Olli Kortekangas I Seven Songs for Planet Earth

(In the composer’s own words)

Washington, D.C., September 1967. Wow! A Finnish kid age 12 stares in amazement at the vaults of National Cathedral and listens to the echoes that soar across them. He has only spent a few weeks in this new country and new city. His dad is in the USA for a year on a scholarship and has brought his family with him. It has been a bumpy start – mostly because of language difficulties – but it has also been a time of powerful experiences that will, although the boy does not know it yet, remain with him for the rest of his life. He will soon travel to other cities, but Washington will always be special for him. It is his first American city, literally, and it gave him a friendly welcome.

More than 40 years later, I am standing near the same cathedral. It is pouring with cold March rain, and I did not bring an umbrella. I am looking for the rehearsal room of the Choral Arts Society. Soon, a friendly voice behind me says: “Hi, Iʼm Debra Kraft. You must be Olli.” Kindly extending her umbrella to me, Debra takes my arm and brings me into the rehearsal. I listen to the chorus (what a glorious sound!) and meet Norman Scribner for the first time. It is a pleasant and inspiring evening: once again I have been given a friendly welcome in this city.

I was not there just on a whim. Pekka Hako, who was then the Cultural Counselor at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, had been working to bring the chorus and me together for some time. I soon met Norman and Debra again, this time at Pekkaʼs house. I showed them DVD extracts from my opera Daddyʼs Girl. They were very polite about it, but I sensed something under the surface that was more than just conventional civility – a genuine interest. We discussed a potential commission on topics such as nature, peopleʼs relationship to their environment and their responsibility for it.

Now, more than three years later (or 44 years later, looking at the big picture), it all seems to have fallen into place logically. A schoolboy has grown up to be a composer, and vague ideas have coalesced into a work, Seven Songs for Planet Earth. Those who are interested in further details of my curriculum vitae can find it elsewhere. As for how the composition evolved, it was – as in so many other cases – a convoluted tale: a spinning of ideas by myself or with the commissioning parties and future performers, background research, sketching out large shapes and details, and finally the technical nittygritty, actually writing the notes on the page. It is a process fraught with peril, even without considering external factors. And this time the external complication was a whopper: the recession in the USA threatened to scupper the entire project, which was only salvaged thanks to the perseverance of the Choral Arts Society and the transformation of the project into a co-commission with the Tampere Philharmonic in Finland. At this point, I would like to thank the commissioning parties and other partners, the Childrenʼs Chorus of Washington and its conductor Joan Gregoryk, as well as the San Francisco Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Childrenʼs Choir and their conductor Robert Geary.

As in the very first discussions I had about this piece, Seven Songs is about manʼs relationship with nature in its richness and vulnerability; its essential message is that respect and love for the Earth should be seen as a fundamental element of human life. The text is a collage that draws on four poems by Wendell Berry. I set one of his poems in a commissioned work for the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble a few years ago, and it seemed only natural to turn to his poetry again. Berry is a versatile writer with a strong sense of ethics and a belief in the potential of art to change the world. He is a great poet, but also a political poet in the best sense of the word.

Mingling with Berryʼs poems there are three texts from very different places in time and in culture: an extract from the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi, an onomatopoeic yoik – inspired both by the indigenous people of my home country, the Sámi, and by certain First Nationsʼ cultures – and finally “The Beat,” a text that I assembled from fragments written at my request by members of the Childrenʼs Chorus of Washington last autumn.

In musical terms, Seven Songs for Planet Earth contains, typically for me, very different stylistic elements and idioms, held together by a clear-cut structure and a handful of through- going musical ideas, above all harmonic ones. I have extensively used major/minor chords, often with added notes, and stacks of fourths to counterbalance them. As is often the case in my works, the human voice takes center stage, and the purpose of the orchestra is principally to augment and reinforce the message carried by the voice. One of the major repeated motifs is the idea of expanding circles, which is referred to directly in the text of the first movement. I find this a truly beautiful and profound concept, both literally and metaphorically.

What can art tell us about the world? Can art change the world?

My answer is: I compose for my listeners. Yet I am unwilling to speak of influencing my audience. It is neither right nor possible to calculate the listenerʼs reactions. Rather, I prefer to speak of shared experiences.

However, regardless of whether a work of art is large or small, representational or conceptual, it is always a statement about the surrounding world. A work of art is an act in itself; it is more than doing nothing. A work of art seeks to create order out of chaos, but at the same time it is only one of an infinite number of possible choices.

A composer of vocal music has the added luxury of saying a great deal about how he chooses texts and how he treats them. But even here, I prefer to ask good questions and leave the gratification of discovering answers to the listener.

— by Olli Kortekangas, © 2011