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On my music and beyond: Advocating for the human touch

by Kalevi Aho

"With my works and with the way I write them, I advocate for the human touch in our increasingly cold and technological world," writes composer Kalevi Aho. This column is part of the series where composers and other music makers write about their music.

It is not always easy to talk about one’s own music. For myself, this is because my works always meaningfully embody something of my personal philosophy.

I began to create music as a child because it was a means for dealing with powerful emotions. My compositions were like musical diary pages. At that time, each work stemmed from an extra-musical element, which is often the case even today. As an example, my First Symphony (1969) was inspired by a poem by Uuno Kailas titled Viulu [Violin]: a man sitting in a corner plays a violin made of a leaf of grass and a twig, and he is happy. Only he can hear what he is playing.

Only in very few cases have I written music based on an abstract premise – examining a particular issue in composition technique is not what my work is about. Pierre Boulez was of the opinion that composition should be as much of a science as an art. My compositions, however, are not science. I do take care that the musical material within a single work is somehow coherent, but this coherence comes about naturally without advance planning, simply because every work has to be processed over an extended period of time.

The style of my works is substantially affected by what I am trying to say in each particular case.


Some of my works are overtly programmatic. I recall the writing of my Twelfth Symphony (‘Luosto Symphony’) in 2002–2003 as a highly demanding project. It was to be premiered outdoors, at Luosto Fell, by a large symphony orchestra at the foot of the fell, a chamber orchestra up the slope above the audience, and ten ‘fell musicians’ dotted around the audience. Because I knew that the majority of the audience would be coming from Sodankylä and elsewhere in Lapland and had had no contact with contemporary classical music, finding an appropriate musical idiom was also a conundrum. My solution was to provide the movements with Lapland-inspired headings. This gave the audience a sufficient means for identifying with the music, and the premiere turned out to be one of my greatest successes.

The northern aspect is also present in my Theremin Concerto, ‘Eight Seasons’ (2011), premiered at a concert of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra. Its movements depict the eight distinct seasons in Lapland.

Some of my works, such as the opera Hyönteiselämää [Insect Life] (1985–1987), stem from current societal and political circumstances, while others have their origins in my private life. As an example of the latter, my Triple Concerto for violin, cello, piano and strings (2018) emerged from the lullaby that I wrote on the day when my granddaughter Matilda was born in October 2017.

There are only a few cases where I have employed motif and theme tables to organise the material for a composition. The most complex example of this is my Piano Concerto no. 1 (1988–1989), which is based on the gradual changing of musical material from the freely conceived motif technique of the first movement to a 16-tone row in the second and third movements (derived from cyclic numbers in the duodecimal system). This is replaced in the finale by a new 30-tone cyclic row in the duodecimal system, which evolves into a sequence encoding the first 100 decimals of the number π (pi), also in the duodecimal system.

While it is fun to generate number systems as schemes on which to base compositions, it does carry the risk of rendering the musical idiom dry and automated. Because of this, I have not continued to pursue this approach.

With my earliest orchestral works, I first wrote out a short score on four staves and then expanded that into an orchestral score. With my Fourth Symphony (1972–1973), the short score blew up to 20 staves in places, and from my Fifth Symphony (1975–1976) onwards I have been writing in full score from start to finish. After that highly complex and laboriously created symphony and the chamber opera Avain [The Key] (1977–1978), I have never been intimidated by any project, however large or complex.

I always begin at the beginning, at measure 1, and continue until I reach the end. Accordingly, most of my works are narrative in nature; there is a hidden scarlet thread that governs their progress. I never plan out the structure of a work in advance, because that would cramp my work. I allow for the possibility that the music will begin to pull in a different direction than I anticipated. Once I have finished a work, I very rarely feel the need to go back in to tweak things, except perhaps for dynamic or agogical changes, typically made in the first rehearsals.

Because I begin at the beginning and in most cases write music without making any preparatory sketches or going back to correct myself, the work process itself is quite highly controlled. On the one hand, I have to be excited by the work in progress, but on the other hand, I must keep it at a certain distance and observe it objectively in order to achieve a feasible form. Indeed, it is a somewhat schizophrenic process. My thoughts must be absolutely clear when I am working, and the only stimulant I permit myself is coffee.


I have written 17 symphonies to date. These and my five operas may be regarded as interim accounts of my career, as it were. The symphonies represent the idealist side of my personality, because in realistic terms it does not make very much sense to write such things these days. While symphonies still enjoy pride of place in concert programmes, orchestras generally do not like to replace the great Classical-Romantic repertoire with an extensive contemporary work. The classical symphonic canon is quite rigid and not easily deviated from. A prominent conductor once expressed to me an interest in getting to know my symphonies thoroughly and conducting them, but then added: “It probably won’t happen until the composer is dead.” In other words, never – because if a composer’s works do not prompt interest in his lifetime, they are not likely to do so thereafter.

In the 2000s, I have been focusing on concertos and have written 35 of them for 26 instruments. Nearly all of them were prompted by instrumentalists. My first ventures into this genre were quite successful, and players of other instruments approached me with requests for music for their instruments. Writing concertos has been very gratifying, because I have had the opportunity to get to know various instruments intimately, and the resulting works have been extremely diverse, because instruments differ so greatly from one another.

I still write using pencil and paper, even though I did once learn the rudiments of both Finale and Sibelius. There are even more advanced composing software suites, but I have avoided those on principle. I like being able to write music by hand, in my own hand; it makes every single note seem significant somehow. I see myself as a craftsman, writing by hand being a tool for maintaining my inner ear and my mental flexibility.

With my works and with the way I write them, I advocate for the human touch in our increasingly cold and technological world.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Maarit Kytöharju: Kalevi Aho received the honorary membership of the Society of Finnish Composers in December 2020.