Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The subjectivity of "pure information"

This was the title of a talk that I recently gave at the Arkadia International Bookshop in Helsinki.

Arkadia is a popular place for both expats and locals alike. Besides the friendly staff, Arkadia also features a calendar full of diverse events: recitals, poetry readings, film showings, discussions on politics and philosophy, and more. Basically, if you have anything interesting to share, just ask the owner and most likely Arkadia will provide the stage for you. 

I had been asked to talk about my day job, but I assumed that there were enough people in Helsinki willing to talk about microbiology, but finding people willing to talk about Allan Pettersson would be considerably more challenging. But you can count on me to take up the task. 

On 22 March 2014 the city of Helsinki was blessed with something it does not get terribly often: beautiful, sunny weather. I was scheduled to give my presentation at 16.00 in the windowless basement of Arkadia. After being enthusiastically welcomed by the Arkadia staff upon my arrival, I was warned that I would be competing against this beautiful weather!

I managed to draw in six audience members. Three I already knew personally, and one I believe was an employee of the bookstore. In other words, two people saw the announcement and decided on their own volition to spend a little time indoors with me and Pettersson's Symphony No. 10. An unbeatable combination, no doubt?

In my opening remarks I tried to establish a few things. First, although Pettersson might be considered Sweden's "national" composer, he is nowhere near the same stature as his counterparts in Finland, Norway, and Denmark (Sibelius, Grieg, and Nielsen, respectively). Second, composers nowadays almost always give their works extramusical titles, which in my opinion creates preconceptions in the minds of both musicians and audiences as to what the music is "about." Pettersson, however, used generic titles almost exclusively, even though people often try to use his biography to "understand" his music. Finally, I explained to the audience the experiment I was attempting: how would you respond to Pettersson's music knowing nothing about him except his name, his nationality, and the time he lived?

The audience then listened to the Segerstam recording of the Symphony No. 10. In an ideal world I should have played it louder, but there were other events going on in the store, and I was not sure what would be the tolerance level of the audience. 

After the piece concluded I began a discussion with the audience. I asked them to share their immediate feelings on the piece. Initially, I had to guide the discussion towards how the work made them feel, instead of just describing the music (fast, loud, etc.). Although some people continued to just give descriptions of the music, some responses were nevertheless quite interesting. Here is what I wrote down, exactly as I wrote it:
  • Odd, bored, active stasis
  • Military marches
  • Constant sense of moving forward, not always pleasant
  • Constant confrontation, a battle, trying to go to a resolution, strings vs. horns, at the end, they move together
  • More visual than aural, scattered puzzle pieces
While most of the above I can understand, I never thought I would hear someone say that this music is boring! When asked for further clarification, it was simply that this music didn't do much for him. Fair enough. 

I then shared with the audience some of Pettersson's more famous quotes, namely the "blessings" and "curses," as well as the "pure information" response to being accused of putting self-pity into his music. I also talked about the biographical circumstances of the composer's life at the time the Symphony No. 10 was composed. 

Having said all this, I then asked if this information had changed their opinion on the music; did the music make more "sense" now. I got about an even split among the audience: knowing this about Pettersson made no difference, while others said it aided in their understanding of the work. 

I was asked about what I thought is the "pure information" that makes up Pettersson's music. I said I believed that when Pettersson set about writing a work, he first established a group of motives, gestures, intervals, etc, upon which the work will be based. This in itself does not mean or represent anything, it is just "pure information." Not sure how accurate or satisfactory that answer was. 

I was also asked about why I was so attracted to Pettersson's music and why I chose the Symphony No. 10. I said that Pettersson's music expresses the human condition with an unflinching honesty that words (or even other art forms) cannot describe. I told them that Pettersson's music can take you to places of the purest beauty, of almost enlightenment, but it will not be an easy journey. You have to climb the mountain. If you can make it to the top, you will be rewarded. 

My decision to use the Symphony No. 10 as an introduction to Pettersson's music was both practical and musical. I didn't want to make the audience sit for 45 minutes, which would have happened if I played the Symphony No. 7. I also chose the Symphony No. 10 because of its immediate impact--it is not a viscerally ambiguous piece.

I concluded the discussion by playing the beautiful string chorale from the Comissiona recording of the Symphony No. 7. I was immediately asked to come back again in the future to give another talk. I thought about giving the same presentation again, since so few people showed up this time. Or what are some other things about Pettersson that I could share with a "virgin" audience? Hmm...


  1. Dear ...

    I do not know your name, but I do want to thank you for your immense dedication to Allan Pettersson. I have only recently discovered his music and have been overwhelmed. Your blog is a major source of information to which I constantly come back. I simply wanted you to k ow that you are not writing all this in a vacuum. There will be people out there, myself included, for whom this is of immense interest, and quite simply by far the most interesting and largest source of information on AP available on the Internet. Interestingly, though my favourite symphony so far is the 8th, though this may change in time.
    Thanks again and best wishes,

    Patrick Hemmerle

    1. Yes Patrick, there are a growing number of PetterssonIANS in this world, scattered about, but we are real, exist.
      I like how he mentioned *the virgin* audience, The words they used to describe their reactions to AP's 10th. Shows how shallow, how little soul these pople have, they are out of touch with history, this world as in ecology, nature, man's destruction of nature, animals sufferings. etc etc etc, Deforestation. ETC, oil spoils, etc. 95% of humanity lives ina tiny bubbl, how can they understand Pettersson?
      REfer to Carl Jung's ideas on the collective Unconscious.
      New Orleans
      The Petterssonian
      Jan31, 2019