in Articles

Relieving anxiety, questioning current practices – How can social activism manifest in contemporary music?

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

The relationship of art to society has always been complex. What is the role of music in a world of increasing crises and polarisation? How can art participate in social debate, and does it have a responsibility to do so? We asked three contemporary composers for their views.

The societal relevance of art is a hot topic. In Finnish music, this debate became current once again last October in a discussion on the relationship between music and society after the 75th anniversary concert of the Society of Finnish Composers. Composer Lauri Kilpiö, journalist Lotta Emanuelsson from the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) and Hannu Lintu, Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, were joined by visual artist Anna Tuori, who had caused a flurry in art circles by talking about the hypocrisy and banalisation of art in an YLE interview in August. The ensuing debate pitted an artist’s social responsibility against the autonomy of art.

Suoni, an association for societal and action-oriented music research, is of course keenly involved in public debate in Finnish classical music. In autumn 2019, the most prominent area debated was the percentage of music written by composers other than men on concert programmes (see also the series of articles for FMQ by Susanna Välimäki and Nuppu Koivisto discussing the lives and music of historical women composers in Finland), and more recently the association warned the field of classical music against introversion, as music researcher Juha Torvinen criticised musical institutions for upholding a culture where music is considered as being separate from the rest of society. Suoni embraces the premise that art is inevitably societally defined, and as such must bear responsibility.

Is a musical composition a potential force for change or a relic wrapped up in its own absolute self? What should it be? We asked three composers for their thoughts. How can composers position themselves in society at large, and what do the societal aspects of art mean in practice?


A composition acquires meanings from its environment

It is an oft-repeated truism that music as such cannot express anything beyond the music itself. This is not to say that music cannot prompt extra-musical associations in listeners. Antti Auvinen considers it not only inevitable but also desirable for the titles of his works to prompt a variety of interpretations in listeners.

Auvinen considers it a good thing for composers to provide background on their works for audiences. His music is typically breathtakingly complex and crammed with physically powerful textures that enfold the listener in a tight embrace. Last autumn, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra released a recording of his orchestral works Junker Twist, Himmel Punk and Turbo Aria, regarding which the composer has referred to extreme right-wing ideologies, religious narrow-mindedness and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, respectively. For instance, the compulsively twitching orchestral racket in Junker Twist invites the listener to imagine what is happening inside the head of a ‘stay-at-home national socialist’.

“It is a good thing if a composer uses the space given to him to say something meaningful,” says Auvinen. “If I, as a composer, say something – even a very obvious thing, such as that all people should have the same rights – then someone else can be empowered by that. But the societal significance of art is a broad and complex issue.”

Auvinen notes that he begins his work with impressions, and quite often they have to do with current events. He also feels that as a composer he may translate into music societal situations that are difficult to express in words.

Turbo Aria (2017) is a good example of the convoluted path from an idea to a completed work. The composition gradually fills up with potential meanings to which listeners can and must assign differing interpretations.

Auvinen was fascinated by the idea of a piece for soprano and orchestra where the singer was not present in person. He began to make samples of recordings made by Finnish star sopranos of olden times on 78s and to process their voices into an imaginative electronic soundscape to be incorporated into an orchestral work.

“We were on a family holiday in Italy when I and my youngest child saw a gramophone on the beach. There was rubbish floating in the sea, some of it gradually sinking.” The ghost soprano voices gradually acquired an entire network of meanings: The Mediterranean. Drowning people. Rubbish in the sea. The voice of a child. Children in water.

Auvinen’s powerful and breathtaking rhythms drill down to the listener’s deep emotions, evoking gripping mental images. “A strong sense of injustice may have a considerable impact on the composition process,” says Auvinen. “Disbelief, frustration, being aware of just how limited your potential for influencing anything actually is.”

The number one consideration for a composer is what a piece sounds like.

“If the music is feasible, intriguing, witty, then it does what it is supposed to,” Auvinen summarises. “But of course art is always political in a broader sense. For me, that means being in constant dialogue with what you are doing and evaluating it critically.”

Autuus | Trailer 1 from Antti Auvinen | Composer on Vimeo.

Towards an absence of hierarchy

Although the pandemic has put a dampener on studies, Matilda Seppälä is soon graduating as a composer from the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She is currently working on an orchestral work for the Tampere Philharmonic, among other things. She is of a generation for whom being an artist is very much an ambiguous thing, with multiple issues calling for resolution.

“About three years ago, I experienced the mother of all value conflicts,” says Seppälä. She found it difficult to do things important for her in the context of the culture of classical music. Seppälä brought tortured mind maps to her composition classes with Veli-Matti Puumala and also found peer support while as an exchange student in Berlin. How does one write concert music in this day and age?

Seppälä has written for traditional ensembles and has enjoyed success in international composition competitions, but she has also made use of things like experimenting with the electrical conductivity of skin, which revealed “what sweating sounds like”. She was a member of the planning trio for the Ung Nordisk Musik festival of contemporary music in Tampere last autumn, where the theme was ecology (See also FMQ's article).

How does Seppälä feel about the societal aspect of music? It is a difficult issue, and she has a lot to say. Firstly, being societally active and being societally relevant are two different things. Secondly, discussions about the societal nature of music often confuse the practices of institutions and the content of art with each other. Thirdly, no individual can exist separate from the world around them, and in that sense all art is societal.

However, art being inevitably related to the world does not, to her mind, make artists special people.

“We all have potential for exerting influence in society. Being an artist does not encumber you with any more social responsibility than anyone else,” she notes.

Seppälä has noticed a generational difference in the course of her studies. Previous generations of composers have not necessarily had to go through the thought processes that are commonplace for young people today. For young composers, it is important that their work reflects their value base.

Although Seppälä considers that art never exists in a vacuum, she does not feel that provoking debate or achieving change is the principal reason for creating art in the first place, at least not without seriously questioning what its true potential for influence is.

“You can be an activist much more effectively in other ways than by creating art,” she points out. The debate on which topics should be subjects for art quickly gets bogged down in details. This is one reason why the debate about art and society is complicated. Seppälä does not want to belittle the power for change that an artistic experience may have on the individual level. But:

“Let’s imagine that all of a sudden people create a hundred thousand artworks about climate change in Finland and that in theory this would solve the entire problem. Does that mean that art had rendered itself unnecessary? Creating art is a fundamental human need, and you cannot restrict the role of art into simply being a catalyst for societal change.”

There are many ways of creating art, of course. An artist may play a prominent role in the climate movement, for instance. Whether in social media influencing, public demonstrations or direct action, there is always a need for many different kinds of experts. “In that case it’s not about ‘me and my excellent ideas’, but there can be something else there. Someone coined the term artivism to mean art created in the context of activism or activism making use of the means of art.”

Seppälä mentions the word ‘utopia’ several times. An attitude envisioning a utopia and questioning the current operating culture may be a more feasible approach to changing things in the world of music than making statements through music itself. Seppälä is fascinated by the absence of hierarchy. She is most at home when writing music for and with musicians as equal partners.

In the orchestral world, she is bemused by how powerful the hierarchy is both within an ensemble and in the operating culture in general. “An orchestra is like a finely tuned machine that runs all year round, and both musicians and composers must adapt to it regardless of how they themselves feel about music,” Seppälä explains.

Orchestras are full of curious and highly versatile musicians. Seppälä finds it frustrating that the symphony orchestra, as an instrument, has practically not evolved at all in the past hundred years. She is completing a master’s thesis on experimental instrument building and is interested in the relationship between instrument and body.

“What would an instrument sound like if you needed five people, five different bodies to produce a sound?”

Matilda Seppala1 C Juho Keranen
Matilda Seppälä
Photo: Juho Keränen

Operas about burning contemporary topics

Heinz-Juhani Hofmann has made a name for himself with vocal works and operas that transport the listener well beyond their comfort zone: to the roots of trauma, to sexual abuse of a child or to the psyche of a mass murderer. Ihmissydän [Human heart] (2011), a monologue opera about incest, was performed at the Music Centre in Helsinki just before the pandemic, and a recording was also released. Hofmann has an endless supply of ideas for operas, because there is no end to the anxiety he feels in the face of the world. Addressing burning contemporary topics is for him about processing his own negative feelings. The results, however, are works with a high degree of social awareness. Hofmann is currently working on several opera projects with even more acutely political subjects.

His opera about Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher in late Antiquity, ties together a learned woman murdered in Christian riots and the climate crisis and political extremism of the modern world.

“A character in the present time is searching for something on which to base their life. Late Antiquity was also a period when people felt that the world was falling apart,” says Hofmann.

This monologue opera was to have been performed by Pia Komsi, directed by Erik Söderblom, at the Espoo City Theatre this spring, but the coronavirus pandemic scuppered the plan.

In another opera project, he partnered with the Helsinki Chamber Choir and the VocalEspoo festival. Planned to be produced in autumn 2022, it is an extensive opera for choir and electronics about uprisings.

“I’ve written several monologue operas, and it seemed somehow easier to go from one character to a crowd than to a group of characters,” says Hofmann. “A choir is a hugely inspiring instrument for me. I’m interested in crowd dynamics and solidarity across boundaries. And in what comes after a revolution.”

Future plans include an opera about reality TV celebrity Jade Goody with soprano Annika Fuhrmann, who also premiered his previous opera, Maailmantappaja [World killer] (2018).

Hofmann once hit a dead end trying to write contemporary instrumental music consistent with the mainstream. He began to write a lot of text and to search for a means of expressing it as directly as possible. The result was a series of vocal acrobatics for women’s voices and brutally raw emotion.

“I’ve discovered my own thing, and that’s valuable. This is how I can express myself. Now I’m trying to add some lyricism and new ways of using the voice.” Hofmann is also increasingly interested in a sense of drama for his upcoming operas.

In addition to his extensive vocal works, he has written solo songs. He is working on a Kafka cycle for Anu Komsi. There is text involved in everything he does, and thus his works are firmly connected to the world.

“But are they socially conscious? Am I causing or influencing change? It seems like hubris to think so. My music throws the world in your face. It shows stuff that happens and criticises it. I vent my frustration through art, because there’s no other way.”


Auvinen Seppala Hofmann Yhteiskuva
Antti Auvinen, Matilda Seppälä and Heinz-Juhani Hofmann. Photos by Martin Jonsson, Juho Keränen and Saara Vuorjoki.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Tani Simberg: Soprano Annika Fuhrmann in Heinz-Juhani Hofmann's opera World KIller.

Antti Auvinen in a recent interview by Music Finland.

Matilda Seppälä's music at Soundcloud.

Heinz-Juhani Hofmann's music at Music Finland's Core.