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.”

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.