by LM blog contributor Trever Hagen
As a Finnish violinist who spent time in his youth in the United States, Pekka Kuusisto is a mobile musical personality that is difficult to pin down. To be sure, his proficiency as a conductor, performer and composer is a family affair: his grandfather was composer and organist Taneli Kuusisto, his father is the Finnish composer and conductor Ilkka Kuusisto, and his brother is the acclaimed conductor Jaakko Kuusisto. As a child, Pekka began playing violin at the age of 3, crafting his fluency in the intricate depth of Bach as well as exploring the world of improvisation. Combining these twin pillars of musical approaches, Pekka has carved out a distinct voice (or force, I should say) in contemporary music.
Kuusisto brings these talents to the Twin Cities as an Artistic Partner of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, warmly introducing listeners to new compositions by 21st century composers in addition to the ageless beauty of the classical cannon. This progressive programming is on full display January 17– 20 when Pekka returns to direct the SPCO. Unfortunately for the ears of Twin Cities, an arm injury will prevent Pekka from picking up the violin but not the baton. The program begins and ends with Beethoven—in between we hear Grammy-nominated Missy Mazzoli’s string quartet piece You Know Me From Here and Peruvian-born, Finnish-trained, American-based composer Jimmy López’s Guardian of the Horizon. Such programming evidences the complexity of Kuusisto’s and the SPCO’s intention to bring new sounds, new approaches and new canons to audiences in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In December, we sat down together to discuss his involvement with the SPCO. Right away we get deep into talking about the most innovative musicians and festivals in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Kuusisto’s comments and enthusiasm reveal a curious mind of depth and breadth; someone who puts his attention to the task at hand regardless of his relentless schedule of performance. Quickly our conversation turns from musical voices toward social questions of belonging, nation, music and history. As two white men sitting across a table from each other, the energy is familiar. It makes me think about the social situations we are drawn to, comfort zones of information we reside in, both offline and online. It makes me wonder about the duty we have as we age, to continue refreshing the perspectives that we grew up with. How might music aid in these efforts? What is music’s role in these relationships?
In this open context of communication, we explore topics of Finnish-ness, privilege, class, race and language. In particular we discuss how people belong—to canons, to nations, to groups, manners of exclusion/inclusion, and how history is written.
Trever Hagen: As much as English is our national tongue, it is certainly not a mother tongue for many people in the U.S. How does language and nationality feel for you and your self-perception?
Pekka Kuusisto: Finland is so small, about 5.5 million people—it is more of a club than a country. Finland has been incredibly white for such a long time—longer than Sweden I think or Norway. Now we have a generation with different kinds of skin colors who are born in Finland. I read a lot about the experience of people with different skin tone. Like people not believing you are born in Finland. People believing you are not Finnish even of you are born there and speak Finnish perfectly. We can do better.
Have you encountered these mechanisms of exclusion—like language or appearance—in music?
The further back you go in classical music, the more difficult it is to find scores written by women for many reasons. That is why in contemporary music, the situation is much better. It is fantastic in comparison. One thing that I find somehow important when we are speaking about composers: to try to avoid talking about “female composers” and then just “composers”. That happens all the time back home—“female conductors,” since there is so much male dominance. Although, Finland was the first country to give voting rights to women and the first country to have female parliamentarians. And this was a hundred years ago.
It is interesting that in the West we might all perceive ourselves as being on the same page or developing at a similar rate. But this is such a striking example of how countries differ across time.
Yeah, we (Finns) were kind of like world leaders.
To this day these countries in Scandinavia are leaders or at least provide models of society for other countries. Are you trying to communicate any perspective, like a progressive Finnish perspective, at all with your music?
I don’t want to make a Finnish concert or a Finnish piece. I would try to erase as much of that as possible. It shouldn’t feel like something nice that I am bringing from home. I’m a white guy from a country that is very wealthy and we have things that we take for granted that seem like absolute miracles—impossibilities for most of the world I imagine, or most of the people in world. Like, I went to music school for free in Finland. I studied at the University for nothing. I had a baby and it cost us only $150. If I’m at home and I get cancer, it won’t cost me to go to the hospital.
We talked about the Sami musical traditions and about not wanting to bring in any of Finnish traditions to a performance—music on one hand can help us erase boundaries and on the other it can be used to enforce or understand who a people are. So where might music fit into this equation?
I was in a professional string quartet some years ago. I have spent enough time improvising—from when I was 3, I started—and improvised music has always been present for me and this is not always typical in classical violin playing. Actually it is quite rare. It gave me a language—I encountered all these sounds that no one could ever compose. The sounds that you know are only yours then start to bleed into other people’s music when you play. So you develop a language. I have quite a clear sound. I know that people who have heard my playing recognize it when they hear it again. There is something that tells them: “This is the Finnish guy.” When I went into this professional quartet, my aim was to erase all of that as much as possible—my voice. To become like a blank player in order to then be able to rebuild together with the 3 other people. It didn’t work out at all because we all had very different ideas of how building a quartet language happens. So it didn’t happen but I still thought that my idea was good: if not for a quartet then as an exercise to make yourself invisible. This is something I talk a lot about with my musician friends: the amount of yourself you put into your performances and is it even possible for you to see or gauge how much you are doing it? What kind of perspective-enhancing drugs do you need to be able to distance yourself from something you have done since you were a kid? It is complicated, but maybe that is what I would like to accomplish here. To kind of not bring the part of me that always plays Finnish folk songs. Or uses the bow in way that trad-Finnish fiddlers would use. Or to even talk about Finland because I talk about Finland constantly.
As our conversation drew to close, Kuusisto’s musical attempt at erasing identity within a string quartet reminds me of the challenges we face as groups of people living together in 2019. It reveals how, even in a musical situation, it is difficult to let go of identities even when there is a language, such as music, to try out these ideas. But this difficultly shouldn’t put off anyone – these musical intentions and gestures are experiments to move our societies forward. If the stage acts like a laboratory, then the arts are the ingredients for change and growth. For these reasons, having a program that brings together the history of humanity (e.g., Beethoven’s canonical compositions) along with the future of humanity (e.g., new compositions) is not only a unique musical experience, it is a bold roadmap stated in a radically open manner.