When composer Sampo Haapamäki (b. 1979) won the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize in October 2020, the jury praised his "natural musicality, impressive craftsmanship, and the never-ending exploration of the tradition." Haapamäki’s composership is however more intricate than those fancy expressions: in his career, natural musicality has meant an uncompromising decisiveness.
Sampo Haapamäki's tireless exploration has invited also new nascent musical ideas. His long-term intention has been to carefully evoke and nurture these delicate ideas, and with time, let them grow into applicable musical thoughts.
"Actually I constantly have the feeling that I don’t understand something – the questions themselves seem to be hiding, so I have to find them first. There seems to be an unlimited amount to learn,” Haapamäki says.
"I hope it’s not merely uncertainty but rather a genuine effort to find out what life is all about. But when I’m composing, that feeling forces me to go through things repeatedly. In that way, the picture inevitably sharpens and I gradually begin to find some answers."
When a subtle message pops into my mind, that something seems to be budding here, but I don’t know what it is yet, I have to give it time and explore all the inner elements of the music.
This constant process of self-questioning pervades Haapamäki’s speech. He is careful to point out that his own view is just one among several others, which are at least as important as his. This seems to be at odds with his music, in which clear processes purposefully carry the listener forward. Perhaps the reason for this contradiction is that when Haapamäki composes, he can concentrate for a long time without interruption.
"I also want to instil that continuous auditory interest and questioning into the compositional process. When a subtle message pops into my mind, that something seems to be budding here, but I don’t know what it is yet, I have to give it time and explore all the inner elements of the music, and find out whether it concerns for example rhythm, timbre, dynamics, or does it have something to do with the interaction between the elements?"
Watch Haapamäki's "Velinikka" (2008), a concerto for quarter-tone accordion and chamber orchestra, performed by Veli Kujala and Ensemble Ernst conducted by Thomas Rimul, at Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival / Nordic Music Days, in Oslo 2014.
Nurturing the buds
Typically for Haapamäki, this description of personal creativity only comes after he has broadly expressed his respect for everything that he learned about compositional technique at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig, IRCAM in Paris and Columbia University in New York City, where he earned his doctorate. Following nascent intuition seems to be the defining factor in Haapamäki’s career, though, ever since he played piano and wind instruments in the small but diverse musical circles of the western Finnish village of Toholampi.
"I remember as a teenager sitting at the piano and thinking that this chord-symbol C indicates a stack of two thirds, and that you could pile more thirds onto it. But can you stack them up indefinitely? Could chords also be stacked up using fourths or seconds? And what might be the relationship between chords, scales and voice leading, for instance? I got some pointers for example from theory classes, but eventually, through experimenting and listening, I tried to find combinations that sounded good to me."
I quit playing the piano because I wanted to allow quarter-tone thoughts to grow. Sometimes you have to make concrete decisions if you want to nurture emerging buds of thoughts.
Around the early 2000s, microtones began to sound good, and in a way it defined Haapamäki as a composer:
"A feeling, that something was emerging in quarter tones, began to bubble in my brain. But in the early stage, the feeling disappeared while playing piano, because practically you can’t really play quarter tones on an ordinary piano. In the early 2000s I had to make a difficult decision: I quit playing the piano because I wanted to allow quarter-tone thoughts to grow. Sometimes you have to make concrete decisions if you want to nurture emerging buds of thoughts."
Haapamäki has tenaciously nurtured his microtonal buds. He has been involved in developing processes of several quarter-tone instruments. The most ambitious of them may well be the quarter-tone piano, which was granted industrial design right for its keyboard innovation. The keyboard design was invented in collaboration with pianist, pedagogue and researcher Elisa Järvi. Haapamäki has naturally also composed for these new instruments, in the process earning a reputation as a composer focused on microtonality. This is somewhat misleading, for two reasons.
Watch Haapamäki's "Motto" (2015), premiered by Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk, in Helsinki 2016.
Processes with various inner elements of music
First of all, Haapamäki’s compositions include many plastic processes. When he, in a manner of speaking, bends the harmony, for example, describing the pitches requires more precise resolution than usual. From a harmonic standpoint, microtonality is not an end but a means, and according to Haapamäki, quarter-tone resolution is precise enough for the music to begin to sound as he intends it. Quarter-tone intonation is also relatively practical for orchestral instruments, thereby the orchestra’s colourful timbre spectrum remains in use.
In his works, Haapamäki has sought resolution not just in microtonality but also for instance in micro-time signatures. He has sought to build strong, gradual processes as well as three-dimensional, sculptural surfaces. He provides a concrete example of the diversity of these processes from the middle section of his Quarter-tone Piano Concerto:
"In this section, the tempo gradually doubles while the dynamics diminish, and on the level of articulation the accents broaden out in a chordal manner, and at the same time the solo’s repeating gesture opens up rhythmically and disperses. And meanwhile in the harmony there’s a microtonal sequential chord progression...
Exploration in and of itself is naturally not that necessary in music. What’s most important to me in music is, simply, how it sounds.
Best of all, the listener experiences Haapamäki’s processes as a rollercoaster ride with musical accelerations pulling in many directions. It would be odd to focus on a single element of all this, such as microtonality. Haapamäki agrees, when asked to analyse his strengths as a composer.
"A surprisingly large proportion of music theories are related to pitch, but there are fewer theories on for instance rhythm or dynamics, and hardly any about individual emotional experiences. I don’t deny the importance of the most common theories, but there are many features of music for which there are no commonly known theories. Naturally I try to expand my own musical understanding and musicality in those directions, too. In a way my aim is to listen democratically to the various elements of music, so that also that shy element there in the darkest corner could also get a chance to be heard."
This results in music with a genuinely distinctive voice, which does not bother Haapamäki.
"New music or contemporary music – it’s surprising how much one can say under those names,” he says.
“On the other hand, exploration in and of itself is naturally not that necessary in music. What’s most important to me in music is, simply, how it sounds."
Listen to five excerpts from Haapamäki's "Quarter-Tone Piano Concerto" (2017), premiered by Elisa Järvi and Avanti! Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tomas Djupsjöbacka, at PianoEspoo Festival, Helsinki in 2017.
Watch Haapamäki's "Synny!" (2020), an orchestral song for soprano and orchestra, premiered by Tuuli Lindeberg and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu, in Helsinki 2020.