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Finland is a paradise for composers - Today there are multiple ways to make your mark

by Pekka Hako

The professional profile and operating environment of Finnish composers of classical music have become increasingly international at a rapid rate in the past three decades. Back in the day, few composers spent extensive periods of time abroad, and any trips they did take were mainly for study or for inspiration and did not necessarily involve immersion in the local music scene. This started to change in the 1990s, as the Finnish music industry began to integrate into the international music industry.

Tytti Arola (b. 1990), based in Helsinki, describes herself on her website as a sound artist/composer and musician. She writes: “I am interested in music as a multisensory phenomenon. I like to create instruments from the real sounds of the world. I enjoy bringing daily life to concert venues and exhibition spaces. I like to blur the roles of performer, composer and audience.”

“I want to make contemporary music accessible,” says Arola. “I’m interested in everyday things. Musical experience can be much more than just sound.”

Arola has created music with powerful multi-sensory elements, such as scent compositions. She is a good example of the potential of combining the identities of a musician and a music educator with the identity of a composer. Arola feels that “multiple professional identities facilitate flexibility, which feels not only meaningful but also sensible”.

Arola says: “A multi-discipline approach will hopefully open up several pathways where being a composer is only part of the big picture. I’ve already embarked on international cooperation. My music has been performed in the Nordic countries and elsewhere in Europe, and as a musician I’ve had opportunities to perform at multi-discipline arts festivals in Estonia and Norway.”

Arola Tartu Interdistsiplinaar 1
Tytti Arola performing at Tartu Interdistsiplinaar festival with her self-build Kehäkitara (Surround Guitar).
Photo: Rene Jakobson.

Local – global – glocal

Outi Tarkiainen (b. 1985) is Tytti Arola’s senior by five years and has been building an international career as a composer through a more traditional route, specifically in orchestral music. She holds a Master of Music degree from the Department of Jazz at the Sibelius Academy, with composition as her main subject, and her further studies include one year in Miami.

In 2012, Tarkiainen decided to become a full-time composer. “I set myself one goal: I would focus on composing and nothing else, and I would write only the music that I really wanted to write,” she says.

One writer described Tarkiainen’s composer profile as ‘glocal’, referring to how dextrously Tarkiainen moves between the tiny villages of her native Lapland and the fiords of the Arctic Ocean on the one hand and the metropolises of the world on the other.

“My studio is always pretty much the same, even though it has existed in multiple cities,” says Tarkiainen. “But spending some time in large cities like Paris, Berlin and London and then returning to the silence of Lapland with a head full of ideas has certainly influenced the content of my music, as opposed to if I had just stayed put in Finland.

“Dividing my time between very small communities and very large ones is my way of analysing the world and perhaps also analysing my career as a composer. Whenever I return to the peace and quiet of Lapland, my musical thoughts begin to fall into place.”

Paradise for composers

Tarkiainen describes Finland as “a paradise for composers”, noting that “Finland has excellent educational opportunities, many orchestras and potential for obtaining financial support for one’s work. Anywhere else in the world, it seems to be much harder to even get your music performed.”

Tarkiainen has been able to live on grants, as have many of her Finnish colleagues. This is possible thanks to a reform enacted more than 50 years ago, whereby government grants (guaranteeing a modest livelihood) may be given to artists in various branches of the arts for periods of several years. There are also several wealthy private cultural foundations in Finland that provide support both for general living expenses of creative artists and for individual arts projects. Today, a dozen or so composers in Finland make a living by commissions alone.

Outi Tarkiainen is rooted in Lapland but is on a firmly upward international career trajectory. Her music has been performed by the BBC Philharmonic and by various orchestras in Canada, Detroit, Houston and the Nordic countries. Internationalisation was a no-brainer for her.

“Growing up in Lapland taught me that the world is international by default. Up there in the north, we constantly interact with Sweden and Norway, and there are ships that can take you to Scotland.”

The earliest performances of Tarkiainen’s orchestral works happened thanks to her own active efforts. “I looked at a map and started thinking where I could find orchestras in northern Finland, Sweden and Norway that might be willing to commission and premiere music by me. I got in touch and proposed a project, and to my amazement the orchestras responded favourably.”

Spending time in major European cities has resulted in new contacts, and now her phone is ringing, so to speak, more than ever. At the time of writing, Tarkiainen is working on an opera for an opera house in central Europe.

The refreshing shadow of Sibelius

Throughout the early 20th century, the overwhelming presence of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) had the effect of diminishing the stature of all other Finnish composers. The often-mentioned ‘shadow of Sibelius’ fell over Finnish composers for decades. A handful of modernists in the 1920s managed to break free of it, but in general whenever Finnish music was discussed in an international context, connections and comparisons to Sibelius were brought up. It was impossible to be a Finnish composer and avoid being compared to the Great Master.

By the time Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016) began his subsequently dazzlingly international career, a suitable distance from Sibelius had already been generally established. Composers in Rautavaara’s generation no longer experienced Sibelius as an overpowering force like composers of the previous generation did well into the 1950s. While Rautavaara was endorsed at the start of his career by Sibelius himself, Rautavaara once noted that if Sibelius did cast a shadow, it was “a refreshing shadow amidst the heat of the international field”.

Nevertheless, as recently as in the 1970s and 1980s the Finnish media were keen to emphasise the ‘Finnish qualities’ of Finnish music. This was when the contemporary opera boom began in Finland, and the most popular works in this genre were based on subjects taken from Finnish history. For the younger composer generation of the time, this represented a step backwards, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

Indeed, versatile composer and musician Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948) wrote in 1983: “There is now again a period of boosting national self-esteem, and various influencers are proclaiming that ‘Finnish artists must remain Finnish and not attempt to go along with international trends’.” Tiensuu was 35 years old at the time and, more to the point, had spent six out of the previous ten years living in several foreign countries and actively taking part in the local music scene. Similarly, Eero Hämeenniemi (b. 1951) entered into collaboration with musicians in India.

A golden era

The 1990s were a golden era for Finnish composers, particularly those born in the 1950s: at the age of 30 to 40, they found their professional livelihood considerably more secure than had been the case for their predecessors. They were working in an environment where Finnish record labels (Finlandia Records and Ondine) and the BIS label in Sweden were releasing huge numbers of discs with Finnish music, as a result of which Finnish contemporary composers began to get air time on the radio around the world.

In previous decades, Finnish composers had rarely stayed abroad for any considerable periods of time except to study. This changed when Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) settled permanently in Paris in the mid-1980s. Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958) also lived in various foreign countries for long periods of time. Saariaho and Lindberg went where there was demand for their music. While focusing on composing, they also maintained hands-on connections with musicians around Europe. Soon their music was being played at dozens of festivals and by prominent orchestras. They had signed on with major publishers, and their music, as indeed that of many other Finnish contemporary composers, was recorded a lot.

Before this, only one Finnish composer had signed on with a major international publisher – Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) with Novello. Now, Finnish names began to appear in the catalogues of Chester Music, Boosey & Hawkes and Wilhelm Hansen.

Of course, being signed by a major publisher is not an end in itself, but it does create a more favourable working environment. Within the space of a decade, Finnish composers had become established on the music scene worldwide, Finnish conductors were in high demand to conduct Finnish contemporary music, and in the early years of the 21st century major media wrote and spoke often and volubly about this ‘musical superpower’. 

Complacency and role models

By the turn of the millennium, a few top Finnish composers had established themselves permanently on the international scene. Back home, however, the success enjoyed by Saariaho and Lindberg may have bred a certain complacency, generating the illusion that an international career comes to those who wait, even though a composer’s active efforts in pursuing such success were still of crucial importance. Composers born in the 1960s were secure in their status within Finland, but scarcely any of them came to be widely known internationally.

By contrast, many composers born in the 1970s looked to Saariaho and Lindberg as role models. Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972), one of the most successful composers of his generation, says: “When Kaija and Magnus began to gain more and more visibility around the turn of the 1990s, my twenty-year-old self sat up and started to pay attention to what was happening with contemporary composers. It was no longer the case that there were only a few canonised pathways to creating an international reputation, like you used to only have Darmstadt or IRCAM in Paris.”

Fagerlund continues: “Of course, all composers have to find their own pathways. But the musical world is now more diverse. There are multiple ways to make it out there.”

Inspiring collaboration and shared experiences

Fagerlund’s publisher is Edition Peters. “My aim has been to achieve the best possible working environment for writing music and for having my music performed. Because of this, it is important for me to have a close, ambitious and long-term collaboration between composer, publisher and record label. When it works, it can be like a close friendship: it evolves all the time.”

Fagerlund’s career, as indeed that of Outi Tarkiainen, has demonstrated that composers no longer depend on being commissioned or premiered by orchestras in major cities for their breakthrough. Fagerlund’s ‘breakthrough works’ were premiered at the Korsholma Music Festival on Finland’s west coast and in Tampere. Since then, he has been commissioned and recorded by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed several of his works on tour abroad. This sea change attests to the huge improvement in the quality of Finland’s regional symphony orchestras over the past three decades.

Fagerlund notes that composers have always written music for specific ensembles and orchestras and sought collaboration with performers whom they find inspiring. “This social aspect of the job inspires me and carries my composing forward. It is a welcome and necessary contrast to the solitary work I do in my studio.”

By the 2010s, it became possible for a composer to reach a worldwide audience through audio and video recordings and through concert streaming. An active composer can maintain a personal presence in all this at minimal cost.

“But although the Internet and technology in general have revolutionised how quickly we can have access to the music and art of all the world, there is nothing that can replace actual human interaction,” says Fagerlund. “A streamed concert will never match the emotional experience of a real live concert.”

In this sense, we may observe that the goals of the members of the Society of Finnish Composers celebrating its 75th anniversary this year have remained unchanged across the decades. The mission of neophyte Tytti Arola to embrace music as a multi-sensory experience reinforces the underlying age-old notion of a shared experience in a shared space.

Through the ages, composer careers have included other things such as teaching, writing, performing music in another capacity, undertaking expert duties or working in a day job in a completely different field. Yet surveys show that many composers feel that composing is the strongest component in their professional identity – perhaps because composing is for them a way of life, a way of looking at the world.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Heikki Tuuli: Members of the Society of Finnish composers celebrating their 70th anniversary in 2015.


The Society of Finnish Composers celebrates its 75 years in 2020. 

The anniversary concert with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra will be live-streamed (and later watched) at Yle Areena on 2 Oct, 2020 at 8 pm EEST

The programme:
Outi Tarkiainen: Jään lauluja (Songs of the Ice), fp (Yle commission)
Paavo Heininen: Arioso Op. 16
Jouni Kaipainen: North by North-East
Sampo Haapamäki: Synny! Orchestral song for soprano and orchestra, fp (Yle commission)

Hannu Lintu, conductor
Tuuli Lindeberg, soprano