Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Outi Tarkiainen

This evening’s Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic, includes the world première of Midnight Sun Variations by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note of the piece. Many thanks to Outi for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

In my music I experience harmony synaesthetically, as various colour-shades of light, and my compositions make extensive use of modality, of ‘scales of light’, as it were. The arctic light is rich in hues and varies steeply from one season to another; for me, as an artist, it therefore holds endless interest. It is reflected in my instrumentation, use of space and concept of time, so that the wide-open space of the arctic also shines through.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I decided to strive seriously for a composer’s career as a teenager, even though I have composed since early childhood. It was an inevitable choice for me – I felt more that music chose me instead of me choosing music.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at the Sibelius Academy under Eero Hämeenniemi and Veli-Matti Puumala, also at the Guildhall School of Music under Malcolm Singer and at the University of Miami under Ron Miller. I’ve been influenced by all the music I’ve ever heard – yet it wouldn’t be what it is without a few female composers whose example has encouraged me to think that women could be professional composers as well: above all Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and American jazz composer Maria Schneider.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I work in different stages, first drafting with pencil and paper, or just imagining the music with it’s colours, moods and forms. At the next stage I write down the music in more detail, with some ideas for orchestration. At the last stage I compose the detailed orchestral score – the stage that is the most time-consuming and demands the greatest effort of the whole process.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

This work sums up many important themes in my output so far – light is now openly in a central role, while it has been my way of making sense of music for my whole life. In this work I am very openly what I am.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

I’d recommend to check out some of my earlier chamber music works from the album Beyond Poems (Alba Records, 2017). Also my works for jazz orchestra might provide interesting viewpoints, on the albums Unpainted Portraits (Prophophe Records, 2018) and Into the Woodland Silence (Fredriksson Music, 2013). Some of my orchestral music will be released later this year, performed by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds, on the Ondine label.

7. What’s next?

Currently I’m composing for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, a work which shall form, in a way, a pair with The Midnight Sun Variations. The new work is called Chants of the Ice and it is an orchestral work about ice. I can’t tell more about that yet before the work shall be finished.


Midnight Sun Variations – programme note

“It is not our fault if, in your country, dream and reality are so closely bound together that one cannot well distinguish one from the other.” – Robert Crottet on the land of the Lappish Skolts (Fôrets de la lune, 1949)

Midnight Sun Variations for orchestra is about the light in the arctic summer night, when the northern sky above the Arctic Circle reflects a rich spectrum of infinitely-nuanced hues that, as autumn draws near, are once again veiled in darkness; when Europe’s biggest and most unpolluted wildernesses, the tundra and dense coniferous forests mystified by Jean Sibelius in his last large-scale work, Tapiola (1926), are bathed in countless shades of light.

The work begins with a sparkling ray of sunshine: the orchestra radiates and rises, playfully traces its round and goes back to the beginning again. Solitary wind solos soar above the orchestra, softly proclaiming the peace of the summer night to answering sighs from a horn. A new beginning finally emerges in the strings: a chord beating with rugged primitive force that fills the whole space with its warmth. This sets off a pulse of constantly remixing chords that ultimately fires the whole orchestra into action, until the strings break away, ascend to the heights and impart maybe the most important message of all.

My first child was born on just such a night, as the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist, in a flash wiping away a whole season. Midnight Sun Variations is also about the opening of a woman’s body to accommodate a new life, about giving birth, when the woman and the child within her part company, restoring her former self as the light fades into autumn. The work was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and The National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada and is dedicated to John Storgårds.

—Outi Tarkiainen
(Translated by Susan Sinisalo)

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