Landscape, Nature and Spatiality in the Music of Contemporary Nordic Composers 

Photo: Soili Jussila. Image provided by Shutterstock. 

Photo: Soili Jussila. Image provided by Shutterstock. 

Since the earliest decades of the 19th century, composers from northern Europe have been confronted by interpretations of their music as artistic reflections of the diverse geological and biological environments of Nordic countries. Though this was commonplace - sometimes quite deliberately so - for composers like Franz Berwald, Johan Svendsen, Jean Sibelius and others, continuing well beyond Carl Nielsen’s work in the early 20th century, notions concerning music’s relation to landscape, nature and the elements were largely absent from the generations of Scandinavian modernists active after the end of World War II. In the decades since, characterised as they are by conceptual eclecticism, the re-emancipation of modal and tonal composition and the increase of interest in ecology and environmental matters, as well as explicit musical inspiration from natural phenomena, have all seen a marked return, albeit in a form strikingly different from the collective idealistic aesthetics that characterised romanticism.

The work list of Ruben Sverre Gjertsen (b. 1977) includes titles such as Landschaft (after a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke), Landscape with Figures (performable in four different ‘constellations’) and Mountain Music. The latter is a work composed for artist Tulle Ruth’s wind-driven (Aeolian, if you will) mechanical barrel organ, the musical structure being a realisation of topographical data from the Norwegian mountain region of Bergen. In relation to such elements drawn from nature, which are deeply integrated into the artistic process, Gjertsen mentions Raymond Murray Schafer’s musical realisations and interpretations of ecological states as an important predecessor. Just as in Schafer’s case, here too nature represents empirical subject matter, while the form and compositional treatment is firmly rooted in the realm of human culture.

Several of Gjertsen’s works are based on spatiality – conceptually, metaphorically, and in a more concrete form - building in this respect on combinatorial methods. Collideorscape, for alto flute, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and celesta, developed from a number of separately conceived musical fragments, being compositionally situated, located and transformed on both temporal and spatial axes. Gjertsen says that labyrinthic forms stimulate him to a much greater degree than the lofty lines conventionally associated with spatiality in music (or indeed, historically, in sonic portrayals of ‘landscape’ and ‘horizon’). The title refers to Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, in which ‘collideorscape’ appears as the answer to a number of highly convoluted questions, thus paralleling the intricate, not-immediately-grasped syntax of Gjertsen’s work. The piece is performed by the Riot Ensemble at the Floral Night Episode concert.

Nordic Forest. Photo: Villesep. Image provided by Shutterstock. 

Nordic Forest. Photo: Villesep. Image provided by Shutterstock. 

Madeleine Isaksson (b. 1956) was born and educated in Sweden, but has long been based in the vicinity of Paris. In her recent orchestral work Ljusrymd (‘Space of light’), premiered earlier this year, the concept of three-dimensional spatiality interacts with sonic embodiments of darkness and light, corresponding to low and high pitches/registers. Her work Ciels for six voices also explicitly alludes to a high-low axis, particularly with respect to the sky, based as it is on French poet Gérard Haller’s Météoriques. The texts performed by the vocalists in this work relate to concepts of time and atmospheric states of the sky (‘temps’ being a homonym in French, denoting both ‘time’ and ‘weather’). The work is performed at the concert In the steppes of Sápmi. Isaksson’s Várije (‘Towards the Mountains’) is based on three joik songs, the evocative singing tradition of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia. Joik has traditionally been conceived as evoking, summoning, or even in a mystical sense being the place, thing or person of which one sings.

In the case of this vocal work, the three melodies evoke the draught reindeer, a perilous mountain top, Riehker bakti and the Umeå river. The work is performed by girls choirs from London together with Swedish joik singers Jörgen Stenberg and Cecilia Persson. ‘For me, space, landscape and room are fundamental concepts for my compositional procedure’ says Isaksson. ‘Geographical images, natural phenomena, and landscapes can be present in an initial phase as metaphorical tools for the structural outline, but they disappear entirely during the process of composition, only – sometimes, not always – to surface again in the nishing stages, with a title that in some way bears witness to the original ideas.’

Soliloque by Osmio Tapio Räihälä (b. 1964) is played at Nordic Music Days at the Nordic Lights Lounge. ‘Soliloque’ literally means ‘speaking alone’, but the title here carries the connotation of music occurring regardless of the presence of listeners – an art object not reliant on an audience – as well as spatial separation, between work and listener, and between different sections of the work.

The work embodies a separation of time, being performed in six different segments over four days in the Nordic Lights Lounge. Räihälä has composed a number of pieces relating metaphorically or programmatically to locations, elements and natural habitats, but stresses that it is hardly ever nature and landscape that are primary sources of inspiration for him, but rather the individuals and cultural elements connected to the places depicted (sometimes synaesthetically) in sound.

A clear tendency in the artistic outlook of composers whose work is being performed at Nordic Music Days is to reject the idea of there being a unifying ‘Nordic’ sound in contemporary music. This rejection, though, is demonstrably more relaxed than that of their 20th century high modernist predecessors. The reception of music by Scandinavian composers today is in many ways often subject – albeit sometimes unintentionally – to a pre-existing idea of ‘Nordicness’, a kind of ‘otherness’ that is perceived as connoting landscape, nature and natural elements from the North even in cases when no such intentions have crossed the mind of the composer and performer.

The theme of this year’s Nordic Music Days is the meteorological phenomenon of aurora borealis (Northern Lights). It is perhaps therefore significant that these polar lights were described in the thirteenth-century Norse educational and moral treatise Konungs skuggsjá as an inherently natural sensation, as opposed to the flora of mythological and foreboding interpretations inferred by other contemporaneous observers of the phenomenon. The Northern Lights are after all only ‘northern’ outside this context, even if they are undeniably ‘northern’ due to their very locality.

Mattias Lundberg, Professor, Department of Musicology, University of Uppsala.

Mattias Lundberg (b. 1976) is Professor of Musicology at Uppsala University. His research interests concern medieval music theory, contrapuntal composition, music analysis and music history of all periods (including contemporary music).