Kullervo may be the darkest story from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. This tale of murder, revenge, rejection, ill magic, incest, and suicide is captured in a gripping Akseli Gallen-Kallela painting hanging in the Ateneum. Kullervo curses the sky and lives in a feedback loop of anger, bitterness, and bad fortune. Kullervo is an orphan child with the world turned against him. His magical powers are used to bring revenge and never lead to any good or peace. Eventually he finds his lost parents but accidentally sleeps with his sister who then drowns herself. He curses himself, his birth, the world, and life. He is imprisoned to his tragic fate – his life and efforts can only take one path.
O my mother, O my bearer!
If at my birth you had only
Filled the sauna full of smoke;
Or had killed me two nights old,
Taken me straight to the water,
Drowned me in mosquito netting,
Wrapped up in a rag of homespun
Flung the rocker in the fire,
Shoved the cradle in the fireplace.
I viewed the painting during my first visit to Helsinki in October 2017 and was instantly struck by the angst, urgency, and vibrant energy of Kullervo’s painful cry captured in Gallen-Kallela’s painting. The idea for a piece of music came in the form of a dark, almost violent duet for two bass clarinets and electronics. I imagined a piece that builds towards a rabid and primal utterance. I’ve always loved the rich and resonant low register of the clarinet, which provides the earthy foundation of Kullervo’s self destructive energy. The piece rises towards a strained high register climax – a barbaric scream of sorts.
My earliest vision for the piece included a soft high register tapestry of dissonance in an electronic part. I wanted to create a cycle of pitches in a stretched out and abstract passacaglia. The idea of circular pitches (D, Bb, B, F#, G, D) reflects the imprisoned feedback of bitter anger and creates an eerie ambiance. Electronic music is an unknown territory in my music. My younger inclinations lead me away from electronic music courses. Now I wish I had that background as I am often inclined to enlarge the sound world of my music beyond the acoustic. I’ve designed some larger future projects with electronics in mind and needed a smaller project or two to get started. In this case I recorded my pitch collection with long tones on the flute, violin, and piano. I manipulated isolated pitches in Audacity and then mixed everything in Logic Pro. The fixed media part is quite narrow in scope but has rich and subtle detail embedded in the slowly evolving texture. The electronic part is separate from the bass clarinet duet so I only created three separate sections triggered during the performance to help keep things on track. While I have barely scratched the surface of what is possible, my electronic part is quite accurate to what I originally imagined. The bass clarinets are also amplified with a touch of artificial reverb to help their sound blend with the fixed media part.
My piece runs about ten minutes and is quite a blow for two strong players. Dan Silver and Conor Brown have risen to the occasion with many conversations about fingering the notes that lie at extreme registers. The piece is grim from beginning to end and falls a bit outside my normal aesthetic. Lots of canons and fast rising lines drive things forward. There is a heavy dose of dissonance with low register seconds and sevenths. I like that the project feels a bit risky. The electronics require me to sit at the laptop and soundboard taking an active part in the performance. This is a new role for me and one that keeps me from listening at a distance.
Kullervo Cursing will be premiered tonight at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. The University of Colorado, College of Music is cultivating a relationship with the Sibelius Academy. I have traveled with the Ajax Quartet, Conor Brown, Alicia Baker, and Dan Silver to present a Colorado concert of Finnish inspired music. I’m delighted to see this piece come to life and hope to find a nice venue for an American debut before long.