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 by its ability to surprise – not just air molecules but other human beings – and its need to collaborate with musicians 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 personal 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 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. It was succeeded by the exquisite Usvapatsas (2017), a caught and sculpted drift of orchestral mist created for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra that demonstrated new advances in his large-scale thinking. There’s seismic power and cut-glass exactitude in his Calvinon viisi sanaa (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 corners in his works, abutting the cradling ostinatos of Marraskuu (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 blossoming into gregarious colour from bleached, lost landscapes. More recently, Virtaperko has continued to play with the musical infrastructure of old Europe via a series of new works for early music instruments.
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 scampering of The Devil’s Lungs (2005) to the intimate and luminous conversations of Songs of Innocence, Lust and Sorrow (2011). recently, Virtaperko has drilled deeper into the ideas of instrumental timbre and human musical personality. The concerto for baritone saxophone and orchestra, Multikolor (2014), is held in thrall the by sounds of the instrument and its capacity for charging multiphonics. A follow-up to Ambrosian Delights, the cello concerto Romer’s Gap (2016) works in tandem with an imaginative view of the instrument and Perttu Kivilaakso’s highly individual expression as a cellist. Both works feature on a 2017 recording from Ondine and the latter was nominated for Finland’s prestigious Teosto Prize the same year.
So much of Virtaperko’s music is, like Zappa’s, impossible to second-guess – 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. In his mid-forties, a self-confessed ‘middle aged man’, Virtaperko is still full of the excitement of youth and alive to musical possibilities. ‘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.’ Keep listening – the results are full of delights and surprises.
Andrew Mellor, 2014/2018