A discussion with Finnish composer Juhani Nuorvala

Juhani Nuorvala is widely regarded as a leading composer who also happens to have a firm grasp of microtonal and xenhamonic ideas, and a vivid and imaginative way of using them to create substantially evocative and moving works. Like Jean Sibelius, the titanic countryman whose name graces the academy where Nuorvala teaches, his music evokes something of that Northern space that similarly makes it unique, simultaneously intimate and universal, and at times, magical. However, it usually happens to use a smaller-scaled canvas that the compact yet massive symphonies of Sibelius: Nuorvala clearly embraces a post-modernist and post-minimalist tradition that sees elements of folk instrumentation (e.g. the kantele, or traditional Finnish zither), popular sensibility (emphasis on melodic, accessible, less dissonant textures), and has a practical bent that sees him making a living doing gigs like writing for documentary film.

Juhani and I exchanged questions and answers over several months, and we are very happy to finally present the results of that exchange here.
-Aaron Krister Johnson

UnTwelve: Tell us how you've been, where you are now, and what you are up to these days. Are there any exciting projects on the horizon for you?

JN: I’m good, living in Helsinki with my dog Sabrina and teaching at the Sibelius Academy. Right now I’m not working on any commissioned pieces which, in fact, is a relief after a busy year. Last September I had an important premiere: a large-scale piece for the leading string orchestra in Finland, celebrating the 100th year of Finland’s independence. It was also soon played at the University of Boulder, Colorado, by their excellent chamber orchestra, and there another performance in Finland last month. I think of it as an audience-friendly work: it's a set of variations on a 16th Century song in various contemporary idioms that I feel I can find my voice in: post-minimalist writing, elements from pop music, bitonal textures, and so on. The variations have titles such as Cathedral, Blues, Enharmonia, Bells, Gliding, California (homage to Lou Harrison on his 100th Anniversary year) and Mash-up. It's mostly notated in 12-equal (it's been a while!) but there's some quarter-tone writing, some 7/4's, and a movement in natural harmonics, so that one’s in JI.

Before that, I wrote some music for a documentary for the Finnish TV. We had a violinist and a keyboard player, and I made electronic stuff as well. The film turned out quite good but there was a lot of music that didn't make the final cut - the microtonal music, in particular, although the tuning was not the reason! From the start I had the idea that I'm going to use the material for a concert piece, and that's what I'm going to do this summer or autumn: I’m making a sonata from those materials. It's in 22-equal! We had a two-manual harpsichord as well as a MIDI keyboard controlling pianoteq, and violin tuned to the wide fifths of 22EDO. The players loved it! I was amazed how quickly a violinist (of this guy's caliber; Pasi Eerikäinen is his name) can learn to navigate the novel interval sizes and positions of a non-12, non-JI tuning system. I was initially worried that a violinist would find 7-cent-wide fifths offending but he didn't mind, and they do sound just fine!

My most recent piece was written for and premiered by Ere Lievonen's 31-tone Ensemble Scala in Amsterdam (Fokker organ, flute, clarinet, 31-tone electric guitar, percussion). More strictly than in any other piece of mine, with the exception of the short fanfare movement in the Orwell temperament in ‘Fanfare and Toccata’, I’ve here based the music on the scales in a regular temperament. I looked into the MOS scales that have the 11-step interval, ~9/7, as generator, and this led me to the temperament called Skwares, which is 13-limit without intervals of 5. Subminor chords predominate the harmony, and help to give the piece – which I called ‘Funeral march’ – a certain sad, haunting character, even if the music gets rather dancey as the march progresses.

UnTwelve: How did you get involved with microtonality? Who are your musical influences in general?

JN: When I was still a composition student I was extremely impressed by the French 'spectralists'. Hearing IRCAM's ensemble play Tristan Murail's Désintegrations live in Helsinki in the 1980's blew my mind, and I even went to study with him in Paris for half a year, although I didn't write microtonally under his tutelage. Later, in my diploma piece, an orchestral work, I did incorporate some spectralist elements, using the customary quarter-tones, which I also, in a subsequent string quartet, experimented with as kind of blue notes in melodic writing. That said, I'd always had a strong interest and love of American concert music, particularly that of the downtown variety, but also ‘midtown’ (ie. minimalism/experimentalism on the other hand and the symphonic tradition / 20th Century tonal music on the other). In 1993-1994 I studied composition in New York on a Fulbright grant. While I didn’t study with a microtonal composer, at that time my deep interest in American microtonal music, such as that of Ben Johnston, had begun, and I went to the concerts at Johnny Reinhard’s American Festival of Microtonal Music – which is where I heard Jon Catler’s 31-tone rock band – and arranged to meet with Joel Mandelbaum at Queens College. He gave me an introduction to tuning systems such as 31-equal, and showed me the Scalatron which was still in working condition.

Music is born from other music, so influences are certainly essential, although a lot – most – of them are unconscious; sometimes people point out similarities with musicians whose work I barely know, and sometimes people are surprised to learn whom I consider important models and influences. Anyway, here are some of the composers whose music I love: Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, Morton Feldman, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici (my teacher in New York, although I knew and loved his music before that), Michael Gordon, Bunita Marcus, Bernard Hermann. It’s very difficult to keep this list short. Stravinsky, Milhaud, Machaut… I’m a big fan of electronic dance music, such as house; my DJ hero is Danny Tenaglia. The best microtonal music belongs to the above list for sure, but I saved it last: Ben Johnston, Kyle Gann, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Toby Twining. Of popular music genres, I like the blues of Jon Catler’s band Willie McBlind, Brendan Byrnes’s rock and above all, Elaine Walker’s gorgeous electro-pop (Zia). As you know from my work, I’m not partial to Just Intonation, let alone a purist, but my list reflects my opinion that the vast majority of the best microtonal music is in JI, so far. I’m sure the spectrum is widening, perhaps with electric guitar and synth based styles leading the way.

UnTwelve: You've done some beautiful work for the kantele, the traditional Finnish instrument. Besides being Finnish, how did you come to be drawn to that?

JN: Thank you! It's not a folk music connection at all. Although children play 5-string kanteles in some schools, I only tried a kantele for the first time in 1995 when I got a commission to write a piece for clarinet and kantele. When the so-called 'concert kantele', which has tuning levers for chromaticism, was developed in the 20th Century, a repertoire of works of concert music by contemporary composers started to develop. There are many kantele players who specialize in classical music and in this ever-growing repertoire. When I wrote that first piece, I had a kantele in my use. I tried various playing techniques, and most importantly, I tuned the strings to the harmonics of E (1/1, 5/4, 11/8, 3/2, 7/4), and so began my explorations in Just Intonation; these kept me occupied (not exclusively) for two decades. But I didn’t come back to the kantele until in 2006 when a concert of my works, combined with some Finnish folk music, was put up in Amsterdam by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, with folk singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio and kantelist Eija Kankaanranta as soloists. Since then, I’ve worked a lot with Eija, and we are in the process of making a CD of my kantele music, all in various non-12 tunings, most of it originally written for theater, dance, or TV. In 2009, we had special Just Intonation tuning levers made for an electric kantele, and the work I wrote for this special instrument is going to be the central number on the CD. Although the kantele sounds lovely in just intonation, it's also quite forgiving to tempered or irrational intervals. The music for the 75-minute dance theater work called Omnipotens, for tenor saxophone and kantele, was based on the Porcupine temperament. The strings of the kantele were tuned to the 7-note MOS scale, and that’s what the sax also used. The background of our wonderful sax player, Esa Pietilä, is in jazz and free improv, and he learned special fingerings for the scale so that he was able to improvise in it. The tuning was 96edo because this made possible for the kantele to alter the scale chromatically with the 12-edo half-tones of the tuning levers and still stay within the pitch system – 100 cent being the size of the chroma in Porcupine[8] in 96edo. I arranged a kantele solo from this dance theater piece for the 96-tone Carrillo piano that they have in Amsterdam, in the Fokker organ hall of the Muziekgebouw. All the works for the 96-tone Carrillo piano I've heard make use of the admittedly pretty staired-glissando effect of the chromatic scale, but I'm proud to have written one that doesn't. In February, Ere played it the second time in concert. It’s a somewhat amusing sight: it looks like the pianist is playing Stockhausen, both hands making huge leaps, and yet we hear these very lyrical tunes and chords voiced tightly in the middle register. A lot of the my kantele music involves improvisation; I sometimes play ambient soundscapes on Ableton Live. We once performed an ambient JI cover version of the Beatles song Blackbird. It lasted 2 hours 45 minutes. My ambient stuff is usually ‘one-chord-music’, the chord being a lush texture of harmonic series drones.

UnTwelve: Are you attracted to any tunings or temperaments in particular, and why? Another way of asking this: do you have any set of say 3-5 "desert island" tunings or temperaments?

JN: Well, I’m sure 72edo would be enough for a very long time but that answer is cheating, I guess, because it has so many notes and contains so many systems. But I would need to know if there’s electricity on the island, what instruments there are, is this tuning meant for writing new music (would I do that on the island?) or playing existing music (would I do that?). It would be nice to have a Fokker organ on the island – the keyboard’s got such a good touch and the layout is so intuitive, and 31-equal would keep me busy for years, and when Friday arrives, we could play it four hands.

22-equal is fascinating; there are tuning systems that I’ll try for one or two pieces only but 22 is surely not one of them. It’s very likely I go on working in it.

The starting point of the music I’ve written in Just Intonation has been in chord progressions and melodic motifs, and then the scales, or gamuts of tones, have been built from those rather than the other way round. I’m not the only JI composer who writes this way. So the well-formedness of scales, constant structures, and so on, have not been important for me, so far. On the contrary, I’ve used “scales” that have numerous step sizes, and a wide variety in them; even when working with EDOs I want to have actual micro-intervals in the palette. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t, so far, been drawn to 17EDO or even 19EDO.

Perhaps I could say I’m a kind of a recovering Modernist or atonalist, although that kind of music mostly belonged to my student days. I’m not drawn to dissonant atonality, nor tuning systems whose most stable sonorities are complex and difficult to tune by ear. One of the reasons I’ve found alternative tuning systems attractive is that they make it possible to write in a tonal, consonant, triadic or tetradic idiom in a way that feels fresh to me.

UnTwelve: In your teaching of composition, do you have a certain approach or philosophy that guides your interaction with your students?

JN: I love what John Cage said to Ben Johnston, who asked to study with him: "I will not as a teacher change any of the directions that you're going in because I think that's not appropriate. What I'll do is criticize as best I can what you bring me and try to help you make it work, or advise you that I don't think it will.” It’s not always easy to stand by that ideal. Even if Johnston found that Cage could offer very perceptive and useful criticism and tips for young Johnston’s neo-classical efforts that must have been quite foreign, even repulsive to his taste, I don’t know if I’m able to offer much help in, say, the noise-based instrumental music and special playing techniques which are the current epidemic at many European conservatories and new music festivals. But then I feel my duty is to help the students find information and guidance on the subject; and in this particular case, our workshops for composition students and instrumentalists would be useful. As for microtonality and tuning systems, I give seminars on the subject but I don’t want to impose microtonality upon composition students. I’m more than happy to help those students who are interested in it; many are.

UnTwelve: Do you find you have any particular routines that work for you particularly well? I'm thinking of things like writing at a certain time of the day, or considering yourself to be 'bottom-up' or 'top-down' in your molding of a piece. More broadly, what valuable bits of wisdom about composing in general and microtonal composing in particular have you collected, and perhaps, remind yourself of?

JN: Oh I wish I had better work habits. I’m a night person; that seems to be irreversible. I’m very much of the ‘bottom-up’ type; I don’t have “visions” of pieces, or ideas of the overall form or dramatic arch, or poetic ideas that I then find a way to express – basically none of that exists for me before there are concrete musical bits to play with and work on. I do make plans but I don’t stick to them if the music dictates it wants to go somewhere else. It’s a feedback game between the plans or concepts, and sounding musical material. Often even the overall plan exists as sound, since after a preliminary pencil-sketching phase I start sketching and writing the music on the computer, using notation software, and listen to it constantly as I go along; I make a long series of longer and longer ‘Save As’ versions with bits and pieces in random order. Then, some things start to grow, I move things around, put variations of the same material next to each other; later, when the actual content and form of the piece, often to my relief and surprise, start to materialize, I start throwing things out, until finally I have a short score of the whole work, which I only then orchestrate, if it’s for an ensemble of instruments. I think that in microtonal music the instant sounding feedback from the computer and microtonal instruments is essential; surely at this point there are non-12 pitch combinations I can easily imagine in my head but then, even when I wrote 12-tet music, I used the piano all the time. Stravinsky did that, Ravel did that, Del Tredici does that; Reich listens to everything on Sibelius when he writes it - so I’m in the best company. I believe Schoenberg warned against using the piano when writing…

I think microtonal composers need reality checks. When I started writing in JI, my reality check was: “Is this removed enough or improved enough from 12tet to justify all the trouble involved, for myself and the performers – the difficulties in learning the intonation, the special instruments or playing techniques, the special notation?” But there’s also another kind of reality check: “Is this out-of-tune weirdness that will only be appreciated by a club of initiates?” In other words: Is this xen enough? And: is this too xen? I believe that to give you goosebumps, music has to have some poignant familiar elements, given to us by the traditions we inhabit: the right combination of familiarity and freshness (and ‘fresh’ is not synonymous with ‘new’). Pitch combinations can be particularly poignant. And I do want goosebumps.