Five Windows on Winter (2019)

Hedi Viisma, chromatic kantele, string orchestra cond. Nils Schweckendiek

solo chromatic kantele, strings (min. 33221)
26 min.

I’ve long had an attraction to winter as a subject for art. It’s my favorite season, fondly remembered from my Canadian childhood, one I sought out again quite deliberately in moving to Finland. I’ve spent years thinking and reading about winter, its symbols and significance, its music, and the philosophical ponderings it engenders. I have “a mind of winter”, in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens. So when I sat down to write a concertante piece for the kantele, whose sound Hedi Viisma describes as “the essence of winter”, the theme was an obvious choice.

The title and five-part form were neatly supplied by Adam Gopnik’s 2011 essay collection Winter: Five Windows on the Season. It wasn’t my specific aim to describe in narrative form the ideas explored in Gopnik’s book, which is about how society constructs, understands and experiences winter, although I did find much to think about in his writings. Starting from his pithy chapter titles, I simply let sound images flow that felt like winter as distilled through those words, and gathered the resulting fragments and visions into a whole. The resulting piece isn’t so much a concerto as a suite, casting the kantele in as many different lights as possible within each brief movement, as well as constantly varying its relationship to the small string orchestra that provides the “scenery”.

The first movement, Romantic, refers to the intentionally naïve, picturesque quality of the music – like a fantasy sleigh ride – and also to the way we tend to romanticize winter while insulating ourselves from it, enjoying the season at a safe, warm distance. Radical comes from the opposite pole (as it were), winter encountered head-on: dark, harsh, and unbearably empty, yet quietly thrilling. The next two vignettes are also paired, with Renewal offering up a joyous quodlibet, with many songs and time periods thrown together in haphazard fashion, like a holiday feast. Recreation takes to the snows in an athletic, dancing whirl of activity, with nothing but enjoyment in mind. Remembering is a bittersweet elegy for the end of winter in the cyclical, seasonal sense, as the gaze turns outward again to the coming of spring. It is also a quiet requiem in our current time, bearing witness as winter slowly fades from human experience and memory.

Five Windows on Winter is dedicated to Hedi Viisma, who commissioned it with the support of the Sibelius Fund.