Nordic Scotland: lessons from Helsinki


First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2018

Nordic envy. You might know the one. It’s a common affliction for anyone who visits our neighbours to the north. Spend a few days in Oslo or Reykjavik or Helsinki and you’ll come home envying the kindergartens, the elderly care, the oil management, the sauna culture, the liquorice, the knitwear. You’ll regale your friends with utopian statistics on cycling networks and statutory maternity leave. You’ll lament our comparative deficiency thereof. If only Scotland could be more… Nordic.

Music provision is yet another envy-inducing factor here. The early-years exposure, the level of state support for performing groups and education, the extensive infrastructure for learning and making and promoting new music. Ever wondered about the inordinate number of Finnish conductors? The obscene creative talent emerging from Iceland – a country with the same population as Cardiff? There are easy explanations when you look at the root support for the arts. We have much to learn.

Two years ago I visited a festival called Nordic Music Days for the first time and came home with a classic case of Nordic envy. I wished aloud that Scotland could one day become part of that happy northern arc. I remember the musician Sigtryggur Baldursson telling me: “one thing you learn as an Icelandic artist? If you want to make something happen, you can find a way to make it happen.” So it was among my prouder moments when I found myself travelling to Finland a fortnight ago to witness the intricately, grippingly beautiful works of Scottish composer Helen Grime being performed as part of our inaugural inclusion in Nordic Music Days. A small step for Scottish composers; a potentially significant step for Scotland’s future cultural connections.

To recap. Nordic Music Days is one of the world’s oldest music festivals, founded in 1888 as a designated showcase for new music of the Nordic nations. The festival is run by the Council of Nordic Composers and hosted each year in a different member state. Early figureheads included Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Wilhelm Stenhammar. When Finland joined in 1919 as a newly independent nation, Nielsen greeted the inclusion with bright-eyed metaphors. “A four-leaf clover means good luck,” he declared, “and I am particularly happy to welcome Finland on board.” Given various of these countries had been at war with or occupied each other in the very recent past, this official cultural friendship represented more than a fluffy love-in between composers who wrote sweeping post-Romantic symphonies and resolutely didn’t live in Germany.

Three major things struck me during my frozen trip to Nordic Music Days in the late autumn of 2016 – and all three of them reinforced my feeling that Scotland should somehow get ourselves invited to the party. The first thing was that the programming didn’t seem to be reductive in terms of what sort of music counts as Nordic. It was clear, I noted with relief, that there were no romantic notions of what sounds should made by composers living in any picture-postcard image of The North. I heard no overt musical references to winter or cold or northern lights or darkness or tundra or depression or booze. Instead, what seemed to link these composers was the practical experience of working in the culture sectors of small, northern-European nations. Surely, the experience of composers in Scotland more than qualifies.

The second thing that struck me was a very specific piece of infrastructure – something seen as essential in the Nordic nations but that Scotland has yet to establish. Every Nordic nation has an office that supports travelling musicians. Export Music Sweden, Music Export Denmark, Music Finland, Music Norway and Iceland Music Export; there is even a meta-office called NOMEX — a pan-Nordic export platform operated by the five music export offices. And yet Scotland has no composer’s society (we used to, but it fizzled out in the 1990s) and no export body. Only the national companies have any regular designated budget for touring, which means the likes of Dunedin Consort or Red Note (to name just two highly respected groups under the classical umbrella) find it prohibitively expensive to perform internationally. John Harris, co-artistic director of Red Note, told me earlier this month that his ensemble is invited to perform at countless festivals around Europe and beyond – but that, because of travel costs, it is usually impossible to accept. How can they compete with a Norwegian ensemble that comes with touring fund attached?

My third major learning from Nordic Music Days has to do with Scotland avoiding isolation post-Brexit – which is exactly what struck the organisers of Nordic Music Days, too. Last year the decision was made to “extend a hand of friendship to our Scottish cousins” who “voted overwhelmingly”, it was noted, to remain part of the European Union. Everyone I met in Helsinki last fortnight offered similar expressions of sympathy. “Why not build a bridge to Scotland,” said Osmo Tapio Raihala, composer and director of this year’s Nordic Music Days. “Why not leave a door open for you?”

“We have grown into the attitude, essential for small nations, that we are less than 30 million in entire Nordic countries, so it is essential to gather together and try to look outside our own borders to get in influences. This is nothing new. Essential for small nations is to build ties to other similar nations. The Nordic area is huge – half of Europe – but the population is sparse, so we have to get power from being together. I know I sound like a politician” – here Osmo Tapio Raihala laughed – “but this is how we think.”

And yes, the politics is inescapable. Maybe the view of Helen Grime provides a neat analogy: “making connections with other composers, getting that conversation going, it’s really important,” she told me on a crisp, cold morning in Helsinki. “Composers spend time on our own, in our studio, in our own heads, so it’s really nice to get that possibility to connect with other composers, to share ideas. Different directions, and similarities as well.”

Regardless of what form Brexit does (or doesn’t) take, regardless of whether Scotland ultimately becomes independent, once again the Nordic model has something to teach us. It’s far less about cultural nationalism than it is about the pragmatics of small northern nations presenting an outworld-looking face to the world. “As a festival,” writes the Finnish musicologist Kimmo Korhonen, “Nordic Music Days has migrated from the defining of national aesthetics and differences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries towards the more practical approach and smooth cooperation of the post-war era. In a way,” Korhonen concludes, “the Nordic Music Days embodies the same idea as the joint Nordic embassy complex in Berlin – a miniature village of buildings reflecting similar societal values, together in a single walled compound. In this increasingly fragmentary age, this pooling of embassies sends a strong message of political coordination, similar to the message of cultural cooperation incorporated in the Nordic Music Days.”