Ideas of North: Canadian composer Matthew Whittall sails into town on Nameless Seas

Matthew Whittall. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Canadian composer Matthew Whittall has made Finland his home for the past 16 years and has thrived. One of his most recent works is Nameless Seas and it was written as a commission for a Finnish festival. Angela Hewitt got involved and urged the National Arts Centre to perform the work in Ottawa during the Ideas of North festival. In advance of that world premiere performance, Whittall answered some questions about the work sent to him by email by ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb. The answers have been edited for length.

Q. Why Nameless Seas?

A. The title came from an exhibition by the New York painter MaryBeth Thielhelm. We met in Seaside, Florida in 2008 when we were resident artists at a wonderful program called Escape to Create – where I returned to do most of the work on the piece – and immediately perceived commonalities in each other’s work. Her paintings of the sea are extraordinarily powerful, almost monochromatic. They convey the vastness of the ocean. Her art walks the line between abstract and figurative, expressive and decorative, which is how I like to think of my music. So the concerto, and each of its four continuous movements, draw their titles from her past exhibitions. The music also refers to the different associations people have with the sea: refuge, danger, territory unexplored. It draws heavily on my own experiences with the sea, so it’s a very personal piece in that way.

Q. When did you get the commission?

A. I’d been talking about the idea with Hannu Lintu for a few years, but the details fell into place around the spring of 2015. First the PianoEspoo festival agreed to be the commissioner in Finland, with my longtime friend and collaborator Risto-Matti Marin as soloist for the first performance here. NACO came on board soon after through Angela Hewitt’s advocacy. The schedule worked out so the world premiere is in Ottawa. It came at a great time. I’d been working very hard as a freelance composer for a number of years, writing a lot of music very quickly and teaching quite a bit. I wanted to write something big that I’d been thinking about for a long time. I got a grant from the Wihuri Fund, a major private supporter of the arts and sciences in Finland, which allowed me to take a sabbatical from the Sibelius Academy and focus on this one piece for a whole year. It was very difficult to write, the kind of piece I couldn’t take my eye off for a minute, so having that space helped immeasurably.

Q. Was the commission very specific?

A. I was asked to take into account the different-sized string sections of NACO and the Finnish Radio Symphony, but that wasn’t problematic. There was some haggling over the duration, as I’d been thinking of a really vast piece, like Brahms’s 2nd, 40 to 45 minutes. But we settled on 30 minutes. It’s a tad longer than that, about 34, due to an extended solo cadenza. I feel fortunate that nobody placed any onerous restrictions on me. The piece is the way I wanted it to be.

Q. Where do you find yourself as a composer today? 

A. I feel like I’m at a point of synthesis. I did a lot of work and absorbed many new influences into my essentially lyrical idiom during my late 20s and 30s: postminimalism, Renaissance polyphony, indie and art rock, noise to a limited extent. Now in my early 40s, I want to bring that together into a unified language, rather than as discrete objects. (Nameless Seas is a step in that direction, as are a couple of other recent works.) I’ve been on autopilot for so long that I’ve ignored important questions I’m now dealing with. What are my motivations? Is it just to get by from one gig to the next, and if not, where do I want to go from here? Do I even want to continue doing it?

Practically speaking, I’m trying to slow down and write fewer pieces so I can turn my awareness fully to this process. Luckily, I was just awarded a five-year grant from the Finnish state. It will allow me to not take every single offer that comes my way.

Q. What is your compositional preference?

A. I’ll write for almost anything. … That said, I do feel more comfortable with orchestral and choral music. Choral music is my home, my safe zone, where I go to recover from big projects. I still sing in a choir and the idiom is very familiar. Chamber music is a bit harder for me conceptually – larger mixed chamber ensembles are terrifying. But my first love has always been the orchestra, since my brother James bought me a copy of Holst’s The Planets when I was about 14. (Dutoit and Montreal Symphony, of course.) I was sold from that moment. It’s all I wanted to write. 

Q. Where does Nameless Seas fit into your body of work?

A. I’m not sure that’s for me to say. I’m very intuitive in my work, and I find it hard to have an impartial perspective on where the patterns lie. I will say Nameless Seas leans slightly more toward the traditional/populist side of my work, which I think of as a stream running parallel to a more exploratory, risk-taking side. … I tried to make it a grand synthesis of the various stylistic and technical ideas I’ve been working on for years, and it does that, I think. … Nameless Seas also looks backward in some ways. I’ve wanted to write this piece for as long as I’ve been composing, so it’s been a highly personal exploration of memory and time for me.

Q. Have you written for Angela Hewitt before?

A. No, we’d never worked together before. We met and became friends several years before the topic even came up, so the project had this personal connection from the beginning, which we both liked. I did my best during the compositional process NOT to think about writing for Angela Hewitt, Pianist, and tried to think of it as a piece for my friend Angela. That said, it did occasionally hit me who I was writing for, and what that meant. It’s a great responsibility. I didn’t want to waste her time, or to let her down by giving anything less than my best. 

Q. Where does Hannu Lintu fit as a collaborator of yours?  

A. Hannu has been very supportive of my work, and that of a number of composers. He doesn’t do one-offs with new music for PR purposes. He thinks long-term, building relationships with composers whose work he finds interesting over a number of years and multiple projects. He really wants to see how you develop. (Nameless Seas is the fourth piece of mine he’s premiered or performed.)  … He works hard to make classical music accessible and present in the media and to get people talking about it. But he respects the audience by bringing them challenging music and making it vital and comprehensible. I’m a fan.

Q. You have been in Finland for 16 years now. Tell me about where you live and who you live with?

A. I live with my wife, Hedi Viisma, an Estonian kantele player, and our son Oliver, who’s 8, in the east end of Helsinki. It was a rough part of town undergoing a renaissance. Young families are moving here for affordable property, and lots of immigrants, too. They’ve played a huge part in making it a vibrant neighbourhood, opening restaurants and businesses, community centres. Our neighbours are Finns, Estonians, Russians, Somalis, Iraqis, Kurds, Turks … my barber three blocks down is Albanian. It’s a regular melting pot. We have one of the best music schools in Helsinki, and my son studies trombone there. This part of town reminds me a lot of Canada, actually. It’s the most diverse area in Finland. I love Helsinki. It’s a clean, functional, unpretentious city and I’ve become ridiculously protective of it. When Anthony Bourdain (who I like otherwise) came here and portrayed it as this dark, depressive wasteland, I was fuming, along with a lot of other people, because that wasn’t our city. (It is pretty bleak in the winter, and everyone complains about it, but outsiders don’t get to make fun of it. That’s our job.)

Almost all of my work comes from Finland, most of my community of friends and colleagues is here, my wonderful publisher is in Finland, and my music is very much of this place. If I lived anywhere else, it would sound quite a bit different, I think. There’s a humility to music-making here, a real sense of community undertaking, and a try-anything kind of spirit that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Q. What inspires you musically now?

A. Nature, first, still and always. I’m trying to make the nature associations more abstract as time goes by – there are only some many titles about snow and stars I can come up with – but I don’t think I’ll ever abandon nature imagery as the foundation of what I do. Other things that feed me: folk music from a variety of European traditions and visual art, especially painting. I saw an exhibition of Francis Picabia at MoMA in New York in the spring, and it blew my mind … and sparked a response that might turn into music someday.

Q. This piece is being played in a festival called Ideas of North based on a radio documentary made by Glenn Gould. What’s your take on Gould?

A. Gould was as sui generis a figure as one can be, and a complete musician with a wide range of interests. … He devoted considerable thought to the meaning of being Canadian, and his role as an artist in that context. The Idea of North was especially influential for me. It’s a staggering achievement. I came back to it again and again a few years ago while writing my horn concerto, Northlands, which is about to be released on CD. ( I’ll have pre-release copies of it at the festival).

Q. The artistic connections between Canada and Scandinavia are there strongly in visual art. Is there a similar connection in music?

A. I love that visual art connection. The first time I saw paintings by Pekka Halonen, I had to take some smartphone photos to send to my dad, who is a huge Group of Seven fan, and took me to many exhibits of their work. The similarities are immediately perceptible. I do think there’s a similar connection in music, an appreciation of landscape and a preference for musical textures with a sense of inner vastness, and slow-moving processes where even fast music sounds like it’s moving in big, deep breaths. It’s the Sibelius sound, and it’s present in Canadian music to a great degree.

Q. Tell me a bit about where you come from in Canada and what your connection to Ottawa is?

A. I grew up in Cowansville in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. My family is English-speaking, but I went to school in French until university, so that between-two-worlds existence started early. My love of nature comes from there. I haven’t been back in 20 years, though. Over time, most of my family gravitated toward Ottawa, and that’s where I ended up spending my summers during my university days So Ottawa has become my de facto hometown in Canada, where my family and friends are. That’s really what home is, not a place. It’s so gratifying to have this opportunity there, it really feels like a homecoming.

Lintu and Hewitt with the National Arts Centre Orchestra
Ideas of North Festival
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 5 at 8 p.m.
In town: Catch Matthew Whittall in conversation with ARTSFILE’s Natasha Gauthier at 7 p.m. inthe NAC’s Canal Lobby Stage.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.