Santa and Music
I went Christmas shopping over the weekend, pretty successfully I think. It’s nothing much, but I hope I picked out a few small things that will be meaningful to my family and give them a little taste of Finland.
I took some pictures too, to try to give a feeling of the markets, but I’m not sure that was as successful. I don’t like to take pictures in public, in places that I live. I think part of it is that I don’t like people thinking I’m a tourist. At the moment I’m sporting a point-and-shoot that, while actually a great camera, doesn’t inspire illusions of the artiste in anyone who might be watching me taking pictures. Sometimes I wish I could walk around and show people the finished photos: “See? They’re kinda artsy! I’m not a tourist, I swear!”
The other reason I don’t have many good pictures of the markets is because I’m very sensitive to the idea of invasion of privacy. I don’t want the vendors to feel like zoo animals; I’m not here to gawk at them. I would really love to capture the beauty and tradition of the outdoor markets, but I guess it’s again tied to the feeling that my point-and-shoot just doesn’t look like something that captures beauty, and more like something that captures drunken selfies. Maybe as time goes on I will grow the nerve to not mind as much what other people might think.
In any case, I have some tourist shots of the Tuomas market in the Senate Square, and a few of Aleksanderinkatu Christmas street. I even saw Joulupukki twice! In Finland, the character of Santa Claus is called Joulupukki, which loosely translates to “Christmas goat.” I asked some Finns about it who didn’t know why he is called that, and Wikipedia says something along the lines of an old pagan legend involving a seasonal character who got conflated with Santa Claus when the Christians introduced their seasonal festivities. In any case, he’s very friendly!
First I took a walk through the Tuomas market, mostly because the atmosphere was so festive. I often take a detour to walk around it–it’s on my way from the university to the shops in the city centre, and it’s right outside my Finnish class.
I know that it’s more of a touristy market, with a lot of vendors selling the same trinkets you find in the nearby souvenir shops. But to me, it’s all novelty. And I think that’s the easy part about being American, that if you haven’t traveled much outside the U.S., everything is a novelty. It could be the most generic Fazer candy from S-Market and it would still be interesting, just because it’s from Finland.
I’ve always loved Christmas and crafts fairs and markets. The Vanha Ylioppilastalo market reminded me a bit of the holiday craft fair at my high school. Baked goods, printed textiles, hand painted cards and unique jewelry, candles set in teacups and painted with Santa and snowmen, jarred goods and even the same kind of rustic wood and wicker tchotchkes we’d find in Ohio.
I walked back through the Tuomas market. Steam rose in silver curls from the makkara stalls, and the little vendor houses were lit up like a miniature town with the austere figure of the cathedral glowing ghostly white behind it, and the black sky above. From the Pitkäsilta I can see a few stars, one very bright in the East, and the moon rising and setting in the middle of the day. It’s an entirely different atmosphere, almost magical.
I strolled through the city centre as I often do, to pass by Joulumailmaa on Aleksanderinkatu Christmas street, just to see the vendors in their little red houses all done up with pine garlands, smelling cinnamon roasted almonds and watching the children run around so excited to see the window displays in the shops. There is a busker who regularly sits outside Stockmann, with an intricate setup rigged from a thin wooden frame and hanging rows of bottles. He sets up a beat from an old-school boombox at his feet, and uses a little wooden mallet to play melodies on the bottles. In the summer it was a selection of polkas.
I was passing on the other side of the street when I heard a familiar introduction: some wispy, aethereal chords and drifting melodic triplets. I stopped short to listen–I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but it felt like something very important. I turned to walk back to get a better listening point just as he began the theme, and laughed out loud.
There are a few pieces of music that evoke some kind of powerful, visceral memory in me. Some of them I understand, and have maybe intentionally helped form that emotional attachment. Tielmann Susato’s La Battaille Pavane from his Danserye, for example, was the first piece of really early music that I played–in an honor band, when I was 13–and I didn’t understand what it was at the time, but the raw power in such a simple piece of music stuck with me over the years. I ended up with a major in historical music performance in college. A lot of Stephen Foster’s music has a similar effect on me. He captures the heart of early American culture–the pioneers, the farmers, the villagers–the spirit of the American people stripped of all modern conceits. His music is about just people. And of course, the Burl Ives Christmas album, which was played on repeat from November till after Christmas throughout my childhood, gives me the same sort of intense nostalgia.
Other music I know I have distilled into emotional memory on purpose. I went through a really rough time during the last few months I was in London, and turned to music to block out the rest of the world. I spent weeks on end with earbuds in 24 hours a day, with the same handful of songs playing over and over until it wasn’t so much music as white noise, that would block out my own thoughts as well as my environment. It’s not brilliant music, and it didn’t do anything to me on its own, but now when I (seldom) choose to listen to that playlist, I’m powerfully taken back to the student cafes where I did most of my work, the smells of bad English coffee and burnt shepherd’s pie, the dampness of the air and rain on the windows, creaking of the floorboards in my old flat and the wind howling across the crack in the door.
The busker in the city centre was playing the instrumental introduction to ‘Polovtsian Dances,’ a huge chorus number in Aleksandr Borodin‘s opera Prince Igor. When I was 12, I played an arrangement of it for a solo competition. At the time, I thought it was just a beautiful little piece for oboe; little did I know that I would be playing the original version as principal in the all-state orchestra 4 years later, and that it would become such a powerful source of inspiration for me. I think having that piece bookend my high school music experience planted it solidly in my memory, and began my love affair with the Bohemian composers. Since then I have discovered among others, Zelenka, who is extraordinarily underappreciated and wrote fantastically progressive harmonies, and I’ve read about the troubled life of Smetana, who only wanted to show the world the beautiful traditional music of his homeland. But Borodin was my first love. He was a talented physician and chemist first, a philanthropist and a feminist far ahead of his time. He was my role model as scientist and musician, and he didn’t listen to critics who wanted him to conform to their standards of musical style. Most of his best-known works were orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, but his unique voice sings through. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations of his own work and others’ are colorful, vibrant, harmonic, grandiose, powerful. But Borodin’s music has a special flavor to it–always something unexpected and always something incredibly visceral, as if he knew how to turn little shards of what it is to be human, into pure music.
There is something about these musics that have implanted themselves into my memory, as if into my very being, that when I hear them out in the world it makes me feel as though the universe is reaching out to me, telling me that I’m not alone and that I was meant to be here at this very moment. As if, for a moment, the music is playing just for me.