Ever wondered what the northern lights sound like? Well, so did legendary Finnish composer, musician and sound artist Petri Kuljuntausta.
The strange clapping sound emanating from the aurora’s mysterious light spectacle has been part of folk tales throughout the ages, and was the source of inspiration for one of Kuljuntausta’s most exquisite and ambitious composition projects Northern Lights Live – inspired by this, the wondrous soundscapes of the Aurora Borealis and manipulated audio feedback.
A forerunner of the generation of Finnish electronica artists that emerged in the 1990s, Petri Kuljuntausta manoeuvres smoothly around the relatively peripheral sphere that makes up Finland’s experimental electronic music scene, always maintaining a broad international outlook be that as an artist, or as a keen observer.
His work output spans practically everything from digital music for experimental films, video art, visual art and dance projects, to man made media and sound installations in museums, galleries and concert halls
– all this testimony to a highly inquisitive mind and perpetual curiosity for all aspects of the sounding world.
No surprise then that Kuljuntausta is also the author of some massive authoritative volumes on the history Finnish electronic music (‘On/Off – From Ether Sounds to Electronic Music’ and First Wave: A Microhistory of Early Finnish Electronic Music).
Petri Kuljuntausta approach is based composing music made out of sounds material of both the natural and extraordinary. In addition to his Northern Lights project he has in close knit collaboration with natural scientists created underwater installations from underwater sound materials and even made music out of whale calls. Kuljuntausta’s art is founded upon the interplay of scientific research, eccentric playfulness and, close collaboration with other media artist and a profound respect and knowledge of the pioneering work done by previous generations in the field of experimental electronic music.
– Arnbjörg María Danielsen
What inspired you to become a composer?
As a young boy, I heard from the radio Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing, I wanted to create that distorted guitar sound too. So I got an acoustic guitar for a Christmas present, and I built my own microphone for it, but no way – this was far away from the sounds that interested me! Later, I got an electric guitar and connected this to a transistor radio; finally I managed to get out the never-ending fuzz sound. Yes! That was the sound that I was looking for!
I started as a guitar player, but soon I purchased a tape recorder and started to compose music with multi-track technology. I played all kinds of instruments that were available to me; guitar, synthesizers, Indian percussion instruments, sequencers, piano… I was hungry for music, I wanted to know all about all music, classical & contemporary Western music, jazz improvisation, Indian classical music, and other traditions. I started to create my own strategies for music making.
What would you say are the principal characteristics of your music?
I am searching for new sounds, always and everywhere. The sound itself could be the whole universe, just one frequency could offer so much. At some point I realised that I don’t have to compose so much, or express myself, more important is to let the sound speak for itself. This is typical, especially for my sound installations. If you look back to the history of music, you’ll realise that music styles come and goes, but what is the quintessential element behind the styles and fashions, is the sound frequency. It is the sound frequencies that I am studying. I compose the colours of sound.
Can you describe your approach to composition/music making?
Quite often I get ideas from scientists. I read a lot and I follow what is going on in the different research fields.
The world is full of interesting phenomenons and the information is easily available nowadays, but it takes time to figure out what do with this information and how to create something artistically creative.
The working process continues unconsciously. Sometimes I get an idea in a bus, sometimes when I am sleeping. I write it down, before I forget it, and start the work as soon as possible. I have hundreds of unfinished work ideas on my worklist, but I have time to realise only a few of them, unfortunately.
Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?
From scientific papers, from experimental films, video art and visual art, from nature, from living organisms and cities… I try to keep my mind open and it often surprises me how I got a new idea.
What is the main challenge you face when beginning a new piece?
The most important question is how to proceed from an idea to a finished work that offers something new for my ears. I don’t use the same strategy twice. I might have a Plan A, but often it happens that it doesn’t work and I have to go to Plan B or C. The work and testing phase continues until I feel that the direction is right. In some cases I have had a good idea for a long time, but it took several years until I finally solved the problem on how to use the idea creatively in my work.
Is a composition ever fully finished for you?
Good question. In my concerts and studio work I often use generative composition strategy. The idea behind generative music is that you never repeat the same sound material. Every performance of the piece is different. To me this is an important part in music. I like to improvise with musicians, but your background and musical habits are always present and you start to repeat yourself.
When you give a performance with generative software, you first give your own source materials for the software, but you don’t know exactly what the computer will create from this material after you have started the process. I lead the way, decide the tempo and how fast changes happen, but I don’t know exactly what kind of material the computer will generate. Sometimes it happens that the computer goes in totally wrong direction, then I give the new direction where to go. This is kind of a dialogue with the other composer, the virtual composer, and I am really excited about this working strategy!
Who’s your favourite living artist?
John McLaughlin (jazz guitarist), a phenomenal musician!
Which character of music history do you most dislike?
A harmonic cadence. I have always disliked cadences, they stop the flow of music. I am kind of fugue guy.
What political issues are you most concerned with? Is ‘the political’ or political thought present in your work on a conscious level?
Many of my works deals with the environmental issues. I use environmental recordings in my music and compose soundscape music. I am just a mediator when I compose these works. Let the environment speak for itself!
I wish for the listeners to understand that my soundscape works are based on the ideas of acoustic ecology. It is important to understand the sound structures of our living environment. The sounds don’t appear by themselves, there are actions behind the sounds, and behind the actions there is community planning. The big decisions comes from there, and we have to say it loud if the sound environment where we live is not acoustically in balance.
Do you dance? If yes, to what music?
Absolutely! Drum’n’Bass is my thing! It already was in 1994 when I composed a work entitled ‘Chain’ for string quartet and drum machine. I programmed a Jungle beat for the machine. This was the time when this style was called Jungle, not Drum’n’Bass. This minimalistic, repetitive, work has never been performed live… 🙂
What is you present state of mind?
INSPIRATION: John Cage [US]
“Perhaps the most important artist of the 20th Century. He is the father of so many things. Silence was important for him, he was the precursor of performance art. He was a strong character and created his own way to compose music“ –PK
‘4’33’ is undoubtedly John Cage’s most well known musical composition.
It consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds (he uses a stopwatch to time this). In other words, the entire piece consists of silences – silences of different lengths, they say.
On the one hand, as a musical piece, ‘4’33’ leaves almost no room for the pianist’s interpretation: as long as he watches the stopwatch, he can’t play it too fast or too slow; he can’t hit the wrong keys; he can’t play it too loud, or too melodramatically, or too subduedly.
On the other hand, what you hear when you listen to 4’33” is more a matter of chance than with any other piece of music — nothing of what you hear is anything the composer wrote.
INSPIRATION: Sami van Ingen [visual artist, FIN]
“He is the most interesting experimental film maker in Finland. I have been lucky to work with him so many years and I have learned so much from these collaborations“ -PK
Recommended work: Sami van Ingen’s Primaries film performance
This is a documentation video, the person who moves in front of the camera is Sami who is painting and manipulating film live.
Sami van Ingen is a Finnish experimental film maker whose work is distributed by and screened at some of the most central institutions in the experimental film world.
Besides his practice as an artist, van Ingen also curates film programs as well as being involved in film restoration and research. Van Ingen did his doctorate in Fine Arts in the Finnish Academy of Fine Art in 2012 – his research topic was artistic practices in contemporary experimental film-making.
INSPIRATION: Martti Vuorenjuuri [composer, FIN]
“I met him a few times, he was a real character! In mid-1950s he started as a music journalist and wrote many articles about avant-garde and electronic music.
In 1958 he composed Brave New World, a 1,5 hour long musique concrete work for Yleisradio, Finnish national radio. He was against old-school composers and wanted to bring new music to Finland.
The young composers liked him, older music professionals hated him.
When he got older, he still had strong will-power and said straightforwardly what he thought!“ –PK
INSPIRATION: Alvin Lucier [US]
“The father of Sound Art, a really important composer who is always searching for new sounds!” -PK
In 1969 American composer Alvin Lucier first performed his landmark work ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’, conceived for voice and electromagnetic tape.
Lucier read a text into a microphone. Attempting to smooth out his stutter, he began with the lines:
“I am sitting in a room, the same one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice.”
As described in the text, his voice was recorded, then played back into the room. This process was repeated, and with each iteration Lucier’s recorded speech grew muddled, sounding distant, and specific sonic frequencies started to dominate the recorded sound.
These tones that began to overwhelm the text and abstract the sonic landscape are the room’s resonant frequencies and are entirely specific to the architectural particularity of a given space.
As these frequencies grew, reinforced with each playback, the result was an erasure of the human performer and the dominance of an environmental music.
Erkki Kurenniemi [FIN]
“He invented so many unique digital instruments in 1960-70s. He knew what Bob Moog was doing with analogue synthesizers, but Erkki wanted to focus on digital technology instead.
He built synthesizers and sequencers that could be played or controlled with brainwaves, skin electricity, video cameras…” -PK
INSPIRATION: John McLaughlin [Jazz guitarist, UK]
“As a young boy, Jimi Hendrix was my first idol. But when I found the music of John McLaughlin, this opened totally new world to me.
His electric guitar playing in Mahavishnu Orchestra was phenomenal, the band was superb and the compositions were awesome.
With his Shakti group he made succesful fusion between Western and Indian music. Then came the One Truth Band, which is still really special group to me“ -PK