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“Can you teach composition… to a Chinaman by phone at 5 am?”

by Paavo Heininen

The title would appear to be hooked up to the concept of “music and language”, or even “music as language”. As it happens, this summer I have got into several lengthy debates on this particular issue, so let’s continue in the same vein.
My position is somewhat awkward in that I defend the value of language in many, many roles in the context of music, composition, and the teaching of the same, but to the basic question I would have to answer: music is not a language.

I said ‘I defend the value of language” – yes, I have even had to go so far as to defend myself for having used linguistic metaphors in my correspondence when I might have been expected to use auditive ones.

(But perhaps this situation is a typical one: for me, let there be positions to take up that are not clear-cut or neat and tidy, or some forcibly simplified extreme, but a middle ground or a crossroads position, even when placing yourself there makes for hard work in the defence of them.)

Anyway, by means of an explanation, we might first go onto the offensive: As I see it, it is a hindrance when music is regarded as a language, firstly, because it is usually a sign of poor descriptive abilities to call many different things the same thing; secondly, because even an unconscious conception of music as a language leads automatically – more or less inevitably – to the sort of behaviour that rather distances the listener or observer from the music instead of bringing the acoustic subject into closer focus. If one thinks of music as a language, the inspection wanders off in other directions (to “the dictionary”, to “grammar”, to “the language community”), when it should instead be being directed solely towards the work.

If music were language, it should be studied and approached purely according to natural (read: direct) methods.

In my profession, language is important:

- as a vehicle – an interface, if we must get into jargon – for contact with students;

- as a goal of the teaching: the composer must learn to be able to discuss with himself about music;

- as a metaphor: let’s not forget, I have been known to say music was in certain important respects a “language-LIKE” phenomenon;

- as a model, also in the sense that when we already have tones and language, then the path from sounds to composition is not dissimilar to that leading from language to wordcraft – and to poetry; – and of course as a live (winding and wiggling around in our mouths and laps) phonetic material to be sung in songs (without being killed and minced up into phonetic chopped liver – at least not every time).

But naturally before that “teaching contact” business mentioned above must come the most important thing – the one in respect of which language can do what it does, namely to indicate and point towards matters: there has to be a common background of musical experience.

And plenty of it. The acquisition of this and the realization by both parties of its commonality is a major and a time-consuming issue, and not one that is to be dealt with even at local call tariffs, let alone on a bad line to Beijing. But when you have spent the entire winter semester together with a student devising plans for his or her work and making an analysis of François Bayle’s Le Sommeil d’Euclide, then I suppose one could quite easily talk about some new aspect from say, London, or Oslo, and even at 5 am, if you so choose.

(If this is to be used as an answer to the question of what a young person should do before undertaking composition studies, then let us remember Messiaen’s definition of himself – ” I am a musician because I write music and because I love music.” Sometimes I have talked with enthusiastic first-year students about this love and have heard appeals to a reserved character that is not tossed hither and thither by emotions. Fair enough – love expresses itself in actions, and in knowledge acquired at close hand.)

Talking about music?

Whether with oneself or with a teacher: how are we to do it? Poetically? Pragmatically?

I’d say first and foremost realistically: down-to-earth accurately. On the basis of precise, nuanced observations. And that is: after careful listening and based on a good memory – inside a good memory. The poetic element is required when it becomes a question of searching for one’s own impressions.

As for pragmatism, well, perhaps only in the sense that the overriding goal should always be a matter of WHAT AM I TO DO NEXT.

But if we go back briefly to the poetic, one might do well to remember what a poet (Veijo Meri) observed, to the effect that a poem is something that requires the very precisest and most pin-sharp work, both in the observation and the expression.

Is this text now refocusing itself on things poetic? Perhaps, yes, insofar as the “Interview with an advanced student” I had planned to make a part of this article (and the student in question is not just advanced but has also heard a very great deal of composition teaching, i.e. all of mine) would stress – if it ever gets that far – the phase at which a composer’s self-study and “self-managerial” methods take the shape of the working methods of a good writer: “What do I want to say next?”

But then I recall an author’s (Truman Capote’s) description of the demanding way in which he practised the nuts and bolts of his work by writing and telling, telling and writing by the year, by the notebook-full, everything he had experienced.

When one has got that far, it’s time to answer seriously: what is it that I want to say.

Before that stage the desires are unfocused, and therefore inoperative. I can always say: “I want to do such and such, and such and such, and SUCH AND SUCH a piece”- and in an internal dialogue this might even be construed as referring to real properties, that could with a bit of searching be turned into something on the page. But the person who wants to produce a “beautiful, famous, telling, really good” piece – he has no realistic object to aim for.

For this reason learning about composition starts as it must start, in the examination and practice of WHAT ALL YOU CAN DO.

But let us return to the Chinaman of the title: in one of those language and music discussions a claim surfaced that the Chinese language community has a strong tradition of phonetic research and of research into vocabulary, but no strong tradition of grammatical study.

This was new to me, and I find it a fascinating snippet of information (even if the claim may be an over-simplification) which sheds new light on our experience of the temporal arts of Asian peoples.

I say this for the specific reason that if there be, in the workings of memory, a division of the deployment of labour between the crude “pure memory” and the analytic activity, facilitating the load by simplifying the matter to be remembered, then the above information hints that the division of labour for someone from the Far East is very different from our own, an “imbalanced” division as we might say from the perspective of our balance.

The responsibility of the teacher?

I have never been given the shivers when faced with questions of responsibility. Probably because the really risky thing would be for the teacher to ever limit a thing: “Do this, it’s all you’ll ever need”. My aim is to guide the student to a certain level of contact with everything – and to examine the impressions it throws up.

And with the understanding that what time does not allow for within the formal framework of study will get taken care of on a continuing basis throughout the life that follows it.

5 am, wasn’t it? Is the subject now to be “music and time”? From a dawn fanfare through an afternoon lament to an evening meditation and a nocturnal epiphany of sorts? True, our energy states are a reality to which we can all respond in whatever way we invent – and the game never remains only a game.

Or is it a question of specialization or individualizing: What should I (or what should you, or he or she, or we) compose today, in the right now?

Teaching composition never answers, it must never answer, the question of “what sort of music?”. It provides the tools, it does not order contracts.

But I have given all my students tasks in writing songs. And in this connection I have dealt with language, with the importance and the properties of one’s own language. Practical metrical theory, for instance. And I have reminded students that I believe poems should be composed, and Finns should compose Finnish poems.

What should we compose? We?

Different from before – but good? Good?!… as good as we can? Being different is the main criterion. How good something is is more of a threshold issue: “The same as Haydn, only better; the same as Sibelius (or Aarre Merikanto if you like!), only better” – it’s a hopeless cause. But “good-ness” is always going to be present as a requirement of workability, of accuracy, of clarity. And the threshold should not be too low, but then again the idea of earning respect by building into your house (perhaps into the guest-rooms?) ever-higher thresholds to be stepped over is also – in the final analysis – a metaphor that cannot be turned into successful action.

Technique is like… it must not be SEEN. It can be seen only (as a fault)

- by the maker himself, when he knows that the means did not succeed in realising quite the intended end;

- or when the listener/observer notices that the composer’s choices have not been based on an awareness of all the possible alternatives. But then one could just as easily speak of experience and the lack of it.

“Technical” (or “technically accomplished”) is often used to mean something that is pronouncedly regular or on a single plane. But then we are dealing instead with a shortcoming or a narrowness of vision, the recognition and REPAIR of which would really be the responsibility of the technical competence – seeing, experience, the understanding of one’s own reactions.

Ultimately it’s about demanding things of yourself: the basis of learning skills is an ability to know what is not good enough.


Teachers like me around the world wrestle with the question of integrating computer music into the tuition of instrumental composition. There can be no doubt that the demands of the field in terms of time and energy would support the idea of specialization. But it is equally obvious that in this particular area to have a limited or non-existent experience of traditional instrumental-vocal music – and of the theoretical and practical (and emotional) skills involved – poses a serious risk.


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 3/1998

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