About my Composition Whisked Whistle for Symphony Orchestra



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 RouvaliI 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 second performance was given at the ISCM World Music Days 2015 festival in 2nd of October 2015 in Slovenia, Ljubljana by the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by intelligent and sensitive TaeJung LeeIt was a wonderful and lively performance indeed and I’m very glad that I was able to make it to Ljubljana and hear also the second performance live. Hopefully not the last!

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 a jackpot with his catchy orchestral piece Whisked Whistle, which in a very successful manner combined intricate complexity with clean-cut listener-friendliness.  (HBL 27.1.2018)

Frank J. Oteri of New Music USA wrote of the second performance: 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.”

Listen to the recording
Have a look at the score

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.

Watch and listen to music Journalist Jaani Länsiö interviewing me (In Finnish) on the Finnish Broadcasting Compoany YLE website about my composition Whisked Whistle.

Listen to music journalist Karoliina Vesa interviewing me (In Finnish) on the Finnish national radio YLE 1 about my composition Whisked Whistle

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About my composition Azonal for viola and ensemble (2015-16)


My composition Azonal for viola and 12-member ensemble (2015-16) was premiered in the Klang Concert Series in 8th of April 2016 at the Helsinki Music Centre, Sonore Hall by Uusinta Ensemble , conducted by József Hárs and me as the Viola soloist.

The title Azonal (without zones) refers to the type of musical form of the piece; transitions between different musical materials occur without clear boundaries or cuts between them.

The solo part utilizes extended playing techniques and sounds resulting, such as circular bowing, whisked whistle, glissando repetition and rumble, which the 12-member ensemble reflects – not as effects added afterward, but as an integral part of musical expression.

By the end of the piece there is a solo cadenza, which can be also performed as a separate solo viola piece under the title Azonal Advice (which is actually an anagram with the letters in the words Viola Cadenza). I composed this piece already in 2009 with the intention that it would be later integrated into as a cadenza of a concertante work for viola and ensemble. The cadenza is not fully written out, but utilizes the Directed Modular-Transformative Improvisation Technique developed by me. Including improvisation means, I hope, that each performance will be somewhat different, which might help the piece to stay fresh and interesting over several performances.

Azonal brings the Viola into the spotlight in a new way, as a vital and potent solo instrument of its own right. I dare to claim that the solo part is absolutely idiomatically written for the Viola – it is not at all as difficult to play as it may sound! I also hoped that Azonal would give the listeners a novel, imaginative, energizising and positive musical experience. And indeed, the premiere was welcomed very warmly and enthusiastically by the audience and it also received a positive review in the Finnish press.

The second performance of Azonal took place in 1st of April 2017 at the Annual General Meeting event of the Finnish Viola Society at the Sigyn Hall of the Turku Conservatory, Finland, with a student orchestra, conducted by accordionist Mikko Luoma and me again as the Viola soloist. The second performance went also very well and was cheered enthusiastically by peer violists in the audience.


Because many told me after these two performances that Azonal might be my best composition so far, I’m hoping that some other viola soloist would take her/his courage in both hands and try it out – You might be surprised!

Recording, score, solo part etc.



Max Savikangas, composer

Max Savikangas_Photo_Ari-Matti_Huotari_copy2

I enjoy contemporary music with its constantly renewing challenges, improvising, listening to the world, experimenting with sounds—and composing. As a composer-musician I have wanted to expand the means of expression of my own instrument Viola with new playing techniques and experimental live-electronics, which has led to studying these possibilities of other instruments as well. The seeds of my compositions often emerge as a result of (instru)mental improvisation, of savouring all kinds of sound events of the world and of tentative computer sound processing experiments. As a rule, some of these spontaneous ideas thus found begin to lead a life of their own in my mind, ending up as the points of departure for my written-out and/or media compositions.

I believe that timbre in contemporary music is equal to melody, harmony and rhythm and it should be understood as an umbrella term, covering all components of a sound event. At best, different hoots, wails, hisses, gushes, whispers, crackles and buzzes are by no means effects or seasoning added afterwards to the music, but they are an organic and sensual part of expression, which is further expanded by the virtual acoustic space created by means of sound processing and amplification.