Lauri PORRA (b. 1977)
Kohta (2016) [18:56]
Domino Suite (2017) [16:53]
Entropia – concerto for electric bass (2015) [27:52]
Kohta (instrumental version) [18:32]
Paperi T (vocals: Kohta)
Joonas Riippa (drums)
Aki Rissanen (piano: Domino Suite)
Lauri Porra (electric bass: Entropia)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Jaakko Kuusisto
rec 2017, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Finnish text included
BIS BIS-2305 SACD [83:18]
Six months ago I reviewed a vibrant Ondine disc of concertos by Olli Virtaperko, an individual who had made his name as a leading Finnish rock musician. Scandinavia and the Baltic countries certainly seem to be at the forefront of this kind of genre crossing for here is another Finn of the same generation, Lauri Porra, and a disc of pieces that include a concerto for electric bass, a suite for jazz soloists and orchestra and perhaps most intriguingly of all an extended orchestral work involving electronics and a (Finnish) rapper! Even more interesting is the DNA at work here; Porra’s grandfather was the legendary conductor Jussi Jalas. I suspect many readers will thus be able to deduce that his great-grandfather was someone called Jean Sibelius. The photographic portraits of Porra included in the booklet do seem to confirm the family likeness; as might be imagined, the bass player from Finnish heavy metal gods Stratovarius sports considerably longer hair than his most famous ancestor.
Kohta opens with a veritable sonic sunrise of electronics, tuned percussion and strings, before a kind of ground bass heralds a memorable, chorale type idea that recurs throughout the piece. At this point Finnish rapper Paperi T enters the fray and the music adopts more familiar rock-like gestures. For an English speaker it is fascinating to experience rap in Finnish. The sounds of the language are unfamiliar yet the words are so clearly, rhythmically enunciated. But they are utterly beyond my comprehension. So to what does Paperi T’s text refer? It is certainly poetic; it sounds by turn angry, passionate and occasionally indifferent. I’m astonished BIS haven’t supplied translations with the Finnish text, especially since a grasp of ‘meaning’ is arguably more central to appreciating rap than other popular forms. I did find a translation online but it seems rather unidiomatic although there are many references to ‘landscape’, ‘snow’ and ‘ice’ in the second half. Of course many Finnish words have multiple meanings and the grammar of the rap form is idiosyncratic to say the least. Porra’s music is experimental but accessible. There are some intriguing sounds – electronically processed voices, even a newly invented instrument called an omniwerk. In the very brief note Porra explains the conceit of the work thus: “The idea is not for the orchestra to play rap, or for him [Paperi T] to rap in the style of classical music, but rather for them to break new musical ground together, and face each other as equals”
Sometimes the music sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard, at others it seems a bit clichéd and ponderous; but it is always colourful and never dull. The second phase of the work is launched by a thrilling drum solo and an aggressive chugging rhythm, Psycho-style strings and celesta. The music is unfailingly cinematic – and that’s not a veiled criticism. Fleeting moments or episodes might evoke Varèse, or John Williams, Ligeti, or Rautavaara or even Gershwin, at the point when a jazzy clarinet solo begins with an extended glissando à la Rhapsody in Blue. It’s fair to say that my lack of understanding of the text became less important with repeated listens, as the sound of Paperi T’s very singular voice melds quite naturally into the instrumental fabric. In its SACD guise, Kohta becomes a thrilling sonic spectacular which packs an unforgettable punch. This work really grew on me – I found the bonus rap-free version of the work that ends the disc actually blunted its edge.
The three movement Domino Suite features gentle piano solos in its outer movements whereas the central movement pits the orchestra against an improvising jazz drummer. The initial panel ‘Stasis’ projects gentle repeated piano chords against a backdrop of gusts and waves of strings and brass – the textures are not unlike those that predominate in Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards. The piano provides a steadfast, graceful presence in the face of an ominous orchestral climate. The central ‘Domino’ panel is more confrontational as the drummer kicks up an improvised din – it is impossible not to be impressed by Joonas Riippa’s eviscerating efforts here –it is at times impossible to determine whether he is swimming with the current or against the tide- there are conceptual and sonic similarities here to the first movement of Nielsen’s mighty Symphony No 5 with its famous side-drum solo - again Porra provides a chorale like foundation against which the soloist can let rip before the movement concludes with the drummer confronting rather Sibelian brass chords. The final movement ‘Surrender’ involves a rather twee piano ostinato with a delicate, undemanding orchestral accompaniment. I have to say this brought to my mind some emotionally manipulative advert music before the whole is overwhelmed by grandiose waves of sound redolent of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. I was less convinced by the Domino Suite though it undoubtedly has its moments. The soloists and orchestra are unquestionably superb – and again it provided a wonderful work-out for my SACD player which clarified much of Porra’s dense polyphonic writing.
The longest work on this fascinating disc is Entropia – a concerto for electric bass and orchestra, played by the composer. The booklet opens with a description of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which concerns the link between the passage of time and increased disorder, the concept known as entropy. This work alludes to this ultimately theoretical principle. It starts with another absorbing ‘genesis’ (I don’t mean the band) type gesture, this time produced by a solo violin, tubular bells, the solo bass, timpani and electronics – this builds to a climax before a mighty dissonant downward glissando which clearly implies disorder. The music in this movement is mainly tentative and ambiguous, yet colouristically speaking it’s fascinating – I was impressed with the way Porra tries to avoid overtly virtuosic, showy material for his bass. Ultimately, from these seeds of doubt a gorgeous melody emerges, before bells, brass and drums build to a widescreen climax. The second movement features some truly weird sounds; Porra’s effects pedal seems to work overtime – there is an abundance of peculiar scrapes, throbs, slaps and thuds. The music is nervous, it never settles, but then why should it? This is entropy, after all. The third panel is effectively an accompanied cadenza which assimilates some of the more familiar gestures of heavy rock, but Porra has the good taste to avoid cliché and self-consciousness; there is some stunning virtuosity here and the movement truly impressed me. The finale is more overtly cinematic – the solo part is again restrained and unshowy. The orchestration is thoroughly accomplished and features a brief muted trumpet solo before its final, triumphant conclusion.
The BIS engineering on this disc is on another level, whether we are listening through two or five speakers. Lauri Porra may work collaboratively with instrumentalists, arrangers and engineers but there is an impressive, ambitious and distinctive voice at work here, and what an ear he has for colour! He is also a prodigious bassist. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of ‘classical’ music he produces in a couple of decades time – who knows; by then there might not be such a thing! Scandophiles in particular should take the plunge; anyone else with a taste for the unusual will find much to enjoy here.