Images of fir, pine, and birch are conjured up in Riina Tamm’s poems “Metsä” and “Vuodenajat”, which translate as “Woods” and “Seasons”, respectively. Chanterelles sprout from the earth, blossoms hang from boughs, and “leaves sparkle/in the water’s mirror”. Quietly ecstatic, the two brief meditations almost ask to be sung—and that, no doubt, made Vancouver composer Alan Matheson’s task a pleasant one.
Matheson is setting Tamm’s words for the Vancouver Cantata Singers to sing at their Scandinavian Treasures: Songs of the North concert this weekend. And in doing so, he’ll get to draw on his own intimacy with the poet and her subject matter: Tamm is his wife, and the two spend part of each summer in the Baltic countries, visiting Tamm’s Estonian relatives and enjoying the tranquillity of the Finnish forest while Matheson teaches at an annual music camp.
The beauty of Tamm’s poetry and Matheson’s familiarity with the Baltic landscapes it describes aren’t the only factors that have eased the composer’s path. “In both Finnish and Estonian, the accent is almost invariably on the first syllable of each word,” he points out, adding that Tamm wrote her poems in Estonian and then translated them into that tongue’s close cousin. “Both are very syllabic languages—which I have to say, as a nonspeaker of either of those languages, makes them somewhat easy to set.”
Beginning by having Tamm dictate “Metsä” and “Vuodenajat” into his iPhone, Matheson drew his rhythms from the cadence of her words, then used a kind of impressionistic process to generate melody and harmony. “It’s like looking at the words and internalizing them and saying ‘Well, what sounds go with these?’” he explains. “You’re kind of serving the words as best you can.”
One thing that the texts depict, he adds, is a feeling of light and space that’s very different from that associated with our own West Coast woods. “There’s a sense of shimmer, because of the birch trees,” he says. “Birch trees and pine really predominate in Finland, as opposed to the enveloping cedars that we get here—and the artistic images that we see from people like Emily Carr, which can be dense and dark but very compelling. I was trying to get more of the light and shade that you get there, especially in the summer.”
A pianist and trumpet player as well as a composer, Matheson is probably best known for his work with jazz ensembles. While choral work is still a relatively small part of his output, making the switch from writing for small groups and big bands to unaccompanied choir hasn’t fazed him; he’s always aimed for a vocal sound, even when writing for saxophones and brass.
“The teachers that I had, if they taught arranging—like trombonist Dave Robbins and my teacher down in the States, Don Owens, who taught at Northwestern—they were really big on ‘Make it as vocal as possible,’ ” he says. “Make it singable, you know.…I guess I kept that in mind. From writing for jazz ensembles to writing for choir, the precepts, to me, are kind of the same.”
The Vancouver Cantata Singers present Scandinavian Treasures: Songs of the North at the Scandinavian Cultural Centre on Saturday (May 25).