Jarmo Sermila

Finnish, 1939-
The core of the output of Jarmo Sermila consists of some 50 chamber music works. This includes some works for solo instrument and tape that are clearly chamber music by their nature. There are no traditional sonatas, trios or string quartets in Sermila’s output; each of his works has a free, descriptive title. Sermila favours colourful, piece-specific ensembles, with an emphasis on wind instruments. Considering that Sermil? created a career as a jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player in the 1960s before turning to composition in the field of concert music, this is scarcely surprising. Certain works are special cases in that their instrumentation is partly indeterminate, such as Improparlando (1981) for three or more (unspecified) instruments, Musique aerée (1982) for four brass instruments, and Committee Meeting (1982) for six instruments.

Sermila’s most important influence in his early period of the early 1970s was Edgard Varèse, as can be seen in the title of Homage to EV (1971) for seven brass instruments and two percussionists. This period also produced Monody (1970) for horn and percussion and Crisis (1972) for clarinet quintet. Sermila’s music is characterized by tone colour and textures often drawing on aleatoric counterpoint. Contrasts of textures and colours are even indicated in the title of, for instance, V?rej? ja vastakohtaisuuksia (Colours & Contrasts, 1976) for flute, violin and piano.

Sermil? has often expressed his interest in the problem of musical time. In the 1970s, this manifested itself as static or rhythmically free situations aiming to arrest the sense of time. From the 1980s onwards, Sermil? has turned to pulsating Minimalist rhythms (e.g. in Myyttinen mies (Mythical man, 1982) for percussion quintet). However, the Minimalist (and diatonic) texture is only one dimension of expression in Sermil?’s later works; it may be juxtaposed with a rhythmically free chromatic texture. This kind of alteration is featured for instance in Ego I (1988) for violin, accordion and double bass. This period also produced A Prague Thoroughfare (1983) for electric guitar and string quartet, Hiiet hirve? rakenti (Ogres built an elk, 1984) for two trombones, two percussionists and tape, Contours (1986) for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, Movimenti e ritornelli (1986/1995) for string quartet, and several works entitled Danza written for a variety of duos in the 1990s.

In Sermila’s more recent output, his stylistic range seems to have continued to expand. We might describe as chamber music those works where a single performer plays against a tape background; in Sermila’s catalogue, at least, they are categorized as chamber music works rather than solo works. These include But I Didn’t Know It Was Spring for trumpet and tape (1995) and Il mondo assurdo del Signor B. for viola and tape (1997).

—bio thanks to the Finnish Music Information Centre (FIMIC)

Selected works by Jarmo Sermila:
“Once when father (George Ives) was asked: 'How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (who was the best stonemason in town) bellow off-key the way he does at camp-meetings?' his answer was: 'Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds!'”
--Charles Ives