Karelia: Land of Inspiration

It is now almost one year since I visited Karelia in Finland. The following is a reminiscence, before I once again travel to Finland for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Jean Sibelius’s birth.

For someone like me coming from a small, heavily urbanized and developed country like Singapore, our perception of a forest can perhaps be quite limited. I think we take for granted that the trees planted all around us in the city are “enough”. They are not a bad thing, but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the way we sculpt forests within the confines of our buildings and roads.  There is something too neat about it. Some trees in Singapore’s urban landscape are very old, for sure, and I wonder if they have always stood there, the roads being built around them to preserve them. Other trees – the newer ones, are obviously planted to follow the roads. And now we have the Gardens by the Bay, the  most gardened of gardens, with “Supertree” sculptures meant to emulate the majesty of real trees. But I’m sorry to say: I am not impressed. A tree is not merely a sight by the road to see from behind car windows, or conveniently placed to provide you shade and beautify your surroundings. Trees are life itself. Mankind can try to sculpt nature, but he would do best to  allow nature to sculpt herself.

It was the day after my first visit to Ainola on this Summer 2014 trip, and I woke up early in Kallio-Kuninkula, former home of Eva Sibelius and now a musical venue for the Sibelius Academy, to pack for the next part of my journey: a full-day’s train and bus ride to Lieksa, in Northern Karelia. After breakfast, we departed and walked to Kyrölä station, which as of this writing has now been renamed the Ainola station. But for now we are not going to Ainola.

Treeline on the way to Karelia

The train journey was long. In between trying to take some pictures of this remote part of Eastern Finland, walking to the cafe carriage of the train to buy a orange juice and struggling with my big luggage case, I dropped my camera. The Hoya filter did its job, sacrificing itself to break the fall. My heart definitely skipped a beat. Luckily I had a spare lens, but it was a little worrisome at that point.

We disembarked from the train at Joensuu in Eastern Finland to take a bus to Lieksa, further north. While we waited in the freezing cold wind – this was the coldest on my trip so far, a Somali woman asked us for directions, first in Finnish, then in English. It seemed quite strange to me to see a Somali woman in this windy cold day in Finland, asking me for directions in Finland. She was a little lost herself, but seemed more at home with the language than I was.

In the learning years of my music-listening, before the years of the Flying Inkpot, all I possessed with which to imagine these foreign lands and cultures that  all these non-Asian composers come from were pictures in books and pictures on record covers. They were always different and untouchable, even if the music connected us. In the early years when I championed Sibelius on the internet, online images provided a bit more variety that I could curate. For years all I knew of Finland were images of their quintessential lakes, forests and little tree-studded islands. Beyond looking at the pictures, I could only listen to Sibelius, and somehow try to make the connection.

The bus finally came while I sat in an empty lobby trying unsuccessfully to detach the broken filter on my camera, trying to ascertain if the lens itself was damaged. We boarded the bus in the frigid wind and settled down for the ride to Lieksa where we were greeted by two more of my good hosts for this trip, Paula and her sister Kikki (Andrew’s wife). Paula drove us to her cottage by Lake Pielinen.

On this cloudy, cold and grey day, I met Karelia for the first time in real life.

Pielinen in grey

Melancholy and distant Karelia.

Pielinen in grey2

Silent and poignant Karelia.

To my relief, my lens was intact. Only the Hoya filter was cracked beyond repair. The camera worked fine. I was given a choice to spend the night in a small sideroom by the sauna, which would be heated naturally by the sauna; or I could sleep in the new cabin, which is not heated. Admittedly, I chose the new cabin because it seemed a little more spacious and neater. The night was cold and I woke up with a slight headache from it,  but it seemed tolerable.

Karelia dawn

I was up at 5.25am to try to catch the sunrise. I sat on a rock by the lake, but the sun never really appeared. It simply went from dull grey to light grey, with a glow on the horizon that never quite blossomed. I guess I must have missed it or the sun rose into the thickness of the clouds, without sunburst. The Sunday was spent in a leisurely manner, breakfast, followed by a break. Then a walk in the woods where I was shown the spring from which water was sourced for everyday use, including drinking and cooking. The water is remarkably fresh and delicious. When you drink this water, you will understand how altered tap water is.

Sibelius’s music is likewise, remarkably honest. It has a purity that is on the one hand difficult for many people to appreciate because so many of us are used to the “altered” and embellished music of other masters. Which is not to say they are inferior or overcooked. It’s just that, once in a while, you need to take away the excessive sweetness, the adulterated additives or the chemical neutralizers, to remind yourself – or sometimes to inform yourself for the first time – the sound and taste of purity.

These days, we are used to seeing pictures of beautiful National Geographic-esque, pretty (or prettified) landscapes on the internet. They are a dime a dozen. Even your friends post pictures from their vacations, inciting a mixture of marvel and envy. For me, pictures of Finland and especially Karelia have always been just pictures. Pictures in jpeg format that I decorate my reviews with, to give flavour to my writings about Sibelius, and also as soothing eye candy for the word-weary reader.

But today, it was different. Today, an image on the internet became reality for me. The jpeg was not something I downloaded, but something I was going to see for myself and as a bonus to capture in my camera. At about 5 o’clock in the evening, after a 4-hour walk in the forest and hills nearby, Andrew and I were resting in the cottage when Paula came by and from outside, hollered for us to come out. In her wonderfully dry, minimalistically Finnish and godmotherly fashion, she uttered, quite simply, “Come out. The sun has come out.”

What I beheld took all my breath away. The entirety of it all had transformed. The whole world before me sang Sibelius.

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The First Symphony, the Third Symphony, the Karelia Ballade – it was all coming from the landscape.

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And beyond or perhaps before all that music the immense, immense and soul-searching silence.

Karelian sunset

For one entire year, back home in Singapore, I could not figure out how to repay my hosts for this privilege of being here. I wanted to express my gratitude, beyond ordinary ways of thanks and gifts, but there was simply nothing to match the gift of Finland that I had received. I am forever grateful to Andrew, for all his knowledge and his generosity in making my Finnish trips work out; for Kikki, his wife, her unassuming joy and warm friendship – which has kept us connected all this time. That one photo she shared online with which I commented, “Bring me there someday!” and it really happened. And last but not least, Paula, her sister who has connected me spiritually to the forests and to the Finnish soul, by way of Sibelius. I sometimes wonder at how to explain it, but I always feel additionally indebted to her. In part for nothing less than this opportunity to stay at her Karelian cottage.

And so, this year, I decided finally, that the only gift worthy of Karelia is Karelia itself. I sent a number of photographs from my 2014 trip for printing and gave these to Paula. Judging by her emotional reaction, it seems my choice is right, if I may say so. I told her, it seems to me that it’s strange to give you photos of a place that is your home that you already “have”. But I hope that the photos can represent a moment in time which I’ve managed to capture, and give that moment to her as a gift. A  moment in her very own land, a land of music and inspiration, a moment in the music, in the homeland of Jean Sibelius.
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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.

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.

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.

For the coming generations – the birth of a national composer

Siitäpä nyt tie menevi, ura uusi urkenevi.

“From here today the path is going, a bright new star the way is showing.”

Thus were these words written on a celebratory wreath presented to Sibelius by the eminent conductor and his close friend, Robert Kajanus, on the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, in 1892.

Sibelius was born in a Finland that had yet to fully call itself a nation. At that time, it was part of the Russian empire. His coming was timely, for the yearning for independence would soon need a voice, the hand of a great composer and the song that would awaken Finland.

The fact is, the Finnish people have never had a lack of tradition nor culture – at that time it was, perhaps, simply not given the chance to shine. A few decades before Sibelius’ birth, Elias Lönnrot had compiled the Kalevala, the single greatest collection of Finnish ancient literature – a gathering of epic poetry from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology, which has played an enormous role in the rebirth of Finnish national identity.

When Sibelius met Kajanus in Berlin, he heard the premiere of the latter’s Aino Symphony, also based on the Kalevala. Elliot Arnold eloquently describes Sibelius’ reaction in his book “Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius”:

“It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for Sibelius. He sat in the great music hall and something awakened in his soul. He was in Berlin, yes, but listening to that music he was again tramping in the forest lands of his beautiful Finland, was again standing at the edge of a lake seeing the setting sun redden the water.

The music stirred him like nothing else he had ever heard. It seemed as though the very roots of his being were being summoned to life, as though everything that had gone into him, in his blood and his body and his heart and his brain, were awakened from a slumber.”

Finland awakes.

“No music had ever done this to him. Nothing had ever before touched the racial stream that now tore through his veins. He wanted to scream. His skin tingled. Tears filled his eyes. This was Finland and this was music.

He met Kajanus and breathed his appreciation. He tried to explain this new excitement, this home-love, this patriotism he had never known before. He knew he was a Finn. He knew he had to say things that only a Finn could say. He felt a wild love for Finland which was built on something infinitely more vast than love of landscape.”

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Kullervo caused a stir. Granted, not everyone in the audience was impressed nor understood what this new work was doing. It was big, it was brazen and it was loud. It had a choir, a male chorus singing about snow and blue socks, seduction and shame, abject tragedy, the grim disdain of a sword and ultimately, heart-rending death. Above all though, it had the sounds and rhythms of Finnish runes. Whether the audience realized or admitted it, there was a latent sense of familiarity. When Kajanus presented the wreath to Sibelius, the audience seemed to realize…

This is their sound.

A Japanese composer once said, “I wish to evoke the melodies not yet sung but which dwells in us, the Japanese people. ” By adopting rhythms and modes from Japanese poetry and  music, “I intend to reveal our collective unconscious as a nation.” (Akira Ifukube)

The audience cheered. Over the course of the next 30 years or so after Kullervo, that was what Sibelius did for the Finnish musical psyche. With the poetry of the Kalevala compiled, words from the landscape, Finland now had a new musical champion who would go on to evoke melodies not yet sung as a nation.

While musicians like Kajanus had already begun writing such melodies, Sibelius went deeper. Cultural identity goes even further than words, runes and heroes. One universal quality of any cultural mythology is a connection to the natural universe. From creation myths to magic blessings, nature is a vital force of power, inspiration and conviction. As I have written about concerning Tapiola – Sibelius’ music is not so much about man’s perception of, or his feelings about nature, but man’s place within the vastness of nature. We are but tiny tiny beings within her great inexplicable beauty.

It is a nature that would inspire Sibelius throughout life, from the time he tried to match piano tones to the colours of the stripes under his mother’s square piano, to transcribing the smell of drying hemp and flax into music; he distilled Finland’s snow and lakes into symphonies, cast the text of the Kalevala into song, and bade orchestras intone the voice of forest gods. It seems Sibelius did not so much see the world as a painting, with eyes; but he saw the world as a symphony, with his ears.  Finland became his orchestra and stage, and the world began to listen to her.

One hundred and forty-six years ago today on December 8, 1865,  Jean Sibelius was born. Along with Lönnrot, Kajanus and many others, their birth would shape the rebirth of Finland. On December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence.

Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument - photo by Daniel Aragay (proteusbcn, Flickr)

….Be not thus, my worthy people,
Blame me not for singing badly,
Unpretending as a minstrel.
I have never had the teaching,
Never lived with ancient heroes,
Never learned the tongues of strangers,
Never claimed to know much wisdom.
Others have had language-masters,
Nature was my only teacher,
Woods and waters my instructors.
Homeless, friendless, lone and needy,
Save in childhood with my mother,
When beneath her painted rafters,
Where she twirled the flying spindle,
By the work-bench of my sister,
In the cabin of my father,
In my early days of childhood.

Be this as it may, my people,
This may point the way to others,
To the singers better gifted,
For the good of future ages,
For the coming generations,
For the rising folk of Suomi*.

The Kalevala – Epilogue (trans. John Martin Crawford)

*Suomi is Finnish for Finland

 

Kullervo

Symphonic Poem for Soprano, Baritone, Male Chorus and Orchestra, Op.7

An Inktroduction by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™

Sibelius in 1920

Imagine for a moment you live in a country completely unknown for any significant, original musical culture other than, say, an ancient heritage comprising folksongs passed down through the ages. Then suddenly, within some humble concert hall, a local composer conducts a work which somehow creates a single spark of cultural identity which flares and explodes an entire nation’s soul into the being of cultural self-awareness. Continue reading Kullervo