Some reviews of The Northern Silence by impartial critics, posted as they’re published.

Limelight (November 2022) *****

Mellor does an extraordinary job in teasing the Northern soul out of the Northern Silence

I have a Danish colleague at work. He’s quiet, compact, strong, bicycle-crazy, self-reliant, conservative, multilingual, competitive and loves the TV series Borgen, as well as Scandi-crime both written and streamed, as much as he loves being out in nature. Having never been to Denmark (nor indeed to any other Nordic country), I’ve come to see him as the embodiment not just of Denmark but of Scandinavia itself. Which, after reading Andrew Mellor’s excellent book, I realise is accurate in some respects, way off the mark in others.

Mellor is a music critic and journalist living in Copenhagen. His writings will no doubt be familiar to regular readers of Limelight and Gramophone; he also contributes to Opera and the UK’s Financial Times. The Northern Silence is the fruit of his becoming ‘increasingly absorbed in the topography, traditions, mindsets and wider cultures of the Nordic countries and how they have shaped the music made here’.

Architectural space and musical silence are Mellor’s stiff twin compasses as he travels through parts of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Faeroes listening, watching and absorbing. Needed, because his wide-ranging journey is on the surface impossibly eclectic. Here is the music of Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, ABBA, Björk and Finnish heavy metal band Lordi. The architecture of Alvar Aalto and IKEA interior design. The writings of Hans Christian Andersen and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The art of Edvard Munch and Olafur Eliasson. It can be dizzying at times.

I say ‘on the surface’, because Mellor’s project is to connect. For example, he identifies the Lutheran chorale as informing the music of composers and musicians as disparate as ABBA, Sibelius and Bent Sørensen. Similar connections are made not just within but across disciplines, as those between architecture and music.

The Northern Silence can be read as a series of arrivals and departures. A collection of essays, discrete and braided. A breathing of the personal (in) and the political (out), of insularity and extraversion, of contemplation and conversation, of rhyme and reportage. Then there is Mellor’s clear, direct yet subtly allusive style, a figured bass tastefully realised and ornamented. Hallmarks of the best journalism: ‘The bass pedal note has proved persistent in Nordic orchestral music from Grieg onwards. It is easily associated with landscape: with clear views through long, wide vistas; with the stillness and stasis that spilled over into Nordic music from equivalent oil painting well over a century ago.’

Comparisons with the work of Alex Ross and other specialist, yet expansive writers on music are apt. But I also found in Mellor’s effortless blend of culture, history, biography, society, observation, analysis and lived experience an echo of what is, in other ways, a very different book: The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts. Some of Donald Richie’s writings on the relationship between Japanese culture and its cinema also spring to mind.

Above all, The Northern Silence is an extraordinary achievement for Mellor’s ability on the one hand to find commonalities among disparate threads, and on the other to tease out the implications of a single theme: neither with any expectation of a definitive answer. Very Sibelius.

Will Yeoman

Gramophone (September 2022)

The Northern Silence opens with the view from an airport terminal. ‘From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport, Finland’s forests resemble a dado-rail, separating the horizon from the sky’, writes Andrew Mellor: economical, vivid, placing us straight inside his subject. Those forests are calling, and already, any music lover will sense where he’s about to take us. ‘But the country’s ancient woods are different’, he continues, and without any sense of haste he moves forwards into the first orchestral sound in this spacious, atmospheric study of Nordic music and society: Sibelius’s Tapiola, and the silence in which it ends. ‘Silence, it’s tempting to speculate, had proved itself too intrinsic a part of Sibelius’s musical language for him to resist embracing it fully.’

And there you are: by page 3, he’s outlined the full, panoramic scope of The Northern Silence. Landscape, modernity and music; nature, tradition and a very particular human culture. Superficially, it’s familiar territory: hygge, Nordic noir, and who, by now, hasn’t read about Jorma Panula’s Finnish conductor-factory? For a while (about a decade back) hardly a month seemed to pass without UK critics flying north to eat herring, greet civic delegations and acclaim the icy perfection and eco-friendly credentials of the latest ultra-modern opera house or concert hall. Mellor craved greater depth, and in 2015 he moved to Copenhagen to examine the Nordic classical scene from the inside. Embedding himself in Danish society, he’s become Our Man in the North — reporting and reviewing with an elegance and perceptiveness that will need no introduction to Gramophone readers.

Mellor’s journalism informs The Northern Silence, giving him access to performers, composers, festival directors and culture ministers across the region. But that’s merely the substrate of a book that pushes past the (increasingly unsustainable) stereotype of Scandinavia as a social-democratic paradise of enlightened music-making, to find (in so far as they exist) the common psychological, cultural and economic roots of Nordic music. Towards the end, Mellor examines a cluster of new Nordic embassy buildings in Berlin: ‘Their materials project shiny metropolitan progress while also referencing natural truths and rural hard work … Entirely contemporary, they give the impression of having existed for centuries. Meticulously designed, they seem untouched by human hands.’

He could be writing about Sibelius — or Lindberg, or Hillborg, or Saariaho. Vivid, penetrating musical descriptions are at the heart of his journey, whether the ‘elasticated soprano and anti-gravitational orchestra’ of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you or his brisk-but-fair dismissal of Stenhammar’s symphonic output: ‘high-quality music that works itself hard’. Mellor travels from Reykjavik to Lapland; from Scandi-chic urban venues to music festivals in the Faroes and Arctic Norway. Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen are his initial focal points, but he expands outwards and circles back, identifying and anatomising similarities and (often stark) differences. The logo of Finnair (the only airline, we learn, to have its own chamber choir) has something to say about Sibelius’s sonic palette; and it suddenly makes perfect sense that the nation that gave the world Lego should also produce the Sinfonia espansiva. Icelandic football crowds applaud with the tectonic slowness of a Jón Leifs symphonic poem; Kurt Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony cocks a raucous snook at Swedish reserve.

But Mellor is a journalist, too, and he’s lived long enough in Scandinavia to challenge some of the cosier myths. Excessive state subsidy feeds parochialism and complacency. Orchestras that clock off every Friday at 3pm can struggle to generate much of a spark in the concert hall, and the manager of one Swedish ensemble is openly contemptuous of his ‘zombie’ audience. Mellor doesn’t shy away from the darker implications of the great silence behind so much that fascinates him: depression, alcoholism and inhuman solitude. Though after Mellor’s typically lucid exploration of Per Nørgård’s infinity series, it’s like jumping from a sauna into a frozen lake to find Leif Segerstam (who ‘looks just as likely to have stepped out of the pages of the Kalevala as from a scene from The Muppets’) brusquely demolishing Norgard’s whole aesthetic: ‘He doesn’t give a fuck if the notes are good or bad, they go according to his scheme’.

This is not (happily) a work of musicology — no specialist technical knowledge is assumed, though you’ll learn a great deal about Sibelius’s debt to Finnish rune-singers, the musical semantics of yoiking and the sound of the nyckelharpa. There’s no aspect of Scandinavian or Nordic life that doesn’t illuminate Mellor’s understanding of the whole, and he writes as enjoyably about the music of Outi Tarkiainen or Fartein Valen as he does about ABBA, Björk or (brilliantly) Finland’s Eurovision-winning heavy-metal monsters Lordi. In short, then, the best kind of music book — one that takes literally Nielsen’s declaration that ‘Music is life’, and makes it the heart and soul of something infinitely wider and more fascinating.

Richard Bratby

Arcana (August 2022)

This absorbing read…says a great deal for Mellor’s breadth of outlook and his depth of sympathies. In the Prelude and Postlude, the reaching-out of Sibelius’s masterpiece Tapiola towards silence is pertinently considered as exemplifying Nordic culture. Hopefully this book’s authorial voice will stay resilient for a long while yet.

Richard Whitehouse (read the full review here).

Finnish Music Quarterly (August 2022)

Charting A Musical Map of the Nordic Countries

Music journalist Andrew Mellor would probably not consider himself a cartographer, yet this is a title that I would like to bestow on him. His recent book, The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press, 2022), opens up like a map that guides the reader to the musical worlds, societies and cultural histories of the Nordic countries. Mellor does not seek to redefine geography, but he does expand on and further specify views presented in earlier literature. His subjective journey takes the form of a complex mosaic, entwining history and the present, music and life in general, and above all the five countries of northern Europe with all their idiosyncrasies.

But is it even possible to discuss the Nordic countries as a single entity? The Northern Silence seeks to address this question through five partly overlapping thematic modules. In Chapter 1, Mellor cleverly subverts A.A. Gill, who wrote “Scandinavia is a collection of countries we can’t tell apart” in an introduction to the societies and histories of the Nordic countries and to composers from Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen to Kurt Attenberg and Edvard Grieg. Chapter 2 is a survey of performance practices and the social status of music; Chapter 3 focuses on local idiosyncrasies and explores borderlands, including the wilds of Lapland and the Faroe Islands. Chapter 4 paints a conventionally sombre yet nature-entuned image of the Nordic psyche, and the concluding Chapter 5 contemplates the language of Nordic design and architecture vis-à-vis music.

The Northern Silence thus takes a very broad approach, and principally it acquits itself very well. For instance, Mellor manages to tell the tale of post-war political developments and the triumph of the Social Democratic utopia in the various countries while, in almost virtuoso fashion, presenting a counterpoint of phenomena in the world of music and of his own experiences. There is an endless argument to be had about cause and effect, but Mellor has done his homework well: just as the reader feels that the description of cultural life in the Nordic countries is becoming a little too sweet to be true, we are reminded of the threats to disband orchestras and comparisons with conditions elsewhere. Mellor employs a similarly broad brush in transitioning from nyckelharpa to kantele, from folk songs to heavy metal, from Lutheranism to Social Democracy and from Alvar Aalto to IKEA. There are risks involved in such an approach, but Mellor keeps the mosaic admirably coherent. Occasionally, though, the reader is left wishing for a more incisive synthesis amidst this rich swirl of narrative.

Many who are used to reading about music must be familiar with Mellor’s articles on Nordic music, for instance in Classic FM and Gramophone. The backbone of The Northern Silence is made up of interviews made for these various media over the years, offering glimpses behind the scenes of the world of music. Having been based in the Nordic countries for a long time, Mellor is at once an insider and an outside observer. His hybrid role yields him fascinating insights on the various cultural circles in which he moves and on their interactions. For example, Finns speak a completely new kind of English to Mellor, but in a similar fashion he discovers something unique in the sound, national status and interpretations of Nordic orchestras.

But how “unique” are the Nordic countries and their music, really? Is the trope of music reflecting its environment just an adage that governs discussions about music rather than saying anything about the music itself? This is most likely an unanswerable question, but national identity, and in this case specifically ‘Nordic-ness’, easily becomes a framework on which to hang arguments that are thereby constrained by that framework. The Northern Silence treads a fine line between acknowledging conventional perceptions and outright stereotyping. Yet it is all too easy to fall into the trap: at times, Mellor is dazzled by “the allure of the North” as he discusses orchestral culture or describes the morose, silent and nature-attuned denizens of these dark lands – though admittedly the reticence of his interviewees and the composer persona typically ascribed to Sibelius justify his response. Epithets such as “Norwegian” or “Finnish” or even “nature-attuned”, when applied to music and musical styles, are not stereotyping, but they do raise questions about how specific such epithets are and what their purpose is.

In considering a book with a subject as broad as this, it obviously becomes a matter of taste what any particular reader would have liked to see included. However, considering how skilfully Mellor weaves in societal and historical connections, there is one theme conspicuous by its absence: the status of women as musicians and composers in the Nordic countries. This may be a deliberate omission on Mellor’s part; after all, he interviews Kaija Saariaho and Anna Thorvaldsdottir without making a meal out of their gender. And, as Lilli Paasikivi, Artistic Director of the Finnish National Opera, remarks to Mellor: “The most beautiful thing is if you don’t have to think about gender anymore.” Perhaps we should, though. Considering how well Nordic societies perform in worldwide rankings on gender equality – and considering, on the other hand, dysfunctionalities in the music industry that have been brought up in recent years – it seems a shame that Mellor did not here explore the parallel between music and societal trends.

At the end of the day, however, there is little point in grumbling about the comprehensiveness or lack thereof of the map that Mellor has drawn in The Northern Silence; his journey is not and does not claim to be an encyclopaedia. The book is above all a profuse and expert love letter to music and life in the Nordic countries. Mellor’s expertise in and enthusiasm for his subject comes clearly across in the text. Nordic readers may view themselves just a bit differently on the map after reading this.

Lasse Lehtonen

Songlines Magazine (August 2022) *****

From Sámi joiking to Viking doom metal

‘From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport…’ the book begins. I’m hooked. Having flown in and out of so many Nordic airports myself I cherish each one’s character, each breathtaking approach, gateways to sounds and friendships. This magical part of the world is Mellor’s home and this book is a journey in his company, basking in his knowledge and passion for music and people. Silence, he says, ‘can exist internally as well as externally.’ He’s just been talking about Sibelius’s tone poem Tapiola where silence is ‘like the inaudible breathing of the forest.’ True to the book’s title, silences weave their way throughout, companionable silences, the silence of the Northern Lights, unspoken understandings, quiet unravelling of mysteries.

Mellor takes us throughout the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands. He visits opera houses, festivals, downtown bars and forests. He shares conversations with pianists, conductors, orchestra chiefs, singers. He ponders the economics of arts funding. Nature and the Nordic climate is a constant presence: ‘the cold was accepted for what it was: the great leveller, the manifestation of a lifetime’s endurance,’ he writes one grey January in Helsinki.

What I love most his how he writes about music. Sibelius is almost always with us, Grieg too and Nielsen. He describes a piece by the Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen: ‘It is a monologue for violin that obsesses over two adjacent notes. Over the course of six minutes those notes are prised apart by an overwhelming grief.’ There are ‘the juddering…tectonic plates’ of Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality. Movingly he shares his personal experience of the Sámi joik, once condemned as ‘a practice soaked in sin.’ It isn’t a book ‘about’ Nordic music; it is a walk through a forest listening to thoughts and stories and the silences.’

Fiona Talkington

BBC Music Magazine (August 2022) ****

So complete is Andrew Mellor’s immersion in Nordic music and culture that it seems scarcely credible that he’s only lived in Copenhagen since 2015. In his free-ranging journeys through the region, people, places and history, sounds and silences tumble over each other in an excitement of discovery against the backdrop of landscapes that are as psychological as they are elemental – and broodingly immense.

Crucially, the British journalist and critic’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary socio-artistic achievements of the Nordic lands – and their common and individual traits – is balanced by his willingness to examine their drawbacks in an increasingly challenging geopolitical climate.

Of many composers encountered, Sibelius perhaps inevitably looks largest. He and Nielsen are seen to underpin a legacy that’s as rich in venues, orchestras, conductors, younger peers and experimental off-shoots as it is potentially stifling – and complacently reliant on particular forms of social democracy. That enlightened attitudes should prevail as a beacon to nations elsewhere remains the ardent not-so-subtext of a book that’s at once as engaging, informative and as unstuffy as the cultures it largely describes.

Steph Power

Ends Of The World (June 2022)

I first came across the writings of Andrew Mellor in the (now discontinued) Classic FM Magazine and Gramophone, although he has also written for many other publications. As he explains in an article for Gramophone, it was working for this latter magazine which led Mellor from his first musical loves – Wagner and Britten  – to his later enthusiasm for Nordic music. It was an enthusiasm which would turn out to be, literally, life-changing. In 2015, Mellor moved to Denmark where he is now ‘domiciled apparently for good’ (Danish taxman take note!).   

All these years of reviewing recordings and concerts of Nordic music, traipsing from festival to festival within sight of the Northern Lights, and interviewing luminaries of Nordic music, have surely earned Mellor the title of ‘Nordic music specialist’ rather optimistically thrust upon him by his editor at Gramophone in the incipient phases of his ‘obsession’ with the subject. This considerable experience – ’15 years reporting from the region, 7 of them living there’ – feeds into Mellor’s recently published book for Yale University Press – The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture. As its title suggests, this veritable labour of love is an exploration of Nordic music (chiefly classical music of the 20th and 21st century, with the odd foray into folk and rock/pop) within the wider context of the culture and psyche of the countries of the North. Mellor tells us, ‘what I report on here is what I have seen with my eyes, heard with my ears and interpreted through the lens of my lived experience’.

From its very first pages, this volume is an eye-opening one. For instance, Mellor explains that:

References in the text to ‘Scandinavia’ refer to Denmark, Norway and Sweden – the three Scandinavian kingdoms bound by common linguistic and political roots. Finland and Iceland, regarded locally as separate from Scandinavia, will be referred to in the text as such. The term ‘Nordic countries’ incorporates all five nations together with the Faroe Islands – like Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. 

This necessary and helpful clarification challenges at the outset some lazy prejudices or assumptions to which the casual reader or listener may be prone: tere would otherwise be little point in Mellor’s book or, for that matter, the various festivals or recordings of ‘Nordic’ music), but each of the countries generally included under the convenient ‘Nordic’ label has its distinctive characteristics, as becomes increasingly apparent as one reads one.

Mellor is an assured and knowledgeable guide on this Northern journey. Suffice it to say that although I like to think of myself as quite well-versed in 20th century and contemporary classical music (for an amateur, of course), every few pages this book brought me across a composer who was new to me or a work which I was yet to explore. My Spotify playlist has become much richer over the past two weeks! 

Yet, Mellor’s style caters for both the specialist and the general reader – it never feels heavy-going despite the information packed into the volume. Indeed, one of the challenges with such a book is how to organise all this learning in a way which doesn’t read like a data sheet. Mellor opts for chapters which establish broad themes. The first one – Landfall – introduces some key founding figures of Nordic music – luminaries such as Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen, Atterberg. The second chapter – Performance – focuses on Nordic orchestras and ensembles, and on the region’s attitudes to funding and arts management. Off Piste looks at unusual approaches to composing and performing music, including the interaction between different genres and styles. Nordic Noir and Snow White teases out some tantalising parallels between the phenomenon of Nordic dark and crime literature and the music of its composers, before moving to a quite detailed examination of the works of Hans Abrahamsen. In a similar exercise, the fifth chapter – Scandinavian by Design – explores common elements between Scandinavian music and Nordic design and architecture, focusing especially on the structure of the works of Danish composer Per Nørgård and the Aarhus School (including Poul Ruders) as well as the nature-inspired similarities between the symphonies of Sibelius and the architecture of Alvar Aalto. Postlude: Silence provides a brief epilogue in which Outi Tarkianen’s BBC Proms commission Midnight Sun Variations provokes meditations on nature and climate change (particularly hard-hitting in the Far North).    

This organic approach allows for recurrence of certain themes and leitmotivs – in particular, Sibelius’s Tapiola gives its name to the volume’s introduction or Prelude and remains a point of reference throughout the book. References to Mellor’s travels in the region add a personal touch. 

This book is essential reading for all lovers of Nordic music but should also prove illuminating to anyone interested in learning more about the countries and cultures behind the ubiquitous ‘Nordic’ brand.