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Reaching for a composer’s career

by Merja Hottinen

Being a freelance composer is much like being an entrepreneur – for one thing, your career development is entirely in your own hands. “You cannot wait and expect someone else to do it for you,” says composer Sebastian Hilli.
Sebastian Hilli, 25, won the Toru Takemitsu Composition Competition in Japan in May 2015 with his first orchestral work, Reachings. Qualifying as a finalist had already earned him the opportunity to travel to Tokyo to hear his work performed by a top-quality orchestra, to receive feedback from adjudicator Kaija Saariaho and to develop his international networks and profile – which seemed like prize enough for a young composer.

Being declared the winner from among 151 participants brought further interest in the composer: he has already received follow-up contacts and commissions. “It is a competition of note. Winning that competition is an excellent calling card and reference for future contacts. Perhaps that will be the most important outcome of the competition in the long run,” says Hilli.

The trifecta of composer income

Reachings was written in an intense process of creativity over a period of about one month. “Reachings was an exception for me in coming together so quickly. I do work intensely when writing music, but generally I work on several pieces at once,” says Hilli.

In monetary terms, the prize – JP¥750,000, or just over €5,000 – is roughly what the Society of Finnish Composers recommends as the fee for commissioning a 10-minute orchestral work. Hilli, currently completing his studies at the Sibelius Academy, has not yet written many commissioned works, but now his calendar is filling up with, for instance, a chamber music work for the Uusinta Ensemble and a work for wind quintet for the Crusell Festival.

Commissioned works are an invaluable pathway for an emerging composer to become established as a fully fledged freelance composer. Commissioning fees are one significant revenue stream in a composer’s income. Another consists of copyright royalties from performances. Hilli has already had a number of significant performances of his works in Finland and at international festivals, for instance by the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra and the Ensemble Recherche.

The third main revenue stream comes from working grants. “They provide a period of financial security that allows you to focus on commissioned works,” Hilli explains. He has applied for grants himself, but his income at this moment still seems uncertain. His hope is that promising newly graduated composers would be awarded working grants more readily. “Without working grants, you have to find another job somewhere. Many composers teach. This leaves less time for writing music,” says Hilli.

Only you can help yourself

A freelance composer must dare contact various parties himself, because networks and personal contacts are what generate projects for the future. The results, however, are unpredictable. “Sometimes it’s just pure chance,” says Hilli.

Hilli admits that marketing is important for a composer today. Your website and other materials have to be in shape, and you have to be aware of your own identity as a composer.

“You have to create a demand for your music. That’s why I consider marketing important, although of course that doesn’t mean creating an image of something that you are not. A composer has to have a distinct identity, and hiding your personality is certainly no help in attempting to generate interest in your music.”

Energy and stillness

So how would Hilli describe his identity as a composer? He identifies two main facets of his music: “Music that aims to be constantly energetic and active on the one hand, and a certain sensitivity, stillness and melancholia on the other.

“I aim to express my musical thoughts in broad arcs. The overall identity of a work and its various characters and emotional states are important, and through these I outline the shape of the music on a general level; that’s what my music is about.”

Hilli has previously noted that he enjoys writing challenging music, and he still admits to this. “There are two kinds of challenge involved. The sort of energetic drive that I try to create often leads to a kind of texture that requires the performers to have virtuoso skills. On the other hand, I am interested in music with multiple layers and a lot of information, which may pose a challenge for the listener’s comprehension.

“But my music isn’t just challenging. I’ve also written music that is very simple at times, exploring the extremes of the challenge axis,” says Hilli.

A freelance composer’s career

What would be the ideal career for Hilli as a freelance composer?

“I would be happy if I could be a full-time composer and earn enough to live on from it.”

He also dreams of an international career.

“I would like to write orchestral music and be commissioned by major orchestras. I hope to be able to continue to work with excellent ensembles and musicians. Having an international publisher would be a major help for a freelance composer. All these would be concrete signs that my music is of interest to and appreciated by different kinds of people around the world,” explains Hilli.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo by Otto Virtanen

Sebastian Hilli

::  A composer whose works consist mainly of chamber music for different set-ups

::  Won first prize in the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award 2015 with his work Reachings for orchestra

::  Currently finishing his Master’s degree in composition at the Sibelius Academy with Professor Veli-Matti Puumala