An album release show
Friday afternoon, I arrive at the Helsinki railway station. This is the city where I was born. And where I almost died for the first time. But so far I've survived, just having my soul somewhat emotionally crippled. I learned all the ways of non-communication, all the ways of masking hiding and protecting my inner self - that kept me protected but left me feeling detached, alienated, pretty much incapable of emotional contact with other human beings. And somehow I always felt that these are just temporary means to protect myself from excess emotional pain - one day I won't need my armours any more, and I could meet other people in an open, honest and meaningful way. I have that kind of good contact with my own son, but with others it has always been mostly just centuries of silence.
I let those memories fade, focusing my attention on recalling the overall layout of the city. I have a ticket to Astrid Swan's album release show, and there is still 90 minutes before the doors open. The venue is a small indie art cinema theatre, I've never been there before. But I know the street address, and I have a generic idea where that street is. So better go find the place, and then have something to eat. I start walking.
I walk up the street, looking for the venue. Sooner than I expected I spot a place which looks like it could be a small indie theatre, I go take a closer look. As I scan the windows looking for a logo, a poster or something which would confirm this is the place, I suddenly have a direct eye contact with a person sitting inside. She's a blonde woman, having another person doing her make-up and hair. As I realize "Ah, that's Astrid getting ready for the show" I see her gently raising her palm to gesture a greeting. For half a second my mind takes a detour in learned anxiety; "This can't happen, I'm an alien outside everything, nobody ever sees me. Ah, see - I'm in water not knowing how to swim; I mean, here is this direct personal contact but I don't know how to contact, I only know how to hide. But she probably mistakes me for someone else. Or maybe th.." and the following instant "oh relax, it doesn't matter. There is another person greeting you with a friendly gesture, and it makes you feel glad inside, so just let your emotions show, express yourself, make yourself visible, be alive. Easy as that", and that thought comes out as a merry gesture of my hands, returning the greeting. The whole moment lasts for a second or two, as my feet keep on walking. I've found the venue, next I need food, so on with my personal quest.
After the venue the street seems to have only blocks of flats. I take a small side alley up a rocky hill. The alley is for pedestrians only, and has stairs on the steepest parts. A group of three kids are playing on the alley, and I find myself surrounded by inspiring and interesting Jugend-style buildings; fairy-taleish romantic shapes, decorative flourishes, and a carved gargoyle sitting high on a wall. Somehow there isn't that generic sense of urban anonymity here; this clearly is a home for people living here, and I feel like walking on their yard. Only that their front yard happens to be a city alley, and the buildings are probably hiding protected inner yards. The alley takes me to a bigger street which I know. An elder lady in stylish clothes looks at me and says in a friendly voice "Hello", just like people in the countryside do when they meet another people on the village road. "Hello!" I say and as I continue on I hear the lady shouting loudly to catch the attention of a person on the other side of the street. Judging by her voice she is merrily drunken. Maybe she has retired after a successful career and can now afford to walk around in fine clothes and drunken of fine wine. You never know what kind of personal stories these people are carrying. I overhear other people greeting and chatting; apparently many people living here know their neighbours. And then there are Asian tourists with cameras. I think to myself that I kind of a fall in between the local people and the foreign tourists. I was 2 years old when my family moved away, my early memories of Helsinki are scarce and vague. For me there isn't a sense of belonging here, I'm a visitor, just barely familiar with some parts of the city, and sometimes a bit lost with the urban etiquette.
Oh, but food - I need to eat before the show. There are those expensive hipster cafeterias. And a Moomin-themed cafeteria looking like a tourist attraction. I find a small nice pizzeria and step inside. The restaurant seems to be run by a fine Italian man speaking some Finnish. I immediately like the place, as it is not any of those standard-format fast-food chain places, but comes with unique charisma and a home-like atmosphere. I order one of their pizzas, a glass of red wine, and an espresso. They are taste so very good, every bite and every sip is a celebration of joy.
I go to the venue and sit down in the lobby. More and more people come in and soon the place is filled with warm friendly chatter. Then it is the time for the show to start. The staff opens the door to the theatre, people take their seats. I find a place about the middle of the mid row. As I sit down having a look at the stage I remember how I used to think that the setting embodies the philosophical subject - object distinction; that the stage and the audience are two totally different spheres of existence, how the audience observes as the drama unfolds on the stage. In a way, that kind of philosophy mirrors the psychological sense of emotional alienation; the feeling of not really being a part of the flow of events, but just observing everything from outside. Oh well. I realize the one-sided naivety of that line of thinking, and again let my thoughts fall into silence, prepared to just listen. The music starts, and immediately it is the show working the magic; there is no distance, but the audience gets immersed inside the music. (And I'd guess that has something to do with things like acoustics, the practical perfection of the sound system, and then - naturally - the skill of the performing artists).
And it is not just the ordinary "band plays on a stage"-setting. The show starts with the silver screen hanging in front of the stage, a video projected on the screen. As the show goes on, the stage set-up changes several times, offering various combinations of spatial installations complete with lights and videos. And oh how everything is so powerfully honest, deep, personal and touching. The music, the videos, lights and stage performance seamlessly mix into a rich piece of art, with an atmosphere of sorrow, fear, hope, death, resilience. Astrid's sound delivers the skilled poetry of her words, and momentarily I lose the track of verbal thinking, but find myself carried by the non-verbal poetry of music. Every instrument speaks of the subtle yet deep layers beyond words. Alina hits the drums and Veli plays the bass, like they together are a heartbeat of some strange mystical creature. Mikael's guitar is a lot like Tekla's video; sad beautiful and mesmerizing. Johannes picks up different instruments as needed - from a flute to the keyboards, anything from a dangerous riff to a subtle background sea of sound. Emmi's backing vocals cut through the dream-like spaces, making audible the invisible creatures of netherworld. And sometimes Astrid plays the keyboards and sings, and some songs take her to the middle of the stage, while singing in a vulnerably honest way about fear of dying young she is very much alive, carrying her body like a Greek goddess would. There is a hospital bed on the stage, Astrid sings sitting on the bed, she stands up and dances a little, on the video those mythical creatures dance around the bed.
Yes there are tears in my eyes - not only because of the grief carried by the music, but also because of the depth of the connection it makes. In this moment I'm no more an alienated outsider, but find myself immersed in shared emotions. While the songs are very personal for Astrid, they are presented in a manner that is accessible to and appreciated by all listeners. I remember all those moments of my own life when I've been sitting next to a hospital bed, keeping up hope and having a silent emotional negotiation with fear and death. I remember all those moments I've stared the very eyes of death, feeling the death staring back, feelings its hot breath on my face, already burning in my lungs. I remember all that numb confusion after finding oneself not dead but neither 'back to normal', being lost in some strange kind of post-traumatic state. All these emotions that Astrid and her band and supporting artists and technicians deliver like magic. Yes there is the touch of sorrow, but personally for me it is also the touch of Life - for it is a touch, a connection, a bridge over the chasm of alienation. Dancing steps forward from the post-traumatic numb, a beacon for new adventures, re-finding the art of being emotionally connected with others.
What a real piece of art!
After the show I take a night bus to Tampere. I spend the two hours of the bus ride dwelling in the after-glow of the show, thinking about different aspects of its artistic perfection. Friday, fifteen minutes to midnight, I arrive at Tampere. A friend picks me up and we drive to their house. Some red wine and a nice discussion. A solid sleep. And in the morning good coffee with music, and then a sauna. I take a break from the sauna, I stand at their backyard wearing nothing but a towel, feeling the coolness of snow under my bare feet, enjoying the touch of wind and sunlight on my face and chest. I sip beer and listen to the little birds chirping in anticipation of the spring. I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.