I Wish I Was In Finland t-shirt

I won one of these from the Finnish Tourist Board. :)

The Finnish Tourist Board’s aptly named I Wish I Was In Finland Facebook Page has been holding competitions to garner feedback for its online magazine at Visitfinland.com. All one needs to do is to have a good look (and review) of the site, and provide feedback to the Board via the pink button on the left side of website’s pages, in order to stand a change to win one of these t-shirts.

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. I love Finland, so I was pretty confident I could say something useful (besides I am into web design). I told them that the bite-sized articles were a great way to keep the information easy to digest, the photos were amazing, and they really nailed one of the key traits of a good website – revisit value. And, just to be additionally helpful, I asked for more features on Jean Sibelius, of course!

The promotion is still going on at their Facebook page – so if you love Finland and have always wanted to go there, give it a shot! Here are the various designs – I honestly wished I could get the swan version (and actually I asked for it when I received an email on my win. Politely. No obligations.) but since these goodies are not for sale, I think getting any is a great privilege in itself, and what a gift from the people of Finland!

The four designs for the not-for-sale I Wish I Was in Finland t-shirt, from the Finnish Tourist Board. (Photos from Facebook.com/visitfinland/. Click for larger image).
The black versions are arguably even cooler!

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

Sibelius at Hawk Lake, a poem by Tom Henighan

(“We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.” On the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola. From a letter to the composer by Walter Damrosch, who conducted the premiere of that work in 1926.)

The cabin walls groan,
I step out, under articulate stars,
their wild canopy excites me,
those icy exclamations
make the black scroll sing,
and punctuate the night
with a dazzling syntax
that lets the heart speak in parables.
When something lumbers by in the darkness,
I retreat to my fireplace.

This is Canada.
We are an outpost of terror.
Mountains, granite ridges,
chill mornings, mist-shrouded
lakes, the bleak sun,
the slow turning of the endless day.
Marshes and moors,
the smell of mud and decay,
glacier-tossed boulders
like the severed heads
of an ancient enemy.

What’s trivial in the human
he cast out–
and most of all our frenzy
to remake the world,
creation’s paradox and bane,
the junk piled high,
earth and space littered
with false dreams.

Implacable nature, in Tapio,
god of the forest.
by another name lurks
in these rough shaggy pines,
cedars and elders,
dark birches, like runic figures,
boundaries and portals of time,
of our deep hidden life,
to be entered only at twilight
or when the wind shrills
bleakly across the lakes,
the mind full of music
and what moves in the woods,
by cloven nature bound
to another earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the drawing rooms of Europe
the sad waltzes ceased,
the sun swallowed up
by its own serpent tides,
as in his knotted glance
by Karsh, looking inward
and downward
to where creation stops
at the boundaries
of feeling.

At the end, endless silence.
Ambition burned out,
mind falls back to its source:
the drowned book’s spell
alive in rugged lines,
in fractal clouds and waves,
this globe’s solemn music–
while time flows unhurried
to its own desolation,
the great swans gather
on the lost lake.

…………

Evening Forest. Photo by Ari Helminen (Click photo for link)

Sibelius at Hawk Lake – A Poem by Tom Henighan

Art inspires art, and sometimes not in the form you expect. The poem above is by Canadian author Mr Tom Henighan (born in Manhattan) who is also Professor Emeritus at the Carleton University of Ottawa,  and “a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture.” Among his other eminent qualities is a tendency to “get jumpy if [he] can’t stay in touch with the natural world.” Mr Henighan is an active author and has an extensive publication history.

In the last few years beginning around 2008, in my gradual return to writing about Sibelius, I have had the immense honour and pleasure of becoming acquainted with Sibelius fans from around the world, including conductors, musicians, painters and now a writer. Tom left a kind comment on Dust of Hue here (which I have barely begun to do justice in terms of a reply, and in subsequent emails, he sent me this Sibelius-inspired poem – essentially an act of kindred sharing.)

You have to know something about Sibelius to get the references, Tom explained. And indeed that was definitely the case. Of forests, mountains, stars, the slow turning of endless time, endless silence – the words and images include many that I have used in near poetic futility to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music in words. It made me eager to share with you, fellow Sibelians. About the poem, Tom wrote:

“I was sitting outside my cottage one dark-bright summer night, a cottage that’s on a very quiet lake next to the huge provincial park Papineau-Labelle in Quebec. I was listening to Sibelius, probably Tapiola as I recall, and I remembered how similar to the Canadian landscape the landscape of Finland looks, at least in photographs…”

And that’s how it often begins for us Sibelians. We find ourselves in the midst of nature, almost always quiet nature. And then we hear – sometimes imagine – his music. Sibelius himself often composed in silence. But for us, “nature music” isn’t always the romanticized, sentimental lyric tune written to admire her beauty. For us, Sibelius casts a spell as binding as it is often fearsome – “the mystery of nature in the dark woods”, as Tom puts it, where wood sprites weave magic secrets.

… and I thought how beautiful and peaceful that night was, but also, in a way “terrifying”–as wild, sublime nature sometimes is.  So I began to fuse my experience of nature in Sibelius’ wonderful sound-landscapes with my immediate experience of the sublime natural setting all around me.

Sibelius in 1945
Jean Sibelius (1945). Photo by Yousuf Karsh

Tom mentions Yousuf Karsh, the celebrated photographer responsible for a handful of the noblest photographs of Jean Sibelius, among other famous portraits. He refers especially to the one showing Sibelius in deep meditation (pictured above). “I imagine him contemplating “creation” –the natural world–and his own shackled powers” – Sibelius locked away his magic for the last three decades of his life, Prospero-like.

At the end, endless silence. Readers from either today or at the Inkpot will know how often I say Sibelius’ music often ends in a “vast silence” you dare not disturb; and that in the inexorable flow of his music, time often feels timeless. Time indeed “flows unhurried to its own desolation.”

 I try to evoke the indifference of time that rolls everything into oblivion but dissipates itself in so doing, and at that point I bring in Sibelius’ beloved swans, in some lost dimension, poised for a kind of rebirth, signaling the perennial unfolding of nature and its mysterious qualities (and of course the power of Sibelius’ music to announce such transformations and celebrate them.)

Tom calls his final stanza, “enigmatic” – but Tom, I want you to know that for me, it rang – it glowed – with clarity. In it, I hear the endless silence of the Seventh Symphony’s post-conclusion. I see the composer letting go of his final spell, not yet fully cast, and receding back into his mysterious wellspring of creation. His book of creation purposefully destroyed, yet his music –  the ancestral DNA of the Eighth Symphony, still alive, soaring in the clouds and waves of its predecessors, flowing unhurried as time. Desolation, “logical collapse”, the final breaths of Tapiola, the Fourth Symphony.  The final image, the great swans of his Fifth Symphony, gathering on the lost lake, invokes the nostalgia and heartache Sibelius spoke of in the birth of this symphony.  They settle gently in the still waters, knowingly, paying silent homage.

 

Sibelius’ Farewell: Ossia – Prospero’s Epilogue from The Tempest

I’ve finally completed my second music video. Sibelius of course. Like my first little experiment, it deliberately highlights a lesser-known work, from the very end of Sibelius’ incidental music for The Tempest, Op.109. This little project has been in my head for more than half a year, and I’m relieved that it is done.

In Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest (1610-1611), the great magician Prospero steps out once more after the tale is done, to speak to the audience. His famous Epilogue is often interpreted as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the world of drama, The Tempest being his last play. Prospero beseeches the audience to set him free of his obligations, and allow him to retire his magic. If he clings on to the art, his ending would be despair. Think Spiderman, “With great power…”
Continue reading Sibelius’ Farewell: Ossia – Prospero’s Epilogue from The Tempest

Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

In September 2009, in a fit of inspiration, I decided to make a video – make that music video – of one of my favourite unknown pieces of Sibelius, which up till then has never had any presence on Youtube.

Continue reading Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name