à sa conservation comme à son évolution. La profondeur, les profondeurs ne sont pas chez Juha synonymes de pesanteur, mais plutôt de pression et d’impressions, de révélations insoupçonnées et bouleversantes. Qu’il s’agisse de haute mer ou d’un bocal – car ce n’est pas le moindre des talents de Juha que de nous faire croire à l’océanique alors qu’il ne s’agit que d’un aquarium –, ce qu’il nous donne à voir et à entendre, c’est le vivant et l’observation du vivant, l’accès à tout ce qui est tu, indicible, invisible, d’ordinaire silencieux ou caché à nos sens. Écrites dans le plus grand secret – avant de rencontrer interprètes et spectateurs –, les créations de Juha me semblent revenir sans cesse sur le secret de ce qui se crée, et de ce qui d’elles est sécrété : la présence de la vie jusque dans [ce qui a l’apparence de] la mort – une forme d’éternité retrouvée.

François Sarhan:

J’ai rencontré Juha en 1997 ou 1998, j’étais encore étudiant au conservatoire de Paris. On s’est revu de nombreuses fois dans ces années, et on partageait nos problèmes de compositeurs. J’ai un souvenir très marqué de ses œuvres de ces années là, notamment Hamlet-Machine, pour alto et ensemble, qu’il m’avait longuement commenté, à mon émerveillement. Soleil noir était aussi une de mes pièces favorites, la 5ème manquante (écrite beaucoup plus tard si je ne me trompe) étant sujet de spéculations entre nous.

Juha représentait pour moi à l’époque l’archétype d’une attitude romantique véhiculée par une musique nerveuse, agile, intransigeante. L’honnêteté intellectuelle et l’intégrité artistique irriguée de Dostoievski et Mishima en lutte avec une époque rationaliste et analytique. Il m’avait semblé à l’époque qu’il disait sans cesse « patience, patience », que je ne pouvais pas m’empêcher de lire comme une métonymie d’une crise existentielle permanente. J’avais à l’époque commencé une pièce pour baryton et ensemble où le chanteur répétait 300 fois « Patience », en son hommage. Il a regardé la partition et l’a regardée avec étonnement : « Mais j’ai jamais dit ça ! » Je n’ai jamais fini la pièce qui est sans doute perdue.

Outi Tarkiainen:

Juha T. Koskinen on omaperäinen, alati yllättävä ja aidosti kansainvälinen sukupolvensa eturivin suomalainen säveltäjä. Juhan musiikki pureutuu yhtä lailla sydämeen kuin haastaa mielen – loputon detaljien runsaus, kekseliäs orkestrointi ja erehtymätön draaman taju ovat minulle hänen sävelkielensä keskeisiä tunnusmerkkejä. Olen Juhalle henkilökohtaisesti kiitollinen monesta: kuinka hän avasi minulle Berliinissä asuessani oopperan maailmaa vanhemman kollegan viisaudella ja varoitti monesta sudenkuopasta. Juhan rohkaisemanaan uskaltauduin jopa heittämään esikoisoopperani ensimmäisen libreton roskakoriin, joka osoittautui merkittäväksi askeleeksi eteenpäin teoksen lavalle saamisessa! Lämpimät onnittelut Juhalle!

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