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I revel in the child’s perspective of Carnatic music: Eero Hämeenniemi

Eero Hämeenniemi with a piano owned by Franz Liszt, renowned pianist-composer of the 19th century.

Eero Hämeenniemi with a piano owned by Franz Liszt, renowned pianist-composer of the 19th century.   | Photo Credit: AINO LAPPALAINEN

This Finnish composer is a regular at Chennai’s December music season

About 26 years ago, I received a letter from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) saying that a noted music composer from Finland was visiting Madras and had asked for a meeting with me. The said composer, Eero Hämeenniemi, had done some research on people active in the field of culture in the then Madras. Twenty-six years later, I found myself listening to his life story while lazing on a bench in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, eating overpriced gelato. Seated by the great obelisk, we talked about Tamil literature and Carnatic music. Hämeenniemi was recently in Chennai for his 26th music season. Excerpts from our conversations in Rome and Chennai:

How did India happen to a Finn?

Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important German composer of the 20th and early 21st centuries, had written an open letter to the youth of the world, urging them to think spiritual.

In the little town of Valkeakoski in Finland, as a 17-year-old then, I was inspired enough to write to him and pleasantly surprised to receive a reply. The letter contained an advice. “Read The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo.” Our library did not have a copy of the book. It did a nationwide search and found a copy in the library of the Swedish university in Turku. They agreed to lend the book for three weeks. I skipped school and stayed in bed for three weeks, struggling through every word, using an English–Finnish dictionary.

After school, I joined Sibelius Academy to study basic Sanskrit and musicology. My first visit to India was as a tourist in the Agra-Jaipur-Delhi-Kolkata-Kathmandu circuit. I went back, took up a two-year study of Hindi and came on my own to Delhi in 1986 and 1988.

How did you fall in love with South India?

In 1991, I got an opportunity to come to Madras. My hosts, ICCR, had planned a countrywide tour for me. But I decided to stay in Madras, attend concerts during the music season and meet musicians. I have been coming every year since then.

What attracts you to Carnatic music? How did you imagine symphony orchestra and Carnatic music going together?

I am a trained musician and composer in European classical music. That means I have some knowledge of how a symphony works and how notes are put together. It becomes difficult when one has done that for a long time to have the freshness of a child while listening to familiar music. I am interested in the spontaneity of music-making and my contact with Carnatic music has acted as a sort of stimulus for unlearning. I don’t have a specialist’s point of view on Carnatic music. I revel in the child’s perspective of this music.

Carnatic music has developed certain procedures of using, developing and refining musical material. They are quite different from what we have in the West. I have allowed myself to be influenced by the structuring of music not typical to European music.

How do musical collaborations happen?

I am fascinated by musicians. I am fascinated, in particular, by the fact that each musician is different from the other. All great musicians are extremely good at one thing and nobody is extremely good at everything. After having worked with a whole lot of competent European classical and jazz musicians, it is fascinating to find musicians in India who are extremely good in a completely different way. Therefore, as a composer, I find it rewarding to work with the two genres of music to try and find a way of letting everybody be themselves instead of putting them in inconvenient positions. My challenge as a composer is to make this coming together a unified thing.

I had heard about mridangam maestro Mani Sir (Karaikudi Mani) by chance. I convinced the Helsinki Philharmonic to commission a piece that I wrote in Finland, and Mani Sir and his fantastic Sruthi Laya group played with the Philharmonic. I always get inspired in India and work in Finland.

I met Bombay Jayashri with her guru Lalgudi Jayaraman at K.S. Subramanian’s Brhaddhvani, and composed ‘Red Earth and Rain’. My Tamil was by then good enough for me to translate Sangam poems to Finnish. Bombay Jayashri sang a group of five songs from the Kurunthogai with the Helsinki Philharmonic at the Helsinki festival. There were collaborations with dancers too. Daksha Seth, Mallika Sarabhai and Priyadarsini Govind have choreographed my music and performed them.

I also followed it up with a collaboration with the flute maestro Shashank, who is a virtuoso musician with fantastic imagination, musical depth and a certain freshness. I found a string quartet by equally virtuosic musicians and put them together. That particular work is called ‘Priya’. It is quite an energetic piece.

Does writing books come naturally to a composer? (Hämeenniemi is now working on his next book on meditative music.)

The books on India have become popular in Finland because they tell nice stories about India against the grim tales that keep coming up on TV.

The writer is a cultural activist and Gandhi scholar.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:41:51 AM |

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