“My feeling is that 20th-century music did not end until January 2016, when Pierre Boulez died.” This remark, made by Research Professor Mieko Kanno at a recent get-together, was staggering: we have entered a new era in contemporary music! Composing is no longer dogmatic. There are no schools any more. Entropy has engulfed contemporary art music.
Boulez was not the only one holding us back in the previous millennium. The somewhat earlier departures of Dutilleux, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, Henze and Xenakis from the ranks of the living spelled the end of an entire era. The next to leave us will be the Minimalist generation.
Professor Kanno – an undisputed expert on contemporary music – presented another, even more startling observation: now that we are in a new era, has the professional competence of many still living, still working composers suddenly become outdated? This was not meant literally, as an exhortation for all ageing post-Serialist, neo-Romantic or spectral composers to throw in the towel, but it did make me wonder whether a composer’s skills could in fact become outdated – and outdated from whose perspective?
It is true that the people now entering the field of art music do so with a hugely different toolkit than was the case just a couple of decades ago. The newest music of our time draws on extended instrumental techniques, object music, audiovisual elements, cross-sectoral projects, artificial intelligence and multi-sensory concepts. Microinterval harmonies have entered the mainstream. No wonder that a middle-aged composer may panic: what do I do if I do not want to go in that direction, or do not know how?
I entered the profession in the 1990s, and naturally my earliest works owe a lot to the ideals of the latter part of the last century. However, like all composers I am a subject. I create my art out of my own inner compulsion. This does not mean standing still, of course: my music is always evolving in some direction. I personally felt I left an era behind, so to speak, about ten years ago with Zen for soprano and instrument quartet.
After the premiere of that work, a critic wrote that it had been the most “traditional” piece in the concert. All the works performed had been written in the previous few years and stylistically definitely fell within what we think of as contemporary music. But on what basis should any piece of music written now be described as “more traditional” than another?
Bernd Alois Zimmermann introduced the concept of the “sphericality of time”, placing us, in the present moment, at the centre of the sphere. Behind us is the past, ahead us is the part of the future that we are able to see, to envision, and around us is what is happening right now. This is how he justified blending very old music with the avant-garde of his day but also including popular and jazz music of the day. In my Finlandia Prize winning book Miksi nykymusiikki on niin vaikeaa [Why modern music is so difficult] (Atena 2021), I take Zimmermann’s concept further, applying it to the evolution of musical styles.
I find myself repeatedly contemplating whether my professional competence is outdated. While it serves my goals pretty well, I feel a strong need to reinvent myself with each new piece.
Musical evolution is not linear. Musical styles do not change all at once, and music does not develop – let alone ‘progress’ – in any single direction. Musical evolution is also spherical; we are living in a continuous Big Bang that is endlessly expanding our musical universe in all directions. That is why it is possible to write new music using 20th-century composition techniques. All musical styles conform to their respective traditions and evolve according to their own rules. Even the most cutting-edge avant-garde contributes to the tradition of the avant-garde. There is no such thing as completely new and completely original music. We are in a forever expanding sphere.
I find myself repeatedly contemplating whether my professional competence is outdated. While it serves my goals pretty well, I feel a strong need to reinvent myself with each new piece. This forces me to augment my professional competence with each new piece – whether with technology such as electronics (which seems to be gaining ground in my music) or by adding a growing layer of microtonality to my previous harmonic language largely based on whole tones.
Music is a visual art for me. I have synaesthesia: I can ‘hear’ sonorous properties in visual art, particularly abstract art, and pictures and sculptures that I find impressive I can also hear as music, as it were. Colours and textures in visual art translate into tonal colour, shapes and figures become rhythms and harmonic movements, sometimes even specific instruments. When I begin planning a new work, my mind is filled with images, surfaces, shapes, colours, textures… and these visuals do not go away until I begin writing the actual notes on the page.
In recent years, movement has become an almost equally important element. I sense the movement of crowds in particular as musical shapes; after all, large groups of moving individuals form moving images, abstract art of a kind. The clearest manifestation of this is in my string octet Swarm, which literally embodies my impression of large schools of fish, swarms of cicadas and murmurations of starlings moving in faultless unison as a hive mind.
Why do I write music? Why do I not write poetry, paint pictures or choreograph dance works? I honestly do not know. Perhaps because of all the arts music is the most intimate and the most enigmatic and hence the most difficult to explain. Actually, it cannot be explained at all without it ceasing to be art altogether. Music can also not be ‘understood’; it is a bodily experience. This corporeal intimacy of music is particularly fascinating to me. No one can have a ‘wrong’ understanding of music, because every experience is individual and unique, telling each of us our own story in the music we hear. This story will always be true, however it may change and evolve.
More columns by Finnish composers and music makers: On my music and beyond.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Stella Reismaa