The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra kindly wanted to commission a ten-minute orchestral piece from me to be premiered at the new Kupittaa Ball Game Hall in a free admission mega-concert “Symphony for the Ball Game Hall!” organized by the orchestra with Nick Davies as conductor. They also threw in a suggestion that I would adopt ball sports (such as basketball, volleyball or badminton) as a theme for the new piece.
When I asked Maati Rehor, the chief executive of the orchestra, what might the suggested ball sports theme mean in the context of an orchestral composition, she replied that they don’t know, I have to invent it!
After taking some time to ponder the suggestion I came up with the idea that the artistic theme for the piece would be ball sports as a cultural phenomenom in general and especially the thrilling basketball slam dunk. Perhaps my background as a junior basketball point guard in the 1980’s influenced this, as well as the huge slam dunks performed recently by Finnish basketball player Lauri Markkanen and his current success in the NBA.
Entitled Slam Dunk, the expression of the piece is extrovert, rhythmic and energetic. It utilizes the harmonic, melodic, rhythmical and orchestration methods of contemporary art music. I did not aim at composing a traditional sports competition fanfare, or a theme song of an imaginary basketball team. Instead, I wanted to compose a new independent orchestral piece of its own right with connotations to ball sports on different levels. Also, knowing that the venue of the premiere would be a big ball game hall with more than 2500 seats, I decided to omit extended playing techniques from the piece, because they sound best performed in a concert hall.
Kupittaa Ball Game Hall, exterior and interior.
I integrated into the composition an interactive sports culmination: by the end of the piece two basketball players perform a Slam Dunk Battle, guided by the Master of Ceremonies (MC), in interaction with the orchestra (through the conductor). In front of the orchestra there will be installed a professional basketball hoop with a backboard, with top of the hoop 305 cm above the floor. Hence the concert venue must provide enough extra space (and height) for the Slam Dunk Battle, approximately a free space covering an area similar to one end of a basketball field enclosed by the three-point arc.
Premiere of Slam Dunk has reached the start of the Slam Dunk Battle (photo: TPO)
The Slam Dunk Battle is appropriately started by a fanfare and the battle is guided by the MC. The composition is coordinated, through the conductor, to the dunk performances. It also reflects the applauses by the audience. After the dunk performances, the MC has an acclamation vote from the audience, into which the orchestra also participates by playing. After the winner has been announced, the Slam Dunk Battle Fanfare is heard again to salute the contestants and then its time for the finale of the piece.
Basketball player Mikael Aalto in the premiere of Slam Dunk (photo: TPO)
The premiere of Slam Dunk took place on Saturday 15th of September 2018 in Turku, Finland at the Kupittaa Ball Game Hall, featuring basketball players Mikael Aalto and Eero Lehtonen. There was more than 2600 people in the audience and the piece was extremely warmly welcomed.
The sounds of the string section carry along my first orchestral composition, ten-minute Whisked Whistle (2011), commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Actually, one of the extended string playing techniques even lent the work its title!
The variation of and tension between contrasting timbres propels the piece along, on equal terms with the six-part harmony developed by me and other more traditional devices such as melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration. Timbre, in the context of this piece, should be understood broadly as an umbrella term for all the components of a sound event. The hoots, wails, hisses, gushes, whispers, crackles and buzzes heard in the piece are thus by no means effects or seasoning added afterwards; they are an organic part of my musical expression.
I had for a long time imagined – but never actually heard – how wonderfully some extended string playing techniques would sound when skillfully performed by a large string section. Fortunately the commissioner, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra kindly offered me a 30-minute possibility to test just that before actually starting the compositional process. So, in May 2011 I prepared a kind of a sound test drive score and parts for the orchestra and listened carefully it to be played in the concert hall in a rehearsal conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali and then went home to assess which techniques in my opinion worked well and which didn’t. I’m certain that this possibility was essential for the success of this composition.
As no one can claim copyright to a playing technique or a sound thus produced, it is more essential how a composer can use them in a personal, interesting and musical manner in her/his composition! I eventually decided to utilize seven extended string playing techniques and sounds produced with them in Whisked Whistle. Some of these techniques I think I might have invented myself and some others I might have seen and heard elsewhere.
Sul tasto ”pan”: Position bow moltissimo sul tasto, approximately in the middle point of the sounding string. This way of playing is intended to result in a hollow sound, somewhat like the sound of the pan flute (or perhaps the clarinet in a low register, played softly).
Circular bowing:The bow, positioned in the upper third, is to be swept in a direction parallel to the strings with a slightly circular, free movement, which starts from the upper arm. This bowing thenique is intended to result in a blowing-like sound which however has a short, pitched impulse for each note.
Whisked whistle: To be played sul pont./quasi flag). A fast, whisking, over-wide arm vibrato, with the left hand finger sliding rapidly along the string, still pressed only half way down, resluting in a whistling, piercing and whisking, electric quitar feedback-vib.-note like sound.
Crackle:Press the bow down very hard at the frog with flat hair so that the tip of the bow points to the up left. Now twist the bow slowly in its place, while maintaining the pressure, approximately 45 degrees so that the bow finally reaches its normal position. This way of playing is intended to result in a dry, crackling, granular, discontinuous sound, like anticipating some violent burst (for example breaking of a tree branch). Sparse crackle is produced by turning the bow very slowly, dense crackle is produced by turning the bow slightly faster.
Whistle staccato:Intended to result in high, short, whistling and piercing, somewhat arbitraty flageolet-like sounds. They are not ordinary natural flageolets, but are to be played sul pont./quasi flag, the left hand finger pressed only half way down. The bow should be “flying”, hitting the string from the air for a very short time while moving fast.
Rumble:Slow bow speed, exaggerated bow pressure, bow close to the fingerboard. Left hand finger pressure is less than normal. This way of playing is intended to result in the note sounding approximately an octave, or, depending of the bow pressure, a major seventh lower than written, with a rumbling sound quality. Brutality is not to be avoided!
Bursting:Crunch the bow from normal playing position towards the tail piece over the bridge and back, resulting in a bursting, machine-like sound. An arrow down denotes the movement of the bow towards the tail piece, an arrow up vice and versa.
Whisked Whistle has been preformed twice so far. The world premiere was given in 25th of January 2012 at the Helsinki Music Center by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by talented and energetic Santtu-Matias Rouvali. I was immensely satisfied with the dedicated performance of the orchestra and especially with working with conductor Santtu Matias-Rouvali and his interpretation of my music.
The feedback after both performances of Whisked Whistle from both members of the audience and the orchestra has been overwhelmingly positive. Also many composer and musician colleagues personally told me that they had enjoyed the piece. The reviews in the Finnish press were similarly positive, especially Mats Liljeroos of Hufvudstadsbladet wrote: “...Max Savikangas hit the jackpot with his snazzy orchestral piece Whisked Whistle, which in a seldom successful manner combined intricate complexity with clean-cut listener-friendliness. The viola player Savikangas’ clou was to demonstrate all conceivable, and unimaginable, ways in which string instruments can reasonably be treated, and although most of them have already been invented, he succeeded in convincing the listener that everything is his own unique invention. This at the same time as, which was the dramaturgically exemplary compact piece’s great advantage, the wild sound experiments never felt as an end in themselves but as an equally logical and naturally integrated part of the conceptual whole.”(HBL 27.1.2018)
Frank J. Oteri of New Music USA wrote of the second performance in 2015: “Whisked Whistle...is chuck full of unusual sonic effects, but they also always have a clear musical purpose. At one point in this piece there’s a passage that’s very reminiscent of the persistent three-note tattoo in Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1, but Savikangas assured me during the post-concert reception that he was not familiar with Rouse’s piece and the similarities are a coincidence. It is further proof that great ideas don’t belong to any one person but are rather out there in the universe to be discovered and explored.”
Watch and listen to the performance of Whisked Whistle by the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by TaeJung Lee. In this video, recorded at the ISCM WMD 2015 festival Ljubljana in 2 OCT 2015 by the Slovenian Radio and TV Broadcasting Company, you’ll find the complete final concert of the WMD 2015 festival with music by composers Veli-Matti Puumala (another fellow Finn!), Vito Zuraj, Nina Šenk, me and Hèctor Parra, also with short interviews or “statements” by each composer before the performances of their pieces. Please find my interview in English (with Slovenian subtitles) at 1:00:02–1:01:51, followed by the performance of Whisked Whistle at 1:01:56–1:13:30.