in Columns

Composing or producing?

by Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen

"My music is born out of the life I live and is influenced by the inspiring people I meet, the books I read, the films and theatre performances I see, the trips I take." This column is part of the series "On my music and beyond", where composers and other music makers write about their music.

Music and working with music is an all-consuming thing for me. Sometimes it is impossible for me to say where my musical self and my everyday self begin or end. Although I sometimes long for a clearer distinction between the two, I am basically very happy with this state of things: my music is born out of the life I live and is influenced by the inspiring people I meet, the books I read, the films and theatre performances I see, the trips I take.

For the last 10 years, I have divided my time between two cities, Helsinki and Berlin. I first moved to Berlin in 2009 to write for the début album of the Ricky-Tick Big Band. There are significant time management advantages to living in an unfamiliar environment when composing.

Composing is something that you can do at any time of day. For me, evenings are the best for coming up with new ideas, while mornings and afternoons are better for working on scores and processing ideas. Musical ideas may pop into my head while riding my bike around the city, and I gain inspiration and personal growth from the multicultural nature of Berlin and the people who have come there from all around the world.

I feel that drama, moods and stories are far stronger cornerstones for composing than musical concepts or ideas.

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One of my key goals as a composer is to connect with listeners, regardless of their musical backgrounds. With jazz, for instance, there is the danger that only audiences who already know jazz are able to appreciate it. At the same time, it is important not to "dumb down" jazz, i.e. to make it too shallow and lose something of its essential nature and magic. This is a challenge that I have worked with throughout my career, and there is plenty of work still to be done.

I believe that the most fruitful avenue for finding new artistic departures in the 21st century is boldly combining styles of music. Bringing electronic elements into music that is largely acoustic also offers a wide range of new opportunities.

In my work now, the composing itself and what the end result sounds like – the artistic production of music – mingle to a great extent. In order to achieve a coherent musical end result, someone – or several someones – have to make a huge number of decisions. Decisions are continuously made (whether consciously or unconsciously) concerning any given piece about its arrangement, structure, instrumentation, any vocal sounds and parts, overall sound, mixing and mastering. Because of this, I see the artistic producer of a recording or the artistic director of an ensemble as having a role quite as important as that of the composer of the music. Bad producing can ruin a good track, but an insightful production approach can boost the chances of a lacklustre piece.

And besides, when you mix a recording, are you arranging it or producing it? In some cases, it is absolutely equivalent to arranging, since the sounds and balance of musical elements are hugely important in highlighting the best properties of any composition.

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Because I work mainly with popular music, one of the most important questions in my composing work is “What do the drums do?” In recent years, I have written a great deal of music for big band, and I have a 17-piece ensemble at my disposal. I write out practically everything for all 13 winds (except the solos), but for the drummer and percussionist, except for really important rhythmic changes, I mainly just write textural hints and references to accompaniments or styles that they might employ. I might write something like “Play like Tony Williams in Miles Davis’s band in the late 1960s.” It is absolutely crucial to have a good communicative relationship with the percussionists.

Jaska Lukkarinen is a drummer who plays in most of my ensembles. Thanks to our long history of collaboration, our communication is on an intuitive level, and when I bring new music into rehearsal, we quickly find the right things to do with it.

Besides drums and percussion, there is one part that mostly remains largely blank in my scores: my own part. I play electric guitar and electronic keyboards in my bands, and in most cases I am the only musician playing a polyphonic instrument. This role gives me a great deal of power in determining the overall texture. In the Ricky-Tick Big Band, my part is the only element, apart from cymbals and the performance space, that has a long sustain (spring reverb of the amplifier, effect pedals). In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in electronic effects such as delays, reverbs, etc. They are unpredictable in a good way and can introduce unexpected harmonic and textural things into the music

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Obviously all of us sometimes have to work to a tight schedule and under severe pressure. Robust professional skills and routine can help you write and produce good music even when you are in a hurry. However, we all understand that someone like Salman Rushdie can spend six years writing a novel. When your read his books, or any really powerful literature, it is obvious from the first words that a lot of time and love has been poured into the text. In music, this impression is the most obvious in classical music: when you hear a powerful work, you realise that the composition and texture are the result of much time and deliberation. 

I claim that the writing and the pre- and post-production of powerful pieces in popular music would take much more time than the current pop music production model will allow. Could it be that innovative pieces that stand the test of time need a longer gestation period than our current capitalist system will tolerate?

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Miikka Pirinen

Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen

Valtteri Laurell Pöyhönen is an award-winning Finnish composer, arranger, musician and producer. One of the leading young jazz artists of the vibrant Helsinki scene, he is the founder and leader of jazz-sextet Dalindèo and the 17-member all-star outfit Ricky-Tick Big Band. His style of jazz can be defined as “contemporary-classic”: roots in the tradition of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong while eyes and ears clearly in the 21st century.