2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I learnt about the work of Sibelius in 1992 when I moved north to study in Stirling. His music felt immediately innate to me, and I have listened to his compositions ever since.
I spent 2015 listening to live concerts and multiple recordings of my favourite works, and began to write a response to his music in poetry, sketching ideas, beginning with single words, whilst listening to his music. Over time I settled on these specific pieces of music and the selected movements as working together to tell a story. The words that I had written also began to form around personal experiences, from the past and from the time the poems were being developed.
After a year of listening and writing, I decided to read the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala for the first time. It was important to me to explore the influences on Sibelius, and in doing so I was reassured that the way to bring together the responses that I had written to his works was in the form of a traveller tale. I was also introduced to a style of writing that I hadn’t encountered before, and wanted to incorporate that into my writing; I have tried to make more use of repeated and half-repeated lines as a consequence.
Each poem has been written to be read as a rune in a traveller folk suite. The titles of the poems are the names of the works by Sibelius that inspired them, but there is no requirement to read the poems whilst listening to the works. The runes are, however, directly influenced by the symphonic structure and tempo that they correspond to, and the emotional palette that Sibelius works with, and familiarity with these pieces of music would add a useful layer of understanding to what has been written here.
At the same time that I began work on this project, I also started to learn contemporary dance, and continue to attend regular classes. I have therefore tried to write a collection of poems that can be used to inspire contemporary dance movement. The result is, I hope, a collection that helps people to hear Sibelius’ music through both text and movement. Engaging with the works choreographically has opened up a whole new way for me to enjoy them.
The landscapes that I have drawn and the emotional direction in each poem and in the work as a whole are a reflection of how his music makes me feel, whilst the subject matter hinges on themes of faith and resurrection, and of the underpinning strength that I have found at times of fear. The theme of breathing was one that I hadn’t intended to write about, but turned out to be a very healing way of addressing my father’s pneumonitis. It wrote itself into the work, like breathing does. The natural landscape influences are mostly from Scotland, often coastal; there is a particular influence from Cyprus where I watched the sun set and the moon rise at the same time which evidently left a profound mark on me.
The writing of this collection of poems has been a process of distillation and reflection over three years. The poems are not intended to be a translation of The Kalevala. Now that I have read Elias Lönnrot’s epic, I can see that Ilmarinen is present in my work, as is indeed a Sampo in the form of a copper balancing weight. The fact that the inner tool is copper is an influence of The Kalevala that I can account for, as is the use of repeated and half repeated lines.
But other things such as the fact there is a talisman at all, the creation of a giant wooden device, and themes of journeying were written into these poems before I had read The Kalevala. The only influence on them that I was aware of at the time was from listening to Sibelius’ music.
Although it is easy for me to identify other similar influences that I have been exposed to in my life, that these poems chime so well with themes from The Kalevala forms for me a reassuringly complete circle, and is testament to Sibelius’ evocative works, which was the primary and original influence on my writing.
This is a work that explores Sibelius’ subtle, but long-term influence on me. In writing it, it also invited me to explore the influences on him. But what resulted from this process was a deeply personal experience of resolving grief and darkness, consolidating learning, understanding and belief, and putting into words expressions of hope and wonderment, joy and faith.
It is exactly what I wanted to write. Sfääri is Finnish for sphere