Sampo Haapamäki wins Nordic Council Music Prize

Composer Sampo Haapamäki has been awarded this year’s Nordic Council Music Prize. The prize was awarded to Haapamäki for his work “Konsertto neljäsosasävelaskelpianolle ja kamariorkesterille” (Quarter-tone Piano Concerto) with the rationale of being “a unique combination of natural musicality, impressive craftsmanship, and the never-ending exploration of the tradition”.

Sampo Haapamäki received the prize from former winner Gyða Valtýsdóttir at a digital awards ceremony for the Nordic Council prizes for 2020 on Tuesday evening. Because of COVID-19 the awards ceremony could not take place in Iceland as originally planned.

The award-winning concert was commissioned by Avanti! in 2017. The work is composed for a piano, which can be used for quarter-tone playing. Listen to excerpts from the concerto on Haapamäki's Soundcloud page.

Haapamäki explained his long interest in quarter-tone music in a column for FMQ Magazine in 2014:

”I gradually became interested in microtonality in the early 2000s, at around the age of 20. To try out quarter-tone harmonies, I tuned my electric piano up a quarter-tone and used it together with an ordinary piano. I also did some experiments with the quarter-tone playback of Sibelius notation software and approached the world of quarter-tones via pitch sets and frequencies. I sounded out quarter-tone intervals and used them to form chords, and I constructed frequency-related harmonies first with a pocket calculator and later with OpenMusic software.”

Sampo Haapamäki ja pianist Elisa Järvi started making plans for having a quarter-tone piano built around 2004 and the instrument, made by Otso Haapamäki in Finland, was finally completed 2014.

“Quarter-tones lend themselves rather naturally to microtonality, because they fall halfway between the traditional chromatic notes. Instead of a 12-tone equal temperament, they yield a 24-tone equal temperament. Since this doubles the number of notes, the harmonic potential is exponentially greater.”, explains Haapamäki in the FMQ article.

The prize committee’s rationale for the winning work is:

“It is a unique combination of natural musicality, impressive craftsmanship, and the never-ending exploration of the tradition. It surprises the listener with an exuberant, novel, yet strangely familiar musical language, and keeps the attention of the listener right from the beginning until the very end with its virtuosic elaboration of details.

The concerto is a result of Haapamäki’s long journey of discovery: the composer even had to create a special instrument – the new quarter-tone piano – in order to write the music he wanted to create. Its complex universe of microtonality gently reminds us of some essential things that art can both offer and ask of us: sensitivity, patience, and reflection.

Central to Sampo Haapamäki’s oeuvre are the quarter-tones that he has been exploring in his compositional work for more than 15 years. He has composed acoustic music for various ensembles from orchestras to choirs, as well as electro-acoustic multichannel music. He has also helped to develop new instruments for the performance of quarter-tone music.

As a composer, Sampo Haapamäki has established his very own, distinctive voice - the voice that the committee is delighted to recognise with this prize.”

The Nordic Council awards five prizes each year – for literature, film, music, the environment, and children’s and young people’s literature. Each prize of DKK 350,000 is awarded at a gala event during the annual Session of the Nordic Council.

Previous Finnish Nordic Council Music Prize winners include Joonas Kokkonen (1965), Aulis Sallinen (1978), Magnus Lindberg (1988), Mellersta Österbottens Kammarorkester (1993), Erik Bergman (1994), Leif Segerstam (1999), Kaija Saariaho (2000), Kari Kriikku (2009), Pekka Kuusisto (2013) and Susanna Mälkki (2017).

Find Haapamäki's Concerto for quarter tone piano and orchestra on Music Finland's CORE

Watch Haapamäki's acceptance speech video