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.

Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

When Jean Sibelius and Aino Järnefelt first chanced upon each other, their eyes locked for so long that she faltered. He was visiting her family flat in Helsinki and was providing, with her brother Armas, musical accompaniment to a pantomime being put up by the ladies of the house. So intense was Jean’s blue-eyed gaze that Aino could not go on with her part. Thus began the relationship of “the prettiest girl in Finland” and her greatest composer. Continue reading Jean and Aino: In the very trees of Ainola

Coronation and Conferment

I walk into HMV after a long absence, and I see not one but two Sibelius CDs classifiable under the “Unusual But Not Earthshaking (Semi-)World-Premiere Stuff from BIS/Ondine/Finlandia”. It didn’t take me long to decide to try them.

On this beautiful Ondine production is an amiable concert programme consisting of an “overture”, the Academic March, two large-scale cantatas, a short but heavenly interlude, and a rousing conclusion. The menu is unusual, and the pleasure derived great. Continue reading Coronation and Conferment

Early Sibelius is still Sibelius

Sibelius’ early works (pre-Kullervo/1892) remain largely unfamiliar to the public. The reason for this, and why the works in Ondine’s survey of Sibelius’ early chamber works include many world premiere recordings is because until 1982, the Sibelius family estate forbade the performance and publication of the music. (Sibelius himself, self-critical as always, would have been happy about this, I think). But now, the music has been donated to the Helsinki University Library, and has been mostly published by Fazer Music, Finland.
Continue reading Early Sibelius is still Sibelius