Review of Science Frictions in Helsingin Sanomat

The new conferment cantata Science Frictions that I composed to a new text by Cia Rinne, got such a great review by Nuppu Koivisto in the largest Finnish tabloid Helsingin Sanomat, so I translated the whole review into English, which you can read below.

Helsinki now celebrates doctors and masters – The ceremony includes a own composition, and this year it’s very special

The message of the commissioned composition is universal: the role and importance of science in society is not just for university students, but for all of us.

Cecilia Damström (music) and Cia Rinne (text): Science Frictions for countertenor, choir and orchestra at the conferment ceremony of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki on 19 May 2023. David Hackston (countertenor), Dominante Choir (conducted by Seppo Murto), Aku Sorensen (conductor) and Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra

THE CONFERMENT CEREMONY is a three-day academic tradition celebrated every few springs. At its heart is the conferment ceremony, where the university inaugurates its masters and doctorates in a spectacular display of laurel wreaths, master rings, swords and doctoral hats. The Finnish tradition of the conferment ceremony has originally been imported from continental Europe to the Turku Academy, from where it has since become established and has spread to the various universities in Finland.

The tradition has always included music arranged or composed for the occasion. In Finland, since the late 19th century, it has been customary to commission special graduation cantatas from Finnish composers to be sung and played at master’s and doctoral inauguration ceremonies. Although some parts of the conferment compositions and cantatas have survived outside universities, complete cantatas are rarely heard as such in the repertoires of non-academic choirs and orchestras.

An exception is Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, which he composed for his 1972 doctorate at the University of Oulu. He replaced the traditional choral part with recorded bird song, and the work has since received dozens of performances each year around the world.

Cecilia Damström’s seven-part work Science Frictions (op. 84, 2022), commissioned by the University of Helsinki in honour of the Jubilee Year of the Conferments and premiered in March 2023, to a text by poet Cia Rinne, successfully refreshes a long-standing continuum of conferment cantatas. It is recommendable that the cantata should also be performed at non-university events in the future.

Although it is a commemorative poem for a conferment act, its message is universal: the role and importance of science in society is not only for university students, but for all of us.

The Science Frictions cantata, scored for countertenor, choir and orchestra, could be dramaturgically conceived as a journey in which the researcher engages in an endless, cyclical dialogue with the scientific community. In a speech on the website of the conferment’s anniversary year, Rinne describes the character of Olympe, the cantata’s soloist, as a kind of seeker who “embarks on a Faustian expedition in search of language, logic, science and consciousness – while the choir comments on and encounters these discoveries”.

Damström’s musical language and Rinne’s text material, which includes nine different languages, emphasise playfulness and inventiveness, language games and paradoxes, and a balanced dialogue between the soloist and the choir.

The philosophers quoted in the text, from Socrates to Hannah Arendt and Paul Valéry, also engage in dialogue. In this sense, the cantata gets to the heart of science: knowledge is built together, in polyphony and in interaction with others.

The canon successfully weighs up universal issues such as the nature and ethics of scientific knowledge and the relationship between man and community, without being frivolous, platitudinous or pompous. It is typical that an interesting and evocative work of art will tempt you to experience it again and again, and this is also the case with this conferment cantata.

The wonder of discovery and exploration is present in the work: the ear always picks up something new and interesting from the multilayered texture.

Science Frictions’ rich soundscape and the varied characters of the sections contain, in miniature, all the wonder and anguish of science – from the pressure and thumping of Arguing with Logics to the mysterious harmony of the spheres of the second and sixth movements, which peer beyond empiricism. Both the ideals and the harsh realities of the scientific world are revealed, and the future and responsibilities of the scientist are weighed. Damström’s musical intertextuality is very elegant, with stylistic references in the conferment tradition, from church music to fanfares and the student song fragments of the last movement.

The role of Olympe was written for David Hackston’s expansive countertenor voice, which sounded magnificently in the University’s Great Hall. Hackston’s vocal instrument is used to its full potential in the cantata, ranging from spoken “sprechgesang” and “vocal fry” to soaring glissandos. In her introduction text, the composer says that the broad ambitus and the countertenor vocal range also expresses the important point that science belongs to everyone – regardless of gender or background. The interpretation by the Dominante choir, prepared by Seppo Murto, and the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Aku Sorensen, in my opinion conveyed an enthusiastic impression, although the acoustics of the Great Hall has some issues, particularly with regard to balance when performing from the gallery.

In terms of form, Science Frictions could be described as symmetrical or cyclical, which fits perfectly with the harmonious and carefully thought-out sequence of steps in the conferment act.

For example, in the second movement the downward sliding whole tone scale in the woodwinds – like a cosmic nebula – is mirrored in the penultimate movement, where it starts to ascend again from below, perhaps towards Parnassus. Or is it the stone of Sisyphus, which is again being rolled towards the summit? In any case, the final movement, which fades into a luminous C major harmony, leaves the listener feeling hopeful: at last, Science Frictions is driven by a joyful and outward-looking science, the joy of discovery.

Particularly in the current climate, where the prestige and funding of research are at stake, this message seems exceptionally valuable.

The conferment cantata can next be heard streamed at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Philosophy’s conferment ceremony on 26 May from 10 a.m. The work can be followed on the university’s social media channels and on the screen of the Helsinki Academic Bookstore.

Nuppu Koivisto – Helsingin Sanomat 26.5.2023