Friday, July 25, 2008

People of improbable hope

Nothing I can say could possibly make this any more inspirational. All rise.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Word Splash!

Thanks to Sean at Alone and Unobserved for the link to Wordle, a programme that creates 'word clouds' from any website. I put in the link to The Late Review and this is what it came up with:

The programme highlights words according to frequency. Interesting that the words 'Kokoomus' and 'homophobia' are right next to one another – and I didn't even put them there! And as for Kanerva, well, I'm easily provoked.

PS: Sean I'm not sure how to make the image appear larger; can you help? Thanks!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Translated Fiction at BookTrust's New Site

Over at translation blog Brave New Words I found a link to BookTrust's new website dedicated to translated fiction and thought I'd link to it here too. The site is a valuable addition to a small field, and certainly worth a look for anyone interested in literature in translation.

For years, BookTrust has been an outstanding exponent of translated fiction, regularly reviewing new titles and giving translated fiction the kind of publicity it is hard even for publishers to provide. Now it seems they have decided to concentrate their efforts on one website, so as to have everything under one roof, as it were.

The site contains articles by publishers, writers and translators alike, reviews of new works in translation and introductions to forthcoming titles. I was pleased to note that, though it – disappointingly – didn't make the shortlist Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2008, my translation of Maria Peura's At the Edge of Light did however make it to BookTrust's Recommended Titles section. The review isn't bad, either.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Indian summer of love?

Further to my post the other day about the plight of LGBT organisations in Latvia, there was an article in today's Guardian about the first Pride parade in Delhi. Indian marchers were allowed to hold a parade, and judging by the short video clip at the link above there seemed to be quite a lot of participants. This, despite the fact that an 1861 law criminalises what it refers to as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature between any man, woman or animal". Whatever that means...

At the end of the article is a brief rundown of other Pride marches which took place across the world last week. Latvia isn't mentioned; I wonder how they got on.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cowardice vs Bravery

I was shocked to read earlier in the week about the Heinz mayonnaise advert which the company has taken off screens after around 200 complaints about obscenity. The advert, which features two men kissing, was called 'obscene' and 'inappropriate'. Many also complained saying that the advert was detrimental to children and would put parents in the awkward position of having to explain to their children that same-sex couples exist.

An online petition has been set up asking Heinz to reinstate the advert and not to give in to bigotry. So far over 9000 people have signed the petition – far more than the two hundred or so who complained about the original advert. We're no longer living in the 19th century. I can't see how people find this brief kiss offensive. It's not as if they started rimming each other on the kitchen table (cf. Queer as Folk episode 1, about twenty minutes in).

The issue of parenthood amongst same-sex couples came up again last night in two films shown as part of the Helsinki Pride 2008 (going on this week). The first was a documentary Tuplaisät ('Double Dads') focussed on a gay couple in Helsinki who have two foster children and who are now trying to have one biological child each. How refreshing to see a documentary about 'normal' people going about their lives. The film gave a fascinating look at what life with two dads must be like. I found the following anecdote particularly endearing: the two older children were arguing and calling each other gay, when one of the fathers walks in and says, 'That's enough! If anyone's gay round here, it's me.'

The next film, another documentary called The Marching Season, focussed on the differences between Pride marches in London and Riga in 2007. Gay rights hasn't been a political issue in the UK for years; young gay men in particular don't seem very interested in the politics of the movement, nor of the struggles that went on through the 70s and 80s. It was heart-warming to see the brave young members of Mozaīka, the Latvian LGBT rights organisation, determinedly planning their Pride march despite widespread hostility – a counter parade entitled NoPride was to be held at an adjacent park; the event attracted thousands of people who flocked to sign petitions against the Pride march. At the 2006 march, Mozaīka members were pelted with stones and excrement. How brave they are to carry on their work, regardless of the fact that their lives are constantly at risk.

We've come a long way in the last forty years. Equality has increased in many areas of life and gay people don't need to feel threatened in the street. This is largely because, in most western countries, it has become wholly unacceptable to hold such flagrantly homophobic opinions. Sadly, this is not the case in Latvia, where it seems that the neo-Nazi activities of NoPride and other homophobic factions are not universally frowned upon. Mozaīka has the right to hold a march, but the police cannot guarantee participants' personal safety.

In Britain, such attitudes would be, in the words the Heinz complainants, 'offensive and inappropriate'. This is why, although the Heinz debacle is a million miles from the problems in Latvia, the advertisement must be reinstated. Homophobic attitudes are to be condemned unequivocally. After all that people have fought for, it is absurd that something as trivial as two men sharing a kiss can cause such great offence. Reinstating the advert will be a powerful signal that such bigotry will not be tolerated. As things are now, the removal of the advert has caused far more offence than the kiss itself. Heinz: do the right thing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Finnish Eton Boys

Let me return, for a moment, to one of my favourite subjects: rife corruption in the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus). Clearly, the dismissal of Ilkka Kanerva, the lecherous former foreign minister, is only the beginning of a long process of ridding the country these people...

Kokoomus MPs clearly hold the general public in contempt if they really think we're so gullible that nobody will notice that there's a connection between who donated money to their (widely derided) "retro" election campaign, and the people who are now up for top jobs and promotions. This is the Finnish equivalent of the "cash for peerages" scandal in the UK and let's hope it exposes them for what they are: a bunch of self-sufficient, back-slapping Eton boys (if such a thing could exist in Finland). Speaking of which, don't even get me started on Boris Johnson. His election defies belief.

For those with Finnish, here's an eye-opening article from Uutislehti 100 on 21.5.2008:

Tää on ihan kakkosesta (Ville Soininen, Uutislehti 100, 21.5.2008)

Iltalehti kertoi eilen, että poliitikot hakevat vaalirahoituskohun keksipisteessä olevalle Tokmanni Oy:n konserninjohtajalle Kyösti Kakkoselle vuorineuvoksen arvonimeä. Asialla on muum muassa kokoomuksen Sauli Niinistö, Jyri Häkämies, Marja Tiura ja Ilkka Kanerva ja keskustan Paula Lehtomäki sekä Hannes Manninen, jotka kaikki sivat tukea Kakkosen ja Toivo Sukarin avokätisesti rahoittamalta vaalirahayhdistykseltä.

Kakkonen luonnehti vaalirahoituksen ja vuorineuvoksen tittelin yhdistämistä eilen Iltalehe nettisivuilla "kananaivojournalismiksi ja julkeaksi vihjailuksi", mutta minusta on hienoa, että talvisodan henki elää edelleen suomalaisissa poliitikoissa. Ei kaveria silloinkaan jätetty. Tosin nykymuodossa talvisodan meininki menisi seuraavasti: "Paljonkos maksat, että kannan sut takaisin omille linjoille, kun näyttää tuo vasen koipesi irronneen."

[...] Suomi on toistuvasti arvioitu maailman vähiten korruptoituneeksi maaksi, eikä tavisten välillä rahalahjuksia annetakaan. Kuitenkin vuosi vuodelta suurempi osa hyvinkin erilaisissa ammateissa työskentelevistä tuttavistani on saanut töitä suhteilla. Olennaisinta ei enää pitkään ole ollut se, mitä osaat, vaan kenet tunnet. Hyvä veli - ja yhä useammin myös hyvä sisar -verkostot elävät ja voivat hyvin, mutta onko se korruptiota tai modernia nepotismia? Nämä käsitteet tuntuvat usein hämärtyvän, kun ne osuvat omalle kohdalle.

Friday, May 09, 2008

"we live / the opposite / daring"

A strange news item came to my attention last week: on 1st May, the BBC ran a story about a motion in the Greek parliament to restrict the use of the word 'lesbian' to natives of the Greek island, Lesbos. The modern meaning of the word stems, of course, from the fact that Sappho, who wrote extensively about her love of women, was herself a native of the island. The title of this post is from Sappho's fragment 24C, translated by Anne Carson. In the original: ζ]ώο[μεν ... ]εναντ[ ... τ]όλμαν[

The parliamentary motion sounds far-fetched, to say the least. The Guardian offers a more detailed insight into Lesbian and lesbian life on the island. From these snippets of interviews with the natives, the problems stem largely from Greek tourists from the mainland, while the islanders themselves largely welcome lesbian tourists with open arms. I particularly liked the comment: "So long as they leave our women alone, they are welcome".

In the extremely unlikely event that this act passes through the Greek parliament (it would make them a laughing stock), it's hard to imagine its having any effect on the international use of the word. Languages develop as they will, and it's impossible to rein them in after the fact. Not to mention the fact that, around the world, people who identify themselves as lesbians significantly outnumber the inhabitants of the island.

Besides, this isn't the first time the Greeks have given us a synonym for the unmentionable. In the 19th century, the term 'uranian' was a common euphemism for all manner of sexual deviances, and derives from the word 'Uranus' / Οὐρανός (with its highly unfortunate English pronunciation). According to one version of the story, Aphrodite was born of Uranus (a birth in which "the female has no part") and later came to be associated with "a noble love for male youths". The word 'dyke' is also of Greek origin, and comes from Dika / Δίκα, one of Sappho's most favoured pupils. And if I remember correctly, Forster's Maurice (and, doubtless, Hall's The Well of Loneliness, too) also makes mention of the fact that the characters are "like the Greeks". Hmmm... By all accounts, they've been getting up to all sorts for over two millennia!

To finish with, I loved this comment from one of the women interviewed in the Guardian:
"Thank God Sappho was born on Lesbos, not Rhodes," says Sandra, on holiday from Leeds with a group of friends to celebrate her 60th birthday. "Or we would be stuck being known as Rhodesians."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

European Fantasy in Paperback

In 2005 I translated an extensive anthology of Finnish fantasy literature, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, one of the the foremost SF writers in Finland. Some time later I was approached by Sinisalo to translate another of her short stories for an American anthology, the SFWA European Hall of Fame (2007), which features "sixteen contemporary masterpieces of science fiction from the continent". Edited by James and Kathryn Morrow, the anthology gives an overview of contemporary European fantasy writing, presenting it as both similar and distinct from the North American tradition of SF writing (Gaiman et al.) James Morrow's opening essay, 'Extrapolations of Things Past: A Barbarously Brief Account of European Science from Micromégas to Microchips', is informed and insightful, and serves as an excellent introduction to the collection.

The SFWA European Hall of Fame has recently been released in paperback, and in honour of this a video has been posted on YouTube (link below), featuring an interview with the editors about the process of putting the book together and with one of the authors on his feelings about having his work translated.

It's always fascinating listening to people – authors, translators, editors – talk about how they view the translation process. It's clear that most authors welcome the opportunity to have their works translated by professional native speakers (a certain Finnish playwright notwithstanding). However, working with editors, who are outside the initial creative process due to not speaking the source language, can be problematic, as their priority is the translation, while the role of the original is often seen as secondary. Not so with this collection.

As they point out in the interview, rather than normativise the text for an American readership, the Morrows actively encouraged all translators to retain as much of the feel of the original as possible. That being said, adherence to the original versus normativisation is always subject to the context and topos of the text; it is impossible to suggest that a given solution is necessarily desirable in every instance (as a certain Finnish playwright seems incapable of understanding). In the case of Sinisalo's 'Baby Doll' (the text featured in this collection), we all agreed that the language needed to be as accessible to an American readership as possible. After all, the subject matter – the over-sexualisation of pre-teenagers – is by no means a specifically Finnish problem.

This translation process differed considerably from previous ones in that, for the first time, I was working for an American publisher. I speak and translate into British English, so the Morrows agreed to Americanise my initial translation. This was an eye-opening experience; I realised that, though I have no difficulty understanding American English, the differences between our two variants of the language run far deeper than that we say "tomahto", they say "tomayto".

Thankfully, there was no need to call the whole thing off – I had to get that in somehow! It was like going through an additional level of editing. The Morrows sent me a revised version of the text, I then went through it and said whether they had strayed too far from the Finnish, or whether a certain phrase might better suit the feel of the original, until we reached a version all parties were happy with. There was much to think about: apart from vocabulary, word order and syntax is often markedly different; verb declension differs; people swear differently...

Actually having to engage with this on a textual level made me understand the full extent of the chasm between our modes of expression. Just as non-natives cannot translate into a target language that is not their native language, I will never be able to translate into American English, as I'll always need a native speaker to go through the text for me, and vice versa. Of course, real translators, being humble people, will be the first to acknowledge this; we have the conviction to know when we are right, but we also know where our expertise comes to an end. It is depressing that, in my experience, non-native translators have such an aggrandised image of their own abilities that they lack a default setting that says, "Sorry, I'm not qualified to translate that". What a shame that a certain Finnish playwright also falls into that category...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's in a name?

Karita Mattila's new home workout DVD – now available from stores across the country! Weight loss on Mattila's four-point plan guaranteed – or your money back!

Joking aside, though I haven't listened to it, I'm sure this is an excellent disc. Kaija Saariaho's Quatre instants were written for Mattila and she has championed them ever since (unlike many performers who commission works, perform them once or twice, then conveniently forget about them). Given her acclaimed performances in the operas of Leoš Janáček, I imagine her voice is well suited to the music of Dvořák and Rachmaninov. Silly cover art for what is probably an excellent release.

Coming up with suitable cover art presents a wealth of challenges. The choir I sing with is about to release a CD of contemporary choral music, but what to put on the cover is an sensitive issue and can have a very real effect on what people buy and what they don't. Like, I imagine, the majority of people, I'm a sucker for judging a book / bottle of wine / CD by its cover. How can we make this disc different from all the thousands of other discs of contemporary choral music? The cover art serves as a calling card for the product as a whole. What to name one's disc is another minefield. A friend is currently recording a disc of kannel music (what's a kannel, I hear you ask!) That, of course, is part of the problem. This is an instrument with few exponents, so the title of the disc must both enhance the mystique of the instrument, while making it seem accessible to a wider audience. Tricky.

Oh! My recording of Britten's Billy Budd has just arrived from Amazon! Odd cover art: a man (presumably Billy) tied to the helm of a ship, the whole image airbrushed into something that could be from a collection by Pierre & Gilles. Hmmm... a bit homoerotic. Great cast, though. I'll have to sign off now and listen to it immediately. Review to follow – watch this space!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Keep it down!

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times this morning about noise levels in symphony orchestras. Having spent almost ten years playing with the university orchestra in Helsinki and rehearsing in the far too small music hall at the student building, I'm only too well acquainted with the problems of overly loud, potentially damaging rehearsal situations.

It's a complicated problem; for me, wearing earplugs is absolutely not the solution, as it means you can hardly hear yourself, thus making it far more difficult to play in tune. There seems to be something of an obsession in Scandinavia with earplugs – incredible as it sounds, I've even heard of people who wear them in string quartet rehearsals or while practicing! I've always thought that if the music is meant to be loud, there's no point in trying to counter the effect by damping it out. Why try and regulate your experience of the music? Having said that, I do often feel sorry for bassoonists who have to sit right i front of enormous brass sections day after day.

The danger with the EU directive mentioned in the article is that it could start affecting the way people play, the way people compose and conduct. Though undeniably good news for the hearing of our orchestral musicians, this surely can't be good for the long-term development of classical music. The mere thought of a conductor asking players to keep the noise down at, say, the very end of Mahler 1 or 2 makes me shudder...

This is largely a question of acoustics. The music hall in which I regularly rehearse may be fine for smaller ensembles and choirs, but was not designed to house an entire symphony orchestra, and rehearsing loud music in there (e.g. Shostakovich 5 all last spring) can be painful. Finlandia-talo has the opposite effect. Last week I went to listen to Messiaen's gargantuan, 90-minute oratorio La Transfiguration de nôtre Seigneur, which featured a huge orchestra, four choirs and soloists, yet the performance never sounded too loud because the acoustics at Finlandia-talo swallow up the sound, making it sound as though the players are in a different room.

As for the Great Hall of the university, where the university orchestra often performs... I hate playing there because you can't hear other people and all you can hear is your own playing, but people assure me that when you're in the audience it sounds great. This, after all, is the same hall in which many of Sibelius' (often very loud) orchestral works were first performed. Let's hope the people designing the new Musiikkitalo will get it right, so that loud pieces can still be enjoyed, performed and compsoed so that neither audiences nor performers end up losing their hearing.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The April Fools

It's finally happened! Weeks after it would have happened anywhere else in the world, admittedly, but it's happened all the same: our sleazy foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva has been fired - I mean, erm, relieved of his duties - minutes before the magazine publishing some of the 200-odd dirty text messages he sent to an erotic dancer using his work phone funded out of taxpayers' money arrived on shop shelves this morning. The best April Fool's surprise I could have wished for.

His replacement, toothy, gung-ho NATO boy Alexander Stubb, is hardly any better, though I suppose we'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt for five minutes or so. I first heard of Kanerva's demise upon arriving at my office shortly before midday this morning. On the underground, I'd read a column in today's Metro (which went to print before the "shock" announcement and Jyrki Katainen's Hillary-esque tears at the press conference) by Timo Harakka, who, along with Jukka Relander, is fast becoming one of my favourite columnists in Finland. I wonder what the column would have read had he written it a day or so later. No doubt we'll find out soon.

Though I'd initially thought I wouldn't bother posting on the subject of Kanerva and his dubious behaviour (partly, also, because I've been working, travelling and my computer has died on me), I now feel justified in doing so, not least out of an unashamed sense of Schadenfreude. Of course, prominent Kokoomus politicians are careful to tow the party lie (I mean, "line", though noticed I had mispelled it in a Freudian slip of the fingers) about how Kanerva should have shown more restraint and should have known better, but that "your personal life is your personal life", blah blah blah.

Most revealing, I feel, is the comment by Ben Zyskowicz, another Kokoomus crony, to the effect that Kanerva was not dismissed because of the text messaging itself, but because of the resulting media furore and because more details of the messages' contents had come to light. So, how are we to understand this? That he is not being dismissed because of what he did (which was morally questionable and, at the very least, amounts to harassment), but only because he was found out! Don't people realise how disgracefully see-through these people are? We can only hope that this is the first step towards voting out the whole, rotten bunch of them.

Here is the final paragraph of Harakka's column:
Suomessa on paljastunut pyramidihuijaus, jossa on jymäytetty useita kymmeniä tuhansia ihmisiä. Petkutetuille on lupailtu rikkauksia ja menetystä, mutta viime kädessä heidän tehtävänsä on ollut värvätä ystäviä ja perheenjäseniä. Pahimmillaan kokonaiset suvut ja kyläkunnat ovat haksahtaneet huijaukseen.

Pyramidin sisäpiiri saavuttaa suuret voitot. Myös seuraavat mukaantulijat menestyvät näkyvästi, mikä juuri houkuttaa suuret ihmisjoukot ansaan.

Ahneus lamauttaa viileän harkinnan. Muutaman vuoden välein huijaus paljastuu, mutta heti pelurit lähtevät keräämään uusia kannattajia. Aina löytyy laumoittain hyväuskoisia, jotka lankeavat katteettomiin lupauksiin.

Mikseivät he koskaan opi? Varokaa nyt, hyvät ihmiset, jo kokoomusta.
Metro, 1.4.2008

(Quick translation: "In Finland, a pyramid scheme had been uncovered which has swindled tens of thousands of people. Those cheated were promised riches and success, but their function was merely to recruit their friends and family. At worse, entire families and villages have fallen for this confidence trick.
The pyramid's inner circle makes huge gains. The next group of converts also has some visible success, which in turn lures more people into the trap.
Greed paralyses our common sense. Every few years the scheme is uncovered, but those involved immediately start looking for new supporters. And there are always herds of people gullible enough to fall for their false promises.
Why will they never learn? Good people, beware of the Kokoomus.")

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My sentiments exactly, Mr Ravel!

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Thursday's dress rehearsal of Kaija Saariaho's new opera Adriana Mater at the Finnish National Opera; the official première was last night. Having followed Saariaho's music for the last thirteen years, and having attended three performances of her previous opera L'amour de loin, there was really no question as to whether I was going to like this piece or not. Saariaho's music is captivating, agonisingly beautiful, at times visceral and violent, and Adriana Mater is no exception. For those with Finnish, here is Helsingin Sanomat's review.

The intricacies and subtleties of the music and staging require too much thought to post about right now, but perhaps I'll return to this subject at a later opportunity. I'm compelled to post regarding a conversation I had last night with K, who had just come from the première. K is himself a formidable and experienced musician, whose opinions I don't take lightly. For me, this fact makes his assessment of the opera all the more alarming. I described the opera as "häkellyttävä" (astounding, astonishing), to which K replied that that would certainly be an appropriate term. After I said that I had expected nothing less from Saariaho, it turned out that his comment was meant sarcastically. "How so?" I asked. "Well, for a start, it's badly written, badly orchestrated, and the orchestra doesn't get to play any melodies," he replied. For a moment, these comments rendered me speechless. Of course, people can disagree on the merits of any given piece of music, and I love a good argument as much as anyone, but in this instance, K's argumentation is, in my opinion, so fundamentally flawed that it has driven me to afford it deeper consideration.

Admittedly, I haven't examined the score very closely but, having a knowledge Saariaho's previous music, I think it's fair to say that melody is not and has never been a defining feature of her aesthetic. According to K, the players find the piece "boring". Do they feel cheated because they don't get to play grand melodies, I wonder. Perhaps more than concert music, isn't opera all about the audience, about the experience of listening to an orchestra while being visually stimulated by what is happening on the stage? Boring or not for the musicians, Adriana Mater is a highly successful piece of music theatre precisely because it engages the audience, which for me is a more relevant criterion by which to judge the music than whether the musicians enjoy playing it or not.

When I asked K to give an example of how the piece is "badly orchestrated", he mentioned a section in the clarinet part which requires a high c#4. "How can a player be expected to produce this note night after night?" he asked. A quick look on Google reveals fingering charts for all the notes up to d4. Agreed, these pitches are at the upper reaches of the clarinet's altissimo register, but you can't call something badly written just because it's difficult. If you claim to play the clarinet, you play the whole clarinet, not just the easy bits.

Performers are notorious for taking the path of least resistance when it comes to new music. Too often one hears performers claim that certain techniques are "impossible", when what they mean is that they are difficult, outside the boundaries of standard technique (agreed), the implication being that these techniques actually involve some practice. At a new music workshop a few years ago, the cellist who played my piece came up to me later in the evening and told me that I shouldn't write microtones because they're very hard to produce. Well, cry me a river! I replied by explaining that, as a string player, I know exactly how difficult (or not) it is to produce microtones on a string instrument. To give a more extreme example: Brian Ferneyhough's music is "difficult", but if you decide to perform it you then take on the responsibility of learning it properly. That this is a revelation to some professional musicians is surprising to say the least.

This whole conversation – and writing this post – reminds me of the exchange between amputee pianist Paul Wittgenstein and Maurice Ravel regarding the latter's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (commissioned by the former). Wittgenstein wanted to rearrange some aspects of the piano part claiming famously that "performers must not be slaves!" Ravel's answer was simple and to the point: "Performers are slaves." The day composers allow performers' whims and, dare I say, in some cases, laziness to dictate what can and can't be done with their instruments will be the day all progress in the field of musical expression grinds to a halt.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Filth and Wisdom

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema, Madonna goes and does it again. Not as actor (for which we may be eternally thankful) but as director (groan). Like most people who haven't been at the Berlin Film Festival this week, I haven't seen this film, so I can't give any first-hand reaction to it. Judging, however, by the reviews, including this one by Peter Bradshaw in today's Guardian, I seriously wonder what it's chances are of ever being put on general release.

Ms Ciccone / Mrs Ritchie is a perplexing, vexing figure. Her music is bland in the extreme, yet it is touted, particularly to young gay men, as if it were the pinnacle of expressive art (note to self: try not to sound too much like Peter Giles...) Her use of Abba's music in a recent single was, in my opinion, utterly unforgivable and serves merely to underline the vacuousness and sheer lack of any originality that characterises Madonna's career. Her acting career was abysmal (Swept Away and The Next Best Thing rank alongside Crossroads as possibly some of the worst films I've ever seen). And so forth and so forth...

Now we have her directorial debut bearing the vaguely Austenesque title Filth and Wisdom. Peter Bradshaw's one-star review certainly doesn't spare the wrath. But really, in a related article, Madonna states: "I have always been inspired by the films of Goddard [sic], Visconti, Passolini [sic] and Fellini and hope that I may one day make something that comes close to their genius." The audacity of this statement leaves me speechless.

I'm pleased to note that the Guardian refrains from referring to Madonna as the Queen of Pop - I mean, who ever said she was the Queen of Pop? I could name a whole list of people manifestly more deserving of that title, but whose careers have suffered by virtue of actually being able to sing without the intervention of modern audio technology [Peter Giles alert!!!] - and settles for the far more apt Queen of Reinvention. I'm also indebted to Julie Burchill for many laughs in her numerous columns on the Immaterial Girl herself (two good examples of which can be found here and here). All I can say is that if the film is ever released in Finland, I will go and watch it and attempt to post an objective review here, but until then, let's not hold our collective breath...

Prejudice and Pride

Reading through Peter Giles' interesting history of the fall and rise of the counter tenor (entitled – what else? – The Counter Tenor) I was struck and a little disappointed by his attitudes to any music other than 'classical'. (Here I use inverted commas just as he does to refer to any other form of music). Had the following opinions been published in, say, the 1920s, one could almost understand them, though his level of animosity towards musical development would still have seemed rather alien to our modern sensibilities. The fact that these opinions were published in 1982 makes one wonder why his publisher didn't suggest he dilute his vitriol. Here is a typical example:
The whole world of serious music is itself the subject of incredible prejudice. It is ignored good-naturedly, or scornfully dismissed as irrelevant by a now sizeable and growing proportion of the general public, who know nothing of any tradition before Elvis Presley and care less. (Giles 1982:3)

So we have a fascinating situation: on the one hand a tradition legitimate and honoured, successor to the Romantic, Classical and Baroque, going back to Renaissance and Medieval times, but hidebound in many matters. Next to it, another tradition, recent and clearly illegitimate, artificial, of mammon, in many ways barbaric, all too prey to the whim of the moment and the wave of the manipulator's chequebook; but at least utterly free to go where it will within its limited abilities and 'cultural' boundaries. The first is the undoubted arena for, surely, the ultimate in vocal and instrumental technique, for mankind's most profound musical experiences and statements. The second, for the most part and with the exception of the art form 'jazz' and certain musicianly groups like 'Sky', comprises ephemera perhaps more of interest to the sociologist than the true artist musician. (Giles 1982:4-5)

The irony that these comments and countless others like them appear in a chapter entitled 'Prejudice and the Status Quo' will surely be lost on nobody. Neither, indeed, is the irony of two lengthy citations, both written in the 12th century, in the following chapter on the development of organum singing and the rise of the Paris Notre Dame School. It would appear that Giles in fact part of greater, not to mention highly legitimate, tradition of moaning about the development of music, a tradition stretching back a thousand years.
Whence hath the Church so many organs and musicall instruments? To what purpose, I pray you, is that terrible blowing of belloes, expressing rather the crashes of thunder than the sweetnesse of the voyce? To what purpose serves that contraction and inflection of the voyce? [...] Sometimes, which is a shame so to speake, it is enforced into a horse's neighing: sometimes the masculine vigour being laid aside it is sharpened with the shrillnesse of a woman's voyce: now and then it is writhed and retorted into a certain artificial circumvolution. (Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum Charitatis, 1123)

As Giles points out, "John of Salisbury was also worried by much of what he heard":
The very service of the Church is defiled, in that before the face of the Lord, in the very sanctuary of sanctuaries, they, showing off as it were, strive with effeminate dalliance of wanton tones and musical phrasing to astound, enervate, and dwarf simple souls. [...] When this type of music is carried to the extreme it is more likely to stir lascivious sensations in the loins than devotion in the heart. (Policraticus, trans. John of Salisbury, 12th century).
And he wasn't even talking about Elvis Presley...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Finnish History II

Further to my post about the conflicting interpretations of Finnish history, here is the letter from the ambassador (which I have abridged) sent in response to Alex Ross's column on Sibelius:

Other than in the early 1930s, when Fascist elements unsuccessfully challenged our democratic system, Fascism has never played a significant role in Finnish politics. There were never any "Nazi-style race laws" in force in Finland, and the Finnish government's wartime policy of resisting German attempts to inspire anti-Jewish actions in Finland has been publicly appreciated by our Jewish communities.

[However, the handing over of Finnish Jews to the Nazis is also well documented.]
For Finland, the Continuation War of 1941-44, as it is called in our history, has its roots in the Winter War[...] the annexation of the Baltic countries, in the summer of 1940, demonstrated the expansive nature of the Soviet policies and left the area vulnerable to further aggression. The Continuation War, then, was a defensive struggle for my country, politically separate from the war of the great powers.

Pekka Lintu, Ambassador of Finland, Washington, D.C. (printed in the New Yorker, July 23 2007)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Our man in Northfield

I was very pleased to note this afternoon that my dear friend in Northfield MN, Alex Freeman, has launched his own website. The site contains everything you'll ever need to know about Alex who, as a composer, singer-songwriter, tenor, bass trombonist and, latterly, assistant professor of music at Carleton College, is without a doubt one of the most multitalented people I am honoured in knowing.

Much as, on a recent visit to London, I tortured myself by reading the concert listings at the South Bank, leaving myself hopelessly salivating over all the wonderful concerts I wouldn't be able to attend, Alex's site features tantalising news of upcoming events and performances of his work. If you happen to be in Northfield on February 8th you're in for a treat. For anyone outside Finland, the performance of Magnolia for kantele, a Finnish harp-like instrument, promises to be quite an event.

But for those of us who can't make it, hope comes in the form of mp3 downloads of some of Alex's recent work, including three of the Four Songs of Hellaakoski performed by the HOL choir, a group that has championed music by Alex and Canadian composer Matthew Whittall, under the direction of Esko Kallio. You can also listen to (though not download) a number of other pieces, including O Magnum Mysterium, a choral work that I had the pleasure of singing in December. Though the loud sneeze during the quiet section is annoying, the performance is great. This music makes me weep.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Crash Course in Finnish History

Given that this blog claims to be a "review" of sorts, it seems fitting to begin 2008 with a review of a film I saw this evening, namely the latest film by Finnish director Lauri Törhönen, Raja 1918 ("Border 1918").

The film is set during the Finnish Civil War of 1918, a year after Finland had declared independence from Russia. In a nutshell, the war was between the "Whites" (the national guard) and the "Reds" (the Bolsheviks). The film follows the young Captain Carl von Munck who is sent to the newly established border to make sure that undesirable elements (Russians, Jews, Bolsheviks) are kept out of Finland. Of course, ther's also a romantic subplot between von Munck and the local school teacher Maaria Lintu, who, it transpires, is hiding her Bolshevik fiancé from the firing squads. [The "tragedy" motif in the soundtrack was presumably a quote from Im Treibhaus, the third movement of Wagner's Wesendonk-lieder and a study for the beginning of Act III of Tristan and Isolde.]

Anyway, back to the film! I was most impressed by the script. In less than a hundred years spoken Finnish has changed radically and this script preserves a level of formality that younger audiences are unused to hearing. The actors delivered the antiquated dialogue convincingly.

However, far more interesting (almost than the film itself) is what the film tells us about Finnish history. Some Finns have a difficult relationship with their nation's history. To give, in my opinion, a telling example: in the July 9th edition of the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote an extended piece about Jean Sibelius, Finland's "national composer". The article goes through each of the seven symphonies in considerable detail and, by way of offering the reader some context to the Eighth symphony, which Sibelius eventually destroyed, Ross explains that:
Then, in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and Finland became part of a chess game between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Early in the war, Finland was applauded in the West for its hardy stand against the Soviets, and Sibelius was more popular than ever. In 1941, though, Finland aligned itself with the Germans, partly because Fascist elements had infiltrated the government and the Army, and partly because the Nazis would have taken over the country anyway.
[Alex Ross, New Yorker July 9th 2007]

The above sentence provoked a letter of response (which I can't locate for the purposes of quotation) from none other than the Finnish ambassador to the US who dismissed Ross' summation of events as essentially untrue and proceeded to tell readers just how hard "my people" had fought for "my country". Though Finland's relationship with Nazi Germany is well documented (most recently in Prof. David Kirby's book A Concise History of Finland), it is common in Finland to claim that there was no relationship whatsoever (the fact that Marshal Mannerheim and Hitler were on such good terms that, in 1942, the Führer paid Mannerheim a surprise visit on the latter's birthday seems easily forgotten).

Similarly, Swedish historian Henrik Arnstad caused a furore here when, in an article in Svenska Dagbladet, he suggested that "the entire Finnish foreign ministry should be sent on a crash course in history" – again in reference to the systematic denial in Finland of any dealings whatsoever with the Third Reich. [For those with Swedish, the article can be read here.] The outcry over Arnstad's book and his subsequent articles speaks volumes about a nation still not at peace with its past.

Raja 1918 thus marks something of a departure for Finnish cinema: in gruesome detail, the film points out that the ethnic cleansing that took place in the early 1940s has its roots in the rise of nationalist sentiment during the Civil War. The film attempts to demonstrate how easily concentration camp style "quarantines" were set up along the new border and how people were only allowed into the country if they looked right (ie. didn't look Russian or Jewish) and could pronounce Finnish words without an accent. Towards the end of the film, there is even a scene in which a visiting German officer and another high-ranking Finnish officer are discussing how easy it would be to attack Russia as a unified force and that their primary objective should be to move the Finnish border beyond St Petersburg, fortify their "indigenous people", thus creating a "Greater Finland" (Suur-Suomi). Though this is 1918, the sentiment is clear.

There are numerous works of fiction on the subject of the Finnish Civil War (two recent examples being Leena Lander's Käsky and Asko Sahlberg's Tammilehto, neither of which are available in English), but with subtitles on a DVD this film will – and should – reach a much wider audience. Highly recommended – even for members of the Finnish foreign ministry.