Osmo Tapio R‰ih‰l‰: An interview by Tom Moore

This was
an epistolary interview via email.

TM: What was the musical environment when you were growing up? Did your
parents or close relatives play music, as amateurs or professional?

OTR: I come from a very middle class family. My mum comes from Kaustinen in
Finland. That doesn’t usually say a lot to people, but to people in the folk
music circles worldwide it’s almost the same as what Haight-Ashbury is to
hippies… However, in my mum’s close family there weren’t any professional or
semi-professional musicians. My grandpa from my dad’s side was an active
accordionist, who gigged a lot as a folk dance musician. But that all belongs
to the past of long ago.

I was raised in a family where my mother listened to to classical music from
records and from the radio. When I was seven, my parents sent me to piano
lessons… and I hated it. I stopped as soon as possible! However, I couldn’t
avoid hearing my mum listening to Mozart, Brahms, Sibelius etc. We lived in the
countryside in Northern Finland, where I would never hear classical music live.
I think I must have been in my teens (something like 15-16) when I first heard
classical music live.

When I was 15 I got myself a guitar, and started a punk band. I was a rock
musician for a few years (I was a singer; we played first punk, then heavy
rock), and in my late teens I discovered jazz. I got interested in Bird and
Trane, started playing a saxophone, and within a year or two in my early
twenties, I first noticed that all those things that I was longing for in
(progressive) rock music had existed for almost 100 years in classical music…
when I heard The Rite of Spring.

Well, that’s the very obvious story, which I share with a million others.
But I can’t help it. Thanks, Igor Fedorovich!

Having written my rock-group’s music, it was very natural to start thinking
about writing art music. For a while I dreamed about a career as an opera
singer, but I soon realized that only writing music myself would soothe my
thirst for working in music.

TM: Where did you live in northern Finland? Was it a small town, or

OTR: I lived in Suomussalmi, which is a large municipality in North-East
Finland. The town where I lived in was called ƒmm‰nsaari, which is a center for
the municipality, with some 6-7 thousand inhabitants. Suomussalmi had something
like 13 thousand inhabitants. The place is famous for the big battles that were
fought there during the Finnish Winter War in 1939-40, especially the Battle of
Raate, which practically stopped the Russian offensive.

TM: How long had the family been there? was your grandfather the musician
from the same town?

OTR: My parents moved there in 1960, and I was born in 64. I had three elder
sisters, and later had a little sister and a brother. My grandparents lived in
western Finland, some 200 miles from our hometown.

TM: What was it that prompted you to start playing punk? What was the rock
scene there like?

OTR: I didn’t get classical training. Suomussalmi wasn’t, and still isn’t, a
hotbed of classical music. Starting a rock band was the natural thing to do if
you wanted to play music. And being in a rock band is great when you’re a

Punk rock was something that just hit the right note with my generation in
the late 70’s. The rock scene wasn’t very big, but there were a few bands and
we were active locally. My band even released one self-published single, which
has now become a punk collectors’ gem worldwide.

TM: Did your town also have active folk musicians? the group V‰rttin‰ and
others had some international success… were they known in Finland?

OTR: Folk music wasn’t “the thing” in Suomussalmi. Groups like V‰rttin‰
appeared much later. The folk music boom started in the 90’s.

TM: How did you discover jazz? what did you listen to initially?

OTR: A fellow rock musician showed me Ross Russell’s “Bird Lives” and raved
about bebop. I just got interested and started listening to Parker, Gillespie
etc., and soon found cool, free, hard bop and so on. John Coltrane became a big
favorite to me, and I still enjoy his music very much, as well as the fusion of
the seventies, like Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Al Di Meola
et al. However, nowadays the best new jazz comes from Scandinavia and Finland,
although few Americans know that.

TM: I would certainly agree with you that American jazz has been decadent in
terms of innovation for decades now, as American pop has been, for that

What was the path you took from punk-rocker and jazz saxophonist to
classical composition? Where did you study? Who did you study with? Were there
models which you wanted to emulate in terms of composition? What were you
listening to after “Rite of Spring”?

OTR: Classical music was always there. My mum listened to classical from the
radio and from records, and my older sister studied the piano very keenly until
she quit when aged around 20. I “knew” composers by names; I had always been
interested in them.

I got myself a tenor sax when I was nineteen or so, but it was too late to
learn it properly. I graduated from the local high school in 1985, and moved
with my girlfriend to Stockholm, Sweden. I became very interested in opera, and
for a while I dreamed of becoming an opera singer. I lived three years in
Stockholm, listened only to classical music, mainly romantic and early 20th
century. I knew a fellow Finn, who had been studying in the university, and
took theory lessons from him. I played the piano, studied counterpoint, harmony
and all that typical stuff.

In 1987 I started at the University of Turku (Finland), majoring in
musicology. There studying music theory, history etc. became more systematic.
While living in Stockholm, I realized that I would never (want to) be a
performing musician — that wasn’t my path. Rather, I wanted to write music
myself. And once back in Finland and in university, I dived deep into modern
music. My professor was himself a noted composer, and a scholar of contemporary
music. At that point I still just wrote stuff myself, but didn’t actually study

TM: What was the musical scene like at the University in Turku? In the city
generally? Who was your professor? What was his pedagogical approach to
composition and music history? When did you start to study composition? With

OTR: Turku was a city with some 170,000 inhabitants, and as the former
capital of Finland, there is a lively music scene, with a local philharmonic
orchestra, conservatory and a few chamber ensembles. The local orchestra is a
direct heir to the orchestra that was founded in 1790 — at a time, when Mozart
was still alive. That orchestra also played Haydn’s symphonies already during
the composer’s lifetime.

The faculty of musicology was (and is) very small, with only handful of new
students enrolling every year. On the other hand, there is a Swedish speaking
university in Turku as well, and the two faculties of musicology co-operate a

The professor was Mr. Mikko Heiniˆ, who is a well known composer and a
musicologist. At my time there, he was still in his most hectic period studying
contemporary Finnish music, which was my main interest as well. We had guest
lecturers every now and then, even from places like Paris (Ivanka Stoianova) or
Berlin (Witted Szalonek) etc., but mostly the scene wasn’t very big.

I got my first public performances among the music student circles, but the
music I wrote at that time was clumsy, since I was “blind”, and just finding my
staggering feet. However, I think I was quite active, and around that time the
biggest local newspaper asked me to start writing critics, reviews and previews
of concert life. I did that for a couple of years there, until I moved to
Helsinki in late 1991.

I organized a concert of my early works, and the manager of the Turku
Philharmonic happened to hear it. Although my music was very badly written and
rough, he commissioned a piece for string orchestra from me. It was premiered
in ‘91, and the reception was ok, although I didn’t feel that I had achieved
what I had wanted with the work.

Mr. Heiniˆ didn’t take any composition pupils, and my first and only
composition teacher was Mr. Harri Vuori, who was/is a lecturer at the Helsinki
University’s faculty of musicology. I continued my studies in Helsinki, and
wrote reviews for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Scandinavia for a
year, until ‘92. Since then I haven’t worked as a critic — it is very hard,
when you try to stand on both sides of the barricade, so to say.

I studied only two years with Mr. Vuori. The method was very practical: I
wrote music, then he read it, asked questions, pointed at details and larger
lines, and taught me generally “how to work as a composer”. Despite my many and
lengthy discussions with him, I still consider myself mostly an self-taught
composer, because most of the things that I’ve learned I’ve snapped up myself
from reading scores, listening to music, talking to musicians etc.

TM: How would you describe your style in your works from the early

OTR: Hmmm…. Maybe “trying to find my feet” is still a good description of
my early style. I admired modern composers, and wanted to become one. On the
other hand, I knew that some of the craziest things and experiments in music
had already been done

during the 60’s, and that it would be almost impossible to find something
that had been unheard of previously.

TM: Are they still in your catalog? What work would you describe as your
“opus one”, and why?

OTR: I don’t consider any work as opus 1, but the earliest works that have
survived in my list of works are Five Characters for solo flute (1993) and
Sarment for harp, marimba and vibraphone (1993), both of which have been
performed quite recently, and maybe also the short orchestral piece Hinchcliffe
Thumper — tha’ Bloody Intermezzo (1993). From there on, I think the next few
works that are still somewhat worthwhile are from 96/97, so obviously 1993 was
a good and productive year for me.

Hinchcliffe Thumper was my first piece for a symphony orchestra, and hearing
it in the Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic Music) festival in Malmˆ, Sweden, in
1994 was a big eye-opener for me. It is always terribly exciting to hear one’s
own works for the first time played by living musicians, no matter how well
notation programs like Sibelius playback nowadays. There are always surprises,
pleasant and unpleasant…

TM: I note that the first string quartet in your list of works is no. 2. Was
no. 1 withdrawn?

OTR: Well, not definitely. For years I’ve been a bit unsure whether I should
revise the first in some way, but haven’t done so, because the music I wrote
feels a bit out-dated.

TM: No. 2 is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, but such works must be rare.
What is the story behind the string quartet? Did you visit Brazil? Or is there
a friend of yours who did? I find it fascinating that a Finnish string quartet
is dedicated to a giant of Brazilian popular music as is your no. 2 (Jobimao).
I know of an as yet unpublished and unperformed piano concerto by a Brazilian
composer also.

OTR: No, I just liked Jobim’s music a lot, and at some point got an idea
that I should write a work in his style just to prove myself I could do it. If
you listen to the 2nd string quartet at http://www.myspace.com/otraihala,
you’ll notice that the first 5-6 minutes of the quartet sound like contemporary
art music, and the final third is a straight bossa nova, but the material of
the more modern sounding part of the piece is taken directly from the latter part and its melodies.

The quartet was once performed at the President’s Castle, where the
president of Republic of Finland had her annual dinner with all of the foreign
ambassadors who are based in Finland. I was present, although not among the
dining guests, and the Brazilian ambassador sought me out to shake my hand! He
was so thrilled that someone from Finland was honoring the music of his

TM: A question about compositional technique/practice. Composers often can
be divided between two groups: those who have an “architectural” approach,
designing the large scale scheme, and then filling the details, and those who
have a more organic, or narrative approach, inventing the details, and then
seeing what sort of larger schema those details grown into. How would you
describe your approach?

OTR: Definitely “organic”. I have only ever written one work (a trio for
clarinet, horn & violin titled “Spinoza’s Web”), where I made a strict
structure first, and then filled in the “slots”. To me it’s natural to let the
work flow relatively freely and act as a midwife, as Einojuhani Rautavaara put
it. However, I want to control the overall structure, but not to forge it.

TM: Please talk a little about Rock Painting;. How do you combine the
improvisatory sections with the composed portions? How much direction do you
give to the players regarding the improvisations?

OTR: Well, “Rock Painting” was a big thing to me, when I wrote it in 2003,
because that was the first piece where I openly wanted to integrate rock music
into my own music.

Stravinsky is obviously a very important composer to me, especially his
earlier output. As much as I admire Messiaen’s instrumentation, his way of
thinking about music is too “religious” to me. It seems to me that all his
music is more or less sacred, and I, on the contrary, don’t think there are any
sacred things in life, and most certainly not in my music.

The first four or so minutes of the work are just creating a volatile
soundscape, and when the 7/8 rock section starts, it is like, “what the hell is
this”…I don’t really give any direction to the soloists for the improvised
sections, other than that they can hear the supporting music played by others
in the chamber orchestra, and can adjust their solos accordingly. Everything
else is written in the score except the solos. In the recording you can hear
the viola player has listened a lot to metal, and the flutist surely knows his
Jethro Tull… the clarinet player played a solo that was a bit more jazzy,
which suited me fine, since it was good to not have direct rock solos by all
three players.

TM: Please talk about your work with Uusinta.

OTR: In fact I’m the original founder of the ensemble. In July 98, I dreamed
at night that I said to a colleague of mine: “This can’t go on. We must form a
band!” When I woke up, I called the viola player / composer Max Savikangas and
said these words to him. He thought about it for a nanosecond (I think) and
answered: “Yeah, let’s do that.”

In the beginning we called first and foremost composers who were performing
musicians as well, but it very soon appeared that the interest from outside the
composer circles was so big, that we by and by dropped the idea of an ensemble
consisting of composers only. I was the manager of this ensemble until I
started at my current position (producer for classical music and jazz for the
Finnish National TV (YLE)) in 2005. Since then I have collaborated with the
ensemble but from the “outside”. In 2000, Uusinta was made into a limited
company, and we broadened our actions to music publishing and some record

The Finnish word “uusinta” is a homonym, meaning “the newest” and “a
re-run”. The idea behind the band was to premier new works and give these same
works a second (3rd, 4th etc.) performance. It is not difficult to get a first
performance, but already the second is very hard to get.

Uusinta has premiered and re-performed a few of my works, but it has not
been my own “tool”. There are about dozen active members. I met my second wife,
the violinist Maria Puusaari through working with Uusinta. Up to this date,
Uusinta has premiered more than 100 works and played over 100 concerts in six
countries, and published over 100 works.

I have to say that when I think about a new chamber work, I think first
about whether Uusinta might perform it, although I try to think broader, and
not intentionally restrict anything to suit only Uusinta.

TM: Would you like to talk about your recent orchestral works? Do you know
of other orchestral pieces dedicated to football (or as the Americans call it,

OTR: Sure. Although I don’t think other orchestral works than “The Iron
Rain” (2008) are very recent… as for example Barlinnie Nine was written in
1999 and slightly re-worked in 2005 and Ardbeg in 2003. Most certainly there
aren’t a plenty of contemporary music works inspired by soccer, although there
are some, as can be read from this Guardian article (might be familiar to you


Strictly speaking, Barlinnie Nine isn’t inspired by soccer, but rather
Duncan Ferguson the man himself. I don’t know Ferguson personally, but as I was
a devoted fan of Everton FC, I proverbially spent many years with him. A person
with a fantastic talent, that never fulfilled his promise, a hard man on the
pitch with no comparison, who breeds pigeons, spends some time incarcerated for
his troubles, yet all his fellow pros say he’s the nicest colleague you can
wish to have… and a cult figure among the punters. One should be aware of the
amazing scene that is English soccer world since the 1880’s to really
understand why/how can a composer of so called contemporary art music get
inspired to write a tribute to a soccer player…

Barlinnie Nine is a chain of stop-starts, an apotheosis of

Well, what could I say about The Iron Rain? It is like a picture, or a play,
that “opens up” slowly. To me, music is part of visual arts. I “see” music as
pictures, lights, shadows, points, lines etc. Iron Rain is like a picture that
you may see at one glance, but when have a closer look, a lot of details
appear; in some way it is like a Kandinsky painting. Of course the thing that a
listener will remember of it afterwards is the string players quietly humming a
vocalise in the closing bars.

“Ardbeg — the Ultimate Piece for Orchestra” — unfortunately I don’t have a
recording of it, although making one with the Finnish RSO has been on cards for
some time now. This 17-minutes work was written as an homage to the tiny
Scottish island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, where they make the best single
malt whiskies in the world, its people, the sheep, and of course that one
special malt called Ardbeg. I’ve visited Islay and its distilleries twice just
because I’m a huge single malt fan. Ardbeg (the orchestral work, not the malt)
is maybe the most easy-to-approach of my recent orchestral works. I wish I
could get it performed in Scotland by a Scottish orchestra!

TM: Do you have plans to explore areas and genres that are new to you? What
are some current and upcoming projects?

OTR: I’ve eschewed vocal music for a long time. Only recently I finished a
six-minutes piece for a chamber choir (SATB, will be premiered next October by
the Helsinki Chamber Choir), and within a short time I intend to write a
semi-operatic work for a female solo voice and two accompanying instruments,
and furthermore, later this year I’ll write a libretto for a chamber opera
comprising short stories, to be composed in 2011. ATM I think it will be a
series of absurd sketches in style of Monty Python…

In fact there’s a myriad of ideas teeming in my head all the time… I get
approximately two or three divine ideas every week, and about every tenth of
them materialize at some point. But that’s typical artist life, I guess.

TM: Any advice to young composers who are just starting out?

OTR: Dear me, what a terrible question. Well, if a young person wants to
become a dull and predictable composer, then my advice is to follow all the
famous names and try to emulate all what they’ve done… And that suits me, as
a composer’s path is a constant competition with everybody else, even with your
best friends…

My advice for a young composer, and for myself, would be: do whatever you
feel is your honest call. That’s so bloody obvious, but I can’t help it. I
think what is the difference between myself and most of my colleagues is, that
I dare to say aloud that my music is some kind of prog. Not prog rock, but my
ethos is that all good music is progressive and vice versa. I think most
contemporary composers would be scared to admit that they’ve ever learned
anything from jazz or rock, and yet I think amalgamating everything good is
simply crucial (as long as it comes from yourself!). Along the lines of
Gertrude Stein: “Good music is good music is good music”, never mind if it’s
bossa nova, punk rock or Stockhausen.

TM: But haven’t we entered the ‘post-modern’ age, where nothing is new and
everything is recycled? Is it still possible to progress, to move forward?

OTR: Of course we live in post-modern times now, and my conviction has been
for a long time that it’s impossible to find anything completely new in art
music, because since we have taken on board all kinds of
unpitched/synthetic/whatever noises, nothing we write sounds completely new. We
have to play with the toys we’ve got now — or re-define the meaning of

With “prog” I don’t mean exploring new sounds for the sake of it, but rather
the ethos — that a constant change is needed, even if the steps of change are
small. On the other hand, when a colleague writes a post-serialist work (which
is still quite commonplace in Finland) or otherwise terribly ugly music (which
is a norm in Central Europe, probably because of the unbearable weight of
classical tradition in German-speaking world), it is in no way progressive, but
rather regressive.

At the moment Carlo Gesualdo sounds more modern than 90% of the living

TM: I couldn’t agree more. Gesualdo is one of those figures who is outside
time. Final thoughts?

OTR: Well, I don’t have any special declarations.

Tomorrow I will be moderating a seminar about music journalism at the
Tampere Biennale contemporary music festival, and I have just realized that
what you are doing right now is a most representative form of music journalism.
The title of the seminar is “Music journalism — an impossibility?”, and one of
the topics is, whether music journalism is possible, because everything
extra-musical is also considered as music journalism. Another typical sign of
times is that this interview will be online.

As a composer, I am an artist who believes that a piece of art is the reason
and the consequence of itself, a piece of art has a self-value. I also believe,
that “true” art is possible only if the artist (composer) MUST make the work
into what it becomes; I believe a good piece of art (composition) is done
“inconsciously”. If a composer models his/her work on some specific style, the
composer doesn’t create new art. This leads to the notion that a new piece of
art can be made from almost any materials or inspirations whatsoever, which I
admit is a post-modern way of seeing things.

As a composer, I see myself as a progressive musician. Not that my music
would sound like prog rock (that’s not my aim), but in the way classic prog
could make a piece of art out of anything. And to me, Gesualdo is the most
modern composer, and Stravinsky is the prog musician number one.

-An interview by Tom Moore

image_description=Osmo Tapio R‰ih‰l‰
product_title=Osmo Tapio R‰ih‰l‰: An Interview by Tom Moore
product_by=Above: Osmo Tapio R‰ih‰l‰