‘Each Composition’s Own DNA’
Of course, I would come calling with questions just as the man is trying to put Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex on its feet at Croatia’s Rijecka Opera House — opening Friday if you’re in the area.
But composer Ville Matvejeff, among the busiest conductors and composers today, was gracious to a fault in handling our interview for the new Alba Records release of his gripping works Ad Astra and Crossroads.
Matvejeff and I began our conversation with his gruelling travel schedule. I wondered about this 29-year-old Finn’s relationship with his famously musical homeland.
Ad Astra: ‘An extremely intense process’
Thought Catalog: Ville, are you based in Helsinki when not traveling? And are you ever not traveling?
Ville Matvejeff: Yes, I’m based in Helsinki, although I’m most of the time traveling to or from somewhere and my time at home is rather limited — less than half of the year. In the summertime I prefer to retreat to my family’s summer house in the Northern Karelia where I love to compose, so I’m really not spending that much time at all in Helsinki. On the other hand, I feel it’s important to have a base there — every one of us needs a place one can call home, and ever more so when one travels extensive amounts.
TC: In your album notes for your composition, Ad Astra, you write very movingly about the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting of the same name. You write: “I was walking round the Gyllenberg Art Museum in Helsinki when my eye was caught by a painting above one of the archways: a naked young woman with golden hair gazing into the heights.” We know that Gallen-Kallela saw this painting as a resurrection. In your bracing, expansive work, are we hearing an expression of personal resurrection for you?
VM: I could say that there are always some personal motives and reasons for writing certain type of music, but I prefer not to refer to them too much, as I feel they’re my private matters. Maybe biographers and researchers can try to connect these points after I’ve left this world, but I think it’s my own world and, on the other hand, the music shall always speak for itself.
Also, I feel that even if I had some personal thoughts or experiences behind some music, and as much as the audience might want to hear about them, it might limit too much the listener’s evolving relationship to the piece — each one of us can experience the musical visions and the expressions it creates in very different ways.
But it is of course clear that, as Gallen-Kallela himself states about his painting with the same title, the theme of resurrection — whether referring to Christ or a personal resurrection — has been of great inspiration while writing this piece. On the other hand, I would say that as a composer, completion of each piece somehow symbolizes a process of resurrection as creating a new piece is always an extremely intense process with lots of “sweat and tears.”
TC: Yes, it’s easy for many authors who read Music for Writers, of course, to identify with the creation of such work as wrenching — a resurrection of sorts at the end of a that intense struggle. Well said. Does the Ad Astra have any programmatic concept to it? Does the wonderful, foreboding opening, for example — with so much menacing sound in the bassoon and bass — start us in the depths of an experience of suffering, to then be transfigured?
VM: I was thinking about certain metaphors while writing Ad Astra: Firstly, the transfiguration from dark colours to bright ones, from profound soundscapes to luminosity. Secondly, the certain type of mysticism as well as audio-visual impressions related to certain moments of an Orthodox Easter Mass. I’ve even included and rewritten some generic, imaginative fragments of Byzantine melodies typically sung in those worships. And thirdly, the painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
However, eventually these metaphors and sources of inspiration lay in the background as they only set the frame for my work, and as I start writing, the piece itself usually always starts to tell me how it organically wants to develop, and I feel it’s very important to follow each new composition’s own DNA.
Therefore, there’s not that much of a programmatic concept in the ending result. You could rather call it a collage of different programmatic or non-programmatic elements that eventually, through the writing process, blend into a larger entity that eventually becomes the piece. Of course, in vocal or stage music with text, the case of programmatic presence might and usually will be different.
TC: I love the sense of the sea — of water — that the Gallen-Kallela painting includes, of course. Such a deep, rolling power. Was this present at all in your own internal sense of the work as you developed the piece?
VM: Thank you very much! Funnily enough, I often tend to think that music as material is very much reminiscent of water. Not only in terms of whether the water is polluted — or whether the music is played in a clean and precise way — but also in terms of how it is, as material, very fluid and vivid, always in a transformation process and when in free motion, it never stays in one place for a second.
On the other hand, it is so many-layered as it can freeze or evaporate. Also, conducting an orchestra often times feels can feel similar to riding a boat in the water: one has to anticipate the movement and direction of the boat and take into account the conditions, currents and winds that eventually set the course for your sails.
TC: How early in the process of creating something of this breadth do you find melodic elements? There’s so much wonderment and spaciousness in your Ad Astra, I sense that the concept arrived very complete in your mind?
VM: I would say that whether it is melodic material, an idea of a soundscape, an architectural vision for a piece or certain harmonic or rhythmic patterns, all these elements tend to grow quite organically and simultaneously into my works. But you’re right that in the case of Ad Astra, the aforementioned elements found their way to the piece after these larger, sometimes even extra-musical visions I had while I was planning this composition.
Crossroads: ‘To Endure the Muscular Challenges’
TC: Let’s talk about your fine Crossroads concerto. Your line, “Fantasy in Heavy Style for Cello and Orchestra,” is a wonderful phrase for this. And yes, what a workout for your cellist! I’m reminded of interviewing cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, for Music for Writers, and he talked of how exhausting some work for cello is — leaving with his “arm in a sling,” as it were.
VM: Oh yes, Crossroads really sets the cellist in front of a stamina-demanding mission. While I was working on this piece with the marvellous cellist, Tuomas Lehto — currently principal cellist at Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra — we were discussing lots about the stamina and technical limits of the cello, and he encouraged me to write something very energetic and demanding. I also feel, that when the musician is given a task that actually creates positive type of energy, it’s easier to endure the muscular challenges and workout aspects it might contain — and eventually you don’t feel tired after the workout.
TC: As dark as it is, I do love this main melody that enters the piece near the end of the fourth minute. How directly are you quoting from Apocalyptica’s work?
VM: What you could say, is that certain comps I wrote for the strings might refer to several ones typical for heavy metal music, but I’m not really quoting Apocalyptica or any other group in this piece. The melody you mention actually grows from the main theme’s motive material which the cello introduces in it’s first long cadenza.
TC: And per your notes, what is this Finnish fondness for so much “heavy-going” and “gloomy keys” in popular music? Having worked so closely with the idiom for this great composition, do you have any ideas of what is behind the melancholy and bleak-sounding world for so much of that kind of music? — did you get any closer to answering the question?
VM:It still remains to me somewhat mysterious why so much of the music written in Finland is set in minor keys. In the Finnish epic, Kalevala they say that “music is made from grief, moulded from sorrow.” But there is certainly something heavy and gloomy about the Finnish characteristics — we have slightly dark sense of humor, and we’re used to joking about the darkness of the winters and the fact that your closest neighbour might live just a few kilometers away. This, alongside with the harsh climate conditions and close relationship with the nature with all its mystical elements, has certainly shaped the Finnish mindset quite a lot, at least this is how I feel about it.
‘Everything One Writes Is Always Very Useful’
TC: You mention this piece taking a while for the “seeds” to “germinate.” What is a more characteristic amount of time for a piece to form in your mind? Once you have an idea, do you normally work on it entirely, or on other pieces at the same time? As “Music for Writers” is aimed at authors who find so much support for their work in such contemporary classical music as yours, this is always an interesting question — some of our authors keep several books under way at once, while others can write only one book at a time.
VM: Sometimes it may take years to develop a concept you have in mind into complete music, sometimes the work just flows into your mind in a perfect and complete form with all its notes and it’s just a matter of weeks or even days to write it down on paper. Also, it is very common to have several works in progress simultaneously. Some of them will eternally remain “works in progress”, but nevertheless, everything one writes is always very useful in order to develop your thinking and writing techniques. Sometimes you get an idea of a new work while writing another.
TC: Can you tell us something of what you’re working on next? And does piano performance still play a role in your work, or has composition and conducting overtaken your career primarily?
VM: Currently, in the composition field, I’m working on a new horn concerto, to be premiered in September 2015, as well as a work for chorus and baroque orchestra to be premiered at the end of this year. I have also several other symphonic and choral commissions for the next few years to come.
For the moment, my main work is conducting, as in addition to my growing amount of guest conducting around the world, I am currently the chief conductor of Jyväskylä Sinfonia and principal guest conductor and music advisor of the Croatian National Opera in Rijeka.
Artistic planning also plays an important role in my activities as the artistic director of Turku Music Festival, the most prestigious classical music festival in Finland (from 2016 on) and New Generation Opera, a cutting-edge opera platform I founded in 2013. But I’m trying to devote at least two to three months a year for composition, as I feel it is in the heart of my personality as a musician, and I look forward to devoting more and more time to composing in the future.
I’m also active as a pianist, mostly leading an orchestra from the piano as a soloist or playing continuo in opera. I’m especially happy of my lied partnership with Karita Mattila, which has taken us to perform at such wonderful venues as Wigmore Hall in London and Salle Pleyel in Paris.
‘To develop your thinking and writing techniques’
And when we’re lucky enough to have such an articulate soul on the other end of an interview session, there’s very little further commentary needed.
The Finns have produced some of the most influential and richly perceptive composers in the canon. Two we hear from frequently at Q2 Music are Einojuhani Rautavaara and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Nevertheless, the symphonic and choral voices of these artists just keep stopping the musical world in its tracks.
Included on this album with the Matvejeff compositions is Jukka Linkola’s First Piano Concerto: The Masquerade, which I also commend to you. More of our #MusicForWriters pieces are here, in case you’d like to get in touch with more music that’s especially nourishing for your own creativity.
May you, as Matvejeff has told us the cellist Tuomas Lehto requested, “write something energetic and demanding.”