Artistic Vision: Johan Tallgren's search for new perspectives

Time of Music's artistic director Johan Tallgren doesn't want to rehash the past: “Running a contemporary music festival is psychologically challenging”.

Held in Viitasaari, Time of Music is Finland’s only annual festival exclusively concentrating on contemporary music. Experimentation, an element of surprise and showcasing new music are just some of the things expected of the festival. Art directing this type of festival must be a composer’s dream come true.

Artistic director Johan Tallgren has a more mundane perspective on the issue.

“I just returned from a work trip to Toronto. At home, I discovered my bookshelf had collapsed. The work of a festival director is filled with these kinds of events, it’s like constantly putting out small fires,” Tallgren says.

“Some fires are burning right as we speak.”

The July festival marks Tallgren’s fifth one as artistic director. Before taking on this job, he was artistic director of the biennial Musica Nova festival in Helsinki, while also acting as an adviser for Helsinki Festival.

Tallgren’s ten-year stint of festival organising comprises around 220 concerts. Despite this, he wouldn’t use words such as “routine”.

“I was surprised by the fact that you can’t duplicate your old working methods. The same goes for composing: no one can bear self-repetition for long, you need new perspectives.”

Back catalogue filling slowly

Festival organising is such an all-consuming task that Tallgren has had to put composing on the back burner. He has not released any new music in the last few years.

“I spent more than a decade abroad, and during that time, my music did not get a lot of attention in Finland. When I returned to Finland, I started to work for Musica Nova. Also, I was somewhat surprised by how much psychological real estate was taken up by directing a festival."

I was somewhat surprised by how much psychological real estate was taken up by directing a festival

Tallgren thinks the relatively slow expansion of his own oeuvre is the price he has had to pay for his success directing festivals.

“When you spend your whole day assessing and programming other people’s work, planning festivals and acquiring funding, you gain a very different perspective. Mixing up your own work with festival negotiations may not be a healthy cocktail.”

Tallgren also reminds us that a composer’s career may last for 60 years. This span of time allows for different phases.

Hybrid art and physicality

In the summer of 2018, Viitasaari will play host to works that represent hybrid art, challenging conventional notions of what an artwork should be. The festival will also turn a spotlight on physicality and technology. According to Tallgren, more technology than ever before will be included.

“With my first festival, I was very particular about which things were placed side by side. Now, I’m going through more of an experimental phase.”

Time of Music has traditionally commissioned a piece from a rising Finnish composer, which is then premiered by an international ensemble. This year, Sampo Haapamäki’s IDEA, commissioned in association with IRCAM, is that piece. It will be performed by the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble. 

The festival’s other key pieces include the following large-scale performances at Viitasaari Areena: The Otheroom by Rolf Wallin, Songs of Wars I Have Seen by Heiner Goebbels, and Body-Opera by Wojtek Blecharz.

With my first festival, I was very particular about which things were placed side by side. Now, I’m going through more of an experimental phase

Springing out of the Warsaw experimental theatre scene, Body-Opera is a composition for 100 transducers, a dancer, double bass and percussion. In practical terms, these transducers are the audience, who participate in the work’s formation using sensor-equipped yoga mats. Physicality and interaction with the audience are also present in The Otheroom. Of these three, Goebbels’ piece is the most classical and historical. 

Successful fund-raising gives leeway 

Programming, curating and fund-raising are all interconnected. Successful fund-raising provides one with leeway to put on more ambitious productions. Then again, big productions also entail bigger risks.

“We participate in numerous EU projects involving funding plans. They create structure and go some ways towards defining the shape of the programme.”

As he commissions works, Tallgren discusses with the composers things such as the duration of the performance and the composition of the orchestra required.

“I may ask the composer about her comfort zone, gently testing and prodding.

According to Tallgren, all crises that take place months before the festival are preferable to ones that take place during it.

“For example: the kind of surprise where you suddenly need more percussionists, microphones and assistants is unpleasant but common enough. Composers also sometimes use the commission as leverage.”

Young composers are open-minded

Johan Tallgren’s own back catalogue contains elements of not only the Finnish school of composition emphasising harmony and counterpoint, but also traces of an objective style, free of national characteristics. Brian Ferneyhough, Tallgren’s teacher in San Diego, is an oft-mentioned idol.

“For me, no nationality takes priority. In the poetic sense, I am an anti-nationalist,” Tallgren says.

According to Tallgren, young composers are astonishingly open-minded when it comes to questions of style. As recently as two decades ago, many composers freely identified the school to which they belonged.

For me, no nationality takes priority. In the poetic sense, I am an anti-nationalist

“The digital-native DIY generation has grown up in an atmosphere devoid of oppositional aesthetic views. To them, progress means the iPhone 8 being more advanced than the previous one." 

The flip-side of this is that their commitment to the work itself may not be as robust. 

“It's now possible to do technologically astounding things.  A convincing portfolio does not, however, necessarily tell you whether an applicant can write a piece for a classical string quartet.

Differing opinions are vital

Time of Music has been held in Viitasaari since 1982. Some of its most memorable highlights include John Cage’s two distinctive concerts from 1983.  Over time, the festival has become as much of an institution as Finland’s other large summer festivals.

Tallgren has a surefire recipe against the event becoming too safe, too settled.

“If an artistic director does not know how to create, articulate and develop his own concepts, he should probably go.”

Tallgren sees it as his duty to provide the audience with events they would otherwise not experience.  Questioning and differing opinions are vitally important.

If an artistic director does not know how to create, articulate and develop his own concepts, he should probably go

”There is reason to worry if a festival primarily reminisces about its past victories. Any festival , including Time of Music and Avanti’s Summer Sounds, may fall into the same pitfall. There must be movement and water in the stream for the fish, and opinions, to be able to swim upstream.

Time of Music in Viitasaari, 3–9 July 2018

View Johan Tallgren's profile and works on Music Finland's Composers & Repertoire site.

Johan Tallgren

  • A composer born in 1971. Lives in Helsinki.
  • Artistic director of Time of Music festival, held in Viitasaari. Director of Musica Nova Helsinki in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
  • Studied composition at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki as well as in Paris, San Diego and New York, where he got his PhD from Columbia University.
  • Tallgren’s compositions have been performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern, among others. His most famous work includes Tombeau pour New York, a composition for orchestra based on the eponymous work by the Arab poet Adonis.