in From the Archives

The universe within us – focus on the composer Jukka Tiensuu

by Risto Nieminen

Jukka Tiensuu – composer, harpsichordist, pianist and musician: “I feel equally at home with music of all periods, and with different musical genres. If you want to get to the very essence of music, you cannot stick to just one type of music only. I see music as something eternal yet closely rooted in its own era and environment. So studying, say, Renaissance or Baroque dance steps, architecture or cultural modes has been just as relevant to myö career as the use of a computer, an ‘autonomous colleague’, for examining and determining the micro-organisms of sound or composing itself.”

It is difficult to know how to begin introducing the man by the name of Jukka Tiensuu (born 1948). Should we start with the music he has written? That, after all, is the most lasting thing a musician can produce. The only trouble is that Jukka Tiensuu does not write in just one idiom, making it easy to pick out trends and stylistic features; all we have is a bunch of works each in a class and a world of their own. Well what about Tiensuu the musician – the harpsichordist and pianist who untiringly plays music both by himself and others, old and new, serial and improvised…? Again we would have to give a potted history of music before we got to the point. That still leaves us with the organiser and polemist, the festival director and lecturer, the writer who never tires of speaking on behalf of contemporary music. But in doing so we would be going sadly astray, for Tiensuu practically never writes about himself, even when asked.

All this does, I hope, only go to show that Jukka Tiensuu is a versatile and energetic character who differs from the average musician or composer in just about every respect. Jukka Tiensuu poses himself the most varied of challenges, and attacks them like a dog worrying at a ball.


One way of approaching Jukka Tiensuu is via his article Valinnan valinnasta (On the Choice of Choice) written about five years ago. In it he outlines his views on the history of music. He notes that of the methods of composition developed over about the past thirty years, by far the most important are aleatory, stochastic music, serialism and intuitive music. Debussy freed music of its tonality, Schönberg introduced timbre as an independent parameter, the futurists placed noise on a par with musical sound, Messiaen declared independence for rhythm and Webern and Boulez – who established serialism – for dynamics and the musical silence. Cage extended the borders of music beyond the world of sound, and Stockhausen restored faith in man’s innermost intuition and his place in the universe. At this point Jukka Tiensuu exuberantly exclaims: “So we are getting back to the ancient concept of the harmony of the spheres and Oriental philosophy, the universe within us, Brahman.” New music reverts to age-old concepts, but ones presented in a refined tone.

Tiensuu swims against the current. He seems to stand for everything that remain beyond the domain of established music. Classical and romantic music have no appeal for him, because the composer was too confined by tonal laws. And it is no fun doing what everyone already knows.

You cannot speak of Tiensuu just as a composer or just as a performing artist; everything he does is part of his overall musicianship. Being a musician, an artist, means being able to choose freely from all the alternatives available. All times and places are present in his concept of music. All is permissible, though this does not mean that anything goes. It means doing what is essential, and this brings in the archetype concepts, the musical elements in man. “Music is the shortest way to the highest spiritual worlds,” he writes.

Stressing freedom of choice as the basic condition for creative work often leads to a Cage-like code by which anything that is called art is art. This is, of course, but one aspect of a complex field: “Most important of all, however, are the premises on which the choice is made. The artist may experience an illusion of complete freedom of choice even when he is guided purely by biological and genetic factors, upbringing and education, his environment and the weight of tradition. In order to be able to prevent this even to some degree the artist – the composer – has to learn or to develop a skill, a technique that will help him to break free from his own habits, to clarify his own views, to be conscious of his choice.”

Composers often construct a world of their own, expanding and becoming more complex work by work. Each new composition begins where the previous one left off, and by viewing the composer's works as a whole, it is possible to decide his style, the elements that go to make up his world. Here, too, Jukka Tiensuu comes from another world. He begins each new work with a clean sheet, as if all his other works never even existed. A work in strict serial style may be followed by stream-of-consciousness music composed in real time, and a single work may contain features of serial, stochastic, aleatoric and intuitive music. Tiensuu's world knows no borders: the doors are open to past and future alike, to distant lands and cultures and his own inner universe. He is enchanted by the vast potential of existence, of all this world has to offer.

Although Tiensuu does try to maintain a comprehensive view of music, he has never resorted to quotation, the reorganisation of material that already exists. He may write a work as a tribute to the French harpsichord and lute composers of the 17th century, but his references to the past are expressed only at abstract level, for example as parody or as a parallel to a common formal solution. His eyes and his ears may wander far from home, but his feet are firmly embedded in his own era. His own environment filters through to become music.

A close relationship with all existing music comes naturally to Tiensuu the composer, whose source of energy is the music constantly flowing through Tiensuu the performer. Composing is the documentation and crystallisation of a spiritual worldview. Tiensuu himself reckons it is precisely this dispersion and reassembling of mental energy that prevents composing from becoming a mere habit.


Tiensuu the performer is just as inquisitive and as open-minded as Tiensuu the composer. He does not just sit and wait for someone to ask him to play the very piece he happens to have been practising; he would rather set out on a dogged search for entities. He often gives the impression that he is not so interested in showing his audience just how he interprets a particular piece. It is more important that an interesting work gets played, that music conceived and given birth to by others becomes reality in the listener’s mind and in musical culture as a whole.

Tiensuu first studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki – composition under Paavo Heininen and piano under Merete Söderhjelm, but immediately after he graduated he headed abroad to widen his perspectives. In 1972 he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, a few years later at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, where he studied both composition (Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber) and old music and its performance. He also attended a number of courses in Europe and the United States, after which he settled at the IRCAM research institute in Paris for a few years. There he became aware of the potential of the computer for helping the composer to see his own ideas more clearly.

When Tiensuu gradually settled down in Finland again in the latter half of the '70s, he found that Finnish music had got into a bad rut and was far too introvert. So he rolled his sleeves up and began to put on concerts. He ran a series of concerts with the International Society for Contemporary Music, planned the programme for the Helsinki Biennale – a festival of contemporary music – started a summer academy and festival for new music in the little town of Viitasaari in Central Finland and began to tour the regions outside the capital telling orchestral musicians about the potential inherent in contemporary music.

Again he felt the necessity to avoid standing in one place and taking roots. He decided to withdraw from the Helsinki Biennale after two festivals, and once the Finnish section of the Society for Contemporary Music was well established, he placed it in new hands. He has now announced his intention to hand over the direction of the Viitasaari Festival.

Just at the moment he does not have any major new project in sight, but perhaps this is not necessary. In the ten years or so Tiensuu has been organising it, contemporary music in Finland has taken visible steps forward. Leading composers and performers from abroad regularly visit the Helsinki Biennale and the Viitasaari Festival, audiences have found their way to concerts of new music, and the young generation of musicians has become active and independent in this sector too. Jukka Tiensuu is now off to the University of California at San Diego for a time, to study, to work and to collect ideas which, we hope, he will one day bring home to Finland.

Getting together programmes for a series of concerts can be just as creative as composing and performing. Tiensuu's choice of works reveals his outlook on music. One feature typical of the concerts he plants is their attempt to make contact between the musics of different eras; another is digging out works not previously performed. In the first five years the Viitasaari Festival performed about five hundred works, well over half of them for the first time in Finland. Experimenters looked down on or forgotten by their own contemporaries and eccentrics exploring the musical extremities have found a place in Tiensuu’s concerts, as have Xenakis, Cage, Boulez and Stockhausen – representatives of the major trends quoted above. He has also made some discoveries at home in Finland, and he is not ashamed of presenting his own works either.

Tiensuu the musician seems to get a shot of adrenalin on discovering works that set out to test the limits of the impossible. One of the works given its first performance by him is Salvatore Sciarrino’s harpsichord piece DE O DE DO, a galaxy of sound more than ten years old never – so far as is known – performed before.


As I said, Tiensuu's output does not fit into any one category. Features that apply to one work probably will not apply to the next. Listening to several of his works in succession the listener may, however, be encouraged to make certain general observations – if not about what they contain, then at least about what they do not contain.

One feature that sticks out clearly against its Finnish background is the absence of grandiloquence and expressiveness. Tiensuu’s music is clear and lucid, and its dramatic climax are often created by sudden breaks or the presentation of a minutely-organised mass. This also seems to be a feature of his interpretations: he never works himself into such a frenzy that the logic gets molten down by the heat.

Development in the conventional sense is also missing from Tiensuu’s music. Naturally: things that belonged to tonal music have nothing to do with us. Counterpoint and part-writing that satisfy all the rules? No, instead we find the construction of harmony and timbre based on the spectral analysis of sound and the artificial amplification of part of the harmonic series of a single instrument by the other instruments. The resulting chords are new to ears accustomed to the conventional combinations of instruments within the orchestra.

Rhythm is the division of musical time, so it does not come as a surprise to find in Tiensuu’s works a number of episodes drawing on dynamic rhythmic motifs handled in different ways – for musical time is one of the uppermost parameters in Tiensuu’s concept of music. Beats are followed by empty time, which nevertheless seems to become charged with meaning. We cannot say the music just stops for a moment.

I should now like to take a brief look at a few works by Jukka Tiensuu, even though the composer has in recent years particularly categorically refused to comment on them himself because he wants the listener’s mind to be free to receive the music without any preconceived ideas implanted by others.

Ouverture (1972) for flute and harpsichord is one of Tiensuu’s earliest works and a tribute by the 24-year-old composer to the French masters of the Baroque who provided him with the model form of the overture: pompous opening and closing episodes separated by a lighter, imitative middle section. On either side of the middle section are instrumental cadenzas: first a virtuoso solo for the harpsichord, then a flute candenza quite unlike the rest of the work consisting of a single note viewed in different lights. This stereotype form combined with the fight for supremacy of the major/ minor third in the imitation section is (be it a parody or not) proof that the young Tiensuu was still firmly bound to the conventional way of producing modern music.

Rubato (1975), for an optional combination of instruments, probably comes closer to Stockhausen's idea! of intuitive music than anything else Tiensuu has ever written. It relies on collective listening: each player is given the same sheet of music showing mostly long notes. The music progresses according to simple instructions: if a player notices he is lagging behind, he increases hi tempo slightly, and if he finds he is getting ahead, he slows down. The result is a calm, undulating texture in which the roles of the composer and the musicians are creatively balanced.

Prélude non-mesuré (1976) for piano is again in some way still influenced by the prelude style of the 17th century with its freedom of rhythm. The two-part semibreve episodes at the beginning and end provide a framework for the allusively expressed fragments played in an aleatoric order: moments in a stream of music.

Sinistro (1977) for accordion and guitar introduces two chamber instruments that mean much to Tiensuu. Here for the first time we find Tiensuu in a truly original and pioneering form. The two instruments are set off one against the other in an original way, both making their own contribution though the score instructs the players to forget their partner even exists. The work is in Tiensuu’s own words “a synthesis of serial, aleatoric, intuitive and stochastic methods”.

Sinistro is the most typical example of Tiensuu’s way, reminiscent of, say, Francois-Bernard Mâche, of placing works one inside the other, of using a work or part of one as part of another work. Almost the whole of the accordion part of Sinistro has been published separately under the name of Aufschwung and the guitar solo as Dolce amoroso. The flute candenza in the Ouverture is also a work in its own right.

MXPZKL (1977), lasting ten minutes, was written for large orchestra and had to wait seven years before it was first performed. The most conspicuous feature of the work is the chord repetition in contrast to the rests, the fragile melodic lines and the Xenakis-like criss-crossing glissandos on the strings. In between there is also some counterpart in what is for Tiensuu unusually expressive style. The unexpected three pauses appearing in midflight are like air pockets in which the expression drops to a new plane, just as if the composer was letting his music remind him of time, which ultimately rules supreme as an invisible and inaudible god. The formal processes in MXPZKL measure out the terrain in between entropy and order in a work that is one of the greatest Tiensuu has written to date.

Yang 1 and 2 (1978–1979), both for eight players, rank among the central chamber works produced by Tiensuu and they come under the heading of serial music. There is a certain approval of chance discernible in the fact that these two separate works can also be played together – either one after the other or at the same time. Tiensuu himself chose the latter alternative at a concert of his works given in 1983.

In Yang adherence to the series is carried to extremes. It was all composed before he committed a single note to paper. Once the premises had been chosen, they were religiously kept to, and as a result everything depends on everything else and no detail can be changed without changing the whole. This is a natural reflection of Tiensuu’s interest in Oriental philosophy and the complementary natures of Ying and Yang.

Tiensuu has not yet composed Ying, but we may of course call Passage written in 1980 for soprano, eight players and electronic processor Ying. Passage is the opposite to the predetermination of Yang and written in surrealistic stream-of-consciousness style. There was no draft of the work, and Tiensuu just let it develop in his mind, until one day he felt the time was ripe for getting it down on paper – and wrote the score in real time. In other words it took him just as long to compose as it takes the players to perform it!

M (1980) for harpsichord, strings and percussion is interesting both in the way it was written and its sound. For although it is written exclusively for conventional instruments, it sounds in many places like electronic music. This original sound does, of course, link up with the applications of spectral analysis by the French group L’Itinéraire, but with Tiensuu this world of sound seems to be in harmony with the other elements that go to make up the work. Written in the manner of a concerto, the players have a limited amount of freedom to improvise, and during the orchestral cadenzas the conductor can improvise with the entire orchestra.

ln M the harpsichord is tuned unevenly to a scale having 24 notes per octave and using pure series of major thirds and fifths. Being more accustomed to equal temperament, our ears tend to find the microtones cultivated by Tiensuu in all his works to some extent exotic – and this is no doubt what he intended: Be free from habit!

Since writing M Tiensuu has concentrated so much on playing and organising that he has not produced a single work of any great stature. But some of the small-scale pieces he has produced in the past few years indicate that he is entering on an even more interesting phase. The range of styles contained in a single work has been condensed and the mixture of methods that may from time to time have seemed theoretical has been pushed into the background to make room for a comprehensive personal conventional view.

Fantango (1984) for microtonally tuned harpsichord was commissioned by Yvar Mikhashoff and is a delightful character piece proving that Tiensuu's humour has also reached artistic proportions. In three years Fantango has become quite a hit, and the composer has also arranged it for five players.

, mutta (, but, 1987) for three accordions is another seemingly short and simple little piece in which the smooth flow of energy suggests that Tiensuu spent his most important creative moments working on this piece. The three instruments merge imperceptibly into one, combining a sense of ease with inventiveness. The result? Music that is new without being contrived deserves a warm welcome! 

Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Jukka Tiensuu in 1970s (unknown photographer).

In 2020, Jukka Tiensuu received the Wihuri Sibelius Prize, one of the highest recognitions in the world of classical music. On this video, Tiensuu speaks about his music:

Jukka Tiensuu's sheet music at Music Finland's Composers & Repertoire.

This article was first published in FMQ 3–4/1987 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.