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On my music and beyond: How I learned to stop worrying and love the pressure

by Panu Aaltio

"I used to think of tight schedules as something that stand in the way of creativity. That the mind always needs time to ponder, weigh and analyse before the music can flow. I’ve since come to realise it’s far more complicated than that," writes film composer Panu Aaltio. This column is part of the series "On my music and beyond" where composers and other music makers write about their music.

Being a film composer is often the total opposite of the romantic idyll of a composer patiently searching for inspiration. It may be necessary to compose and deliver a recording of 60 or more minutes of music in two months or less. Does music under these circumstances become a rushed mess of improvisatory clichés, or is there value to be found, besides meeting a deadline?

First, a bit of personal background. I used to skip theory in music school. It didn’t seem relevant, even to my own compositions. But the first time I harmonised a melody in the Sibelius Academy theory class, something clicked. Now this was something I could use in my own music.

Suddenly motivated, I went to all the harmony, counterpoint and orchestration classes I could get into. I spent two summers in an optional music theory seminar, where I studied harmony so intensely I started having dreams about what chords to put to the seminar train arriving at the station.

After a couple years of intense studying, here’s what I immediately did with all these new-found skills:

Compose some of the absolute worst music I’ve ever written.

Japanese Buddhist priest Dōgen wrote in the 13th century: “To study the self is to forget the self.” Music and consciousness are so intertwined I often think of this. In music the technique is important, but it gets in the way. It was clear I was overanalysing small details and losing the big picture.

In 2007 I got a call. Film director Dome Karukoski wanted me to score his feature film The Home of Dark Butterflies. Producer Markus Selin wasn’t convinced however. I had never scored a full-length motion picture, so he said: “Give me a memorable tune first, then you get the gig.”

What an impossible task, I thought! You don’t just snap your fingers and write something memorable. Resigned to failure, I went home and started noodling on the piano.

It wasn’t working out, and I was out of time. Everything I tried sounded confusing. However, my mother happened to come over one day. I played all the sketches and she noted “You’ve made it really complicated. The first one was simple and clear.”

She was right. What my intuition originally gave me amid all the anxiety was the song “Forgiveness”, easily my most popular one with over half a million streams. I had ruined it by not trusting my instincts. I made endless modifications that added extraneous notes and broke the musical flow. Fortunately having this pointed out to me I went back to my original simple idea. I got the gig and the project launched my film scoring career.


Listen The Home of Dark Butterflies - Forgiveness on Spotify.


Film composer Christopher Young had this piece of advice for me when I’m composing: “Hands off the keyboard!” I’ve come to realise there’s a lot of wisdom behind this succinct statement. Our mind is our most versatile tool in creative work, and you need to be careful about letting muscle memory or other external factors steer it.

So, I’ve come to rely on the same first step on every project: I prime the subconscious by pursuing, and typically struggling with, a question: what does this movie sound like? I don’t get to sit in front of the computer or the keyboard until I’ve got an answer.

When I was working on the score to The Potato Venture, this initial task seemed almost impossible. The film is an anachronistic comedy set in the 17th-century business world. It’s not fantasy: there are no dragons or wizards. But it’s not period drama either. The comedy comes from the clash of modern startup culture and language with a bygone era.

How does one score a film like this? Authentic renaissance or baroque music? Modern comedy? Fantasy music? Everything I tried sounded wrong. If this was something I had been composing just for myself, I would’ve given up at this point for sure.

But it was the extra push of necessity, the anxiety of impending failure and not wanting to let director Joona Tena down that made my subconscious spin into action, and eventually I found myself humming a melody while doing something else. I had suddenly found my main theme that ticked all the boxes. By forgetting all about it.


Listen The Potato Venture - Main Title on Spotify.


Time pressure, it turns out, is also an effective control for a stifling inner critic.

Tale of the Sleeping Giants starts with whale song. It’s a message for all the animals, one of the central thematic arcs that travels throughout the film. I wanted to convey this in the music, to make it sound like communication. But I didn’t want to use actual words. Just before our recording session with the vocal group Tuuletar, I had an idea.

I asked director Marko Röhr to send me some key sentences from the script and printed them out for the recording session. I asked the singers to read the text while each holding a note from a chord. The recording sounded like a strange religious ceremony, and not at all correct to the film. I was getting some raised eyebrows.

I knew this beforehand of course. This was just material for me to use somehow. I just wasn’t quite sure how yet. Given enough time I’m sure I would’ve talked myself out of this humiliation and done something very controlled and specific! But I was in a hurry, so I had to just soldier on.

When I got to my studio I put the recordings through processing that randomly picks small bits and pieces of the audio from different places. I was surprised. The sound was absolutely magical. It was like speaking, but without words, and the shared tonality brought it together. A random intuition in a hurry proved to be my best idea on this score. I heard later this song became the director’s favorite piece of music in the film.


Listen Tale of the Sleeping Giants - Crow Syndicate on Spotify.


I used to think of tight schedules as something that stand in the way of creativity. That the mind always needs time to ponder, weigh and analyse before the music can flow. I’ve since come to realise it’s far more complicated than that. It seems in composing music the pressure and structure of a film scoring project is, in fact, my natural habitat.

More columns by Finnish composers and music makers: On my music and beyond.

Featured photo: Panu Aaltio