in Columns

Composers and colleagues: Aulis Sallinen

by Aulis Sallinen, Antti Auvinen

In this new column, composers working in Finland ask each other questions that can be on just about anything: their work, their technique, their philosophy or their career. In this inaugural column, Aulis Sallinen responds to a question from Antti Auvinen, retiring chair of the Society of Finnish Composers. Next time, Aulis Sallinen will present a question to a composer of his choice.

Question by Antti Auvinen:

My feeling is that the only thing that is certain in a composer’s profession is uncertainty. And that every composer experiences times where they could do with a little more certainty that their artistic efforts will take flight, have meaning and perhaps even earn them a living. What things, role models or examples have given you strength and faith in the course of your extensive career?


Response by Aulis Sallinen:

We have chosen a profession whose purpose is to break the silence. In an organised way. There has to be a good reason for breaking that valuable thing. And there are plenty. The most important, and the earliest, is the unrestricted playfulness that goes hand in hand with musicality. This can emerge at an early stage, even in childhood, leading to early efforts in composition.

We have chosen a difficult profession that nevertheless rewards us in multiple ways when things go well. It must actually be rare for someone to simply decide to become a [professional] composer. It is far more common for someone to gradually gravitate into it, thanks to initial public successes and increasing professionalism. You ask me what makes a creative musician believe that their work is meaningful. Can there be anything else besides public validation? Fame is a fickle mistress, and everyone inevitably has their dark hours; survival requires the playfulness that I mentioned, and the inner satisfaction of creative work. All that sounds very preachy, but can there be any other way?

Creative work is an important component of humanism, and in this day and age that statement opens up a fresh and painful issue: how can we find it meaningful to seek order and beauty in this grotesquely cruel world that seemingly has no time for humanity? Or perhaps it is exactly at this sort of time that we need it? I experienced a period of major frustration in the early 1980s. There was a palpable worldwide fear of nuclear war. The material for a commissioned work, my Fifth String Quartet, lay untouched on my desk. I could not get started with it before passing my own personal judgment on the state of the world: I chopped the material up into pieces of mosaic.

My life experience covers roughly three generations of composers. Being employed as the general manager of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra for ten years provided its own kind of perspective on how to manage and organise things – random experiences, to be sure, but important and real. My feeling is that the best period for a creative composer is from about the age of 30 to the age of 60. Someone who has turned 30 will have already acquired the majority of their professional skills and has more to learn from themselves, i.e. their own compositions, than from other people. As one’s personality develops, so do one’s social contacts, or networking – which is what making friends and acquaintances is called nowadays, and it is very important. For a composer, this means face-to-face interactions with conductors, instrumentalists, singers, orchestra managers, radio producers and other cultural influencers. This helps in getting one’s works performed and in getting commissions. A composer’s studio is lit with the promising sunlight of morning and midday. 

As evening approaches, the friends and acquaintances that a composer has on the music scene retire or go away, and unknown faces fill up familiar positions. Younger, up-and-coming composers enter concert programmes, because novelty always prompts curiosity. An older work that was praised back in the day is no longer considered even as a programme filler. Of course, a new decision-maker may well have heard the older composer’s name but may not have heard any of their works. This is where the ageism card is often played – as is the case with performing artists as well. I myself do not believe that there is conscious ageism; the root causes here are generational shifts and an abundance of repertoire. And people are writing more all the time. Because only a very limited volume of music can be performed, every composer is, regrettably, in competition with every other composer.

The worst-case scenario is for a composer and their work to become shrouded in silence. Uuno Klami (whom I was fortunate to meet on the board of the Society of Finnish Composers) used to say that it does not matter whether a composer is talked about positively or negatively; any publicity is good publicity. The media have changed hugely during my career. As an example, we are no longer treated to comprehensive analyses of musical works in concert reviews in Finland’s leading newspaper, as used to be the case in the 1960s. Consumable, sensationalist journalism dominates. Another new feature is appointing foreign nationals to artistically significant posts in Finland, the inevitable result of which is a richer influx of international repertoire at the expense of promoting Finnish music.

A composer being successful is not interesting unless we mean that their works are successful. The value of a composition is in whether it stands the test of time across generations and stylistic preferences. This is by no means a fair process. Some good musical works will inevitably, and unjustly, end up on the scrap heap of history. We must be content with noting simply that if a work can hold its own across two or three generations of performers, it must be considered a success. We may debate whether this is something worth aspiring to. Then again, it can be an indicator of the work eventually entering the core repertoire.

Finnish composers have a high status and are well appreciated, by which I mean how grants are available and awarded for facilitating their work. I believe we are a world leader in this respect, and that is good. But let us remember that on the labour market we composers are in a minority of a minority of a minority. You ask me where I have found strength and faith during my career. I am not sure I am the best person to answer that question. The grants I received early on, and above all the lifetime appointment as an Artist Professor made full-time immersion in my work not only a possibility but a duty.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi 

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland 

Originally published in Kompositio, the member magazine of the Society of Finnish Composers.