Hiljaisuus puhuu (Silence speaks) 2022

Helsinki Variations

4444(2 Cbsn) 6441 13 2Hp strings (16-14-12-10-8)

Täällä Ainolassa tämä hiljaisuus puhuu. (Here at Ainola this silence speaks.)

Jean Sibelius, on life at his Finnish country home (radio interview, 1948)

Asked for a work on a Finnish theme, I turned to choral music, a genre that embodies for me both the personal and the communal, the intimate and the shared. Having performed most of Jean Sibelius’s choral oeuvre myself, the work that remains my favorite is the modest Christmas song Nyt seimelle pienoisen lapsen (“Now to the little child’s manger”), with its gently asymmetrical rhythms and Dorian modality.

This source material is sampled, remixed, looped and time-stretched into an ambient soundscape of tone clusters, chiming chords and occasionally growling noise. “Silence” is present as a quiet mass of strings, hovering immobile throughout, over which ideas are sketched, held up to the light and allowed to sink back into the mist. The orchestra is enormous, but is used for depth of sound rather than volume. While I rarely state explicit technical goals, I set myself the challenge of only using the pitches in the original song, with the result that much of the piece consists of “white” notes.

I’d originally had a bright tone in mind, which remains to a great degree. But the intervening pandemic years made me consider many different silences: the silence of solitude, of winters in isolation; the silence of creative drought; the angry, forced silence of the arts, of the singing voice; of political indifference and protest; the silence of grief and loss, and the comforting silence of togetherness. All these silences are eventually subsumed in a final surge of light – a kind of rebirth.

Hiljaisuus puhuu was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as part of its “Helsinki Variations” series, and is dedicated to its conductor, Susanna Mälkki.