BY Juha Torvinen

Hexvessel. Photo: Maija Lahtinen

Only love and death can compete with nature as the most common topic in music. In the aftermath of environmental crises, the relationship between music and nature has changed radically. How can music influence our environmental consciousness and conscience? The music of contemporary composer Kalevi Aho and psychedelic rock band Hexvessel show in two distinct ways.

Nature has always been holy to indigenous cultures. Many contemporary people are also characterised by a desire to respect natural environments. But in big cities and in the middle of technological-financial thinking, it is easy to forget that nature continues to offer us the means that are necessary for human life. It provides us with nutrition and raw materials as well as the daily and yearly cycles, which give life its rhythm.

Environmental crises are mainly caused by people, and so we people are contributing to the destruction of our own existence. One of the duties cultural creations such as art have is to reflect upon the values and meanings related to environmental issues. In music, a clearly eco-critical strand has grown with a completely new direction in music research called ecomusicology focusing on the ways music presents and shapes our relationship to nature in the era of environmental crises. Seasons doubled Kalevi Aho’s (b. 1949) concerto Kahdeksan vuodenaikaa (Eight Seasons, 2011) for theremin and chamber orchestra premiered in Rovaniemi, northern Finland, in October 2012. The soloist was German Carolina Eyck and the orchestra was the Lapland Chamber Orchestra led by John Storgårds.  

Aho’s works are narrative, communicative, societal and their content can be interpreted hermeneutically – these characteristics have always been central to his compositional ethos (see Aho’s interview –> FMQ 1/2009). Kahdeksan vuodenaikaa is influenced by the pace of age-old Sami life dictated by nature. The life of the Sami people was divided into eight instead of four seasons by the migration of reindeer, the cultivation of crops and the changes in the amount of light.  

Aho’s piece begins with ‘Sadonkorjuu’ (Harvest), where the low pedal points of the strings and the tremolo of the cymbal set on the timpani are like the steady land that carries the crops. The theremin transforms from a bellow akin to the cello to the piercing upper register of the oboe. Finally, the entire orchestra supports the theremin with megalithic parallel movements bringing to mind the rugged power of the fells.  

‘Ruska’ follows, the second part, with the word ruska referring to the time of autumn, when the leaves alight in reds and yellows as they prepare to leave the trees bare and the air cools down. The flickering arpeggios of the woodwinds start off ‘Ruska’ with the descending movements in, for instance, the theremin’s glissandi associating to falling leaves. By the end of the part, the strings are playing a dense ponticello frost. Then comes the time, when the leaves have fallen to the ground, but a permanent layer of snow does not yet illuminate the scenery. The third part is called ‘Musta lumi’ (Black Snow) and the melancholy oboe sings, the theremin plays an improvised lament (lamentando), while a rain stick and the orchestra’s staccato create impressions of rain.  

The individual and the environment  

In the concerto’s fourth part, ‘Kaamos’ (Polar Night) the theremin soloist also sings (without words) forming an impression of a doubled soloist. In many mythologies doppelgängers are symbols for hidden powers all the way from guardian spirits to the gift of foresight and monstrosities. It’s probably no accident that the soloist is divided in two during the part that describes the darkest and most shamanistic time. The orchestra reverberates deep, and on the other hand the piccolo and crotales twinkle extremely high. The strings and percussions play mysteriously undefined expressions. The gusts at the end herald the winter storms of the following part.  

Kaamos is followed by the coldest time of winter. The fifth part, ‘Pakkanen(Frost), is stormy before brightening into extreme cold, which the theremin tries its best to survive. With the sixth part ‘Hankikanto’ (Supporting Snow) the music attracts more light and movement, and in the seventh part, ‘Jäiden lähtö’ (Thawing Ice) the timpani rumble and the waters flow freely.  

The eighth part, ‘Keskiyön aurinko ‘(Midnight Sun) ends the concerto. This sun that never sets is similar in its extremity to kaamos and the polar night, when the sun does not up at all. Like in ’Kaamos’, the theremin doubles itself while singing. ‘Keskiyön aurinko’ begins with a melody with a sarabande rhythm played by the winds until the doppelgänger soloist starts its internal dialogue. The part ends with the theremin’s improvised imitation of birdsong. Nature gets the final word.  

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments with its origins in the 1920’s. Even though the instrument comes from a different tradition than the classic acoustic orchestra instrumentation, it adapts seamlessly to the soundscape of Kahdeksan vuodenaikaa. Here the theremin does not have the estranged and eerie effect familiar from films, popular music and especially psychedelic rock. Unlike in romantic virtuoso concertos, the soloist does not become a separate subject. Rather, Aho’s piece resembles Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (1948), where the vocalist’s texture is virtually a part of the orchestral texture’s whole. This kind of a solid connection between the individual (the soloist) and his environment (the orchestra) can also be heard with eco-critical ears.  

Kahdeksan vuodenaikaa focuses our attention to the fragility of the northern nature. Climate change immediately threatens the diversity of northern seasons bringing the snow later than before, possibly skipping the supporting snow and increasing the rainfall. Animals, the rest of nature and people themselves suffer most from the change, because the constant and gradual changes in nature have defined the mentality and rhythm of the northern people.  

Deep ecological folk rock  

Hexvessel, a Finnish band formed in 2009, play psychedelic rock with influences from folk, ambient and various metal genres. The group’s debut album Dawnbearer (2011) has been considered occult folk and also the labels doom folk and forest folk have tried to be attached to Hexvessel. The outfit was formed by the Englishman Mat McNerney, who moved to Finland in 2009, and has a background in black and death metal. The band’s latest album No Holier Temple (2012, Svart Records) is influenced by natural mysticism and especially sanctifying forests and trees.  

The reference to an original connection with nature already starts in the cover art of the album. Primarily released on vinyl – green vinyl, naturally – the cover image is a naked person, thus stripped of culture, merging with a tree. The message is that both are part of the same cycle of life and rhythm of being. This belonging together is also symbolised by the pictures of each band member, where they merge with a forest scene. Each side of this double-LP is also named after trees: Ash, Birch, Cedar and Douglas Fir.  

The album title is coined from the writings of the Scottish-American John Muir (1838–1914), who was an early speaker for protecting the environment. American astronomer and exobiologist Carl Sagan (1934– 1996) and American environmentalist Dave Foreman (b. 1947) have also been an inspiration with the covers brimming with quotes from them. A cynic might ask: Is all this greenness a bit too much? A bit cooky and estranged from reality, perhaps? Or could it even be calculated musical greenwashing, where targeting financial success is camouflaged as environmental concern?  

It’s not. The term forest folk describes Hexvessel musically but also as people for whom occultism is nothing more mystical than straightforward respect and sanctifying of nature. Hexvessel’s musical ethos and style can be described as ‘deep ecological folk rock’. The band could also be seen as having been influenced by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (1912–2009), American poet Gary Snyder (b. 1930) and Finnish fisher-thinker Pentti Linkola (b. 1932).  

Intensive playing, immersive listening  

What is Hexvessel’s deep ecological folk rock like then? Some magazine said the band is the Black Sabbath of the 2010’s. Unless the only criterion is the slow and heavy hovering basic impression of both their music, this comparison does not do justice to either. More than anything, Hexvessel is a modern day Hexvessel, whose music is a unique synthesis of, for instance, progressive rock, the psychedelia of The Doors, Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, fusion jazz and Ultimate Spinach. If distortion were added to all of Hexvessel’s music, the final result would be close to the North American environmental black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room.  

Many of the songs on No Holier Place aim to create a certain atmosphere. The metal influence is heard as an abundance of riffs, but played acoustically these often two bar and/or two chord ostinato patterns transform into mantras that engage with a timeless beauty. The hypnotic effect increases with the occasional use of parlando to express lyrics that are open to interpretation on eg. Dues to the Dolmen. The listener is forced to merge with the music just like the cover art’s person with the tree.  

Woods to Conjure is undistorted black metal, an ambient built on one huge riff, where a Miles Davisstyle trumpet blows out more trees. Wilderness Is! continues with the almost minimalist route of the ostinatos. The album gets closest to Black Sabbath on His Portal Tomb, which searches for both the underworld and the afterlife. Sacred Marriage is an epic description of the deities of nature and their common unions that hold all existence together. The Ultimate Spinach cover Your Head is Reeling offers electronic psychedelia – though not played with a theremin – driven by a Bolero-rhythm.  

If Hexvessel’s No Holier Temple were described using one adjective, it would be ‘immersive’. All the parts of the album and the musical influences merge together while the listener merges with the soundscapes as if to prove biologist Barry Commoner’s (1917–2012) vision for the basic law of ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else.”  

These two pieces – Kalevi Aho’s Kahdeksan vuodenaikaa and Hexvessel’s No Holier Temple – offer very distinct soundscapes from different cultural backgrounds, and as such represent very different kinds of music from each other. As one front they, nonetheless, arrive to remind us that encountering nature as holy rather than something to utilise or exploit, is necessary if our kind or nature’s diversity are to persevere.  

Juha Torvinen (PhD), former Editor-in-Chief of FMQ, is Adjunct Professor of Musicology at the University of Turku, Finland.  

Translation: Jonathan Mander