Frank Zappa once said that a composer is ‘a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.’ Olli Virtaperko’s career so far appears to bear that phrase out, and in a good way. His creative journey has been marked out by its ability to surprise – not just air molecules but other human beings – and its strong sense of collaboration with musicians and music professionals from a whole range of genres and disciplines.
As with any artist, you can trace much of Virtaperko’s work back to a handful of experiences and principles. Did the ‘thousands of hours of Baroque and Classical music’ he heard pre-teens shape the spinning intricacies and symmetries of GACH (2005)? Probably. Did the tearaway brilliance of his teenage hero Frank Zappa influence the digging grooves and psychedelic irreverence of his Concerto for Knifonium and Orchestra (Ambrosian Delights, 2013)? Surely. Did his membership of the popular Finnish rock band Ultra Bra prompt him to get his own Ensemble Ambrosius jamming through the borderless tracks of their album Metrix on Baroque instruments? Likely. Did his time presenting the alternative music documentary Välilevjä for YLE Radio free his mind from national, cultural and hierarchical dogmas? Absolutely.
You hear all this in Virtaperko’s music – never nostalgic or romantic, always direct, organised and engaging. There’s grandeur in his breakthrough orchestral work Kuru (2009), a glacial orchestral slab filled with fluttering detail and imbued with an arresting sense of direction. There’s seismic power and cut-glass exactitude in his Five Words of Calvino (2010) whose fast, deft counterpoint tells you all you need to know about its composer well-honed craft. The trademark Virtaperko ‘groove’ so often lurks around the corner, abutting the cradling ostinatos of November (2005) which collapses into a funked-up, 21st-century La Valse full of curveball harmonies and outlandish solos, or on-hand to underline the irony of Music for Old Europe (2006), its sounds emerging into colourful gregariousness from bleached, lost landscapes. If you want to know why one critic described Virtaperko as the ‘Finnish Ravel’, there are answers in the meticulous explorations of tone colour that characterise so many of his smaller works – from the tiny insect-like scamperings of The Devil’s Lungs (2005) to the intimate and luminous conversations of Songs of Innocence, Lust and Sorrow (2011).
So much of Virtaperko’s music is, like Zappa’s, impossible to categorise – neither the forced ‘crossover’ of genre tourism nor the spun-out, synthetic tapestries of the post-serial Germanic/Nordic school. That’s born-out by the ensembles and organisations with whom he’s worked: from the Finnish Radio and Lahti Symphony Orchestras to the European Jazz, UMO Jazz and Metropole Orchestras. Rarely have the results of their collaborations not proved sonically charming, delicate, gentle and urgent. Stringent rhythms, direct harmonies and a penchant for cutting harpsichord and accordion sonorities ensure that Virtaperko’s music is always more acute than vague, more hard-nosed than misty-eyed. Many of his works have a rooted, physical feel born surely from the composer’s one-time dual existence as a Baroque cellist and a singer in a rock band.
Olli Virtaperko stands among a generation of composers who are determined to rediscover their sense of purpose – focused on communicative, useful work that serves local and international communities while reflecting the world we live in. To Zappa’s description of unsuspecting air molecules and musicians, Virtaperko adds his belief that a composer ‘is required to express him or herself verbally, in the contexts of many different musical styles’ and to be an active, able performer and musical leader. At forty, a self-confessed ‘middle aged man’, Virtaperko is full of the excitement of youth. ‘I have expressed myself in all the ways I could ever have imagined to’, he says, ‘but there are still so many things for me to learn and explore.’ Listen out – the results are sure to be unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Andrew Mellor, Reviews Editor, Gramophone, 2014