in Columns

On my music and beyond: On the search for enjoyable contemporary music

by Mioko Yokoyama

"I would be delighted if an audience member said: 'Those ten minutes passed so quickly' after hearing my music", writes Mioko Yokoyama.

I would like the audience to have an extraordinary and enjoyable time when coming to a concert – not only my musician friends but also those who are not necessarily that familiar with contemporary music but who have come to the concert by chance. I would simply like to create music that is interesting, perhaps because I cannot think of anything too complicated.  

There is clearly a lack of understanding of the occupation of the composer in contemporary classical music. When I introduce myself as a composer in Japan, I am frequently asked: “Do you compose for TV commercials or something? No? Then how do you earn your income?” I have tried various explanations, and my latest answer to the question is: “There are people who need this.”

What, then, is enjoyable contemporary music? 


In the composition seminar at the Sibelius Academy some years ago, we discussed that “the composer’s job is to move the ears of audiences to the next stage”. This is an old example, but even though Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) stirred a momentous debate at the time of its premiere; the work eventually came to be considered a masterpiece and became an inseparable part of the basic repertoire. 

In other words, there were people who needed that piece and were ready to move their ears to the next stage. Similarly, I seek to provide the audience with experiences they have never had before. I wish to make the time meaningful with music that people may otherwise normally pass by. For example, I would be delighted if an audience member said: “Those ten minutes passed so quickly” after hearing my music. 

Even during difficult times, I wish to deliver a positive message through an artist’s filter instead of directly expressing the difficulty of our times. This is not meant as chasing an audience’s favour. I wish to contribute to the cycle where people are eager to go to concerts, the contemporary music field becomes more active, and masterpieces are created in this world.



The important parts of my compositional process are timbre and structure. My inspiration usually originates in the sound itself. First, I look for an intriguing sound from the viewpoint of instrumentation. I think of what kind of sound I would like to hear by listening to pieces with similar instrumentation and by playing the instrument myself. Broadly speaking, I like the percussive sound created by various instruments. Recently, however, I have started to become aware of the attractiveness of pitches.

Once I have discovered an aural material I want to use, the next step is to think about the structural patterns of the piece. I draw abstract figures on a sketchbook concerning when I should introduce the material, what timing would be the most effective for the material, and how music before and after it should sound. After that, little by little, I write the music on paper by hand. For me, pencils are easier to handle than a computer, and I sense freedom from blank spaces on paper more than on notation software.

When I have advanced to a certain stage, I listen to the music from the beginning in my mind. If a change in the musical flow feels too sudden, I add some music. When I compose, I tend to be in a different flow from the audience because I focus on single sounds. Therefore I constantly have to check that the flow of the music works.

While I strive to write a theoretically convincing piece, I also find little examples of inhomogeneity and human error to be adorable. I wish some parts of my music to remain neither too intuitive nor too theoretical. Sometimes, in the middle of the piece, the music asks me to leave my sketchbook and go in a different direction. No matter how much time I spend planning in front of the sketchbook, once the music is born, the sound material sometimes knows more about the natural direction than I do. In such cases, I discard the sketches and start planning the rest of the piece again.

Although I have studied the basics of all instruments, I always relearn a certain instrument when I have a chance to compose for it. Recently, for example, I composed for the guitar and accordion; the studying is endless. There is always more to learn in addition to what I already know. As I am still in the first half of my career, I must keep on developing my musical language. 




I recently premiered my piano concerto as soloist. The piano used to be something I “had to” practise when I was young, but after about thirty years, the instrument became a good companion to me. At the same time, performing became an inseparable part of my life as a composer. I am not sure yet how the balance between performing and composing will develop in the future. What I can say at this stage is that I probably understand the writing and playing techniques of the piano deeper than those of other instruments.




If asked whether there are any unique elements to my career, I would mention that I am a Japanese who came to Finland as a master’s degree student at the Sibelius Academy seven years ago. My mother tongue is Japanese, and my English and Finnish are not as good as other people in Finland. I write my sketchbook in Japanese or sometimes in English when I intend to show it to other people. 

When I am in Japan, I receive information through my eyes and ears even when I do not want to. But here, I do not understand everything, so even though there are a lot of advertising people and people having conversations around me, they ultimately only give me silence. It is also true that understanding everything does not always bring happiness. However, I study Finnish hard, so I may lose this quietness one day.

Based only on my name, it may not seem like I live in Finland. However, names do not show where people live. I would be glad if everyone realised that there are composers like me who enjoy engaging with the musical scene in Finland and try, on their own part, to energise it as part of musical society.

Being situated at the threshold of different cultures and languages has certainly impacted upon my work. I believe that Japanese culture, from traditional culture to video games and manga, has influenced my creative process, both consciously and unconsciously. Besides that, I believe that my musical language is a mixture of English-language and Finnish-language ways of thinking, as well as what I have learned from the many people I have met through music.

Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju