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Composing, music and society at large

by Juha Torvinen

Composing always has a social dimension, because composers engage in it in the context created by society. Yet composers’ views on the relationship between music and society have varied a great deal over the centuries. What do today’s composers think about their work in relation to current social and political issues?

The relationship between composing music and society at large is a topic that regularly crops up in discussions of things such as the audience base of music or the funding for orchestras, for music education or indeed for composers. Many current political and social issues, from environmental disasters to immigration, from sexual equality to economic policy and superpower politics, prompt consideration of whether these are things on which creative artists should be obliged to weigh in; and if so, how.

So how does all this look from the perspective of Finnish composers working today?

To explore this, an extensive questionnaire was circulated as part of a research project funded by the Kone Foundation: Finnish contemporary music in the 21st century: the social and cultural significance of art music in the postmodern world (see also FMQ 2::2014). The target group consisted of 190 composers, of whom 69 responded. The responses were anonymous, although respondents were allowed to include their name and contact details if they so wished. The group of respondents was a representative sample of Finnish composers in terms of variety of type, style and age.

The present article is a general discussion of the questionnaire findings; more detailed analyses will be presented in forthcoming academic articles.

Why compose?

It is scarcely surprising that according to the survey a typical Finnish composer is middle-aged, writes music at home in a city and uses pen, music paper and notation software. However, the average is far from the whole truth: the gamut of Finnish composers is notably diverse in terms of age, style and working practices.

The most popular genres of music among composers were chamber music on the one hand and symphonies and other orchestral music on the other. These genres were mentioned more than twice as often as the next most popular ones – concertos, operas, solo instrumental works, experimental music and electronic music. The fascination of orchestral music was verbalised by one respondent describing its “rich texture, resources of sonority and … capacity for creating impressions of spaces and elements, of ‘organic life’ and processes”.

What is interesting specifically for the relationship between music and society is that Finnish contemporary composers tend to prefer genres generally considered abstract (symphonies, concertos, string quartets). When asked which things are important for their work as a composer, only ten respondents mentioned the addressing of current social issues. The leading answer by far was the development of one’s own musical thinking (58 respondents), followed by expressing and evoking emotions and the sustaining of immaterial culture. Entertainment and media attention were at the bottom of the list.

Although the “typical” Finnish composer is primarily interested in music for its own sake, many composers do in fact seek to promote appreciation of the natural environment, to convey a sense of community or cultural content, to enhance mental and physical wellbeing, or to attain some sort of transcendental reality. What composers seek to achieve in their listeners are primarily emotional impacts, and an increased interest in the arts in general and in the composer’s music in particular. One respondent’s reason for writing music was to achieve “new music that can, in the best case, create a feeling and illusion of timelessness in concert; music that can get both musicians and audiences to listen to and perceive reality in a new way”.

A composer’s responsibility and the purpose of music

Responding to questions about the moral and ethical responsibilities of a composer, most respondents saw no difference between their profession and any other, or indeed between composers and other human beings in general: “One cannot separate the moral and ethical responsibility of a composer from the moral and ethical responsibility of humanity in general: the responsibility to live with respect for nature, for the environment and for all other living things and to celebrate their diversity.”

On the other hand, many composers consider music to be free of any such commitments: “Artists are not answerable to anyone. Art transcends everyday politics.”

Next in the questionnaire there was a series of statements to which respondents were invited to respond on a scale from 1 (disagree completely) to 5 (agree completely). The most notable deviations from the average were found for the statements “Composing should always be as free from political pressure as possible” (score 4.33) and “Contemporary art music has a higher potential for social influence than other styles of music” (score 2.00). The first of these statements also achieved the highest agreement: 56 respondents out of 69 agreed with it partly or completely. The consensus, then, is that music should be as free from limitations as possible; the flip side of this is that composers are highly sceptical of the influence of contemporary music in society at large. Music and phenomena in society are seen as separate spheres.

What does music affect?

In response to a separate question on what issues in society music can particularly effectively address, the most common answer was: none.

Then again, several respondents pointed out that music has one distinct advantage as far as social influence goes – a sense of community: “Music enhances social and community feeling. It prevents social exclusion and the resulting radicalisation and political polarisation. It is a low-threshold path to multiculturalism and to appreciating diversity. As such, it can promote equality in the community and remind people that they need other people and that they need to be able to deal with different people.”

One respondent explored the social significance of contemporary music through its “alternative” nature: “Contemporary art music in general could be an ‘antidote’ against global standardisation and people’s inability to understand the link between (1) lies of politics, business and loss of individual liberty and (2) their consuming manners and their corresponding cultural needs.”

The major factors identified for the realisation of the social impact of music were the performance context, media reception, emotional impact and textual content (libretti, titles, mottos, programmes, etc.).

The socially aware individual

Respondents were asked which social injustice they would rectify with their next composition if such a thing were possible. The issues named by respondents ranged from the neglect of elderly people and animal rights to income differentials, wars, environmental problems, famine and women’s rights. Composers were also in favour of grocery shops being allowed to sell wine, and one of them would like to see teenagers spending their time in wind bands instead of microcars.

Outside of actual composing, the most usual form of social activism undertaken by composers seems to be voting in elections, providing expert opinions or teaching. No unusually high level of activism in civic organisations was found. The political party most recently voted for was stated by 24 respondents, more than half of whom had voted for the Greens. Education policy, cultural policy, social policy and environmental policy were named as the most important areas of political decision-making – in that order.

As citizens and private individuals, composers seem to be well aware and educated about the problems of the world.

In society but not of it?

Many composers stressed that in terms of their social and political profiles they are different people if considered as a composer on the one hand and as an ordinary citizen on the other. Some even outline a third role, a socially active composer as opposed to a composer of art music. If a citizen’s moral and ethical responsibility in society does not apply in the realm of “absolute” music – as one respondent explained it – the conclusion is that not only music but the profession of a composer is detached from issues of social responsibility. Overall, composers consider their work to be less social than authors, visual artists, dramatists or other performing artists whose works very often hinge on a social problem or issue and related civic responsibilities.

What should be noted in this questionnaire is that composers do not insist that music should be aloof from social activism. Rather, they view this detachment as something that is part of the very nature of music and requires no particular explaining (and which, many probably feel, sets it apart from all other art forms). This autonomous aesthetic position, which in the context of today’s musical scene may be considered quite conservative and perhaps even alienating to the public at large, is slightly mitigated by the fact that it seems many of the respondents would not mind if music could have a more direct impact on the real world around them.

“Social activism is very important, and it is a question that troubles me on a regular basis. However, I often feel powerless in that respect and regularly rationalise that I don’t have the competence and as a composer I have very limited opportunities for this. … On the other hand, musicians might take a greater interest in the world around them rather than only focusing on the inner logic of the art form.”

A hidden social dimension

The general scepticism of the potential for music to exert a social impact shown in the questionnaire may reflect the fact that Finnish composer training and practices have traditionally regarded the social responsibility of artists and intellectuals as irrelevant. Music is conventionally seen as an island unto itself, and composers perhaps do not dare – or want to – question this conceit.

On the other hand, young composers and those composers who work with various musical styles have a more positive view on average of the capacity of music to influence social issues.

One respondent complains about the low status of contemporary art music in the field of classical music: “Music culture marginalises art music, and art music marginalises contemporary music instead of promoting diversity.”

This raises the question: would there be more contemporary music in concert programmes if that music were more consciously and actively engaged with social matters? Or would the relationship between contemporary music and the reality around it be seen in a new and more profound light if it were simply given more chances to demonstrate its value?

Every concert organiser could contribute to answering this cultural and social question by programming more contemporary music and by building programmes around current, familiar themes that have relevance to the daily lives of audience members, for society at large and for the world we live in.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo by Martti Anttila: Antti Auvinen’s Autuus was premiered at the Helsinki Festival 2015.