The Unfinished Finn – A Sibelius Portrait by Jack Kennerly

Photograph provided courtesy of Jack Kennerly
Photograph provided courtesy of Jack Kennerly

The painter of this portrait is currently all of 15 years old.

Late last year in 2013, I embarked on a casual internet search for new Sibelius portraits for my Jean Sibelius Pinterest board and my eyes lit up as a a new one appeared amongst the images Google offered. A young man stands behind the portrait, the painter’s head dwarfed by the massive coloured bust of the composer, rendered in stark colours of black, blue, greys and whites.

The familiar 1949 photograph of Sibelius by Yousuf Karsh has been interpreted in a unique modern light by the young painter. The portrait captures Sibelius’s intent faraway look – perhaps it is a little less stern, the presence of the colour blue lending a little youth to the then (at the  time of the photograph) 84-year-old composer, but it retains the magisterial quality of the original photo. The swaths of blue and smaller dashes of red give Sibelius’s face a certain life and dynamism, compared to the magnificent austerity of the photograph. Not that the portrait is better or worse – it is simply a new interpretation.

Jack Kennerly1

“I am a 15-year-old student from Los Angeles, California, ” Jack (left) wrote to me when I requested for an interview via email. “I have been an artist for most of my life, starting with drawing on the walls of my house with markers and painting blob-shaped objects on paper.

“I constantly explore new ways of creative expression, including playing cello (which I have done from grade two), making films, taking photos, composing music and writing.  During my study of the cello, I was introduced to the fabulous music of Sibelius.  I greatly admire his music; it is so expressive, and so filled with emotion.”

A quick click on the image on Google that day in December 2013 had led me to the blog of none other than famed Pulitzer prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly.  He won – at age 25 – the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his portfolio of photographs taken of the Vietnam War, Cambodia, East Pakistani refugees near Calcutta, and the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Mr Kennerly has been named one of the 100 most important people in photography by the American Photo Magazine and has also photographed every American president since Richard Nixon.

Sibelius Portrait with Jack KennerlyIn his blog post from 2 Nov 2013, Mr Kennerly showcased the new portrait his son Jack had just completed. “This made for a good black and blue moment!” Unable to ascertain how to contact the painter, I sent a message to Mr David Kennerly instead and was delighted to receive an email from Jack himself in January 2014. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr David Hume Kennerly for so kindly connecting me to his young son.

Jack calls Yousuf Karsh one of the greatest and most influential portrait photographers who has ever existed – and surely no one would disagree.  He chose to paint Sibelius because the look on his face in the 1949  photograph (below) is “very intense and powerful, the lighting accentuating his bulging veins”.  The photograph seems to contrast wildly with the image of the composer of such “delicate and complex passages that have made him famous”, says Jack.

“I originally wanted to faithfully copy the photograph onto the canvas, ” he goes on to explain.  “However, I used a canvas on which I had previously painted an abstract form.  I didn’t like the original work,  so I decided to paint over it.   When I was half finished with the Sibelius painting, I stepped back and noticed the interesting and beautiful way he looked with the color from the original abstract painting showing through into the portrait.  So, I left the painting ‘unfinished’.”

This remark by Jack on his “completion” of the portrait will surely bring a smile to all Sibelians. We know of Sibelius’s own struggles with finishing (or not finishing) his masterpieces. More importantly, we know of Sibelius’s particular way of letting the music almost compose itself – and in this sense, it relates to the experience of realizing a work of art has been completed at an unexpected point in its crafting, in its time.

Sibelius in 1949, photo by Yousuf Karsh
Sibelius in 1949, photo by Yousuf Karsh

Newly discovered Eero Järnefelt portrait of Sibelius

FOUND! A previously unknown portrait of Sibelius by Eero Järnefelt (1863-1937), Aino’s brother. The privately-owned artwork was discovered last week in conjunction with preparations for a 150th anniversary Järnefelt exhibition by the Järvenpää Art Museum near Helsinki. The lithograph has been examined and found to be authentic, and estimated to have been completed between 1906 and 1910, as reported by the Finnish national broadcaster, YLE.

Sibelius - New Jarnefelt Portrait 2013

Indeed it very much resembles Sibelius from around this period, perhaps after his throat operation.

Sibelius 1908a

 

 

The only thing is, his hair parting appears to be in a different place. In the Jarnefelt portrait, it is on the right side. But in the photos, his parting is on the left. Hmm.

Sibelius around 1908

Stravinsky and Sibelius: cold water, cocktails and respect

100 years ago on 29 May, 1913, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring collided with Paris concert-goers, its (in)famous audacious arrival greeted with shock.

They were two titans of the music world, but Sibelius and Stravinsky, two of the 20th century’s greatest composers, certainly had many things NOT in common. It is said that when the Finnish Cultural Foundation awarded Stravinsky the Sibelius Gold Medal in 1956, Sibelius was “appalled”. (It is further said that Stravinsky later sold the medal for charity!).

Stravinsky once said that Sibelius “can’t do much”, to which the latter replied sarcastically, “That, I believe, is the greatest compliment I have received in my entire life! Mr I.S. is always imitating someone. I like his ‘Oedipus’ best, in which he imitates Gluck. Musical talent is not something you learn in school with the rod. In that sense, Mr S(travinsky) is certainly almost at the top of his class. And I am almost at the bottom…” ( Jean Sibelius, Tomi Mäkelä, Boydell Press, 2011, p.248)

Despite their differences, Sibelius and Stravinsky probably bore each other a great deal of grudging respect. Both were artists of immense intellectual capacity. Not just that, but artists who possessed artistic integrity and a clear sense of self and musical direction. They knew within themselves what they are capable of. They knew that the other is a great composer – they simply differed in their musical beliefs. Sibelius presented the world “pure cold water”, while Stravinsky gave it “cocktails of every hue and description” – but what cocktails!

In 1963, Stravinsky was awarded the Wihuri-Sibelius Prize, and perhaps felt compelled to do something in return. He arranged Sibelius’s Canzonetta, Op.62a (from Kuolema) for 4 horns, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and bass. Stravinsky had earlier visited Helsinki in 1961, and is quoted by his amanuensis Robert Craft as saying that he was fond of this Sibelius work – “The first half of it, anyway.  I like that kind of northern Italianate melodism —Tchaikovsky had it too — which was a part, and an attractive part, of St. Petersburg culture.”

Whatever else he was fond or not fond of in Sibelius, we today are left with this indelible image of Stravinsky laying a bouquet of flowers on the grave of Sibelius, in 1961. A master greets a master in a different rite of spring.

Stravinsky at Sibelius Grave

 

This story was also published on the
Jean Sibelius – Dust of Hue Facebook Page in a slightly shorter version.

Kinetic Rain – Vattendroppar in Singapore

Vattendroppar – “Water Drops” is  Sibelius’ first composition at age 9 in the year 1875, a precociously delicate chamber piece for violin and cello pizzicato.

Water, that icon and conduit of life, is a vital symbol in any art that involves nature.  I think immediately of Sibelius’ pure cold water of the Sixth Symphony.

Photo from www.changiairport.com

On 18 July 2012, Changi Airport in Singapore will official unveil the world’s largest moving art installation, Kinetic Rain.  Two clouds (sections) of 608 light-weight aluminum droplets coated in polished copper are suspended on stainless steel wires powered by precision rotors which pull each metallic globule up and down in a coordinated 15-minute metallic ballet. The result is a mesmerizing dance by the 1216 bronzed beads, whose dimensional choreography is positively symphonic.

The installation was commissioned by the Changi Airport Group as part of the renovation of Terminal 1. It was conceived by Berlin-based design firm ART+COM, which is led by the Finnish artist Jussi Ängeslevä. My mind didn’t exactly blink when I saw that. A cleverly conceived art installation, mixing intelligence and natural grace, elegance in complexity, deliberate yet spontaneous, distilling nature into a man-made construct which still emanates beauty. I think the ability to meld these elements together is a mark of some of mankind’s greatest modern artists, including Sibelius. I found it not surprising that the creative mind that led Kinetic Rain is Finnish, because the Finns seem to have a natural flair for precisely this combination, involving nature or natural-ness intimately in their art. Sibelius through the orchestra, Aalto through architecture and Ängeslevä through installation art.

You could see it as a universal display. It’s like a pixel matrix, you’re moving dots but it’s not. So you have this grid that has space in between them. It’s in physical space in that context and you have movement that in one moment is one continuous surface, for example… And then suddenly it becomes two overlapping sections, it becomes a volume. And then a few seconds later you see the individual points in space, having their individual behavior like multiple personalities that is shifting from one to the next to the next.

The words can be interpreted in many ways, I would say. It really depends on your perspective. But if you were to ask me to relate this to Sibelius (what else would this blog be for?), I would say that I am fascinated by the idea that “in one moment [it] is one continuous surface… And then suddenly it becomes two overlapping sections”. I think this applies readily to music, though not just for Sibelius. For Sibelius though, the idea of overlap and layers formed from transforming surfaces is core.  He loved primordial pedal points uplifting layers of sound all the way to the top, and sometimes his layers even moved at different speeds. It is exactly something you find in nature (the seas surf and the clouds scud at different tempi), undulating rhythms and speeds at different degrees, but all working together in harmony.

 

Sometimes “you see the individual points in space”, like a sunburst, a flock of swans, the woodwinds singing with the breezes. But other times they are like “multiple personalities that is shifting from one to the next to the next.” In Sibelius’ music, a single individual cell fluidly shifts and organically transforms from one form to another, and the transformation itself is the progression, the living life, of the music.  It is perhaps the very definition of  symphonic Sibelius.

The Swan of Lorena

Amidst the thunder and lightning of the night last, I raced with the forces of nature to bring an emblem of tranquility, the national bird of Finland, into being. Not ten minutes before, my house had suffered an electrical outage, a blackout. The lightning was keen, and the thunder brazen enough to stir both my sleeping girls awake. My littlest one sought my arms for comfort, as white flashes burst across the drenched sky. When my wife finally took over, I waited and listened to the thunder. Five, six minutes passed.

I had to do it, it has to be tonight. I turned main power back on, rebooted my computer and quickly downloaded the final image file. Anxiety tinged my fingers as I hurriedly logged into this website’s control panel and uploaded the new header. It was over quickly. I opened a new tab on the browser and hit my “DoH” bookmark.

Server down. How could this be? Surely, the lightning gods aren’t that busy? Quickly I attempted to load the site on my iPhone instead. Unable to reach server. It was not to be tonight. With the rain subsiding, pelting quietly on cold windows, I went to bed.

But come morning, I find it is there. It is Dust of Hue‘s new header image. The Swan is gliding serenely as the site greets me. Did my Swan ask that I wait, last night, while she calmed the heavens? She glides knowingly, snow-quiet, unaffected by storm of sky nor of heart, exuding pure tranquility.

The Swan of Lorena
The Swan of Lorena

Around the end of March 2012, my very dear friend Lorena asked that I accept a gift of some sort, a piece of art that she would paint herself. I did not want to refuse, but I also did not want to impose. But later, it occurred to me that, instead of a painting bound for a wall, I could really use a proper header image for Dust of Hue, and I suggested this.

We eventually went through a number of design ideas. There were forests, sunrises, portraits of Sibelius, butterflies – but, in the way fate often plays with me – the first one is often the right one. And in this case, the first one is based on a painting depicting the Swan of Tuonela, after Sibelius’ tone poem of fame. To be precise, it is Lorena’s Photoshop composition of two artworks – detail from “Swan of Tuonela” (watercolor) and “New Bones” (collograph) – a larger detailed version can be seen here.

The waters in the original composition is much darker, befitting the Tuoni river in Tuonela, the Underworld of Finnish mythology, resting place of the dead. The Swan of Tuonela, the second part of the four-movement Lemminkainen Suite, or Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op.22, depicts the graceful Swan who presides over the river. The work beautifully fuses in sound, the image of the swan played by the dream-laden cor anglais solo, undulating over the haunted and otherworldy waters of the river Tuoni.

Lorena’s composition sets the swan, radiantly sublime, against the still gloom of the dimmed waters. The half-conscious shades and white ripples seemingly reach and sigh for her touch.

Together, over the months of April and May, we went through several versions of the Swan – not so much the swan herself, but trying to fit the surrounding waters to my website’s stark white background. Also, we worked on the title “Dust of Hue”. Lorena obliged and showed me many different fonts and variants, but tellingly, the one that spoke to me most was the one done in her own handwriting.

For more information about the artist, Lorena Bowser, please visit:

Among her many talents, she combines two that are most significant to this writer, her love of music and painting – the result takes the form of wonderful, contemporary portraits of Jean Sibelius and Ifukube Akira. Do you have a favourite composer she could paint as a commission for you? Imagine owning in your own home a new, colour portrait of a famous composer close to your heart. If you ask me, it is creating and being part of the composer’s history.

Like how, with this new header, I seek to bring a little more colour and visualized reality to the music and history of Jean Sibelius. In the mysterious river waters of her soul-searching repose, through the silvery lines of her noble glides, this Swan of Lorena.

Journey to Finland: It Begins With A Painting

2012 is the year I am going to Finland.  It may be surprising, but although I have loved Sibelius’ music for more than two decades, and championed it for more than one, I have never been to Finland.

Sibelius - Portrait by Lorena Bowser

It all begins with a painting.

This beautiful portrait of Sibelius was painted by artist Lorena Bowser of San Diego, California, for a friend. In June 2011 I was googling for a picture of Sibelius in colour, and her painting turned up. It was featured on her blog, and I left a comment, complimenting her for the fine work.  Depicting Jean Sibelius in his youth (specifically this photograph), the painting has a remarkable glow and dignified energy, and the smoothness of the colours even imbue in it a touch of the surreal. One wonders if the painting stepped out of the photograph, or the other way.

New paintings of Sibelius are not common (but surprisingly not all that rare – have a look at my Jean Sibelius board on Pinterest), and always a delight to discover. Being the friendly, gregarious lady that she would turn out to be, Lorena soon befriended me on Facebook.

The friend for whom this portrait was painted for is Erik Homenick, master of the most significant English-language website on the Japanese composer Ifukube Akira. I will always remember his reply on Lorena’s blog post:

“Leon, are you THE Leon of The Flying Inkpot?”

Fast forward to 2012.  I joined a Sibelius forum, a traditional online bulletin board located at sibelius.forumup.com. I don’t visit or contribute as much as I would like to, for I feel a little lost and outdated regarding Sibelius. This owes partly to the fact I did not follow Sibelius news/research much during the years between 2002 and 2009 – the same years I stopped writing online due to the demands of work and family. But I eventually did realize that, well, people seem to remember me for my work championing Sibelius more than a decade ago.

I truly feel humbled by this.  It is a sentiment that I also tried to return. In January 2011, I received an email from JN of the University of Chicago, asking me for the source of the Butterfly quotation, the source of the name of this blog, “dust of hue”. To my great consternation, at that time, despite looking through all my literature at home, I could not locate the source. Like JN, I began to feel a shadow of doubt about its authenticity, which was made additionally painful because this is one of the most important quotations of Sibelius in my heart, that I have held close and quoted in many a Flying Inkpot article for decades. Because of this, every now and then, for the next year, I searched for the reference. The failure to authenticate it bothered me very much.

Thankfully, we live in a time when Sibelius literature is still being written, for many new secrets about Finland’s composer of legend continue to be unearthed. During the ensuing year after JN’s query, a new book was published entitled Jean Sibelius and His World (The Bard Music Festival), by Daniel M. Grimley. For a second important time, the serendipity that is Google came to my rescue. In March 2012, I googled “Sibelius butterfly” and discovered Grimley’s book in Google Books. In it is  a fascinating essay by Tomi Mäkelä called  “The Wings of a Butterfly: Jean Sibelius and the Problem of Musical Modernity”.

The quotation is there. My quest was fulfilled.

All these, and the feeling of conviction as I began to publish on this blog again, slowly gathered a feeling in me. I began to feel forces compelling me to do that one thing that I’ve always know I had to do: go to Finland.

You must forgive me for putting this off for so long. I am not a well-to-do person. Going on an overseas trip is not something I can do without feeling the burden, both to my savings and to my family obligations. I am a sole breadwinner. Such a trip would not come cheap. And indeed, for me, it cannot be “cheap”. It is a pilgrimage – perhaps more than that.  I’m not saying that I have to stay in the finest hotels and dine at the finest restaurants, but I think, I know I owe it to myself to see and experience as much as I can, when I finally arrive in Sibelius’ homeland.  I also felt that I had to do it alone. Frankly, I did not relish having my family come along only for me to abandon them as I make for all the Sibelian shrines. Finally, I’d always thought that I would save the trip for a special anniversary, and the year 2015 (Sibelius’ 150th birthday) seemed logical and close enough. I never thought about going any earlier. Until now.

(As it turns out, I am actually going to stay in a pretty fine hotel. But more on that another time).

Hesitantly, I made a little query on the Sibelius forum. And who would  ultimately contact me but Andrew Barnett, UK Sibelius scholar, founder of the UK Sibelius Society and writer of the notes for most (all?) of BIS’s Sibelius Edition. Generously, he did something very important regarding my decision to go – he gave me dates and places. That is, an itinerary. Before that I only knew I can only visit Finland between May and September,  the period Ainola is open.  Mr Barnett suggested that I follow members of the UKSS on their annual trip to the Lahti Sibelius Festival.  I would follow the group’s itinerary while in Lahti, including a trip to Ainola.

The anxiety of going to a country over 9200 kilometres away started to fade away with this.  The idea of visiting Finland became less of a dream and became closer to reality – or rather, it was a dream coming true.

But before I took the plunge, a string of little miracles awaited.

Drawings by 6th Grade Children after listening to Sibelius

I came across this video while looking for Sibelius on YouTube. It is titled simply, “Sibelius Pictures” but the thumbnail gives a clue why it seems unusual. As you start the video, the video explains that these are “Drawings by 6th Grade Children After Listening to Sibelius”. The video is credited to Escola Frederic Godàs, a public school in Lleida, Spain.

Not entirely sure what is the context of this exercise, but what an interesting thing to see how kids would depict Sibelius’ music. It looks like the music used are standard warhorses, the “Intermezzo” from the Karelia Suite (as hinted by the many mentions of “Carelian” in some of the drawings), Finlandia (drawings of Finnish independence), and the “Valse triste” (“sad waltz”) from the music for Kuolema (“Death”). Not surprisingly, the children were probably clued in on the context, if you look at the many vivid (and sometimes amusing) drawings of the figure of Death come to claim its due.

Video and screen captures © Escola Frederic Godàs

I’ve been told more than once by fresh listeners to Sibelius that his music sounds like film music, particularly in the context of scenery expositions, such as sunrises. My standard answer is that it’s the other way around – generations of film music composers have copied Jean Sibelius. While Sibelius himself often wrote music with extremely pictorial leanings, his symphonic essays were the exact opposite – he denied any extra-musical intentions in them. Nevertheless, as listeners we are hard pressed not to hear nature in them.

As the composer himself once said, nature and life pervades everything he composes. I hope these children will find his artistic influence of lasting benefit in their lives. Now that they’ve tried their hand at Kuolema, I would’ve loved to see them draw Tapiola

Kaija Saariaho

The wonder that is Twitter. I was having breakfast in front of my laptop when a tweet popped up in the corner of my browser (thanks to the Echofon plug-in for Firefox),

And the remains of my Subway roast chicken sandwich watched the following with me:

As a little girl, Kaija Saariaho heard music in her head when she was trying to sleep, and thought that it was coming from the pillow. She felt the urge to write it down. According to wikipedia, this former student of the Sibelius Academy was “awarded the title Musician of the Year 2008 (announced by Musical America, the US publishing company for performing arts), for being “among the few contemporary composers to achieve public acclaim as well as universal critical respect”. Her opera, Love from Afar, which took her 8 years to write, is apparently already the 21st century’s most performed opera.

Kaija Saariaho (b.1952)

“Her work in the 1980s and 1990s is marked by its emphasis on timbre and use of electronics alongside traditional instruments; Nymphéa (Jardin secret III) (1987), for example, is for string quartet and live electronics. It contains an additional vocal element: the musicians whispering the words to a poem by Tarkovsky. In the late 1990s Saariaho began to expand beyond electronics, often writing strictly acoustic pieces, focusing increasingly on melody.

Saariaho was influenced by post-serialism, but she grew to find it too restrictive: “You were not allowed to have pulse, or tonally oriented harmonies, or melodies. I don’t want to write music through negations. Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.” (Wikipedia)

I have listened to a few pieces on Youtube. They are intriguing, if not immediately to my taste. What interests me from the video via the tweet from @carnegiehall is that she is now composer-in-residence at the Carnegie Hall, New York, reining over the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair.

I am reminded of how Sibelius found appreciation, fame and fortune through the performance of his works in America.  The number of eminent composers coming out of Finland is disproportionately impressive, compared to the rest of the world – a result, I’ve always believed, of the lasting influence of her greatest composer. Whether or not you (or I) can appreciate the works coming from Saariaho or not, the Finnish forces of music are truly a fine example to behold of how the personality of a faraway nation can reach every end of the earth through the sounds of her people.

Follow me on Twitter @dustofhue.