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Listening to the mind

by Kimmo Hakola

"The first dramatic moment in listening in the mind is when that internal sound latches on to something tangible and becomes performable music." This column is part of the series "On my music and beyond", where composers and other music makers write about their music.

Composers are often reluctant to share in public their personal work processes regarding composition – where and how musical invention germinates. By contrast, it is an easy task to discuss the inner logic, harmonic processes, colours, extended playing techniques and unconventional frequencies in any given work.

My purpose here is to describe a method that for me has represented a return to the "mother lode" of musical invention, the moment before writing down any sketches. This is important for the integrity of the identity of the forthcoming work. However, composing is rarely so goal-oriented in nature, because it is frequently worth exploring the domain of expression opened up by any particular composition process. Otherwise one might fail to identify all the options available, and that would be like living one’s life without having experienced all things interesting and necessary.

I begin preparing for a composition project as follows: I immerse myself in the music I envision, thinking about the music running through my head as being concertante, orchestra, operatic – often guided by the genre or performing ensemble specified in a commission, or by a trusted individual musician. This is my only "code": attempting to exclude all extraneous things from the contemplation of music in my mind.

Another and more profound starting point is to simply think of sounds, of music as itself with no reference to ensemble or space or character. There is nothing but empty time where sounds appear. The first dramatic moment in this listening in the mind is when that internal sound latches on to something tangible and becomes performable music.

These approaches have interesting repercussions: I find that time and time again I seek to stretch the music out when contemplating it thus in my mind, to test its flexibility, to breathe deeper – tracing longer arcs. Yet the music in my mind is never only about slowly unfolding events, quite the contrary in fact: these long "blows of the bellows" enliven my mind with rather quickly and colourfully moving musical molecules. What I am listening to at this point has as of yet no reference to time.


The next level in my experiment involves focusing on how these rapidly pulsating molecules relate to the steady breathing of the music. I try to find a turning point where focusing on details obscures the overall arc, the gravity of breathing. I find my physical body gravitating towards the soaring arcs if I think that the small musical gestures are trying to become too independent. It is difficult to find that turning point, but the sense of approaching it is quite noticeable.

Breathing, gravity, its stretch and resistance, carry this stage in the process – an energy that I would venture to call symphonic if need be. This energy is the coherence that sustains the breathing. I mention "symphonic", because I used this approach in writing my Symphony.

I employ this suggestopedic approach in various everyday situations too, whenever I can concentrate on listening in my mind for a while. I made a critical observation one night just before falling asleep: these busy germs, these molecules resembled one another despite my many different immersions. They contained repetitive elements; unwittingly, I had assigned them identifiers or codes that made them similar yet clearly individual – repetition within a group, we might say.

This observation of repetitiveness had me thinking quite a bit, until one day I realised that repetitiveness in this internal listening is a feature that aims to saturate – or fill – an imaginary space. What is that space? Is it something that is created by breathing – or through breathing?


For clarity, I should explain that at no stage in this initial ritual do I resort to pencil and paper, i.e. external memory devices. Everything happens in my mind, in my thoughts through immersion. Naturally, it would have been easier to examine these repetitive molecules if I had drawn or written them down on paper. The risk here is that if I render them visible, they become graphically organised and thereby acquire a "definitive form" from which there is no return to the flexible shaping in the mind.

But I am satisfied: I have an inner experience of the breathing of music through physical feeling and of musical ideas that contain individual identifiers yet are related; they have similar DNA, which through repetition and saturation builds up into musical coherence.

I have also spent some critical thought in considering whether listening in the mind is after all just a monophonic and monodimensional process. It is difficult to sustain the idea of breathing when thinking about musically independent and separate layers. Each of the parts I study has its own breathing-based identity, but it is difficult to contemplate an extensive space sounding all at once in one’s mind.

One possibility for hearing several independent layers would be to create a hybrid model, drawing a diagram of one layer and listening to the others internally. I have not tried this with any serious intent, though, because at this stage I do not want to take the crucial step towards writing things down.


What I have described above may appear confusing. My point in writing about this in public is to create a record of how one composer in this world might work. I am also interested in the thoughts that such a candid description of musical invention might provoke. My wish is that my colleagues would be bold enough to share their working methods. We composers have our own intimate ways of creating music, but we rarely talk about them.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Saara Vuorjoki / Music Finland

Kimmo Hakola

Kimmo Hakola’s (b. 1958) works usually attract exceptional interest. He is a creator of intense musical dramas that recognize no stylistic or expressive limits. His music is a combination of exciting dramatic power and exceptional musical quality and musicianship is manifest in all his achievements resulting in communicativeness and richness of sound that speak of the composer's delight at discovering his very own idiom. Hakola was a member of FMQ's Editorial Board from 2009 until 2017, and its chair from 2013 until 2017.

Kimmo Hakola's Symphony No. 1 was premiered on 12 December, 2018 by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.