From Finnish DIY superhero movies to Mongolian epics to Hollywood thrillers, Tuomas Kantelinen has composed music for all styles and moods. At 48 he is busier than ever, but lurking in the background is a desire to quiet things down. At least a tiny bit.
Tuomas Kantelinen waves his hands in the air, hitting imaginary keyboards and describing what film scores often sound like – and what they should sound like. Every once in a while he pauses to comment on the radio playing in the background, or on toddlers running amok in the cafeteria spitting out random noises.
He says that inspiration can hit anywhere, and watching him describe music certainly verifies the notion. Seldom have I met an artist so present and absent at the same time.
From knight epics to the nightly news
If you know Finnish cinema at all, you've probably heard Tuomas Kantelinen's music. With over 100 IMDb credits to his name, Kantelinen is arguably Finland's best-known film composer. His works include Ambush (1999), Mindhunters (2004), Matti (2006), Mongol (2007), Arn – The Knight Templar (2007) and Arn – The Kingdom at Road's End (2008), Purge (2012), the upcoming Girl Soldier (2018) and many many others.
Besides movies he's also composed ballet (The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid at Finnish National Ballet) as well as opera (Mannerheim Opera at Ilmajoki Music Festival and Paavo Suuri for Helsinki Olympic Stadium).
Oh, and if you reside in Finland, odds are you've at least heard his stuff on tv: Kantelinen made the theme music to Finnish television channel MTV3’s news and weather forecast, as well as the morning show Huomenta Suomi .
Now Kantelinen is dipping his toes in China and India, two rapidly expanding film industries.
Project after project
We meet in a cafe in downtown Helsinki a day before Kantelinen’s 48th birthday. The Helsinki International Film Festival is in full swing and Kantelinen, arriving from his studio two blocks south, looks busy. One of his projects, a movie named Rendel, had its premiere at HIFF, and there's much more to come.
Kantelinen orders a large coffee, shakes my hand, sits down, and without even asking starts naming all the projects he's working on.
First off there's Rendel, the first Finnish superhero movie that hit Finnish cinemas soon after its first festival screening. Then there's The Adventurers, a Chinese crime caper starring Jean Reno, Qi Shu and Andy Lau that debuted at no. 3 at the Chinese box office in August.
This week he's starting work on Veljeni vartija (Brother's Keeper), an upcoming biopic on Finland's no. 1 rapper Cheek.
Kantelinen is also composing for a new Chinese fantasy film, Legend of the Ancient Sword, directed by Finland's own Renny Harlin and the new sci-fi spoof Iron Sky: The Coming Race. On top of these there's Guardian Angel, a drama about a series of crimes committed under hypnosis in Denmark in the 1950's, directed by Finnish Arto Halonen.
"There's also a project in India I should hear back from any day now", Kantelinen adds.
The Sun Rises in the East
How did Kantelinen, 48, end up where he is, as Finland’s busiest film composer? He says it's a combination of hard work, smart networking and dumb luck. The commissions come either through someone hearing his music on another project, or through having met the composer earlier. And sometimes it's through an agent or a manager.
The latter was the case with The Adventurers, Kantelinen's first Chinese film.
He admits China is an interesting prospect. Their box office is set to eclipse the US this year for the first time in history, and Chinese films keep getting bigger and bigger. That's also the reason why director Renny Harlin, who worked on films like Die Hard II (1990) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), recently decided to emigrated east. There he can lead a comfy life and helm those big action films he used to make in Hollywood.
"But you still need to have credits in international films to get any work there", Kantelinen reminds me.
For him those international credits include Sergei Bodrov's Russian war epic Mongol (2007), Nordic films about knight templar Arn (2007, 2008) and two of Renny Harlin's Hollywood extravaganzas, Mindhunters (2004) and The Legend of Hercules (2014).
Kantelinen owes a lot to Renny Harlin and his friend, producer Markus Selin. Me and Morrison (2001) was the first Markus Selin film Kantelinen worked on, and through Selin he met Harlin – and eventually ended up on Mindhunters.
Another important filmmaker has been Jari Halonen, a Finnish outsider known for his cult classics The Christmas Party (1996) and The Life of Aleksis Kivi (2001). Kantelinen first composed music for Halonen back in 1995. The film was a sci-fi thriller titled Lipton Cockton in the Shadows of Sodoma.
"He'd left a note on Sibelius Academy's wall that said: 'Music needed for a film'. I guess I was the only one who applied", Kantelinen says and laughs. He spent the following night making a demo he then brought to Halonen.
"Jari listened to the music, paused it and said: 'I think we're going to do a lot of work together.’"
At this point Kantelinen was not a film geek by any means. He studied at Sibelius Academy under the guidance of Eero Hämeenniemi, a composer and academic interested in Indian and South Asian traditional music. Kantelinen lived in a commune, practiced yoga and meditated with his flatmates twice a day.
"I've always searched for something spiritual and otherworldly. Something that's not related to work or career or achievements", Kantelinen says.
"The things behind the music interest me more than the music itself. I'm not a hippie or even all that religious, but I wouldn't mind if there was something besides all this."
Talking about religion and spirituality can seem a bit pompous in the understated Lutheran Finnish culture, but one thing Kantelinen has learned from Renny Harlin is the use of big adjectives.
"I love the idea of using the widest palette possible, drawing from old fables and really digging into what it means to be human, what it means to be divine."
Kantelinen says there's still mysticism to his work. He's still amazed by new discoveries.
"It's never just about putting one note after another."
A ceremonial break?
Kantelinen's life is hectic. At the end of the interview he opens his wallet and one by one exhibits all of his hotel and airline membership cards. These pieces of plastic make it possible for the composer to do his job: Kantelinen travels constantly and gets a good chunk of his work done in hotels all around the world. All he needs is his laptop.
Amidst all the hassle Kantelinen says he’s thinking of slowing things down. As any artist, he, too, would like to make something just for himself and by himself.
"I'm really into church music, and I'd love to compose something ceremonial. Not necessary for church as such, but something that'd strike a chord on a spiritual level."
"Could I take a break from all the commissions? Sure", he claims, pauses, and then adds:
"It's just that my calendar is kind of full at the moment."