Spes (Hope) by Mia Makaroff

In a recent email exchange, composer Mia Makaroff expressed to me that her piece, Spes, published in 2020, has been “more political than [she] expected.” In the work, she sets Latin text from Ecclesiastes and Sámi text from Finnish Sámi writer Nils Aslak Valkeapää. Makaroff, who is not Sámi herself, has done her research. She requested and was granted permission from the Lásságámmi Foundation to use Valkeapää’s texts. They also assisted her with the language and pronunciation. She understood that as someone who is not Sámi, she could not compose or use yoik (also spelled joik, a form of song in Sámi music). Instead, she composed entirely new material inspired by the sound world.  

Singing Spes is cathartic. The piece has beautiful texts and is a great way to discuss topics affecting the Sámi people today and to learn about Sámi music (even though there is no yoik in the piece itself) and language with your ensemble. Read more about our discovery process below.

Spes (Hope) by Mia Makaroff

SSAA divisi, unaccompanied

Year: 2020

Text: Nils Aslak Valkeapää, Ecclesiastes 8:1, 8

Duration: 4’25” 

Purchase: https://www.giamusic.com/store/resource/spes-print-ww1777
Recording: https://youtu.be/CAMKAr0Sido

About the Work (from Mia Makaroff, published in the score)

The words spes and doaivu both mean hope, but in very different languages. Spes is Latin, the language used in catholic churches, and doaivu is Sámi, a language coming from Lappland. Sometimes, these cultures have conflicted: Biblical Latin has represented the Christian church and Sámi has represented animism and shamanism in the northern parts of Scandinavia. This has led to violence and demolition, although both cultures seek peace and understanding. In 2012, the bishop of Oulu, Finland, asked the Sámi people for forgiveness. Hope is present whenever people are humble enough to seek for understanding.

There is a question in Ecclesiastes: Who is as the wise man? Who knows the resolution of things? It is not in a man’s power to stop the wind, neither hath he power to know the time of his death. The Sámi singer, poet and artist Nils Aslak Valkeapää wrote: I belong to the wind, but I live, maybe that is the meaning of life. I live here and now…I won’t be alive tomorrow. That is the way – and so what?

Valkeapää was not only speaking about himself, but also the old culture of the Sámi people, because they have always struggled for existence. I felt that this thought resonated with the Bible text.

So what? Those were the powerful words of Valkeapää. If we disappear, so what? We were small from the beginning. That liberates us to live to the fullest and be ourselves the short time we exist. The Ecclesiastes text explains how humility and wisdom changes a man: his face softens and he is not rigid or violent anymore. This humility and understanding is the key for the hope of mankind.

Looking for New Works

Like many of us, I hit total music burnout after the online COVID school year. I didn’t want to listen to music. I didn’t want to think about music. And I especially didn’t want to pour over dozens of recordings and scores to pick out the next year’s repertoire. But June came, and with it, the email from our ensemble librarian asking me to submit my programs for the fall.

I decided to program music about traveling and change. COVID felt like a period of being stuck. Being in New York, I was literally stuck: we weren’t permitted to leave the state and highly discouraged from even venturing outside of the county! The year prior, I had just had my doctoral recital, just days before everything shut down. Now at Ithaca College with this choral ensemble that was completely new to me, I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. I couldn’t connect with the ensemble in the same way as I had with other ensembles pre-COVID, neither online nor in person when we were all masked and twelve feet apart. I couldn’t hear anything and they couldn’t hear each other. In a way, this fall program was an embodiment of my inner desire for something to change. Or to at least be able to get out of Tompkins County, New York.

While searching for new works by female composers, I stumbled upon Spes. Spes means “hope” in Latin, something we all needed at the time. The piece itself was about seeking understanding between the Finnish people and the indigenous Sámi people, so it felt relevant and timely. I looked up the recording by Cantus, an internationally acclaimed Norwegian women’s choir conducted by Tove Ramlo-Ystad (Disney fans might recognize them from their performance of “Vueli” from Frozen). When the choir started belting out jee a joo-o-lo-e-loo (nonsense syllables about twenty-four seconds in), I immediately fell in love.

My love for music came back in a rush. I love choral music for pieces like this. The lilt of the 6/8, Cantus’ visceral sound in the sections of Sámi text emulating the sound of Sámi yoik, the unique yet approachable harmonic language, and the alto low Ds (!!!) really resonated with me at the time. This was the piece I could not wait to share with my ensemble.

To Sing or Not to Sing – A Conversation with Mia Marakoff

A little ways into our rehearsal process, a student came to my studio and asked if it was appropriate to sing this piece given the violence against the Sámi people in Scandinavia. They felt that the bishop of Oulu asking for forgiveness was a nice gesture, but it did not undo the centuries of abuse, discrimination, and mistreatment of the Sámi people. At the time, I did not have an answer for them. I knew that Cantus had collaborated with Sámi yoiker and composer Frode Fjellheim on their album Spes, named for this very piece, and therefore, it was my sincerest belief that there was a certain degree of respect and collaboration in its conception. Still, I understood and appreciated my student wanting to ensure that we were being thoughtful and respectful of the Sámi people. I decided to reach out to Mia for her insight into some of these topics. 

HC: What were some of your musical inspirations for Spes? Did you take inspiration from joik or a particular joikaaja?

MM: I had the yoik as an inspiration, yes. I read a lot about yoik and listened to many original performers. I understood that I could not write or use a yoik myself, not being of Sámi origin. I listened to yoik before writing my song because I wanted to understand the world of this poet. I wrote the melody myself, just as a musical manifestation of the feeling that I had working with this poem. I did not copy or use any original yoik. I just tried to get into the right mode myself, in line with the texts.

HC: Your piece was published in 2020 and in your program notes, you state that the bishop of Oulu, Finland, asked the Sámi people for forgiveness for the violence against them in 2012. How would you describe the relationship of the Finnish people (or other Scandinavians) with the Sámi today?

MM: Sámi people are going through a lot of discussion right now, this is what I have understood from my Sámi friend, Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, studying in a doctoral seminar in Sibelius Academy. There is a lot of debate within their people about how to meet the history and legacy of their ancestors. She advised me and other musicians NOT to use any original yoiks, yoiking, and yoik tradition without a Sámi person; just to give them peace and not to use the yoiks in a wrong, disrespectful way. 

The history in Finland has been quite similar with other countries that have indigenous people; quite a sad history of exploitation and demolition, trying to make everyone the same. I believe that the new generation is more civilized, the culture of living in symbiosis with nature is more respected now.

HC: The dedication on this piece is to Cantus and Tove Ramlo-Ystad. My students and I enjoyed listening to their recording many times! Could you talk a bit about how that collaboration came about?

MM: I met Tove when we were working as adjudicators in Interkultur World Choir Games in Cincinnati 2012. She asked if we could cooperate with Cantus. I wrote this song after their recording of “Vuelie” had reached worldwide success through Disney; she wanted something that would have the same vibe but also with religious content. I worked a LOT to find just the right texts. I was happy when the Lásságámmi Foundation (protecting the rights of the deceased poet) agreed with my plans and gave their blessings. They also helped me with the language and pronunciation.

I am so grateful also that Tove is still collaborating with me: Cantus has just recorded a new song Psalm 9 which I wrote to a poem by a Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. I combined Arabic and English this time in this very sad song about feeling homeless.

Cantusphoto: Decca Records

HC: What are three main things you would want an ensemble to think about when performing Spes (musical or otherwise)?

MM: I’d say understanding the combination of two very different worlds and aesthetics; the world of Nils Aslak Valkeapää and the world of the western church. There is wisdom and beauty in both. The song offers a possibility to use different kinds of vocal techniques, both with respect. The main idea is to bring forth the peace between both, not the dissonances.

This song has been more political than I expected when writing this song. So if the group is able to try to understand or study the Sámi culture with an original guide, that would be great.

Rehearsal Difficulties

Here are some of the rehearsal issues I encountered when teaching the piece to my ensemble:

  • It is difficult to find treble voices who can sing a solid low D, and even harder to find treble voices who can do it without pressing while producing enough sound to balance the rest of the ensemble. The alto 2s are essentially a functional bassline in much of this piece.
  • In measure 4 and its parallel spot later in the piece, the alto 1s always wanted to sing a C natural, turning that Dmaj7 chord into a D7 (V of the next chord, G major). It’s also an easy spot for a conductor to miss aurally: the C natural sounds so fitting! 
  • We struggled with dragging throughout the piece. Because so many of the phrases begin on pick-ups, the ensemble tended to breathe late which caused them to get slower and slower. To counteract the dragging, we stood in a circle and swayed back and forth together. This helped, but we continued to drag any time we took away the swaying. We ultimately kept the swaying for the performance.
  • We tended to fall under pitch for two reasons: 1) the altos were really low in their range which unsurprisingly led to some pressing in the voice, and 2) this piece is filled with fourths, which tended to be too narrow, particularly when leaping upwards. Additionally, the Sámi sections tended to sit just under the pitch due to the more belt-style.
  • This piece is stylistically difficult as it requires different vocal techniques. Fortunately, one of my colleagues, Alison Wahl, came to class to work with the Treble Chorale on the more vernacular style of the Sámi sections (insights from that session will be in a later blog post). Most of my students can access both a vernacular style of singing from the music they listen to in their daily lives and are simultaneously being trained in the bel canto style at school, but found it tricky to flip quickly between the two.
  • Fortunately, the choir picked up fairly quickly on the language. Below are a couple of resources on the Sámi language (there are so many more than I had access to even a year ago!):
  1. An IPA guide from the GIA website can be found here.
  2. About the Sámi languages from julingo (The comment section includes additional insights from native Sámi speakers.)
  3. WIKITONGUES: Lene and Børre speaking Northern Sami from Wikitongues
  4. The Sounds Of The Northern Sami Languages from Disney films in Multilanguages

Mia also recommends the following resources:

As we learn more about and examine the history of mistreatment of indigenous people around the world, we as conductors can (and should) be selective about the pieces we choose for our ensembles and by extension, the conversations we want to have surrounding the pieces. But sometimes in our cautiousness, we can dismiss a piece simply because we don’t know the composer’s background or process, or are unwilling to dive a little deeper. Mia stated in a later email that she is a “bit careful now” with this piece:

“…my originally respectful intentions can be misunderstood. We as human beings lose a lot of understanding if we are not allowed to play and create.” 

I hope this exploration of Spes encourages you to check out this beautiful piece for yourself!

Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY.  She is currently on faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale. 

If you would like to contribute to the blog with any questions or wisdom or pieces to share, I’d love to hear from you!  Feel free to write to me at hana.cai@acdaeast.org.