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A composer at work – a critical self-portrait

by Anu Ahola

Composer, oboist and educator Riikka Talvitie shares her thoughts on the profession and training of composers now and in the future.

Riikka Talvitie (b. 1970) is currently preparing an artistically oriented doctorate at the DocMus doctoral school of the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. Her research focuses on studying the work of a composer and how to actively change it. About half of the artistic content of the doctorate is complete at the time of this writing (the video Self Portrait forming part of that content can be seen at the end of this article), and the thesis is also fairly well advanced.

What inspired a composer to go for a doctorate?

“There is a solid history and tradition underlying the profession of a composer. I realised that my work as a composer would not necessarily ever change if I did not actively change it myself. Research – meaning a critical appraisal and analysis of a composer’s work and its cause-and-effect relationships – represents a tool for me to revise my working practices,” says Talvitie. “Having said that, the most important motivation for my postgraduate studies was the University of the Arts itself: a multi-art environment with a wide range of potential for augmenting one’s competence.”

Talvitie considers that there is much good in the composition training she received, such as the craftsmanship skills in which the Sibelius Academy provides a robust foundation and which are often commended.

“But a composer today needs all kinds of new craftsmanship skills. Something as simple as making demos is a specialisation of its own. Composers of film music or game music need a very different toolbox than composers of academic concert music,” Talvitie explains.

Talvitie has noted that she is not so much interested in the revenue logic, societal appreciation or artist media image of composers, but rather in how composers work with other composers, with musicians and with artists in other branches of the arts.

“I am interested in composition as a collective effort. Even in the traditional model composers have always collaborated with conductors, musicians and librettists. But is such collaboration truly democratic and collective? Can the musician make himself heard, or is the composer always right? I would not like to be cast as special authority in a collaboration situation. I want to open up the composition process to broader discussion, because even art music has to be of this world and of this time. Considering what a difficult reputation contemporary music has earned over the past century, I feel that it is also important to talk to audiences,” says Talvitie. “As for compositions, I prefer to be involved with an actual performance of a work rather than an object of veneration.”

Talvitie has for many years been involved in developing and executing composition teaching for children and adolescents in Finland.

“Teens in particular come to composition classes because there they can give their creativity free rein – they can express whatever they want. Everyone should be entitled to make their own music, even if they have no intention of becoming a professional composer,” says Talvitie. “Traditional composition begins with rhythm, melody, harmony, and so on, but when working with children and adolescents the starting point is often something completely different. I feel that these aspects should be given consideration even in university-level composition teaching.”

Riikka Talvitie's video work Self Portrait (below, fp at the Tampere Biennale 2018) aims to deconstruct the hierarchy between composer and performer. The composer alludes to the history of video art by using herself as the material for the work while also shooting and editing the video. Watch the video here:

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Screenshot of Talvitie's video work Self Portrait