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Antti AUVINEN (b. 1974)
Junker Twist (2015) [9:14]
Himmel Punk (2016) [13:47]
Turbo Aria (2017/2018) [22:21]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu
rec 2016-2018, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland
ONDINE ODE1326-2 [45:45]

Antti Auvinen is a completely new name to me. Apparently he settled upon a career as a classical guitarist before almost stumbling into composition during his studies at the Jyväskylä Conservatory. The titles of the pieces on this bracing new issue almost leap off the cover; Auvinen’s fellow composer Osmo Tapio Räihäla explains that they have been forensically chosen in his crisp booklet note. A cursory initial listen to this agreeably brief disc confirms their aptness.

As part of our lockdown routine during the last twelve months my wife and I have been escaping into the world of 1950s and 1960s UK television, enjoying programmes such as The Champions, Man in a Suitcase and The Prisoner which were first broadcast when we were infants. Inevitably the Second World War casts a long shadow over many of them. An episode of The Baron we watched a couple of nights back featured an enjoyable turn from the immortal Robert Hardy as the kind of histrionic, fanatical neo-Nazi who seems to be the focus of Auvinen’s romping, stomping character portrait Junker Twist. This is an orchestral sketch which embodies the stereotypically loud ‘populist’ archetype familiar to all who have looked on with incredulity at Planet Earth’s misfortunes over the last decade or so. Studying the television of fifty years ago, it’s clear that these folk never really went away and more frightening still that the caricatures portrayed by Hardy and described musically by Auvinen are all too real. Räihäla informs us that the word Junker originally referred to minor landed gentry, individuals whom were often belittled by the actual nobility and occasionally infected by delusions of grandeur. Auvinen’s piece unerringly captures the black humour frequently required to puncture this terrifyingly contagious kind of prejudice. At its outset crashing, clanking percussion stamps out a domineering, irregular beat. Baleful, hectoring brass melds with scurrying strings. The guffawing and sneering of shrill woodwind seem oblivious to the strummings of an insouciant harp. At 4:37 the trumping, spluttering brass spew out some garbled but unignorable musical ‘tweets’. The material from 5:40 indicates the onset of exhaustion, a running out of steam. The crowd seems to disperse, the remaining sounds signify the residual detritus of a fractious event. Junker Twist is a bold, rather terrifying overture which attempts to take the lazy demagogue down a peg. As Adam and the Ants reminded us in 1982, “ridicule is nothing to be scared of”.

The note makes it clear that Himmel Punk is a companion piece, but listeners will not have to read it to work that out. For the most part it seems to describe another demagogic frenzy in not dissimilar terms. The two pieces emerged within a twelve month period so one can hardly criticise Auvinen for his continued experiments in this brusque, uncompromising style. Himmel Punk seems to be another dark commentary on the denial of human rights to minorities or out-groups who pose no threat to us whatsoever – we manufacture our own warped anxieties about imaginary differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such ruminations inevitably lead to scapegoating and deliberately fabricated conflict. Himmel Punk begins where Junker Twist finished off, with furious percussion pounding out another irregular pulse and loud, astringent instrumental gestures. Occasional pulsing strings offer intermittent familiarity, although this can hardly be described as ‘balm for the soul’. Auvinen displays impressive flair for unusual instrumental colour – the writing for trumpets from 1:41 for example seems extremely taxing. The howling effects from 3:27 might be vocal in origin and recall Varèse. It is difficult for the listener to distinguish the ‘in-groups’ from the ‘out-groups’ and perhaps that’s the point. Surfaces clarify and settle from 4:25 as the dark clouds gradually part to reveal faint blue skies in the form of ethereal string chorales, harp, bells and pianos (the Himmel of the title) but any respite is short-lived and soon forgotten among the whooping and hollering into mouthpieces and nagging brass complaints. These rise to a suffocating din at 9:58 before the residual string threads yield to gentler (if uneasy) gamelan-like sounds, and a fragile ‘peace’. If this is beauty, it may seem to have been hard-won but it was likely there all along and merely drowned out by the hollow din. By way of conclusion Auvinen depresses combinations of two or three note bass pedals – creating a revolving door of repose for after the mob has gone home. Himmel Punk duly subsides in exhaustion.

The final work is similarly rich in political subtext – this time Auvinen muses upon refugee status and the emigration of his Finnish ancestors as well as the implications of recycling – alluding especially to the washing up of mundane matter on distant shores. Turbo Aria incorporates further ingenious refinements; Auvinen deploys a sampler to weave in the digitised sounds of ancient 78s of long-forgotten Finnish sopranos. The crackle of the shellac is tangible throughout the piece’s 22 minute duration. Its opening gesture involves these strange recycled voices warbling in unfamiliar tongues. There is an abundance of clangour, as if produced by a community of settlers on a tip making music with whatever comes to hand. Thin strands of sound are tempered by percussive piano. Vocal expulsions resemble trapped birds seeking to flee a toxic cage. Turbo Aria inhabits a dense, unsettling world whereby listeners will struggle to disentangle the synthetic from the real. Encountering it brought to mind the feeling of watching some incomprehensible 1970s animated childrens’ TV show via satellite from some far-flung corner of Eastern Europe – one hasn’t the slightest notion of the who, the what or the why. The harp again seems to play an important part in proceedings, an unconscious nod perhaps to Auvinen’s earliest strummed musical beginnings. Turbo Aria is undeniably exciting but it’s another uncomfortable listen and I cannot help but think that is the point with this subversive music, Rather than an idealised nostalgic dream, Turbo Aria seems to convey something of a nightmare in sepia.

So do I ‘like’ this music? It’s easy to admire the originality of Auvinen’s sound world, but in truth I found it rather difficult to love. Some of his aesthetic concerns seem to overlap with the Norwegian Lars-Petter Hagen’s but I find the latter’s music to be more subtle and satisfying. Having said that, Antti Auvinen has certainly announced himself in the most forthright terms; his music is quite impossible to ignore and it will certainly be interesting to see where it takes him. On this occasion he could hardly have benefitted from more fervent advocacy than that provided by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra who again sound sensational in Ondine’s typically cinematic production. And once more one must doff one’s cap to Hannu Lintu; one moment he’s leading Stephen Hough’s refined yet probing Beethoven concertos and the next he’s at the opposite end of the scale unravelling the diffuse sonic puzzles of a Magnus Lindberg or a Bernd Alois Zimmermann. It may be that Antti Auvinen is not even on the scale; I imply no criticism whatsoever in suggesting that he speaks an entirely different, extremely bracing language. As for the playing time, I suspect most listeners will find three quarters of an hour to be more than sufficient.

Richard Hanlon

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