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Perttu HAAPANEN (b. 1972)
Kullervo Clusters [11:59]
Strophes [4:02]
Readymade Alice [2:56]
Report [8:06]
Taxidermic Peter [14:08]
Strophes II [5:18]
…sino phonia, paronomasia [16:47]
Helsinki Chamber Choir/Nils Schweckendiek
rec. 2016, Sellosali & Olari church, Espoo, Finland
BIS BIS-2452 [65:06]

The grotesque animalistic noises which permeate the first track – Kullervo Clusters – give us a pretty daunting foretaste of what is to come. In short, the choral music of Perttu Haapanen relies on vocal effects and extraordinary technical antics yet offers very little in the way of musical substance. Perhaps the strong memories of Sibelius invoked by the title of this first item serve to explain why Finland’s greatest composer thought he had lost touch with musical developments and abandoned composing; nothing could be further from the mannered and coherent musical language of Sibelius than this extraordinary display of experimental exhibitionism from the 47-year-old Perttu Haapanen.

A former student of the Sibelius Academy, Haapanen has written for what the booklet note describes as “a wide variety of musical formations”. Clearly experimentation and a desire to avoid traditional elements dominate his work, and to complement that he has selected texts from highly unconventional sources. Kullervo Clusters draws on news flashes concerning cases of incest and murder, the words in Readymade Alice are the result of an internet search, and Report parodies the dispassionate words of an anonymous medical report. That said, the one thing that this recording does not focus on is the texts, which may have driven the sonic material, but are, in the main, disfigured to the point of indecipherability.

Conductor Nils Schweckendiek writes in the booklet that Haapanen has “an acute ear for the full range of possibilities of the human voice”. That may well be so. One wishes, however, he had something else to offer, since 65 minutes’ worth of vocal stretches very, very, very quickly palls on the ear. Such extended vocal techniques – listed in the booklet as “whispering, speaking, shouting, Sprechgesang, half-voiced (breathy) tone production, breathing sounds, vocal fry (a loose glottal closure that permits air to bubble through slowly), whistling, lip smacks, dental smacks, tongue clicks, grunting, friction effects (achieved by passing small amounts of air through narrow spaces in the vocal tract at high pressure), as well as nasal tone and falsetto – are used as not just the building blocks but the very fabric of these works, and while, as Schweckendiek claims, they may not be merely “attention-seeking effects”, they are such a dominant feature of the writing, that any evidence of a musical structure or a delivery of some kind of coherent musical idea is quite obscured. Taxidermic Peter seriously over-indulges in such vocal effects, supplemented by the choir hacking away at what is described as “a large array of objects”. Perhaps only in the very brief Readymade Alice does something tangibly sung emerge from the plethora of vocal noises.

These are the kind of vocal acrobatics so beloved by choirs who devote their lives to competing, and in any competition of extreme vocal antics, the Helsinki Chamber Choir would sail out clear and decisive winners. If nothing else, this disc is an extraordinary demonstration of incredibly advanced vocal techniques. One wonders what kind of throat and larynx panaceas the choir members needed after such sustained bouts of unnatural activities, but during the recording sessions, they were clearly all in extremely fine form. Schweckendiek certainly commands amazing authority over his singers. The recorded sound is also superlative, and I cannot imagine that any performing group or recording engineers could have done a better job with this strange and largely unpalatable material.

Marc Rochester

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