HAPPY 150TH BIRTHDAY, JEAN SIBELIUS!

And incredibly, the day has come! 150 years and stronger than ever – Happy 150th Birthday, Jean Sibelius!

Thank you to the variety of people who made this possible, including friends and Sibelius champions Okko Kamu, CEO of BIS, Robert von Bahr, Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett, Sibelius pianist Folke Gräsbeck, and more. Kiitos!

Fantasia and the Swan of Tuonela

What has Jean Sibelius got to do with Walt Disney? It seems in December 1940, Disney approached Sibelius to propose featuring The Swan of Tuonela in the famous animated film Fantasia. Although by that time, Fantasia was already running in the theatres for a month, Disney already had plans to continually revise and improve the film – an approach that would surely have received more than a few approving nods from Sibelius!

Throughout 1941, story material was developed based on the addition or substition of new pieces of music, including Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski.
Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski. Picture from wikipedia.

On 9 December, 1940, a day after the composer’s 75th birthday, a letter arrived from the Walt Disney production company, bearing the Fantasia title decorated with cartoon characters. The message it carried was from John C. Rosen of Disney, who described Walt Disney as being a long-time admirer of Sibelius’s music. Although The Swan of Tuonela is not under copyright protection the United States, he added, Mr Disney did not want to proceed with using it in the film without the composer’s blessings.

Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser
Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser (Fine Art Studio 111)

Rosen explained the film’s intention to depict the “awe and reverence” for the souls of the departed on its journey through Tuonela, accompanied by the beautiful and majestic Swan. He assured the composer that each scene in the film would be as faithful to to the spirit of Finnish mythology, and will be accompanied by corresponding verses from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

The letter was accompanied by a note of support from the Finnish Ambassador to the US, Hjalmar Procopé , who said the project would be of great significance to the promotion of Finnish culture.

Sibelius’s interest in the matter is only known from the fact that he contacted his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, about it. I say “only” because – alas, in the end, nothing came of it. Perhaps the composer’s interest was piqued because of the involvement of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadephia Orchestra in Fantasia – the very same musicians who made the first recording of The Swan of Tuonela in 1929.

In any case, the proposal did not come to fruition. Any correspondence between Breitkopf & Härtel and the composer regarding the project has not survived, and thus we do not know exactly why it was rejected or not taken up.

Could it have been indeed a copyright issue? Considering the potentially huge earnings a film of Disney’s stature could earn, did Breitkopf & Härtel desire a cut … which Sibelius might have felt too awkward to ask of the Americans? Did Sibelius perhaps feel that a “cartoon” was not befitting his “serious” music? I speculate.

I leave you with this animation-style YouTube video of The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the classic Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.If it had been featured in Fantasia, it might have looked something close to this.

This article is adapted from “Sibelius ja Hollywood” by Sibelius scholar Glenda Dawn Goss.

Andante festivo – New Year Greetings 2015

This has been a long time coming. I have always wanted to create a video of Sibelius’s Andante festivo, a piece so dear to my heart and I’m sure to many a Sibelian. For many years I’ve sat on the idea and done several other videos but this one I’ve put off because I want it to be really good. I also have a dilemma about whether to use the recording that first introduced me to the work, or to use Sibelius’s historic 1939 recording. The decision I made this morning – playing both versions loudly on my hifi after breakfast at home – is that ultimately I’ll do both. For now though, it will be the former – Neeme Järvi’s 1982 recording on BIS with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, a very beautiful and powerful account that still sounds fantastic to this day. The CD is 30 years old.

The photos used are from my 2014 trip to Finland, mostly of Suomenlinna and a few of Karelia. I plan to make a couple of videos this coming year for Karelia. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all! Happy 2015! Happy 150th Anniversary, Jean Sibelius!


To Finland Again

I remember last time, before I departed for Finland, the immense emotional weight bearing on me. It was joy and terror. It wasn’t that I thought it the trip would go wrong, or that it would be difficult. It was the emotional weight of having a lifelong dream squeezed into a one-week journey, in fact, into that one moment when I finally placed my hand on his final resting place. I brought the emotional weight of some 20 years of being moved by his music “back” to his home, and truly, it felt amazing to bring it home. Ainola was beautiful, shimmering with elation.

It is a little strange now, listening to Sibelius’s music. Music is a sometimes strange thing for us modern people. It comes out of plastic speakers, and plays without musicians present, without composer alive. As I imagine myself approaching Finland, it is as if the music becomes more and more real, like going to the source. Sibelius was a synesthete – he had a condition called synesthesia where the stimulation of one sense (such as seeing a colour in a landscape or even the smell of hemp drying) evoked sounds in his hearing. He often said that the silence spoke – and it appears he meant it literally.

Sibelius in tree-root chair 1940s by Santeri Levas
Jean Sibelius in his tree root chair in the border area of the Ainola grounds, 1940-1945, Järvenpää. Photo by Santeri Levas, used by courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Photographÿ.



I wonder often how this experience must be like. Since I do not have synesthesia, I can only imagine it as having a sound buzzing in my ear or head – rather like hearing the whirr of the air conditioner or the ticking of the clock in my room now – if one thinks about hearing it. But I suspect it isn’t that simple. Sibelius, I guess, probably heard real tones and harmonies, when he looked upon and drank in nature. I’m reasonably certain this is why 1) he took walks in the forest so often, 2) he demanded absolutely silence when he composed and 3) he said, “[Here at Ainola,] the silence speaks”.

I find that it remains difficult to share with others, my friends and even family, why I love, appreciate and believe so passionately in Sibelius’s music. I’m beginning to think that it is my own synesthetic experience. I experience something – something beautiful, something serene, something emotional, something cosmic – when I listen to Sibelius. And it is not something I can explain to someone who doesn’t get it; someone who doesn’t (yet) experience this with Sibelius.

This year, 2014, I make my way to Finland again, for the International Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Besides the festival, I have the great honour of being invited by my host, eminent British Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett, to witness a recording at Ainola, featuring the pianist Folke Gräsbeck and Satu Jalas, Sibelius’s grand-daughter who also plays on the composer’s own violin.  I cannot begin to express my gratitude and the immensity of this rare privilege. During the trip, I will also be part of a special group (more on that in a couple of week’s time) who will be granted another special privilege – access and a private tour into areas of Ainola not open to the public. I will write about this at dustofhue.com. And that’s not all. We will also have something new and exciting to announce soon for Sibelius fans all over the world – mark this date: 6 September 2014.

I have much to look forward to, and one of the greatest – both a joy and a privilege – is to meet so many fellow Sibelians in one place. People with whom I do not need to explain.

“Music begins where the possibilities of language end.”

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

Yours and My Sibelius – an exhibition at the Sibelius Museum

As some of you might have noticed, I run a particular board on Pinterest. Amidst the visual feastful of amazing food, fashion and nature’s scenery, I think mine is quite possibly the platform’s only Jean Sibelius board.

I try not to just pin ANY image of Sibelius, as that would probably result in a whole hoard of black-and-white photos of the man, looking meditative or slightly uncomfortable and invariably either heavily moustached or bald of head. I try to pin pictures of him in colour, in particular new paintings of the composer. This, I think, makes the pins much more unique, my finds much more interesting. But more importantly, new depictions of Sibelius represent a continuing tradition, each artist depicting his or her perspective on the composer, and each one becoming a part of his musical legacy.

Recent paintings of Sibelius are surprisingly forthcoming – every now and then, I’d find a new one, such as this very aristocratic take by Tim Binger, this evocatively indirect depiction of “Sibelius Amongst the Saplings” (2011) by Billy Childish or this 2009 portrait (based on the famous photo) of the young Sibelius by Lorena Bowser, that is closely related to this blog. Follow me on Pinterest as I continue to find them.

Back in December 2012, much to my surprise I received an email from none other than the Sibelius Museum in Turku, Finland.  It came from their educationalist, Ms Toropainen, and she said that she’d found my blog and Pinterest board and asked if it would be ok if they could feature some of the material in an upcoming little exhibition at the museum.

My only regret is that I cannot be in Turku! I tried to plan it in my September 2012 trip to Finland, but alas, could not fit it in my schedule. So, oddly enough, this blog of mine has now gone there in my place.

Yours and My Sibelius – an exhibition at the Sibelius Museum (15 Jan - 30 Apr 2013)

“YOUR AND MY SIBELIUS” – the exhibition opened on 15 January 2013 and will run until 30th April. The intention of the exhibition is to showcase the composer  in a different dimension(s). Not specifically through the man or his music, but through a “variety of phenomena to which Sibelius has been the source of inspiration, [such as] in photographs, drawings, texts and other objects.”

The museum had decided to use this blog, Dust of Hue, in one of the showcases. They are picking out some text and pictures to be put in a slideshow, I am told. It is a small contribution I make, but a huge honour.

In addition, the pupils of Grade 6E of Puolala School (Puolalan Koulu) in Turku – the sponsor class of the Sibelius Museum – have contributed drawings on the topic “Your and my Sibelius”.

Pupils of Grade 6E of Puolala School (Puolalan Koulu) in Turku – the sponsor class of the Sibelius Museum – have contributed drawings on the topic “Your and my Sibelius”.
All pictures courtesy of the Sibelius Museum.

The drawings are a delightful mix of portraits (in varying levels of severity), musical instruments and symbols, everyday objects (presumably Sibelius-branded merchandise), and of course, The Moustache.

But my favourite one, winner by a far, far margin, is this subtle little piece:

Portrait of Sibelius by a pupil of Grade 6E of Puolala School, Turku, Finland

The austerity of the work, the singular purpose of the artist’s line, the organic manner in which the face is built, the rock-like monumental-ness, the perfectly Sibelian stern expression – I’m sure Sibelius himself would’ve smiled at it and Aino would probably have it framed. :)

Sibelius, 1939

“YOUR AND MY SIBELIUS” – An Exhibition
15 Jan – 30 Apr 2013

The Sibelius Museum is located at:
Biskopsgatan 17, FIN-20500 Åbo, Turku, Finland (Google+/Map)
Opening hours:
Tuesday-Sunday 11-16, Wednesdays also 18-20
Closed on Mondays.

A Beautiful Silence, this Silence of Järvenpää

The grave of Jean Sibelius is cold. It is monumental and simple, a great bronze square whose expanse bears nothing except his name and Aino’s. It exudes the grandeur of a hewn rock, as if nature’s forces had sculpted it, shaped it to represent the final resting place of one of her greatest musical avatars.

Yellow twigs, needles and leaves gently litter the bronze skin, now green with age. It lies amongst the trees, the centrepiece in a painting of quiescence. As I gently sweep my hand over the metal, it is the stark cold that I remember most. A beautiful cold, a metallic intensity, radiating quiet. This is the closest I will ever be to the master.

Four days before I flew from Singapore, I had begun a terrible descent into depression. I felt an immense pressure over me, the huge weight of some 15 years of championing Sibelius on my head. The anticipation was numbing. I could not sleep well. My family, whom I could not bring to Finland, had instead flown to Australia for a holiday. The loneliness of my house was deeply alienating, staggeringly heavy. Opening the door to emptiness was heart-breaking. It was unbearably silent.

Shouldn’t I have been happy? I felt as if I was going to change – as if I was going to die from reality and visit a longed-for place which, as if it was heaven, something that I only dreamed about. That in doing so, I would be transformed forever. It was an awe-ful feeling. Or maybe, it was because I wasn’t prepared for this journey that I wanted so much – I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how much to expect. I felt and knew this was something very big – and of course it is – but it didn’t seem right to feel I should loudly celebrate or even be excited about it. It was a strange uneasiness.

When the day came, my heart was heavy, my skin almost feverish with anticipation. The weight of it all continued to drown me in terrible emotions as I locked the door to my house and went on my way to the airport. The taxi ride and the flight was my Night Ride and Sunrise – my flight departed near midnight. Freezing and lonely, with the in-flight entertainment system down in my section (Finnair kindly sent a notice the day before), I went to sleep after a late supper, wrapped in a Zara jacket I bought purposely for this trip.

Finland2012-027 dawn

Perhaps the lack of the TV screen was a blessing. I woke up some hours later at 4am, and as we flew northwestwards towards the lands of the midnight sun, the sun chased the plane. It rose for three whole hours -the dawn-touched horizon speared with magical colours from crimson to vermillion to cobalt.

Finland2012-33 Vantaa
Dawn at Vantaa Airport, Helsinki

I arrived at the same time as the dawn. Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport was cool, tranquil and in blues and whites, like the Finnish flag. The first thing that struck me was the absence of a crowd. Spaces were empty, open, quiet and untouched by the chaos and bluster that is typical of where I come from. It was a complete breath of fresh air. I felt free. I sat down at a small empty cafe in the airport and had a Finnish sandwich and coffee.

Finland2012-002 Station I felt the usual lightness of arriving in a new land. After I located the Finnair Bus to the city, loaded up and sat down, I realized all the stress was gone. Everything was new, everything not yet experienced. And yet, 20 years of listening to Sibelius – and months spent perusing tourist guides to Finland – made everything feel faintly familiar. I know this realm. I smiled to myself as I spotted Helsinki Cathedral, the modern lines of the Finlandia Hall across the road, the stone guardians of the Helsinki Central Railway Station,or the vertical STOCKMANN sign of the famous department store.

I’ve spent many years asking myself what makes Sibelius Finnish? But as a Sibelius nutcase in Helsinki, my automatic sense was to ask myself – what is so Sibelian about Helsinki? There is a certain old-time grace, which you might sense in the buildings. The streets have an unspoken neatness. Helsinki is clearly a modern city, people walking among buildings, trams and cars following its logical streets. She has a certain regal elegance, an unassuming nobility – it speaks for itself without having to make a loud noise. Things seem to just work without asking, things seem to be just in the right place. I was told my luggage case was too big to be kept at the bus ticket office, but perhaps I could try the cobbler just down the corridor. “I think they can take it.” And sure enough, they did. As a first-time visitor, I am not disappointed. Helsinki is full of little touches of graceful purpose and artistic surprise – flowers on a post, stark modernist architecture sitting amidst tradition, like a bronze square in a forest.

It was noon. I decided I had to do something Sibelian on my first day in Finland, so I took a walk to the Sibelius Monument. The sun was shining bright, and remarkably warm. Approaching from a distance, I discovered the monument wasn’t far from the main road. It was as if it was calling me. Or perhaps it was just the buzz of the throng of tourists around it. The road was filled with their coaches.

The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki
The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki

Many Finns are proud of Helsinki’s 24-ton monument to their greatest composer. But someone forgot to explain to the tourists why. Many tourist guides, books and the like, mark the Sibelius Monument as a must-see, citing its modernity and artistry. But you can’t explain Sibelius in two paragraphs, so the result is that the monument sees a lot of touristy galavanting around it, not just taking photos but hollering into the echoing pipes, rubbing the nose of the bust and general tomfoolery. It was noisy and it was rude, but I wasn’t surprised and I can’t blame them, but neither was I impressed. All I wanted was for someone to help me take a photo.

Two different men with DSLRs failed to take nice shots of me. I approached a Japanese group, and practised my rusty Japanese a bit with a lady. She apologetically said her husband is a better photographer but took the shot anyway, and it was not bad at all. Arigatou gozaimashita!

Finland2012-005 Sibelius MonumentFinally, I met Iker – an amiable young man from Pamplona, the historical capital city of Navarre, in Spain. We chatted for some time, and I explained to him the purpose of my trip. He showed interest instead of the usual confoundment when I spoke about Sibelius – what a relief. We helped each other take photos, and agreed to find one another online. We parted as my bus journey neared. It was a good meeting.

Usually when I have to explain to people about my favourite composer, the response is a polite unfamiliarity. It’s difficult to put it in words. But during this trip, I expected to and did meet people, fellow Sibelians and nutcases, for whom no words are necessary to explain.

We know. We know why he sounds like that. We know what he “means”. We know why he stopped after the Seventh. We know what is the dust of hue. We don’t have to explain. I suppose it is the same for many composers and their fans. But for Sibelius, the group of people on this Earth who share the understanding of his musical idiom is small but dedicated. We often find ourselves in spot, a little frustrated that it’s not possible to explain Sibelius to those who haven’t heard. We may even feel a little sympathy (for them and often for ourselves).

Finland2012-006 Sibeliustalo sign

It is especially wonderful then, to step into the quiet dining hall of my hotel in Lahti in the morning, and spot an elderly British couple already there. We would introduce ourselves and sit together to have toast, karjalanpiiraka, sausages, juice and talk Sibelius within 15 minutes of seeing each other for the first time. It feels as if we knew each other from symphonies past. Did humanity never notice the binding power of the arts?

My new friends, esteemed members of the United Kingdom Sibelius Society (UKSS), are best summed up in one word: jolly. Joining the group of seven (with one Australian), we made the journey to Ainola on the morning of September 6th, 2012. They do this every year, the society, but it was to be my first trip to Ainola, which is located in Järvenpää, 70 km south of Lahti.

Finland2012-010 Lahti

I was happy, obviously, to be finally on the way. And a little tense. The hour-long train journey from Lahti to Järvenpää was pleasantly full of sunlight, chatter with new friends, laughter and Sibelius. I sat opposite the magnificent and very funny John J. Davis, who looks exactly like Sibelius, but would otherwise be happy to be called King Kristian II (you can see his very Sibelian hairstyle in the photo above).

Finland2012-012 Janne flags
In the city of Järvenpää, flags bearing the symbol of a hat and walking stick are everywhere. They are simply called “Janne”, after Jean.

From Järvenpää, we take a 2.4 km walk to Ainola. Amidst fields and trees and lakes, the sky threatened to rain and indeed for a while, in the middle of the walk, it did. I was a little worried. But it was not to last. Walking through the carpark at Ainola which I’d seen on Google Streetview, the rain simply stopped. The sky shifted, painted itself blue and the sun came out. Looking at the nature around me, I felt welcome and privileged.

The group headed to the Café Aulis first, which also acts as the ticketing booth. I could sit here everyday. The veranda looks out into a simple but resplendently sunlit garden. The interior was warm and inviting – pillows and chairs, tables with autumn leaf decor, cakes, pies, coffee and Sibelius. While I struggled to absorb as much as the cafe’s ambience as possible, the rest had already sat down with their cakes and coffees.

Finland2012-015 JanneleivosI like cakes, but I don’t usually have them. But this morning, I did not feel like having a healthy sandwich. I saw a muffin with a chocolate treble clef, named “janneleivos” and ordered one. As I put it on the table, Janet of the UKSS point out that this was Sibelius’ favourite muffin that Aino often made for him. I was more than a little quietly delighted. And Aino was at the cafe in more ways than one. Her personal embroidery lay in a small exhibition at the entrace. They were woven of home. A home of quiet, sunshine and a birthplace of music.

As I walked out of the Cafe back in to the sunshine, my shoes crunching in the gravel, I followed my companions as they turned right towards Ainola.

“It’s there, can you see it?” And suddenly, there it is, through the trees it appeared, a house. It must be one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, this house among the forests. All around it, morning light, sky-reaching trees and serenity. Every step I took along the gravel path carried something like a musical purpose. The tall tree trunks went by, each one revealing the house in greater and greater detail. We stopped by the house’s exterior for a while, our hearts filled with unspoken greetings. I looked and stared, trying to examine every single detail of roof, window and woodwork, before realizing my companions had gone on ahead. I hurried to catch up.

Finland2012-019 Ainola

Down again the gravel path, with the guardian trees watching, I see ahead my destination. I could not help but slow down. This point had been in my dreams for many years. It didn’t seem real, and I felt the lightheaded weight of surreality over me. I was kept on Earth only by a strange sadness, because I knew it was a grave I walked towards. Now, more than ever, every single step I put down held an immense weight of purpose. I stopped at the edge, where two stone walls parted and gave way to the grave. I took a deep breath, knowing that the next time I breathed, it would be a different me, one that had fulfilled a lifelong dream. There was a reverent hush around the grave. A stillness in the centre, like noteless bars in a music score, but surrounded by the rustle and whispers of nature.

Finland2012-30 Ainola

The grave, as I have described, is cold and beautifully so. Aino’s apple trees surround it, a wife’s quiet, living, lifelong support for her husband, still alive and growing fruit, even as her name lay inscribed in cursive in one corner of her husband’s grave.

I came to Ainola expecting to say a lot. I wanted to tell him things. I thought I would have a lot to share with my friends. Instead, the weight of emotions while I was there kept me quiet. No, it was not that I spent all my time there silent and emotional – in fact, I shared much cheer and wonder with my companions, who happily showed me everywhere around. We took photos in the back garden. While there, I was asked to listen – listen: if not for the faint hum and whoosh of cars on the nearby highway, the place would be completely silent.

Finland2012-026 Ainola

That silence, I think is what struck me the most. For the longest time since coming home, I could not express exactly what I wanted to say about this journey. It has been over four months since I returned home as I write this. Maybe like Sibelius, Ainola is a contrast. It is a place of silence and also a place of music. It is a home for the happy noises of family, and also a home for the quiet of rest and retirement. Sibelius demanded absolute silence when he was composing. He spun symphonies out of a certain cosmic nothing – though if you listened closely, you will realize something remarkable: that silence is filled with the chords of the universe.

In the very trees of Ainola, Sibelius’ search for a home came to an end. Within Ainola, his music reached its logical conclusion and his own journey as a composer ended. His symphonies soar in the concert halls, his home is all quiet. I found myself having nothing more to say, except to smile. My journey too, was done.

I knew that when I left Singapore, I wasn’t prepared for Ainola, spiritually. I did not know what to expect on a journey of such emotional weight, I could not know how to face my hero until I made the journey. And when I finally met Sibelius, and all the spirits in the sunlit forest, his birch trees, his wife Aino, his family, his favourite chair, his piano in the corner, the bed where he breathed his last, his hat and walking stick, his green fireplace; when I met his people, his land, his music, and when I laid my hand as close to him as possible at his home in Ainola – all he said to me was silence. And it is a beautiful silence, this Silence of Järvenpää.

Finland2012-26 Ainola

Confessions of a Sibelius Champion

“Daddy, why do you like Sibelius so much?”

A month ago, my daughter, now age 10, asked me this simple question. Pause. I didn’t really know how to answer her. In truth if anyone older asked me, it would’ve been equally difficult to explain. And those of you who made the little mistake of asking me, I must let you know that it embarrasses me to go beyond five sentences to explain it. (I’ll buy a meal for those whom I subjected more than 10 sentences).

I suppose it would be just as difficult for any fan to explain exactly why he/she likes a certain composer. Sibelius himself reputedly avoided talking about his music, and even less so his compositional processes. I think essentially, like him, I would prefer to let the music speak for itself.

There are many other composers whose music I love – J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Dvořák, etc. But I only have this special relationship with Sibelius. I live over 9200 kilometres from Helsinki, from Sibelius, so to speak. I live in a tropical, Asian country – in terms of race, culture, language, climate, about as remote as it can be in relation to a Nordic country. Sometimes it seems a bit strange how this happened. Sometimes I can’t understand how come, and a part of me wants to ask, “Why was I chosen to do this?”

I have many times imagined what I would do and how I would feel when I finally reach Ainola. I have seen many photographs on the internet of Sibelius’ simple, bronze green grave. Soon I shall visit it. It will be the closest I will ever be to “meeting” him.

Many thoughts go through my head, and I find that finally, what I would say to him amounts to something emotionally closer to a confession than anything else.

Marshall Cavendish Great Composers Series – Sibelius (cassette version)

Awakening
I first truly awakened to Sibelius around 1990 or 1991 when I was aged around 18. I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember exactly how. Back then, I was following the fortnightly Marshall Cavendish series of “Great Composer” magazines, each came with a CD of the featured composer’s signature works (Right: the cassette version, which I bought off a second-hand store recently). I bought practically every issue, and I still have the magazines, although I have replaced most of the CDs with better recordings.

The blue-themed Sibelius issue came with a CD recording of Finlandia (naturally) and the Second Symphony, played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under George Szell. It was my first encounter with the symphony. I remember that afternoon, putting the CD on, and then going to my desk to work on something else. My back was to the hifi stereo set, and I let the music play pretty much as background music (if that is even possible with the Second Symphony). It was all new to me, and it sounded like a Romantic work, half-familiar, melodic, dramatic, spinning and swirling in ever increasing energy…

I raised my head from the table and turned around slowly. What is this?…. I dropped everything I was doing and my eyes opened wide as the finale began generating waves of D-major majesty. I listened intently to every note from the hifi set, as it drove Sibelius in ever mounting layers of magnificent defiance into my ears, into my soul.

The Flying Inkpot

The Flying Inkpot namecards from the late 1990s. Yes guys, I still have them.

In the 1990s, websites were born. In 1996 I joined a small group of university mates at the National University of Singapore who had set up a website for writing about the arts and reviewing local performances. These were the days of hand-coded webpages. The first GIF image had only appeared online a few years ago. We started simple. But we were driven by pure, altruistic passion – we were able writers, and we were eager to share. It was a time before social media, before web 2.0, even before mobile phones. It was the time of The Flying Inkpot (inkpot.com).

My editorial policy was simple:

  1. You write intelligently, but the layman must understand you. No pandering to lowest common denominator, no unapproachable musico-technobabble.
  2. There is no such thing as a “good review” or a “bad review” – only a well-written or a poorly written review.
  3. The VERY BEST reviews are the unfavourable reviews, written so well that even the musician criticized would agree.


Being the typical Type B that I was, I often championed the eclectic and those I deemed worthy of greater attention, underdogs and all. Among the likes of Janáček , Bantock, Hildegard von Bingen, Caldara and Jón Leifs, there stood the oeuvre of Jean Sibelius. But I had written so many reviews by the late 1990s that I felt that the Inkpot was becoming a bit of a monologue with my voice everywhere. On a whim, one day, instead of putting my name on the new Sibelius article, I put The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I described him in the Inkpotters roll as:

The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE™ b.1132 Loves Hot Dogs
The Flying Inkpot is proud to be home to the World-Famous, World Premiere Recording of The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase. Having heard of the fabulous web machine from Singapore, the mysterious white-winged ISN hefted his 6-ton armour of Nordic Music review expertise and crossed the Bifröst bridge to the tropics, bringing with him several boxes of BIS CDs, his Nordic Sounds and Finnish Music Quarterly subscriptions, a copy of the Everyman edition of the Prose Edda, as well as The Kalevala. To date, he refuses to reveal his identity except to the closest of friends (all Inkpotters, heh). Naturally, he only uses Nokia handphones. Due to intense concentration while listening to multiple-layer, multi-pedal sonorities, he does not check his email very often.

And he began to write, and write, and write. Like some hero in disguise, I felt liberated and empowered by the fact that nobody knew it was me. I imagined I channeled some Nordic hero force and threw myself into championing Sibelius.

It was also the time of the BIS Sibelius Edition, I had already sworn by Neeme Järvi’s recordings (left), and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s cycle was beginning. In 1997, I had also begun reviewing Okko Kamu’s concerts with the Singapore Symphony, from the 1997 Oceanides to my first “live” hearing of the Seventh Symphony in 1999, and others.

During my time writing at the Inkpot, I never really expected much in terms of feedback. Even less for the many lesser-known composers and works I wrote about. Remember this was almost a decade before Facebook, before social media, before the interactive web we take for granted today. But we did have a primitive comments tool for articles, and people were commenting. To my humble surprise, many were heartfelt compliments. Many of these have been transplanted to dustofhue.com, including those of my most enduring Tapiola article.

Over the years it dawned on me that, the one thing about championing a “niche” composer like Sibelius is that you will occasionally find very passionate fellow supporters. This was deeply heartening, and instilled in me great faith.

Sibelius with his second daughter Ruth, in 1901.

The Silence of Yeah-I’m-A-Pa
In 2002 my first daughter was born. It was the beginning of an unexpected retirement from the Inkpot. It just happened. With a little regret, I left the reins with fellow writers (Derek Lim continues to do so at the Flyinginkpot.com) and over the next seven years I became preoccupied with a great many things unrelated to music. Though I never lost my love for Sibelius, for a long time my attention turned elsewhere.

In 2006 I was approached by The Philharmonic Orchestra, through Dr Chang Touliang‘s recommendation, to write for their Sibelius symphony cycle, Singapore’s first. Though I wasn’t too familiar with the orchestra, its music director, Mr Lim Yau, has always been one of my most admired Singaporean conductors. I could not refuse.

What followed was myself forcing my own rebirth: over the next year or so, I wrote the programme notes for the combinations of the First and Third Symphony, the Second and Fourth, and the last three symphonies. This was a revelatory experience, coming back to writing about Sibelius after some four, five years.

Dust of Hue
In 2009, my friend and then supervisor Olivier Amprimo repeatedly encouraged me to set up a blog. The time was the toddlerhood of social media, the blog engine had grown up. As someone who had been working so long on the web, I was quite keen. But what would I blog about? The answer came to me very quickly.

When I finally sat down one day (after more weeks of procrastination) and was signing up for my hosting services, I had to choose a domain name. Years of publishing online taught me that I needed something unique. I put in the first name that I thought of – and lo and behold, it was available. (Even in those days, securing a domain name you wanted wasn’t easy). Like I said before, very often, fate would always make the first one the one.

I began to republish my old Inkpot articles. I even discovered many comments on them that I never noticed before, such was the extent of my neglect. I am apologetic and thankful to all of you who left me comments between 2002 and 2007-ish. I wrote again, and I published the TPO notes online. In all, the experience, as Sibelius would put it in his experience writing the Fourth Symphony, “gave me strength and satisfaction” to do what I believed in.

So why me?

First, I am an organic thinker. I believe in rules and guidelines, yes, but I don’t believe in following them blindly. I don’t like hard mathematics, I don’t fancy step-by-step progression if I know of a way to “smoothen” them out and complete several steps in a multi-layered flow. I am a lousy multi-tasker but strangely I am remarkably good at making sense of the way multiple moving parts work together. I say “making sense”, I do not say “seeing” or describing.

I enjoy putting things in motion and relying on my faith and knowledge that “it’ll work” to let it work. Yes, this statistics-obsessed world hates my kind, as close to the truth as we may be. I detest counting and analyzing, especially over-analyzing things in order to find out how it works. I enjoy telling you the principles as to why it works, but I do not enjoy calculating it and turning it into a formula or a report book. I do not want to touch the butterfly’s wing and lose the dust of hue.

For these reasons and more, I think Sibelius’ music and philosophy is naturally kin to me.

There is one drawback – I have come so far in this inexplicable spiritual journey that I am now in a place where, if you do not understand Sibelius, you will never understand me completely. No one, not I, not my closest friends, least not my precious family, should take this lightly. It is a place in the heart where nature and humanity come together, where I hear Sibelius, where the dust of hue wings in the air, untouched, and is by nature, unexplainable.

So sweetheart, there’s your answer. Now you just need to grow up some more, understand why I do this and follow me to Finland one day. My first journey begins imminently. Ainola is my destination, Sibelius is my destiny.