Composer Antti Auvinen: Defying expectations
Composer Antti Auvinen’s music has been described as noisy and aggressive, like the heavy metal he’s loved since his childhood in eastern Finland. His music centres on rhythm and colour, honed through years accompanying flamenco dancers on guitar, studying Indian music in Amsterdam and editing video clips for his compositions, among other influences.
On Antti Auvinen’s second birthday, his parents carried him into a record store and let him pick out a record as a present.
He grabbed a colourful LP by Afric Simone, a Mozambican singer who scored several European hits in the mid-70s.
“I still have that record, and you can tell it’s been played a lot! I sampled it for Warp My Simone, a recent work for the Helsinki group defunensemble. It’s a really weird thing to sample your childhood, crackles and all,” he says with a chuckle.
That combination of far-flung influences is typical of Auvinen’s open-minded, inventive approach. It’s helped him to become one of Finland’s most acclaimed composers since 2015, when the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO) premiered his first major work, Junker Twist – a raucous take on right-wing populism featuring shouts, whistles and stomping boots.
The following year, Auvinen’s status was assured when his macabre chamber opera Autuus (Bliss) won the coveted Teosto Prize. It was premiered by defunensemble and the Helsinki Chamber Choir.
In 2017, Auvinen composed a concerto for Moog synthesizer and big band, played by Kari Ikonen and the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra.
That same year, the FRSO premiered Turbo Aria, which combines sounds of toys and computer games with samples of scratchy 78s featuring early twentieth-century sopranos such as Aino Ackté, founder of the Savonlinna Opera Festival.
Born in Kuopio in 1974, Auvinen began piano lessons at age six, moving on to the guitar a few years later.
“My teachers were classically trained, so when I became a teenager it was natural to let my hair grow and start playing guitar with more distortion,” he says. This obsession began around age nine with Iron Maiden, followed by the likes of Metallica and (Finnish thrash/speed metal pioneers) Stone.
When I was around seven, I saw a local production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. That made a big impression on me.
By the time he began jamming with friends, “we were into guitar heroes like Joe Satriani, so the aim wasn’t necessarily to create a great piece of music but more to be really fast and impressive,” he says.
“But I was also into very different kinds of music, for instance György Ligeti. I remember being really moved by Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6. And when I was around seven, I saw a local production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. That made a big impression on me. It really did the trick.”
Watch the trailer for Antti Auvinen's opera Autuus.
“Opera has huge potential”
The experience sparked a lifelong passion for opera.
“I’m a big fan. I’ve been to the Savonlinna Festival for about 30 years in a row. Opera has huge potential, but I’m not sure if it’s being used. This artform can also speak in the language of our times. The reproductions of the old classics are mostly good, but we need more new operas,” says Auvinen.
I have a super-clear concept of how I use video. It has to be an integral part of the piece, with its own original sound.
“Musical theatre featuring technology such as video and a load of energy is a natural way for contemporary music to communicate with larger audiences,” he suggests.
Video often plays a key role in his compositions.
“I have a super-clear concept of how I use video. It has to be an integral part of the piece, with its own original sound. It might be an excerpt of an old movie, or something I’ve filmed.”
Splicing and dicing video clips is part of his focus on rhythm.
While audiences don’t usually get up and dance at classical concerts, Auvinen sees many of his works as dance pieces, albeit quirky ones.
“In standard dance music, you know what’s coming up – you have expectations of what the rhythmical development will be. That’s not my cup of tea. I want something more, an element of surprise. I’m playing with expectations,” he says.
“I’m interested in rhythm not only as a theoretical construction but as movement, as a power to move, a pulse – all these things related to our human behaviour.”
Auvinen partly attributes this fascination to his years working as a flamenco guitar accompanist at a Jyväskylä dance school.
“The rhythmical accents in flamenco are interesting, and there’s a relation to Carnatic music, with the rhythmical patterns and irregular cycles” – possibly linked to Spanish Roma’s South Asian roots.
Jyväskylä to Prague & Amsterdam
Auvinen began freelancing for the school while he was a guitar student at the Conservatory of Central Finland. After that he headed to the Music Academy Prague, which was a bit of a letdown.
“In 1998, Prague was still very Eastern Bloc, and the school was very conservative. So I ended up at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. My studies there included two years of Carnatic Indian music. That took a lot out of me, but it’s still in my work somewhere.”
Returning to Finland, Auvinen began doctoral studies at the Sibelius Academy and became chair of the Society of Finnish Composers, a post he’s held since 2014.
While the pandemic has been “an immediate catastrophe” for performers, he points out, composers will suffer more in the long run as commissions dry up and orchestras face a backlog of new works when concerts resume.
I’m interested in rhythm not only as a theoretical construction but as movement, as a power to move, a pulse – all these things related to our human behaviour.
While several Auvinen premieres were postponed last year, his works were featured on three new albums.
Ondine Records released a disc featuring Hannu Lintu and the FRSO performing three compositions – Junker Twist, Himmel Punk and Turbo Aria – described as “explosive orchestral works which leave no listener indifferent”.
The Helsinki Chamber Choir featured two Auvinen compositions on its latest Alba Records release, “Choral Works”, while guitarist Petri Kumela included a brief piece on his album “Small Creatures: A musical bestiary”.
This year Auvinen hopes to premiere a guitar concerto for Kumela, as well as a new staging of Autuus – fingers crossed.
Watch a performance of Twelve Fn Kies for Big Band and Moog with Umo Helsinki Jazz Orchestra / Mikko Hassinen / Kari Ikonen, moog.