Sunday, May 10, 2009

an article I wrote in Sruti magazine

East meets West in a novel encounter
Eero Hameenniemi has created quite a wave in
the Western music scene with his introduction of
improvisation in Western orchestra compositions.
He was 16 years old when India became a part of his
consciousness in a little town in Finland. His school
text book had featured an open letter to the world’s
young by the great German music composer Karlheinz
Stockhousen. Hameenniemi, interested in music since
childhood, wrote to the composer about the impact his
open letter had on him. Stockhousen wrote back asking
the young man to read The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo.
Young Hameenniemi searched everywhere for the book
and found it in the Helsinki open distance library. He
ordered it and had to return it in three weeks. He asked
his mother to permit him to miss school to finish the
book. She surprisingly agreed and he read the book from
start to finish in three weeks time. “I understood very
little at the time but it made me want to go to India.”
He was able to make it to India in his early thirties. He
first went to North India but found that he was attending
more South Indian concerts there. So he decided to go
to Madras in 1991 and as his practice, researched on the
people he had to meet. He made lifelong friendships. He
has worked with mridanga maestro Karaikudi Mani and
veena vidwan Karaikudi Subramaniam, has brought out
several CDs, arranged for exchange programmes between
Finnish and Indian musicians, and organised programmes
for Indian dancers and musicians in Finland. Chennai
is now a second home to him. He tries not to miss any
music season.
Hameenniemi became so enamoured of Carnatic music that
he began to write compositions for Western orchestras with
improvisation in them. “Improvisation is an efficient way of
internalising different aspects of one’s musicianship. At its
best improvisation can also offer a very intensive experience
to the listener.” He has been derided by some conservative
music lovers of Finland for bringing in this foreign element
into Western music. To counter this he always keeps a CD
or two of Carnatic music in his bag to offer to his critics.
Rain and Red Earth
Composition by Eero Hameenniemi premiered in the
Helsinki Festival
Eero Hameenniemi’s latest composition was premiered at
the Helsinki festival. The concert was held in the Huvilla –
an impressive main tent with a conical roof by the big pond
in a park, a tent large enough for more than a thousand
people, with wooden benches with elevations for seats.
There were separate tents for café, green rooms, meeting
rooms, rest rooms put up for the festival temporarily on
the grass in the park. The tent had an excellent sound
system. Large blue and pink georgette fabric as backdrop
was interestingly arranged with tiny light bulbs in them
– flickering like so many stars in the sky! As the soft
glow of lighting fell on the musicians, the sequins on the
kurtas of mridangist Pungkulam Subramaniam, Ghatam
Karthick and violinist Embar Kannan caught the light as
they played along.
Bombay Jayashri sang Mokshamu galada with her eyes
closed as my hosts TV journalist Tiina Maiija Lehtonen
and her journalist, trade unionist husband Erki Kupari
entered the tent that was almost full. The mostly
Finnish audience was fully engrossed in Jayashri’s
music. At the end of the piece she opened her eyes and
said: “This music that I am singing is a conversation
– a conversation with the creator. The tools of the
conversation are the groups of notes creating a path.”
Then she began her soft ragamalika Ragam-Tanam-
Pallavi making the audience sit up and watch her with
intensity – swaying to her ‘Guha Shanmukha’ she kept
repeating. Lalgudi Jayaraman’s tillana in Behag woke
them up from their reverie and they tapped their feet
to the rhythm. When Embar Kannan played the violin,
Tiina Maiija whispered to me that she could recognise
some Bach! Of course the tani avartanam of Ghatam
Karthick and Pungulam Subramaniam’s mridanga got
the maximum applause.
Jayashri, Hameenniemi, Subramaniam and Karthick
l SRUTI March 2009
Post-interval was the main event – the premiere of Eero
Hameenniemi’s new composition Rain and Red Earth
– five songs from the the Tamil classic poems Kuruntogai
with the Avanti Chamber orchestra of thirty musicians
with the Conductor maestro John Storgards and Minna
Pensola and Heikki Nikula leading on violin and bass
“I love the music of Bombay Jayashri and wanted to
create something for her and of course I love the poems
of ancient Tamil Sangam anthologies and wanted to
create a large work based on them in Western music,” said
This concert is the culmination of twenty years of hard
work – of coming to Tamil Nadu, learning Tamil, getting
Dinatanthi (Tamil daily newspaper) in Finland every day,
and translating the Kuruntogai into Finnish. And of course
listening to Carnatic music over and over again, listening
to almost every singer on stage. Eero studied classical Tamil
with Professor E. Sundaramurti, former Vice Chancellor
of the Tanjavur Tamil University.
For this concert, Hämeenniemi chose five poems and
made a small love story out of them moving through
longing, disappointment and leading to a final affirmation
of love. The poems were sung in Tamil but Hämeenniemi’s
Finnish translations were printed in the programme
leaflet distributed to the audience. These translations
have already been published in one of Hämeenniemi’s
books. He has written five books in Finnish, dealing with
the music theory, history and philosophy, and culture of
South India.
Rain and Red Earth is a large song cycle of more than half
an hour duration. It had substantial improvisation sections
both for Bombay Jayashri and some of the Western
musicians. This is the first time a leading Carnatic singer
has sung with a Western orchestra.
Jayashri had changed her black and gold sari to crimson
and red for the second half and was seated in a chair in
front of the orchestra – presenting her classic Tamil profile
to the audience. As the orchestra played, Jayashri picked
up the notes and sang Mazhai mazhai vilayadum mazhai
(rain rain playful rain). As she sang, the rain beat on the
tent and water drops fell off the gable by the side of the
performing stage catching the light in rhythm as they fell.
The swara-s poured rain. The Western instruments and the
mridanga and ghata seemed to meet as long lost friends.
Karthick says he was delighted that a platform was created
for the two percussionists to sit right in front of such a
major orchestra and be the main movers. “It is the respect
given to the instrument that makes us so happy.”
Minna Pensola’s violin followed Jayashri’s voice like a
shadow and brought out all the love and pathos of the
poem and the music. “I see music as interaction and
dialogue. I write as a practical musician, and my ideas
are ultimately based on three decades of experience as a
practicing composer, performer and listener. They are,
however, supported by an intensive study of music history
and philosophy, as well as of the literature dealing with the
meeting of cultures,” Eero explained later.
“I cannot believe such an opportunity has come my way,”
said Bombay Jayashri. “It is a defining moment in my life
as a musician. There were three days for rehearsal and the
first two days were a challenge for me to understand the
conductor’s language. Minna Pensola is a great violinist.
She really inspired me.”
“I had this thought for a long time. I compose Western
music and I like the human voice. I like two or three
singers in the world and Bombay Jayashri is one of them,”
says Hameenniemi.
“I had read a few Sangam poems with Prof. Sundaramoorthy
and then began to read the collection systematically.
I decided to take poems that had some connection and
wove a story around them. They are romantic poems but
isolated and I wanted to give it a happy ending. To get
a happy ending we all know there should be a troubled
beginning. The longing and waiting of the girl transforms
into anger and then the realisation of the love within. The
Mazhai poem already has a rhythm in it and I used it and
then the Yayum yayum about relationships which had to be
slow with a touch of Kalyani and then the girl realises that
love is more important than transitory anger and that deep
connections cannot be broken. So I chose the Nilatinum
peride poem.
Bigger than earth certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man
of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kurinchi
that has such black stalks.
– Tevakulattar (Kuruntokai 3)
(translation A.K. Ramanujan)
10 l SRUTI March 2009
Then came the last one, Kamam kamam which is joyful
and humorous. The end was a delirious shout for joy and I
decided to do it in 17 beats dividing it into 10 and 7.”
Eero Hemeenniemi engaged the Avanti chamber
orchestra to produce this. Avanti is a premier chamber
orchestra of Helsinki founded by two world class
conductors. The orchestra does not employ musicians on
its rolls as is the practice with other orchestras but seeks
out and gives short term contracts to musicians on its
panel for a particular concert. “Avanti is well known for its
adventurous programmes in music and had a bold artistic
vision in its current director Kari Kriikku. He trusted me
when I took the project to him and took it on. In the four
days of rehearsal, they were pushed to the limits and not
one musician complained,” says Hameenniemi. “For this
concert I specially asked for Minna Pensola and three
double basses one special with extra string and one special
trumpet player. The director of Avanti took the gamble.
This was a young orchestra.” The camaraderie between the
Finnish and Indian musicians was very palpable. Backstage
after the concert, Embar Kannan just took the viola of a
Finnish musician and began playing an Indian raga on it.
The Finnish man was delighted and was highly pleased.
The special artist in the concert was the sound man.
“He can be called our mike artist” says Hameenniemi.
He attended every rehearsal, took special pains to listen
to the way Jayashri sings and Pungulam Subramaniam’s
mridanga and S. Karthick’s ghata work and brought out
the best in each of them.” The concert was broadcast live
by the Finnish Radio YLE.
While the audience reaction to the concert was positive, the
two newspaper reviews were interesting. The culture critic
of the Swedish Newspaper Hufcudstadsbladet thought the
whole project was ingenious but the Helsingen Sanomat
critic attacked it finding the space moderate for such a
concert and deriding Eero Hameenniemi for his remarks
on Western concerts. “Well, I have talked in print about
the nature of the concert as a social event that is seen very
differently in India and in the West. This is one of the
reasons for the differences in concert etiquette. In many
respects an Indian concert resembles very much a concert
in the West some two-three centuries ago. Performers can
shape musical compositions in radical ways. This was the
practice in the West during the Baroque era, and it is still
an important aspect of music making in India.”
Bombay Jayashri says simply, “I believe Helsinki and Eero
Hemeenniemi’s Rain and Red Earth, is my parents/guru-s
blessings and god’s gift to me. It gave me the opportunity
to bring together all my training over the years in different
systems and the trust my teachers had placed in me and
my love for world music and quest for dialogue. And with
the Kuruntogai which is close to my heart.”