in From the Archives

”And how does the avant-garde feel this morning?” - Paavo Heininen: Credo

by Tapani Länsiö

In 1994 FMQ addressed this question to two very significant, and oh so very different Finnish composer personalities, Paavo Heininen and Einojuhani Rautavaara. Tapani Länsiö, himself a composer, pulled the two maestros to one side for a few moments and dug out the answers.

By way of introduction, I presented Paavo Heininen with a number of hypotheses and unpleasant questions, on which I hoped he would orient his replies. He kindly answered twice, as you will see.

1. Professor Heininen -
You are regarded as an untiring champion of modernism. How long do you propose to hold to this cause, when all around us there are signs that besides the audience, there are many talented composers who are abandoning these trends as having outlived their time and – in the view of many – as alien to music and even to life itself?

2. Do you thus believe that the composer’s challenge is still to write complex, abstruse music to be understood only by a chosen few and thereby to continue the process of alienating people from the music of our time, a priest going about his work among a steadily dwindling congregation?

 3. If you feel that a composer should be aware of modern physics or technology, can a composer avoid searching for information on what people would actually like to listen to and what they expect from the composers and the music of our time?

4. What sort of responsibility do you think such a composer should have to the taxpayers, with whose grant funding he is able to continue his work?

5. How do you see the field of the music of our time at present? And in the future? What of the composer’s position, challenges, and tasks?

Heininen answers:

1.  A long time.

2. Yes.

3. Yes.

4. The same responsibility as any honest labourer.

5. …in other words: “Give us the whole works!”

How about leaving this to next time?


More specifically:


This series of questions is a spinechilling display of the attitudes and arguments that we face and live with today.

“You are regarded”. Why am I being asked in this way about what some vague unspecified “other” thinks I am – without actually stopping to ask if it is correct, if there is any substance in my being “regarded” as such and such? But if the starting point is that I AM a champion of whatever it is, then I can answer you.

“…there are signs…”, “…who are abandoning…”. I wonder, should the making of art be some form of autopilot relay circuit that picks up the signals and the wind direction and alters course accordingly? “…outlived their time…”? Just how long is it, this acceptable shelf-life? When is the sell-by date?

And then there is “alien… to life itself”. And yet modernism studies man and the human world, the scientific laws of human physical and mental processes. What else would you have life be? Sales figures, perhaps? “Alien to life itself” – is that a translation of Hitler’s “entartete Kunst”?

My longish presentation “What I mean when I call myself a modernist” was given to students and teachers of the philosophy of architecture – because they asked for it. In the old days there used to be posters in libraries that said: READ MORE, SUPPOSE LESS. “Reading” in this instance naturally means above all listening to what I have composed.

Modernism is not just one flavour out of five hundred and thus available for our selection or rejection one morning as a change from 499 other mornings. Modernism is an ethic and an ideology that does not offer many alternatives.

The modernist is a free individual, thoroughly alone (= sans authorities) before the material he knows and understands. Modernism is the same as the classical art-ethos.

Modernism is not some knocked-together assortment of intervals, a collection of recipes, or a set of rules. It is not the imitation of certain masters. But then again it is the observation of the artistic and ethical ideals followed by certain masters, just as it was for the classicists. When I say I am a modernist, I am therefore not talking about being stuck in any particular period.

Modernism is a “project”, one that will presumably continue for ever, since it has never started by “beginning” somewhere. But to distinguish the current situation, its problems and methods, from the earlier manifestations of modernism, I have suggested the term METAMODERNISM.

As a composer I have of course “championed” pretty sparingly – I have composed instead. But it is undoubtedly true that one part of being a composer has been also to present essays and the like, for instance on the radio in years gone by. Championing, yes, but I’d see it more in terms of making things known to people. They can make their own minds up.

And what about my role as a teacher of composition? Teaching composition is precisely a matter of making things known, and in no way could you call it championing anything. What is known speaks for itself. To be a composition teacher is above all to raise a composer, to find something useful to do for the time when the personality is developing and maturing. What it is not and never will be is to go out and say: LOOK, THIS IS HOW YOU COMPOSE.

In this respect teaching composition is not personal or “confessional”, but rather crystal-clear, neutral. Guidance towards an insight of musical qualities where they are – all qualities, everywhere. A very large, perhaps the largest part of the work takes place in the realm of old music – since even the music of the beginning of our own century is now essentially “old”, and of the sort that even the opponents of modernism find acceptable.

To be fair, I have never made a secret of where my heart lies. But there again I have always clearly distinguished between my own personal existential choices and the general vision, which is the “objectivity” of the educated, cultivated musician. I always remember Joonas Kokkonen’s enlightening and binding words on this subject.

As a professor, then? At the Sibelius Academy ever since the days of Aarre Merikanto (and even before then), there have always been several composition teachers, and each of them has taught as himself, as a personality. Nobody has ever come up and dictated (and nor could they) how things should be taught and how not, and it is unthinkable that I would dictate in this way.


“…understood only by a chosen few…”? No doubt, but this sort of talk is pure demagoguery so long as there is no (and no conceivable) measure of the size of the “congregation”, whether an exact one or one that is even humanly relevant, nor are there norms to decree how many constitutes “a few”, how many is “ONLY a few”, or how many is “TOO few”. As for “steadily dwindling”, I don’t think this is true. At least in my lifetime it has definitely got larger rather than smaller.

“…complex, abstruse etc, etc…”? Now and into the future the thrown-down gauntlet of this complexity will be the composer’s explicit challenge just as much as it always has been – namely not at all. For the composer’s challenge lies somewhere else altogether:

“Existential freedom and its responsibilities within the framework of material consciousness” (as Adorno might have put it) – or as Claude Debussy might have said: “Dear Lady, composition takes place such that one first imagine all the possible music and then leaves out what one doesn’t like”. A third equally valid definition for the modern reader might be: “One has to be aware of everything that can exist, and then make of this whole the poem of a free, imaginative, sensitive individual”. That the outcome can be complex or difficult is often true today as it was often true in the past.


Yes, because a composer who writes according to such information composes according to the dictates of the market researchers. There are names for this branch and for those who practice in it.

Then again the composer cannot shirk his responsibility to know and understand the humanity of our time as well as possible, and representatively: by being himself 100% a person of our time. The key word here is not PEOPLE but PERSON.


Before anyone embarks on answering a question like this, you require a universal theory on the distribution of the resources of the society. And on top of that you need a universal theory on the relationships and mechanisms of overall and specific decision-making and rights of veto within a democracy.

But all the same, without the above: “My responsibility is greatest to those taxpayers who happen to like modernism.”


Expanding the perspective of “our time” a little, if you will allow me, I should like to say that this century – a period soon to become “last century” – has brought forth an astonishingly rich harvest in all of the arts. Those who put forward nostalgic comparisons that show our century in a very unfavourable light expect and demand from our time the same doctrines as in the past – not mutatis mutandis but mutatis immutandis – in other words, they have rather missed the point.

The future? In the future the spectrum of good music will grow longer and broader. The same goes for bad music, too, but above all for the quantity of bad music. (One has to be careful here, for to come out with a statement like: “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad” is naturally nonsense, because every good work is a type of its own: a good work is good by virtue of its being unique, individual, while bad art is bad through its anonymity, the fact that it is devoid of profile or personality.

The composer’s position? We can only hope for the best. Things are good just as long as nobody actually prevents him from composing…

Challenges and tasks? Mutatis mutandis again, just as with the challenges and tasks facing good composers before now. Is it more difficult or easier now, as the world becomes increasingly complex but the tools more sophisticated? One can hardly say anything particularly useful on the issue. But let’s just say that in this world and with our tools, Elliot Carter was able to compose his Oboe Concerto, and when you listen to it, it feels so good you want to jump up and dance, when there’s no-one looking of course… Or what about the perfectionist François Bayle… etc…

P. S. In the rational world there would be no earthly reason to set about answering questions put in this form, because: “I never answer questions that contain more than two false assumptions” (Nero Wolfe).

 But the subject behind these questions, the vicarious questioner of this interview, is naturally a different imaginary persona from the flesh-and-blood individual who is the editor of this article.

Regards, P. H.

Absolutely. Thanks! T.L. 

The article was first published in FMQ 4/1994.


Thinking back 20 years later, Paavo Heininen comments: 

“But this is by no means the whole story! It’s my general belief that pointed polemic statements shouldn’t be left in isolation.” He also points out that he has a good, warm relationship with Rautavaara. True, the article does reflect what was being said at the time the article was written. “The slow ballet of stylistic trends has produced some new and sometimes surprising perspectives. Even I have found myself in situations where I’ve had to stand up and say: ‘I’m Paavo, and I’m a postmodernist!’ And that's not the ultimate truth either."