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.

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.

Dust of Hue

You might be wondering what does the name of this blog mean. The phrase “dust of hue” comes from a quote from Jean Sibelius. It goes:

If someone writes about my music and finds, let us say, a feeling of nature in it, all well and good. Let him say that, as long as we have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music’s innermost sound and sense through analysis … Compositions are like butterflies. Touch them even once and the dust of hue is gone. They can, of course, still fly, but are nowhere as beautiful …

Continue reading Dust of Hue

Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony

ONE MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night, I put on a CD of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and shut off all the lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen. Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius’ last completed symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy. So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious. In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes, and have called them as such.

Continue reading Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony