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The road to mental music

by Joonas Kokkonen

Each generation of composers, every single composer, has, either deliberately or intuitively, been forced to solve the problems of how to combine the vertical elements of music with the horizontal. New methods of composition are constantly being devised, new devices invented for solving the problem, but no ultimate solution will, of course, ever be discovered. The composer is therefore still left with the task of finding his own personal answer.
The history of western polyphony stretches back about one thousend years. In history, years and decades can of course be counted in various ways. But the figure quoted is probably something of an average. Throughout all these centuries every composer has had to face the same fundemental problem: how to combine the vertical and horizontal dimensions of music, sounds heard one after another and simultaneously, in the most expressive and the most logical way possible. This may seem a somewhat simple matter, some may even say naive, and someone has undoubtedly said it all before, in more erudite and more weighty terms. But I personally have never been able to express the fundamental problem of composing, by which I expressly mean composing technique, any better than this.

Each generation of composers, every single composer, has, either deliberately or intuitively, been forced to solve the problems of how to combine the vertical elements of music with the horizontal. New methods of composition are constantly being devised, new devices invented for solving the problem, but no ultimate solution will, of course, ever be discovered. The composer is therefore still left with the task of finding his own personal answer.

The combination of the horizontal and the vertical elements of music as the biggest problem facing the composer inevitably calls to mind the mutual balancing of different musical elements. The old musical theory still being taught when I was a student stated that there are four musical elements: rhythm, melody, harmony and tone. These elements also include such concepts as form, and polyphonic or homophonic construction.

Alfred Einstein once wrote in his short history of music that Bela Bartók restored the balance between the different elements in music. This is a point to which even today’s composer might perhaps be advised to pay more attention. Every composer obviously emphasises some element or
elements more than others, even from one work to another or between different sections of the same work. He should not, however, forget that the other elements do also exist. Only by allowing for all the basic elements of music can he hope to strike a satisfactory balance between the horizontal and the vertical dimensions.

I once read somewhere: “Modern music no longer needs rhythm, nor melody nor harmony. Timbre alone is important.” Negation is, I feel, somewhat precarious as an artistic principle. On the contrary – the composer should open his mind to all that music has to offer. The potential and devices he actually uses to reach his objective are, of course, quite another matter. Igor Stravinsky once put this point very succinctly in speaking in his work The Poetics of Music of “the great technique of choosing”.

In all he does (and that includes artistic creation) Western man believes and trusts in steady, constant development and growth. This idea comes naturally to him and acts as a constant incentive, encouraging him to strive onward. I have sometimes wondered whether there is in fact a certain risk inherent in this philosophy. There is at least one thing for sure: we readily believe that all change signifies progress. Change and progress are not, however, synonyms. On the other hand progress may take place even though the changes are not of shattering proportions.

I once made a study of the relationship between change and progress from a long historical perspective. Today we naturally compose in a completely different way from Bach, and we naturally paint in a completely different way from Rembrandt. Yet it may sometimes do the modem artist good to stop and debate: do we today compose better than Bach or paint better than Rembrandt? It is easiest to see from arts such as music and painting that change and progress are indeed far from being synonyms.

My opinions may sound very out-dated. I nevertheless believe that it is always vital for art to experiment with new ideas. And it is always fruitful. This applies even in the worst cases, when experimentation leads the artist astray, brings him to a deadend. Yet even then the final outcome is in a way fruitful. It proves that this road leads nowhere, that there is absolutely no use in following it.


There’s a lot happening in music today. New roads are fervently being sought in many directions. The time when we were told “was man komponieren darf und was man komponieren muss” – what may be composed and what must be composed – lies in the distant past, some thirty years away. Ready signposted roads determining the direction in which he may travel cannot do the composer any good. Naturally he must keep his eyes and his ears open, but ultimately he alone can say which road he wishes to take, where he feels most at home. The multitude of roads beckoning today’s composer is, I feel, an encouraging sign of life. Military commanding in the supposedly “right” direction is totally hostile to the essence of art.

A former Finnish foreign minister is once reputed to have said, “Forecasting is always difficult, especially forecasting the future.” It is rather like trying to predict the direction of the wind that will carry all before it. That such winds will blow is certain, and I may try to guess their direction, but still I hesitate to forecast anything. It is perhaps a little easier to try to predict the directions that can be discounted – the roads that will lead nowhere.

One such road is in my opinion total aleatory. I can, I think, dismiss this trend with a little anecdote.

Over the past twenty years or so I have attended numerous conferences on copyright in different parts of the world. The conference I have in mind was being held in Yugoslavia. A German lawyer – in other words not a musician – raised an interesting point concerning copyright. A composer had written a work in which the part to be played by the first horn was represented merely by a few graphic figures. The horn player was expected to improvise whatever these figures brought to mind.
Now it so happened that the musician in question knew that Richard Strauss‘s Till Eulenspiegel was on the programme for the orchestra’s next concert. He thus deduced from the graphic figures that he was to play and practise the notoriously difficult horn solo from Till Eulenspiegel at every rehearsal and performance of the new aleatoric work.

Half in jest, half in earnest, this lawyer (who was familiar with all the ins and outs of copyright law) asked the conference: who in fact holds the copyright to the new work – Richard Strauss or the horn player?

Controlled aleatory is quite a different matter from total aleatory. Witold Lutoslawski, for example, has used numerous aleatoric devices but he can more or less predict the combinations that may be produced in the live performance of an aleatoric episode.

At least to a certain extent the composer must to my mind be able to express precisely just what he wants to be played or sung. Otherwise there is hardly any need for a composer at all.

I have a marked suspicion of the new trends going under the umbrella heading of minimalism. The constant repetition and variation of microscopicmotifs easily creates an impression of monotony, though this does not by any means apply to all minimal music. Having taught musical history for a number of years, I tend – too readily perhaps – to draw my comparisons from the past. As long ago as the 18th century Mozart is already reputed to have said: you can say the same thing twice, then you have to move on. We know for certain that Debussy issued a similar instruction. Harping on a point is thus prohibited, but rules are made to be broken. To take an example nearer home: certain features of Sibelius’s style blatantly break this rule.

There is a third trend in contemporary music that likewise causes me some doubt, and that is the trend that calls itself ‘new simplicity’, Simple music may indead be composed, and simplicity is often something to be aimed at, but the background must be complex. Effective simplicity can be achieved only as an abstraction of this complex background.

Mozart is again a good example. His music is often seemingly very simple, but the moment we begin to scratch beneath the surface, we see that almost everything he ever wrote has a complex background. Composing without this background does not produce simple music in the true meaning of the word; what it does produce is music that may be called facile.

I have mentioned a few of the modem trends in music of which I have serious doubts. Now, of course, it would only be fair to name the trends that are carrying music forwards, that will continue to live on in the future. But I can’t. All I can do is return to the statement made by our former foreign minister: the future is especially difficult to forecast. Only time can be the true objective judge.

The history of music again provides many admirable examples. How many people – apart from the experts on musical history – can today say who or what was Jan Kalliwoda? He was bom in 1801 and he was in his day a very famous composer, his seven symphonies often being compared to Beethoven’s nine. Some even claimed his symphonies were superior to those of Beethoven. How many of us today have ever heard a single note by the prolific Kalliwoda?

This and many other examples make us wonder whether we can ever say which of our contemporary composers and what sort of music will stand the test of time. On the other hand we could also say that almost any composer whose works have lived on did in his day catch the attention at least of the professionals. Thoroughly misunderstood geniuses are, when you think
of it, a pretty rare species, if indeed they ever really exist.

The worth and the lasting value of a work of art are decided not merely by the professionals but by its audiences, too. I have sometimes denned the relationship between the composer and his audience as follows. In creating a new work the composer is completely alone, or rather – he is alone with his work. Nevertheless he may imagine an audience listening to the work. For music can never be something separate from life: it is produced specifically for living people.

Even so the composer is alone with his work. The audience must not, as it were, be allowed to interfere. It it does, the result is not art but entertainment. This is to my mind the fundamental distinction between ‘serious’ music and ‘light’ music.


As a young man I used to believe that music was steadily becoming more and more global. And broadly speaking this has in fact been the case. National differences are dwindling all the time. The majority of composers of my generation simply set out to write music, not Finnish or national music. When in around 19601 got hold of the first German review of my first string quartet, I was absolutely amazed. For this otherwise favourable review was headed “Finnische Wehmut”, Finnish melancholy.

Ever since then I have given a lot of thouglit to the meaning of national elements in music. Despite the vast increase in international travel and opportunities for experiencing cultures that were once alien, we areborn into a particular milieu, in which we live and in which we die. All this must inevitably be reflected in the work of every composer. It is a reality that must in some form or another be recognised. Most of the currents flowing through Finnish music are global, yet even so I can often discern something that is exclusively Finnish. Whether or not I am right is quite a different matter.

The question of the national element in music is closely tied in with the question of what constitutes ‘absolute music’ or ‘programme music’. This opposition is in my opinion only an illusion. What is music? It is a collection of sounds, a piece of acoustic reality. These are the foundations on which the artistic value of a composition rests. Whether a work sets out to be ‘absolute’ or ‘programmatic’ is of no importance whatsoever.

The same applies to the ‘form’ and the ‘content’ of the work. The acoustic reality shapes the work. It is like a ball. If we examine it from one side, we notice the form of the work, but it we go round to the other side, we notice its content. The ball remains the same in both form and content.

What do we expect of the composers of the future? Probably no more, no less than what we expect of the composers of today, no more, no less than was expected of composers in generations past. The primary condition for the gifted composer is the possession of an inner ear. I have sometimes expressed this as: anything that does not sound in the composer’s head will not sound anywhere else either. The other absolute prerequisite is that he must be in command of his art.

Franz Schubert was nicknamed “Kanawas”, for whenever an unknown composer sought his company, Schubert would always ask first of all: “Kann er was?” – can he do anything?


In order to provoke me into writing this column, the editor-in-chief asked me: what sort of music will composers be writing in a hundred years’ time? I cannot answer this. I do, on the other hand, know what sortof music they will be writing in a hundred thousand years’ time. One of the books I admired most as a young man was a sci-fi novel by Franz Werfel set in a mental era far, far in tlie future. This era no longer required either technology or mechanics. Even space trips could be made without any tools, because people had learnt the art of space gymnastics. Creating and listening to music likewise took place in that distant future on a mental plane.

The composer sits in a corner creating new works. The audience sits in the same room. The composer’s thoughts are transmitted to the audience via a mental link, without any instruments or technical devices. Maybe we shall in the distant future proceed to mental music. But there is also another side to Werfel’s world of the future. Most of mankind will live off pills, yet there will still be the Jungle, with a Bavarian Bierstube for quaffing beer and munching greasy Wurst.

Perhaps music, too, will need these two sides in the future – progress towards an increasingly refined mental plane.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

This article was first published in FMQ 4/1988 and is republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.