The First Finnish Electronic Compositions. Essay on the On/Off CD.

The First Finnish Electronic Compositions

by Petri Kuljuntausta


This article was released in 2001 by Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, to give background information for the On/Off CD compilation. The following year the CD was officially released with the book ON/OFF.


The compositions on the ON/OFF CD were composed during 1958-1963 and all of them are previously unreleased. The following text describes the works and the composers behind them.

Reijo Jyrkiäinen [b. 1934] worked as a sound technician from 1957-66 at the studios of Finnish radio YLE. He was a trusted figure in the field and helped many artists to create high quality recordings. He also recorded John Cage & David Tudor [1964] and Terry Riley [1963 & 1967] when they visited YLE’s studios.

Jyrkiäinen also composed electronic and concrete music: Sounds 1 [1963], Sounds 2 [1963], Idiopostic 1 [1963], Sounds 3 [1966] and Idiopostic 2 [1966]. Idiopostic 1 is one of the finest examples of electronic works realized at YLE in the early 60’s. Sounds 1-3 were all concrete works but Idiopostic 1 is based on electronically produced sounds. The first performance was held in October 1963 at the Contemporary Music Days in Helsinki. Later on Jyrkiäinen decided to modernize this work and created a two-track version, Idiopostic 2 in 1966.

In 1966 Karlheinz Stockhausen selected and broadcasted Jyrkiäinen’s work on his radio series for WDR, introducing electronic music from different studios all across the globe. The two-track version of the Idiopostic was played as a background music for a photography exhibition in Sweden [Gothenburg] in 1966.

Bengt Johansson [1914-1989] started his career as a recording engineer in 1952 at the Finnish radio YLE. Johansson was the key person [or technical guru] at the station who took care of teaching a new generation of sound technicians [eg. Jyrkiäinen]. In his early sound technician courses in the late-50’s he introduced and played the latest electronic and concrete music recordings for his students. Many of the listeners were stunned by the possibilities of new recording technology and started to experiment by themselves too.

Johansson was interested in studio technology and contemporary music as well as traditional music. In spirit he wasn’t particularly avant-garde and didn’t want to follow them; he believed in traditional expression and his ouvre includes a large number of choral and organ works. But as a ‘technical person,’ Johansson did dream of trying out the possibilities of new technology and did compose, in 1960, the first Finnish work based strictly on pure electronic sounds, Three Electronic Studies. Composition work started in the beginning of 1960 and the work was ready six months later in July. The first performance was at the Nordic Music Days in Stockholm, September 1960.

Almost every time when Three Electronic Studies was performed, it divided opinions and raised strong feelings: especially young avant-gardists didn’t like the piece, because of it’s traditionally-based idiom and organist-like attitude. But nobody could deny the fact that the work was well-crafted. It has spirit, nocturnal calm, and intimate character. The piece has been performed many times in Finland, and it was selected for a Scandinavian tour in late-1963. Karlheinz Stockhausen broadcasted Three Electronic Studies on his radio series for WDR in 1965.

Henrik Otto Donner [b. 1939] was perhaps the most radical person in Finnish music during the 60’s. New and avant-garde ideas interested Donner and he was willing to experiment. His career has many tracks: working as a compositor, jazz musician, producer and organizer. In 1963 he invited Ken Dewey and Terry Riley to visit in Finland and soon arranged the first happenings in Finland: Street Piece Helsinki [street happening, 1963], Pasila Piece [one of the first TV-happenings, 1963], Studio Sleeper [radio-happening, 1963] and others. Since then, Donner has composed music for many theatre productions as well.

He used the possibilities of tape machines in his Ideogramme 1 [1962] to broaden a live sound with an additional instrumental parts played from the tape. In early 1963 he composed Ideogramme 2 for instrumental group and tapes. The work was composed for an exhibition performance and the tape part realization was created on four tracks [2 x two-tracks]. During that time he composed a music collage for the film Two Chicken by Eino Ruutsalo [1921-2001, pioneer of Finnish avant-garde film] and during spring-summer of 1963 continued his electronic music studies in Bilthoven [Holland] under the guidance of Gottfried Michael König. Later during that same year he went to Siemens studio in Munich to study more of the secrets of electronic music technology.

Donner composed Esther at the Bilthoven’s studio. The piece starts with a steady opening section, but suddenly the direction of the piece totally changes; the work starts moving lively, dynamic relations chances quickly and piece goes wild with a hits of surprising sounds. It was realized in Bilthoven, but it has the same kind of raw sounding character that is familiar with the early works composed at the studio of Helsinki University.

Erkki Salmenhaara [1941-2002] was one of the central figures in a young and rising Finnish avant-garde life in the early-1960’s. In 1960 he stated: “We should not follow Sibelius, nor we should run blindly after the new ideas of [Darmstadt’s] avant-garde”. This statement doesn’t mean that he didn’t follow his time. Actually Salmenhaara composed the first Finnish live-electronic compositions Pan and Echo [1963] and Concerto for Two Violins [1963].

His Composition for Ferrophon [1963] from the same time period was an extraordinary sound piece; a musician [Salmenhaara himself] used sticks and other objects to scrub sounds from the large metal sheet, which Salmenhaara called a ‘ferrophon’. These works were intentionally ‘ugly-sounding’ and ‘noisy’ pieces, as a critic described Salmenhaara’s avant-garde works too. Stockhausen was an important figure for Salmenhaara but soon he found a band called the Beatles, which marked a turning point for his compositional career.

Salmenhaara turned towards tonalism but he didn’t gave up with electronic music. He composed a large scale electronic works for a two TV-films, both realized in 1968, and for the EXPO 67 in Montreal he composed an electronic composition Information Explosion [1967].

White Label [1963] was Salmenhaara’s first electronic work and it was composed at the studio of Helsinki University during spring 1963. Its industrial and explosive character holds the same kind of sound identity that was typical for the work of the studio’s owner, Erkki Kurenniemi. White Label‘s first public performance was at the Jyväskylä Art summer festival in July 1963.

Ilkka Kuusisto [b. 1933] visited the Darmstadt’s avant-garde festival for the first time in 1957, and heard there electronic music of Pousseur, Henry and Stockhausen. Before the visit he was already familiar with Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and during the following spring he helped the composer himself with Stockhausen’s first visit and tournee in Finland. Kuusisto studied music but also in the late-50s he went to the USA to study television directing. After the period he came back to work at YLE in the early 1960s.

Kuusisto has composed eleven operas and created music for very different kinds of instrumentation, using influences of light and romantic music, and he has also worked as an organist and chorus leader. In the early 1960s he also took part of the experimental actions. His academic composition diploma concert was arranged together with Reijo Jyrkiäinen in October 1963, and in this concert both of these composers experimented so well, that one critic raised the question of an ‘anti-academic music’.

Ritmo Acustico 2 [1963] was composed in spring 1963 and was performed first time at the diploma concert in 1963. The sound sources used in the piece are church organ, taken from the organ piece Ritmo Acustico 1 [1963], chain saw and sound generator. After his early experimental period Kuusisto stepped to the world of chorus and stage works, but later on has used modern synthesizers and their electronic possibilities in his operas and other pieces.

The tracks 6-8 on the CD are constructed by me based on sound effects from radio works mentioned below. Finding these forgotten works in YLE’s huge tape archives was a pure accident. Concerning the two radio theatre works, Bug and Your Own Figure Behind the Door, I was lucky enough to find some newspaper reviews first, which gave me hints about the use of electronic sounds in the works.

In the third case, track no. 7, the sound material used in the Demonstration was taken from a discussion program’s tape. At first sight the tape and its information text wasn’t so interesting. But I was suspicious and while listening to it, I soon realized that the tape was labelled with the wrong information about the recording date and persons discussing on the tape. After a long research process and by checking manually, date by date, all program and broadcasting informations from a mid-50s radio magazine, I finally succeeded in tracking down the original broadcasting date. The tape was something that I could never believed still exists: the first public discussion about electronic music broadcasted in Finland!

In this program six main figures of Finnish music life discussed about electronic music and what it might have to offer us an aesthetically and technically. The program was broadcasted in March 1958, and the second broadcast was four weeks later, after Stockhausen’s visit and concerts in Finland. The program also included examples of electronic works composed by well-known composers like Herbert Eimert, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. The latter broadcast also included Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge as an additional extra piece. Both broadcasts started with Johansson’s 8-minute long lecture and demonstration. The purpose of this demonstration was to give to the radio listeners a practical example of the technical possibilities of electronic music. The Demonstration on this CD is constructed from the sounds taken from that radio lecture by Johansson.

A radio play Bug [Lutikka] was realized at YLE’s radio drama department in 1958. The Bug is based on a science fiction novel by Vladimir Mayakovski under the same title and this broadcast was the first time when Mayakovski’s work was performed in western countries. In this Finnish radio realization, the sound technicians and director wanted to express time changes (or time jumps) and the workings of a ‘melting machine,’ as well as the fast running of the bug. There are also some repeated and electronically manipulated speech announcements: “Hyvä” [Good], “Huono” [Bad], “Ehdotusta ei voi hyväksyä” [The suggestion can’t be accepted].

A radio play Your Own Figure Behind the Door [Oma hahmosi oven takana] was realized at YLE’s radio drama department in 1960. The text was written by Bo Carpelan and it was directed by Eddie Stenberg. The radio play is characterized by the use of tape manipulation techniques and it starts with nearly a dozen repeats of the same situation: the ringing of a telephone and a man answering and saying his name. The work includes some extremely powerful hit sounds and echoed sounds, which take a central role in the radio play each time when they appear. During those days, listeners’ ears wasn’t so used to hear such electronically produced sounds very often, so the whole thing must have sounded quite unusual.

The Sound Letter to Jan Bark is a collectively composed humorous collage work, created in 1963 by Kaj Chydenius, Erkki Kurenniemi, Henrik Otto Donner, Erkki Salmenhaara and Raija Mattila. According to Kurenniemi the work was a spiritual gift for Jan Bark from a composition seminar that he gave them in Finland during fall 1963. Bark visited frequently in Finland and he was a close friend of young Finnish avant-garde composers.

This short track on the CD is constructed by me, the sound material here were taken from the sections that Erkki Kurenniemi composed for the original 16 minute long work. Included here are processed speech sections, electronically produced motive from the Swedish national anthem and some two track sound realizations.

Seppo Mustonen [b. 1937] has worked as professor of statistics at Helsinki University but he has always been interested in music and music theory too. While he worked at the Cable Factory in the early sixties in Helsinki, he started to make music experiments with an Elliott 803 computer.

While doing computing, Elliott 803 played tones, giving auditory signs to a programmer who could then estimate about how much time is left until the computing work was finished. These primitive tones came out from a small loudspeaker mounted aside of the console. Mustonen was interested in these tones and decided to write a computer program to control the notes and to create scales and musical themes. During his holidays in the summer of 1962 he started to work toward his goal and soon the music program for the Elliott computer was ready.

He demonstrated the program for some composers in fall 1962 and was invited to give a performance at the Jyväskylä Summer festival for the next summer. Mustonen’s program created variations from the given theme in real time. If necessary, the program could create a whole music performance by itself without any given themes and could compose variations up to 20 to the 5oth power years without repeating its themes!

For this CD I have selected a few short examples from these lively moving variations on the original 20 minute long tape. Later on Mustonen continued his career with his Survo program, at first created for statistical calculations, which is still doing well and its development continues under the work of Survo user enthuasists and programmers.

During late-50s Usko Meriläinen’s [1930-2004] composing style changed from neo-classicism and Stravinskian influences towards avant-garde ideas that he got from his visits to Central Europe. Soon he opened another new door and started to experiment with tape recorders. Meriläinen’s first tape composition was Eros & Psykhe [1961], music for a theatre play and radio drama, both versions under the same title.

The composition divides into the three main sections written for orchestra (1st and 3rd section) and for tape (2nd section). He created the tape part on his own, with a cheap tape recorder and home-made techniques by using e.g. standard scissors for tape cutting. Meriläinen used concrete sounds and recorded piano sounds (prepared), noises from the radio, dog sounds and human sounds recorded at the entrance hall of his flat.

This edited version on the CD is taken from Eros & Psykhe‘s 18 minutes long 2nd section for tape. Since the 60’s, Meriläinen has composed many tape works, most of them large scale pieges, e.g. electronic symphony, music for dancers and radio theatre.

Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s [b. 1944] first recorded work is the concrete tape work Water Drops, which appears on this CD, composed in 1963, when he was only 19 years old. The composition was created at YLE’s studio with a help of sound tehnician Reijo Jyrkiäinen.

All sounds used in the piece are based on a short sound recording of dripping water. Later on Nordgren used the studio’s technological possibilities in his Kalevala myth-based work Lights of Heaven [Taivaanvalot], composed in the mid-80’s. Since 70’s, influences of Japanese and folk music has been one of the trademarks in Nordgren’s work.

Martti Vuorenjuuri [b. 1932] visited Darmstadt in 1955, met Eimert and visited the Cologne studio where Stockhausen was composing Gesang der Jünglinge at the time. He and Stockhausen became friends and Vuorenjuuri invited him to Finland. Stockhausen’s first visits were in 1958, 1961 and 1962. And in fact, after his visits Stockhausen was so fascinated with the country that had a plan to buy an island in Central Finland and move to there!

Vuorenjuuri was a newspaper writer and critic at Helsingin Sanomat [the main newspaper in Finland] and he used all of his position to inform readers about the new ideas of avant-garde and electronic music. Sometimes there was big intellectual fight between Vuorenjuuri and the more conservative music people. But younger people liked Vuorenjuuri’s radical style and about the fact that something new could happen in Finnish music life too.

After the Darmstadt visit in 1955 Vuorenjuuri had a plan to establish an electronic music studio. This was never realised, but in 1958, Vuorenjuuri started to compose concrete music work at the YLE studios. The text that he used as a basis for the work was A Brave New World [1932] by Aldous Huxley. Vuorenjuuri’s adaption of the work marked the beginning of Finnish tape music.

Vuorenjuuri’s massive, 1,5 hour long work was created from speech voices only. At first the radio theatre’s actors read the text, one by one, for the tape. Vuorenjuuri wanted the lines to be read without accents, stressess or intonation. The imaginary world in the Brave World was very much mechanized, so Vuorenjuuri wanted to eliminate human character from the voices too. After the text lines was recorded, he started the real work with the tapes. He experimented with many tape machines and other studio equipment; for a robotic voices he used eg. ‘zeitwandler’, a specially designed ‘time changing machine’ from Germany. He developed all sound effects used in the work from a different speech fragments, like sound of helicopters, crowds, chorus, incubation center, e.g. the sound of an ambulance was created from a female voice, sea waves from the ‘s’ utter, as well as lashes of a whip too.

The short version of Brave New World on the CD is edited by me. I wanted to keep in balance three sides in this work: follow the original story, create a drama in a compressed form, and retain many of the sound inventions used in the original work. Ten years later Vuorenjuuri composed another concrete work Take-off [Ponnistusta, 1968], subtitled as ‘a psychedelic sound picture’, based on a sounds produced by athletes.

Sculptor Veikko Eskolin [1936-2001] specialized in mobiles. He created many pioneering works in Finland and very often used sounds in his sculptures too. During the 60’s Eskolin created a series of artworks under the same title, Space Construction.

The version of his sculpture music on the CD was realized in 1963 at YLE studios, with the help of technician Reijo Jyrkiäinen. On the original tape there were several versions of the piece, some of them were dry, some versions were echoed. The Space Construction is based on water sounds. I found this tape by chance in YLE’s sound effect archive, among the usual copyright-free sound effect tapes[!].

Erkki Kurenniemi [b. 1941] was the key figure during the early years of Finnish electronic music. He built the Helsinki University’s electronic studio and started voluntary work during 1961-62. Kurenniemi was a physicist, but a strong interest in electronic music and electronic instruments took him into the music world. When he was a young student, he had an electronic studio at the school’s organ balcony for a short time, where he made some experiments with his schoolmates during the late 50’s. But his dream of a real studio came true a few years later when he was offered the chance to build the university’s studio. Serious work started and little by little his self-made equipment was ready and studio work could commence.

From the beginning of 1963 other composers started to visit and work at the studio. At a very early stage [in early 1960s], Kurenniemi decided to use digital technology in his electronic instruments. Another basic idea was to think of the whole studio as a one big instrument and to develop it technically in the direction where it would be possible to play the studio in real-time. In fact his composition On-Off [1963] was played in real time for the tape. During the recording process he controlled all tape machines, sound sources and effects himself.

Kurenniemi worked at the university studio until the end of the decade, when he left to found his company Digelius Electronics Ltd to build and market his own original electronic instruments. At the top of the Kurenniemi’s design line were DIMI-series [Digital Music Instrument] synthesizers. DIMI-A [1970] was controlled and played by an ‘electric pen’; DIMI-T [‘electroencephalophone’, 1973] by electrodies connected to a human head, reading brainwaves; DIMI-S [‘sexophone’, 1972] by sensors attached to the arm, reading electrical chances from the skin.

The most interesting of Kurenniemi’s digital instruments is DIMI-O [1971], a video-synthesizer. By using a video camera and monitor, all moving video images could be converted to electronic music by this device. He organized concerts where DIMI-O was controlled by a dancer’s movements or a symphony orchestra conductor’s hand moves. He also did an 11-minute long film DIMI Ballet [1971], in English, where he demonstrates the capabilities of DIMI-O video-synthesizer with the help of a dancer. The film is one of the first works in the field of interactive video art.

It should also be mentioned that all of Kurenniemi’s electronic instruments still exist and still function. Kurenniemi also created the first commercially manufactured and marketed microcomputer in 1973 (two years before the American MITS Altair), and during late 70’s worked with robotics. Later on he became interested in Artificial Intelligence and since the 90’s has worked as a researcher/coordinator at the Heureka Science Museum. Recently he finished a manuscript for the book about his theory of music harmony, which mathematically proves a totally new perspective on the subject.

As was previously mentioned, On-Off was composed in real-time at the Helsinki University’s electronic studio. Kurenniemi has stated that the name and the character of the work is connected to the acoustic experience of the power-station’s generator-hall.