Update browser for a secure Minnesota Orchestra experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full Minnesota Orchestra experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.

Inside the Music

The Sonic Worlds of Outi Tarkiainen

An image of Outi Tarkiainen, standing atop a rooftop in a floral-patterned dress. A city stretches out behind her.
Photo by Eetu Linnankivi.

In concerts that take place April 14 to 15, audiences may be familiar with the piece that will draw the program to its close: Claude Debussy’s La Mer, a kaleidoscopic work that recreates the feeling of visiting the sea, capturing its calmness and chaos. But what of the piece that the program opens with? Guest conductor David Afkham will lead the Minnesota Orchestra in its first performance of a work by Outi Tarkiainen. In fact, this presentation of the Finnish contemporary composer’s The Ring of Fire and Love will mark the piece’s premiere outside of Europe. (It was co-commissioned and given its world premiere by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021.) 

So, what can you expect of Tarkiainen’s music? It might be useful to approach that question through The Ring of Fire and Love. The "Ring of Fire" is the name of the region in the Pacific Ocean where the majority of the world’s volcanoes are found and earthquakes occur; it is also the term used to describe an annular solar eclipse phenomenon when a red-hot ring of sunlight encircles the moon. But, just as Debussy immerses listeners in a thick atmosphere in order to arrive at new understandings of beauty and power, Tarkiainen also takes inspiration from terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) forces to tell intimate, human stories. In this case, Tarkiainen relates a story rarely told in classical music canon: one of childbirth. As she wrote in her own program note for the piece: “The Ring of Fire and Love is a work for orchestra about this earth-shattering, creative, cataclysmic moment [that mother and child] travel through together.” 

The Ring of Fire and Love is just one example of how Tarkiainen’s music often takes inspiration from the natural world to expand ideas of the human condition. Here are six things that tell you a little more about the composer’s inspiration and the worlds she’s reflecting and building: 

1.) Before she studied composition at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Tarkiainen grew up in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland’s northernmost Lapland region, and a city just four miles from the Arctic Circle. In an interview for the BBC Philharmonic she said, “I’m composing and living surrounded by the biggest wilderness areas of Europe...There’s some kind of wisdom of the nature still left, and listening to that carefully you somehow feel that you are part of the nature as well...So I think maybe something in there gives me the strength to live and to compose.”

2.) Tarkiainen’s inspiration comes not only from the region’s wilderness, but from its people. The libretto of her 2014-15 song cycle The Earth, Spring’s Daughter collages together poetry of the Sámi people, the Indigenous group whose ancestral lands encompass the northern parts of modern-day Finland, Norway, Sweden and northwestern Russia. As Tarkiainen writes, the work’s repetitive structure is also based on the Sámi’s cyclical perception of time: the music unfolds in layers and cycles, to be born again and again.”

The Lapland Chamber Orchestra’s performance of “The Earth, Spring’s Daughter,” with conductor John Storgårds and mezzo soprano Virpi Räisänen.

3.) Her saxophone concerto Saivo borrows again from Sámi tradition. In her note, Tarkiainen explains, “The word ‘saivo’ originates from the ancient Sámi beliefs meaning a two-bottomed lake, where under a lake dwells another lake and another world which is inhabited by otherworldly creaturesa world that is the exact mirror image of our world. 

The Tapiola Sinfonietta performs Tarkiainen’s “Saivo,” with conductor Anna-Maria Helsing and soprano saxophone Jukka Perko.

4.) Because most of the Lapland region is situated above the Arctic Circle, shifts in sunlight and darkness are extreme—in the heart of winter, night can last for more than 24 hours while, in the summertime, the sun might not set for an entire day. These fluctuations find their way into Tarkiainen’s compositions, with darkness creating powerful textures and lighter elements often offering the idea of new life. Her 2019 Midnight Sun Variations, for instance, reflects the night she gave birth to her son when, as she puts it, “the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist.” 

5.) Songs of the Ice—the companion piece to Midnight Sun Variations—perhaps best exemplifies how Tarkiainen creates textures with her instrumentation. Intended to represent the seasonal shifts of Arctic ice—thick in the winter, thin in the summer—Songs of the Ice includes a thunderous timpani, echoing woodwind solos and crystalline piccolo figures. Underlying the score is an existential reminder: that, due to climate change, the life of the region’s ice—and those who live around it—has been forever altered. 

Under the direction of Kenneth Kiesler, the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra performs Tarkiainen’s "Songs of the Ice."

6.) Its important to say that, despite its regular subject matter, Tarkiainen’s music is not all inspired by the ice and cold. In fact, she furthered her studies at the University of Miami, thousands of miles from the chill of her home, where she studied jazz. On her eclectic musical foundation, the composer and writer Anthony R. Green noted that, “It’s no surprise, then, that Tarkiainen’s musical palette is full of differing textures and sensitivities, notably combining the cool, clear harmonies of the north with a warm, rich southern jazz vernacular.” 

The information above scratches only the surface of the stories Outi Tarkiainen has told so far in the early years of her career. Experience her music for yourself later this month, as the Orchestra brings her full musical palette to life at the Hall for the first time—a new life in the Minnesota Orchestra’s repertoire.