Paavo Heininen (b. 1938), the most significant living Finnish modernist composer, cannot be described as a retiree in any sense of the word. But these days he likes to describe himself as a ‘meta-modernist’ as distinct from the historical modernist period: the search for all things new is not over. He is producing new works and groups of works at such a pace that his publisher, Fennica Gehrman, has real trouble keeping his catalogue up to date. Moreover, cataloguing and pigeon-holing is somewhat problematic in the face of Heininen’s sometimes quite unconventional invention, as he persists in discovering new possibilities in areas where no one has gone before. He comes up with new, surprising genres and categories, combinations of instruments and entire concert programmes of an unprecedented nature.
I phone my former composition teacher, with whom I have had no contact for many years. I explain that my purpose is to interview him on the occasion of his 75th birthday. I add, somewhat self-consciously, that the editors would like me to focus on the theme of ‘the sacred in music’. This feels a bit too personal for my taste, and in a way which has little to do with creating music. Religion brings people together but also drives them apart, sometimes violently. Paavo sends me a talk he gave on this topic at the Finnish Institute in Paris. The text begins with the statement: “The concept of ‘sacred’ is not of key importance. Music expresses nothing.” But it does not end there.
Heininen’s recent output includes not only symphonies, concertos and sonatas but also completely surprising items such as 90 minutes of music for the four bells in the church of the composer’s home town of Järvenpää (Sonata I, Variations A, Variations and Fugue, Sonata II, 2003–04) a quartet for the unlikely ensemble of harp, guitar, mandolin and harpsichord entitled Lakkamaalauksia (Lacquer paintings, 2012–). He also has plans to use virtual instruments that exist only on a computer, e.g. a microtonal vibraphone to be paired up with virtuoso pianist Paavali Jumppanen. Paavo Heininen has also played around with the identities of other composers: inspired by various reconstruction projects, he ‘re-imagined’ the lost Third Violin Concerto of his composition teacher Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) (Tuuminki / A Notion, 1993). He has augmented the history of Finnish music by writing the hitherto non-existent string quartet output of Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) (Quartet no. 1 in F major, 1999; Quartet ‘The French’, 1999). “Nobody composed these works, but I have written them,” Heininen says in response to puzzled inquiries.
“Religious art is at the very pinnacle of our tradition. It is valuable and near to me as a listener and as a composer,” Heininen writes in his text about the concept of the sacred. However, he goes on to note that there is no such thing as a ‘composer’s theology’. One can only discuss one’s personal theology. This is an area that should be approached “as subjective ethical issues, respectful of other subjective viewpoints on these issues”.
In recent years, Heininen’s adventures with ‘simulations’ of composer identities have begun to trickle into his own output. In Paralleeliaktio op. 97bis (2008), the piano styles of Aarre Merikanto and Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) are filtered through Heininen’s own style. The flute concerto Autrefois (2008/2010) began life through a meditation on the fact that there are no Finnish Romantic concertos for woodwind instruments, but despite its tonal material, this brainchild grew into such a modern structure in terms of dynamics and process that it emerged as an exciting stylistic paradox. Who composed this piece? The very question is a typical Heininen issue.
To compose is to cast a net
Heininen ranks the concept of love as more important than the concept of sacred, resisting the distinction between sacred and profane and noting that profane is simply a matter of human intent. Thinking of Goethe, he quotes an adage that was also quoted by Martin Luther in his day – “Nothing human is alien to me” – and notes that “no aesthetic category can exist outside of Him”.
On the walls of the Heininens’ sitting room there are works by Finnish abstract modernists such as Sam Vanni and Tor Arne, the latter a family friend. Heininen, the meta-modernist, denies feeling any kind of ‘magnetism’ towards tonality and triads. He admits to having a strong consciousness of tradition as a performer, but as a composer he went through and beyond tonality in childhood.
“However, operating through synthetic alternate identities has led to a situation where the boundaries, points of attraction and taboos of my own practice have become rather worn down. Sometimes I think it might be a symptom of a softening of the brain, which one should guard against. But in the end, I have noted that this is what happens to people. So it goes.”
In his creative work, as in his career as a composition teacher, Heininen sees new possibilities everywhere. “When you write your first piece as a young composer, you want to write a very specific kind of piece – in effect, to rewrite a piece that someone else has already written. To create something that is at once similar and different is a contradiction in terms. That is why it is worthwhile writing many different kinds of works, the most important question for each being ‘what is it like’?”
Heininen compares composing to casting a net into the sea. The sea is basically a structured entity that is coherent instead of, say, floating around in droplets: “I am here, I have not been over there yet, that point is more distant, this point is closer”. Of course, casting a net will never produce a finished work; the catch has to be selected and organised. “The so-called organic approach is nothing more than this. If you ask cells how they live, the answer would be the same!” Heininen’s verbal images and parables provide a lot of food for thought. For him, they are a tool for attaining maximum accuracy in discussing music. Heininen tabulates the essential features of the Sacred, juxtaposing them with the creative artist’s arsenal: Lightness (intelligence), Endlessness (extension), Goodness (intention), Commonness (immanence), Love (energy). He also extends a nod towards mathematical beauty (Antonio Gaudí), natural beauty, material beauty and the explicit beauty and solemnity that may be found for instance in sculpture or verses from the Bible.
The innumerable shapes of Rubik
On a sideboard in the sitting room is Heininen’s favourite toy: Rubik’s snake, which can be twisted into innumerable shapes both symmetrical and asymmetrical, including a sphere. There is a mobile hanging from the ceiling in the sitting room and the study; works of art that arrange themselves into innumerable variations with currents in the air. The composer is quite literally surrounded by endless probability spaces.
Heininen does not believe that music expresses emotions; what is more important and more sensible is to seek plurality – systematically. “When you write music following the old ideal of ‘unity in plurality’, the music causes vibrations and shivers that prompt emotions in the listener that the listener then describes in various beautiful ways. However, the emotion generated by a work is nothing more than the emotion the listener feels when listening to that specific work,” he says.
When Heininen’s colleague and former student Jukka Tiensuu created genuine contemporary music out of fragments of Finnish tangos, Heininen saw an idea for going in the opposite direction: the result was a 36-minute collection entitled Mazurki op. 79 (2000–01), where the musical details are real, incisive Heininen, while in their overall shape the pieces are undoubtedly mazurkas. “I played a lot of Szymanowski at one point and got quite excited.” He continued the project in Pianotansseja op. 97 (Piano dances, 2009/11), where mazurkas are surrounded by ‘summer waltzes’. “Skryabin only ever wrote one waltz, but it’s a whopper…,” Heininen says with a twinkle in his eye. But he goes on to point out that these dances are no longer about interacting with other composer identities. “The challenge here is to use the rhythmic modes of old dances without getting too close to them in the details.”
But what about the dance characters of our time? Mazurkas were quite contemporary for Chopin and Szymanowski, as tangos are for Tiensuu. Could we imagine Paavo Heininen writing concert music in the vein of house, techno or trance? “In principle I would have nothing against it,” he says, but then notes that the rhythms of contemporary dance music do not move his body. By contrast, the movement language in Baroque opera productions performed by visiting artists from central Europe and John Neumeier’s choreography Sylvia have proved inspirational. “I would be more interested in writing completely new and unconventional music that nevertheless is suitable for dancing.”
“The concept of ‘sacred’ is one that belongs mainly to the sphere of religion. That sphere does not go away even if you decide that you are a non-religious person. Sacred art can be any kind of art at all, except bad art.” Strong associations with other areas of life considered non-sacred should be avoided, however: advertising music, restaurant music, military music, the populist quoting of popular music. “The problem of the liturgical style is above all a social problem: there is no point in making music together using means that are too complicated for most people.”
Inspiration…? It is impossible not to ask this ‘adult prodigy’ brimming with creative energy about his working habits and inspiration. He has the ideal setting for his work: in the garden of his home there is a studio designed specifically for him by his architect daughter Kirsi. Heininen finds it impossible to determine how long his working days are. “It is a completely non-formal kind of existence. I come in here, go away again, then come back… Even if I no longer force myself to work at night, there is nothing to stop me creeping back in here after midnight when the last TV programmes have ended if I feel like it. But this is not a place for staring at the trees outside, for reading the papers or for cutting my fingernails – at least not until I have completed the day’s work. Having a separate studio to work in brings out the boss-man in me.” And inspiration? “I am not sure I have it at all!” he laughs. “Richard Strauss said that when he sits down at his desk in the morning and something occurs to him, that’s it! For me, I generally do not even have time to get to my desk.” That desk – the desk of the eminently intellectual and analytically distinguished, perhaps even a little feared professor emeritus – is the seat of everyday chaos, full of musical clay: inkjet printouts in front of the computers, rhythms scribbled on the back of shop receipts, harmonic sketches written on staves impatiently outlined in ordinary notebooks. “I have lately been focusing on a foreman-like organisation of my work to maximise my mental, innovative and organisational efficiency. This requires a balance between concentration, stillness and variation.”
“Tradition often points out that when music includes words and those words are important, the music must be conducive to the understanding of the words. On the other hand, tradition has only at its very best times been in favour of avoiding stereotypes or conventions. This is a sore spot. It would help if people at least acknowledged this.”
Even the average rate at which Heininen completes works proves impossible to quantify. He speaks of ‘pots’ on his computer where ideas are germinating. He looks in every now and again ‘in passing’ to see if anything is growing. One day, one of these pots began to show such promise that the Sixth Symphony, being written for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2012–14), began to emerge. He is also currently working on a one-hour organ concerto for Jan Lehtola and two orchestral solo songs – and these are further germinating new ideas.
Sometimes an entire family of pieces may emerge from one of these ‘pots’, as was the case with the sonatas for wind instrument and piano, Vaskisonaatit op. 117 (Brass sonatas, 2010): the basic idea in these is that the piano part is adapted to each solo instrument so that it is possible to guess the solo instrument as soon as the piano part begins. A similar nucleus gave rise to an ongoing series of six string quartets: one of them focuses on pizzicato; one is a soprano quartet for four violins; one is scored for violin, viola, cello and double bass; and so on. At the moment, these works are “85 per cent completed” and being written in parallel, mutually exclusively.
“In practice, ‘sacred art’ is often in the service of moments of silence, moments of listening, and also often of contemplation born of sorrow and anxiety. This often (but not always) gives rise to a specific mood or tone. But there are also feelings of quiet joy, powerful rejoicing and excitement.”
Heininen has been a pioneer among Finnish composers in adopting new technology. In 1984, while the libretto of his opera Veitsi (The Knife, 1985–88) was in preparation, one of the first musical notation programs, Professional Composer, came on the market. In a bold leap, Heininen decided to write his opera using that software. “In the middle of the project, a new computer came along with a screen twice as big as before: about half of an A4 page!” Before this, he had already written a program in the BASIC programming language to create his own brand of space-time notation for a piece based on stochastic principles. He developed the logic behind this (after an early version on an Apple II) first at IRCAM and then with Mikael Laurson. This was the origin of Patchwork, the embryonic form of the Open- Music program, which today is popular worldwide. Is programming-based composition akin to adopting ‘simulated’ composer identities? Does the composer intend to clone himself onto a computer? “This idea was very much present in those early days, but actually the program emulated my practices at that time, or Heininen I, as you might say. After Veitsi came Heininen II. After the oratorio Eläinten Te Deum (Animals’ Te Deum, 2002/09), premiered this year, it will perhaps be time for Heininen III.”
Heininen is a celebrated teacher of composition, and a large number of Finnish composers are former students of his, from Jukka Tiensuu and Veli-Matti Puumala to Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho in addition to the present author. His earliest and most recent students have a 40-year age difference. How does teaching fit into the aforementioned continuum of simulated composer identities? After all, Heininen had his students write sonatas, music for plucked instruments, organ pieces and music for virtual instruments years before he himself ventured into these genres. “There is a connection, I must admit, but not a direct one. It is more a question of addressing general musical issues. Having to contemplate these matters continuously throughout one’s entire life is what makes teaching so fascinating – because it is what I would be doing anyway!”
“It is best to explain through examples. My organ work KotiKouluKirkko (Vaults and Visions) op. 83 (2004) is in 11 movements grouped into two sets: Partita I on the chorale ‘Thou shalt not objectify thy fellow man’ and Partita II on the chorale ‘Thou shalt not cease to wonder that the world exists’. These chorales do not exist, at least not yet, but the titles are the result of my attempt to distil the essence of the Ten Commandments for modern people. The first summarises the last five Commandments, while the second summarises the first five.”
Sagrada Família 2026
Towards the end of our extended discussion, Heininen’s storytelling skills kick in. He gives a detailed description of an idea for an opera that he has been thinking about for a long time. It is a history of Antonio Gaudí’s cathedral Sagrada Família. The opera would begin with a visit by a delegation from Barcelona to the Vatican, saying that Europe needs a cathedral dedicated to the Holy Family, because such a cathedral does not yet exist. The architect recruited for the project is Gaudí, whose aesthetics combine mathematical shapes, living nature and an ecclesiastical structure determined by Christian faith. “It is a great mystery how his aesthetic approach, combining writing with architecture, can be so convincing and so appealing.” The opera would conclude with the consecration service in 2026, with greetings brought by delegations from other cathedrals and the then Pope, who is a black woman. During the service, we would see into the thoughts of the people attending: superficial and twisted religious fervour with fanaticism and superstition, but also philosophical and literary types, and the simple but commonsense faith of ordinary people. There would be people who admire the importance of the cathedral for the local economy and people who are aghast at political support being given to such wrong values. Some would see the building as an enrichment to the life of the city and a contributor to social justice. The last message to be heard would come from the Kreuzkirche in Dresden – a church destroyed in the Second World War that has since established contact with Guernica, a town destroyed according to the teachings of the air force academy that used to be based in Dresden, and further afield with cities such as Hiroshima.
“When I talk about Gaudí, I am talking about myself,” Heininen concludes and voices his doubts about ever bringing this opera to life and his fears that a proposed bullet train tunnel will undermine the foundations of the cathedral.
“The landscape in Eläinten Te Deum begins with a lake. It is calm. This image calls for a quote from poet Lassi Nummi: ‘Before the waves of light (the Big Bang) there was only the calm of light.’ What was the matter, the substrate, that was in a non-vibrating state then? We cannot illustrate this. My arriving at this conception of creation is an image of the creative dimension of the sacred, a journey to an immeasurable distance, always forward. Creation is development – continuous variation.”
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Jussi Puikkonen