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A Canadian Electroacoustician in Finland

I am a Canadian electroacoustic composer and performer, with a primary interest in the acousmatic genre. In 2005, I moved to Helsinki, Finland to pursue graduate studies in electroacoustic composition. Considering my interest in acousmatic art, this presents something of an irony. My undergraduate studies were at McGill University, in Montréal, a recognised acousmatic mecca; Finland, on the other hand, presents a markedly different electroacoustic landscape, in which the acousmatic tradition has a perhaps surprisingly limited foothold.

The Finnish Music Community

Early immersion in the Finnish music community suggested a number of important and promising contrasts with my experiences in Canada. One is struck at first by how vibrant, active, and supportive the Finnish community is, in many ways; there are a number of quickly discernible roots for this buzzing activity. Finland enjoys an impressive level of arts funding, both public and private, making it significantly easier to sustain oneself as an artist, musician, composer. Finland is also a relatively small country, with a national population roughly equivalent to that of the Greater Toronto Area; as a result, the number of active participants in any given field is necessarily more limited. For this reason the music community tends to be tight-knit and very supportive, and there is steady demand for certain parts of the electroacoustician’s toolkit, especially regarding concert production. Finally, Finland is a relatively young country, which has leaned heavily on the arts in general, and music in particular — dominated to no small degree by the towering figurehead of Sibelius — in carving out an identity for itself; this emphasis on culture as a defining factor of national identity continues to reverberate today, and is partly responsible for the intensity of the musical activity here.

Electroacoustics in Finland

Historically, however, electroacoustic music has had a limited role in the country’s musical activity. While there have been efforts to encourage and promote electroacoustic composition and performance here — demonstrated by such landmarks as the founding of the experimental studio of YLE, the national broadcaster, in the 1970s, and of the Centre for Music and Technology of the Sibelius Academy, Finland’s primary institution of post-secondary education in music, in the 1990s — electroacoustic activity has represented an alarmingly limited portion of overall musical output when compared, for example, with most of central Europe or North America.

While this is perhaps beginning to change, with an increasing number of younger composers including electroacoustic tools and works in their output, this burgeoning of recent activity is heavily biased towards the extension of instrumental techniques, and away from acousmatic works and works on fixed media in general. While it seems that a majority of young composers regularly compose works for instruments and live electronics, generally programmed in Max/MSP, and many regularly work with computer-assisted composition tools (primarily PWGL, developed here in Finland), very few produce any purely tape pieces whatsoever. There are very few composers whose output is primarily devoted to electroacoustic work, and almost none at all working primarily in the acousmatic field, Patrick Kosk being perhaps the most notable exception.

A Canadian in Finland

This musical landscape presents some engaging dilemmas for a Canadian electroacoustician concerned primarily with the acousmatic genre. The steady interest in live electronics creates a stream of opportunities for collaboration, primarily in concert and performance contexts but also in the creation and development of new works. Concerts of tape music diffusion, however, are met at best with rather muted enthusiasm, and at worst with suspicion or even outright hostility. Thus it is sometimes difficult to find the time and energy to maintain the uphill struggle in support of acousmatic art, and tempting to follow the flow of regular production and concert activity of extended instrumental work.

In spite of this, I continue to attempt to produce, promote and present both new and repertoire acousmatic works, despite the somewhat muted response, with the Montréal acousmatic tradition playing an important role. I have had the opportunity to diffuse works by composers such as Robert Normandeau, Gilles Gobeil and Francis Dhomont alongside rare Finnish acousmatic composers such as Patrick Kosk and Jukka Ruohomäki, along with my own original works.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to subsist here as an active member of the musical community while concentrating solely on acousmatic music. On the other hand, the ease with which one finds support for projects across the entire range of electroacoustic activity is refreshing, and the relatively modest size of the country and the community ensures that anyone with the energy and enthusiasm to participate will always be a welcome contributor.

As a result, the relative paucity of my recent output of new acousmatic works is, perhaps, partly compensated by vigorous activity across a fairly broad spectrum of the electroacoustic realm. This includes regular concert activity, including recent performances of works by Saariaho, Ferneyhough, Stockhausen, Gahn, Berio, and Nordheim; sound installations, in locations ranging from outdoor urban pedestrian zones to galleries and art exhibitions; and live electronic improvisation, in ensembles of widely varying sizes and configurations.

International Collaboration

Another immediate advantage for a Canadian working in Europe is the immediate and immeasurable increase in opportunities for international cooperation. Although the twenty-first century of course offers vastly increased capabilities for communication and travel, the costs and time involved for Canadian musicians seeking to be more active internationally can be limiting or prohibitive, whereas travel, cooperation and partnership within Europe is obviously vastly easier, and greatly encouraged. One thus finds ready opportunities for performance both in neighbouring countries, and further afield, a pleasure which, while still possible while based in Canada, one can enjoy with far greater regularity, and vastly less inconvenience, from within Europe. Thus, in just a few short years here, I have had the opportunity to perform in Sweden, Russia, Italy, and Germany, and have had sound installations in Russia and Norway — a level of international activity which I found eluded me when still based in Canada.

On the other hand, of course — and perhaps ironically — it becomes significantly more difficult to be an active participant, contributor or collaborator in the Canadian music community from overseas. New resources, however, offer innovative tools which make such activity possible in new ways, with the internet being perhaps the most obvious in this regard. As a result it has been possible for me to be an active participant in several musical projects which have straddled the Atlantic. Such collaborations have included the Shift project — a web-based project which seeks to simultaneously combine, contrast and bridge the soundscapes of Canadian cities such as Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto with geographically, but perhaps not sonically, distant cities, such as Helsinki and Sydney, Australia — and net-based improvisation concerts between remote collaborators, linking Helsinki-based electronic improvisation groups with, for example, the NOW Orchestra in Vancouver, and the Percussion Ensemble of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The Future?

James Andean
Photo © Jan Ahlstedt.

I predict that this difficult balancing act — between my interests in acousmatic composition and diffusion, and the more instrumentally-centered emphasis of the Finnish musical community — will be a permanent preoccupation of my artistic life here. There is much to be pleased with in this regard; such variety is perhaps an enviable pleasure, and I am fortunate to find myself involved with a continued stream of opportunities here, from upcoming concerts both in Finland and abroad, to sound installation and design for the Finnish pavilion of Expo 2010 in Shanghai, to an upcoming concert series of improvisation-based repertoire.

The challenge will continue to be my attempts to balance this activity with the creation, concert presentation, and promotion, here in Finland, of acousmatic works, both my own and those of the many, justly celebrated composers of the Canadian acousmatic community. Increased prospects for such projects, as part of my doctoral work exploring themes of gesture and space in acousmatic music, may be on the horizon. Perhaps, with some luck and perseverance, the coming years might see a shift in this balance of interest in Finland, and a new or renewed interest in the acousmatic to match the Finnish enthusiasm which is currently concentrated elsewhere in the electroacoustic landscape.

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