Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen. Photo: Teosto/Jukka Mantere


Based in Oulu and Haapajärvi, Finland, composers Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen have been awarded the Teosto Prize for their work Water at the Teosto Award Ceremony, held at the Helsinki Music Centre on Thursday, 27th April 2023. Awarded since 2003, the Teosto Prize is one of the most prestigious artistic accolades in the Nordic countries. This year it is awarded for the 18th time.

The aim of the prize is to highlight bold, unique and innovative new musical works. The prize money of 40,000€ is divided equally between all winning works. Other Teosto awards went to Mikko Sarvanne for the album Heräämisen valkea myrsky (‘The white storm of awakening’) by Mikko Sarvanne Garden and Helmi Kajaste and Draama-Helmi for the album Draama-Helmi kuistilla (‘Draama-Helmi on the porch’).

Having composed contemporary art music together for ten years, Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen wrote their twenty-minute orchestral work Water to a commission from the Tampere Philharmonic orchestra. The work was premiered by Tampere Philharmonic under the baton of Rebecca Tong in April 2022, as part of Tampere Biennale. Alongside various symbolic references, Wateralso features the genuine sounds of water in various different forms. In addition to traditional orchestral instruments, the work employs ‘hybrid instruments’, brought about by combining nature (i.e. water) and technology, for instance by adding a droplet of water to a measuring cup rigged up with a microphone. These hybrid instruments are played simultaneously by a percussionist and an audio engineer. Water also makes use of instruments submerged under water, including chimes, triangles and glockenspiel bars.

‘There is also a block of ice with a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) frozen inside it. The ice is variously scratched and played rhythmically by beating against its surface, turning it into a multipurpose percussion instrument,’ says Tapio Lappalainen.

Sanna Ahvenjärvi explains that the work seeks to depict the importance and beauty of water, but also its opposing nature, the sense of terror it can instill. ‘The work begins with dryness. Then comes the rain, the rain grows into a stream, which carries us over a small waterfall and eventually into a lake. The lake turns into a glacier, the glacier glides over a large waterfall and into the sea, where there are corals. Finally, there is a tsunami.’

Composing together is rare in contemporary art music, but the couple find their collaboration a strength and explain that over the years their time management and the rules for sharing compositional ideas have gradually been shaped into a smooth and inspirational way of working in tandem. The composers reveal that the idea behind Water is to be continued in the future.

‘Over the next five to fifteen years, or perhaps for the rest of our lives, we plan to compose works based on the other classical elements too: earth, wind and fire,’ Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen explain their vision of a full tetralogy of works, each based on the elements.

Over the years, Sanna Ahvenjärvi’s works have been marked by a sense of emotional cleansing and comfort, an almost therapeutic nature, while Lappalainen explains that throughout his career his own works have always sought to combine traditional instruments with electronics and music technology, as well as the philosophical notion of the recording as a creative and self-evident form; in classical and contemporary art music, recording a new work is still not self-evident, even after the years of work that have gone into the composition.

The Teosto jury, chaired by last year’s winning composer Cecilia Damström, said of the winning work: ‘Water is a holistic and visual work of contemporary art music in which water moves in all its different forms, in swirls and waves. Though water is a classic theme in the history of art music, the compositional texture of Water is unique and imaginative. The effects, such as those of instruments and microphones submerged in water, form a natural continuation of music written for traditional orchestral instruments. In its artistic scope, the work illuminates the very topical subject of the parlous state of our environment.’

The Teosto nominees and winners were selected from the body of new works published or premiered in Finland during 2022. The winners were chosen by a five-member jury including the winners of last year’s prizes, Cecilia Damström, Linda Fredriksson and Yona, as well as two members appointed by the Teosto board of directors: Miikka Maunula, executive producer of music programming at the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, and Gita Kadambi, artistic director of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.

‘Once again, the thrilling diversity and high standards of Finnish musical life were on full display in this year’s shortlist. The judges’ lively and intense discussions reflect how outstanding the competition was this year, though eventually we managed to reach consensus about the winners,’ says Cecilia Damström, who chaired the jury.

The winners of the Teosto Prize were announced at an event held in the Helsinki Music Centre on 27th April. In addition to the winning works, the shortlist also included Petra Poutanen’s compositions, lyrics and arrangements and Joonas Outakoski’s arrangements featured on Pelkkä Poutanen’s album Pyhä veri vuotaa (‘Holy blood bleeds’), Nino Ensio Mofu and company’s works on the NCO album Addikti (‘Addict’) and Heinz-Juhani Hofmann’s composition and libretto for the work Aukio – ooppera kansannoususta (‘The Square – An Opera about Insurrection’).

The nominees were selected by a panel including DJ and broadcaster Tytti Viljanen (chair), journalist and radio broadcaster Antti Granlund, musicologist and assistant professor Susanna Välimäki, blogger Pasi Virtanen aka Jazzpossu, and journalists Oskari Onninen, Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen and Katri Norrlin.