Telling the Time: Communication and Temporality in Nordic New Music

Tim Howell, Richard Powell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It has become a truth universally acknowledged that any composer born in a Nordic country must be in need of more light. The long dark winters and luminous summer nights play a significant part in how creative artists from the region think, react and express themselves. In music, this preoccupation with matters of darkness and light is frequently entwined with the perception of time. A number of Nordic composers have openly discussed their fascination with defining and structuring time as part of a broad appreciation of light and its effect on temporality. It seems deeply-rooted within the creative psyche of those who have lived here in their formative years; even Kaija Saariaho, who has been based outside her native Finland (in Paris) for more than 30 years, still defines her compositional process as ’capturing time and giving it form’.

The manipulation of perceived timescale encourages listeners to confront some fundamental responses: is this music slow or fast, static or dynamic, circular or progressive? These concerns often come into focus through formal paradoxes: expressive expansiveness in spite of structural compression, or indeed vice versa. For example, some kind of slow, almost imperceptible, overarching framework overlaid by surface activity of considerable energy – and the dynamic interplay between these two – results in a constant negotiation between background and foreground perceptions. Thus, a sense of momentum and continuity can emerge from stasis – and apparent timelessness – with engaging consequences.

This chapter explores how such compositional concerns aid an effective communicative process through two case studies: Kaaija Saariaho (b.1952) from Finland, focusing on her small-scale, piano trio Light and Matter, and Hans Abrahamsen (b.1952) from Denmark, and his epic instrumental piece Schnee (‘Snow’). Both composers share preoccupations with economy of material and creative energy, using a minimum of ideas to generate maximum impact; yet these two works are at opposite ends of the time spectrum, given their radically different durations. This study explores the ways in which both pieces so successfully reach their audiences through the very temporal designs that seemingly set them apart.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Nature of Nordic Music
EditorsTim Howell
Place of PublicationAbingdon UK and New York
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-315-46285
ISBN (Print)978-1-138-20718-9
Publication statusPublished - 20 Sept 2019

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