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On my music and beyond: Freedom within limits

by Sebastian Hilli

"The element of surprise and freedom that improvisation offers remains to this day present in my music and in the way it is experienced."

I began my music studies by playing classical piano at a music institute. In conventional fashion, the lessons featured music mainly by composers who lived centuries ago – music that is firmly rooted in tonality and compliant with its rules. I heard a lot of early music at home as well, since my father is a church musician.

As I sought to define my own musicianship, I rebelled against everything that seemed conventional, for instance by trying my hand at singing in a heavy metal band. Nevertheless, I always gravitated back to classical music, as it spoke to me on an emotional level. In terms of expression, however, I was not yet at home. I longed for exceptions, surprises and abstractness, which so far I had not encountered in the music I had been playing.

One day I decided to play whatever I pleased, to improvise. In that moment I felt myself completely free, I felt what creativity was and gained pleasure from it. Inside me there were inexplicable things about which I wanted to know more. My father heard me play and said: “That sounds pretty good. Reminds me of Magnus Lindberg.” I had never heard of Magnus Lindberg, but I found a CD of his on our record shelf at home, and I was infatuated. I listened to it over and over again and continued improvising. I went on to study composition at the Sibelius Academy.

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At the Sibelius Academy I realised that, paradoxically, studying composition was largely about imposing various constraints on music and operating within those constraints. We studied Bach counterpoint and Palestrina and wrote exercises using strictly limited set classes.

In writing one’s own compositions, it was important to define the limits and then remain rigidly within those limits. Suddenly there was little room for improvisation. I noticed myself tending towards a kind of purism in my music in order to avoid references to any other music or to extra-musical elements. I wanted my music to be difficult to understand, abstract, complex and intellectual – perhaps as an extension of my youthful rebellion against traditional classical music, although I was not aware of that at the time.

My gradual departure away from these limitations and restrictions, both self-imposed and institutionally mandated, began with my Master’s-degree studies. I spent a year in Vienna as an exchange student studying with a teacher who was hardly interested in what kind of music I was writing. I was given little if any guidance and feedback and was thus completely free to experiment with new means of expression. Furthermore, interestingly, I had no access to a piano for the entire year, and for the first time I had only my imagination to rely on in creating music. These conditions were ideal for starting the journey towards the liberation of creativity and consequently discovering my own style and composer identity. 

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Having returned to Finland, I was faced with the music of the Romantic era once again, since I was involved in a project at the Sibelius Academy with the task of writing a work that had to have something to do with Sibelius. Purism was not an option here. This project proved to be, in a way, a turning point in my journey to discovering my style and deeper reflection on my composer identity.
I wrote the first work of the Paraphrase series, in which I paraphrased Sibelius. By reflecting on a historical style through my own music, I rediscovered the deeper emotional connection to traditional classical music that I had been avoiding in the past. My major realisation was that I wanted to tear down all the limitations and restrictions I had imposed on myself. By opening myself up to influences both musical and extra-musical, I discovered something new and exciting about myself.

I wanted to search consciously for new sources of inspiration to broaden my mind and to challenge my thinking. In the next work of my Paraphrase series, I took up free jazz and acid house. Subsequently, I have written music that addresses emotions, psychology, biology, physics, words, poems and texts. The third Paraphrase work deals with the music of Gesualdo.

Musical and extra-musical ideas are catalysts for creativity. Yet creating music is largely intuitive – many musical ideas emerge through intuition, just like in improvisation. The element of surprise and freedom that improvisation offers remains to this day present in my music and in the way it is experienced. It is specifically the experience of music that has become fundamentally important for me – music lives in the moment. Nothing else can express the same thing in the same way that music does; music is alive only in the moment when it is heard, and that is what makes the moment so beautiful. 

I hope that through my music, the listener can feel some sense of freedom, similar to the freedom I experience when I improvise. Ultimately, though, that freedom is an illusion. In reality, limits and restrictions are crucially important tools for composing. Imposing mechanisms and setting limits forces one to explore ideas and find solutions to execute one’s distinct vision. Limitations create a direction, focus the mind and foster thought processes in a much more controlled and concentrated fashion than in completely free improvisation. 

Thus, in order for creativity to flourish fully, we need both of the above – freedom and limits. 

Tranlation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Sara Kokko

Sebastian Hilli

Sebastian Hilli (b.1990) is a composer, who despite his young age has already garnered international acclaim and recognition. His first orchestral work Reachings won the 1st prize in the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award in 2015 as well as the ’Composers under 30 category’ at the 64th International Rostrum of Composers in 2017 and received worldwide broadcasting. Hilli recently won the Gaudeamus Award 2018 in Utrecht, Netherlands. The jury said about Hilli: “Sebastian Hilli has a very personal aesthetic that is underlying all of his music, and he possesses the technical knowledge and imagination to realize what he is driven to create. His music combines bold structures with a huge variety of subtle sonic detail.” 

Hilli's Snap Music for orchestra commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle was premiered on 9 December 2018 by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. In 2019 it was one of the two winners of the most distinguished annual recognition in Finnish music, the Teosto Prize.