in Columns

Usko Meriläinen: Being a composer in Finland (from the Archives)

by Usko Meriläinen

"In the main, a composer’s work consists of listening 'inside the self' and the imagining of sonic phenomena in the privacy of one’s own cell."

All of a sudden… in the midst of everything… surrounded by my own musical goings on, a question pops up which demands an answer: what does it mean…?

More precisely, what does it mean to be a composer in Finland?

Let’s confine the answer to geography to start with. This northern outpost of Fenno-Scandia with its unenviable boundaries but amazing nature, its white winter and blue lakes of summer. Wide areas in which to roam, space for thoughts to take flight.

This place: FINLAND.

Place always carries its own significance, and consequences. These are many and varied, and I am fairly confident that one consequence is that a friendly and soul-warming smile does not creep over the face quite as easily here as it does under the hot southern sun. The question deserves a serious answer.

But before taking into account the special circumstances prevailing in the particular corner of the globe we call Finland, I should address the question of what is involved in being a composer.


I admit that occasionally, in my weaker moments, surrounded by all the materialism and orgy of consumer goods which our society is a glutton for, my feeling of angst bursts out in the form of a question: why go to all this trouble to produce something which such a small minority wants?

In spite of everything, the muse has a gentle but forceful hold, and before long I awake again to find myself in the process of creating.

The question is still lurking, waiting for an answer, but it is unlikely that the answer will come from the outside since we are clearly within the domain of the inner mind.

I am one of that generation of composers which – as a young man – experienced the war and the strong waves of dodecaphony, serialism and aleatorics which followed in its wake. In all their severity and lack of compromise, which from today’s perspective is often written off with a discrete sneer, these movements kindled in the young composer-apprentice an impulse which I experienced as a new mantle of technical proficiency, the power to handle materials, insight. Today, all the above-mentioned are classified more or less as swear-words.

These were matters of substance into which I collided at Darmstadt. I already had my first “period” behind me: some kind of neoclassical style which was held to be Finnish modernism. It eventually suffocated – burned out – and breath of fresh air was needed to let new trends in.

The Darmstadt experience was extreme. Post-war Finland was living in something of a cultural vacuum; there I heard the word “dodecaphony” used for the first time.

It seems unnecessary to describe my own line of development in more detail. In any case it would probably not differ significantly from the standard formula: eager submersion in a new technique and its application, learning to command it to a degree, and then off at a tangent towards a methodological freedom one can call one’s own. An important consideration continues to preoccupy me: the problem of continuity versus change. If we see the creative artist as a creature with all his feelers out, reacting to the time in which he lives, it follows that artistic creations exist in a state of change. A new work must act as a catalyst for fresh angles on questions which themselves are as old as the hills. “External values” are an issue in their own right. From one work to the next, there is a desire to seek out domains which have a relevance to the current moment – which “embody the present” in sound. In practice this has meant travelling on foreign soil, with the following idea in mind: “I need influences, stimuli. In my work I am still a Finn!”

Perhaps it is going too far to demand a definitive message from a work of art, “Finnishness” or some such. The only matter of importance is that a work of music has qualities empowered to set the wheels of the listener’s mind in motion and leave the imprint of a musical experience. I happen to know however that personality has a form and bounds which depend at least in part on our surroundings. Influences bearing on us are moulded by these criteria.

The greatest problem for me in composing is that I myself should understand the work which is forming before my eyes.

I recall how, as youngsters in Darmstadt, often dumbstruck, we would use the expression “fascinating” to describe what we were in the process of experiencing. A flashback to Nietzsche: “So sagten die Leute und blinzelten.” This “fascination” is not enough in itself. We need a deeper point of contract which comes only when the composer has come to terms in one way or another with his relationship to his point of focus. I surprised myself by starting a composers’ seminar spontaneously with the words “The greatest problem for me in composing is that I myself should understand the work which is forming before my eyes.”

The preparation of a score is an incredibly multi-layered process. Laid out before you is a multiplicity of possible technical solutions, many of which merely well-rehearsed practises, i.e. to some extent “the craftman’s choice”. Altogether more problematic is the (yet to be defined) “significance” – in my case more a matter of falling back on intuition and the subconscious. This significance I have noticed to be the agent through which the work creates pleasure in the listener, or cajoules him into an immediate contact with the work.

To return momentarily to the previous subject of “fascination”: I have to say that many of the works I heard during those days have opened up to me greatly on further listening and I now better understand their content. This leads me on to the idea that it is the very opportunity of hearing works many times which establishes a rock-solid foundation for musical life. Performing bodies are quick to exploit the opportunity for first performances with all the novelty and uniqueness which that implies. But only repeat performances can provide listeners and performers with the chance of piecing together the connections which lie deep inside the music itself. All too often in new music the element of “expendability” gets the upper hand.

When all is said and done, there are CDs and records to fall back on. It is just as well that they exist, and at least partially fill the gap. But on the other hand they represent a musical culture once removed: the creativity and immediacy of concert performances is lacking.



All the above-mentioned aspects are all too familiar in Finnish musical life, and it is specifically as a Finnish composer that I have presented my reflections on them.

To continue on the subject of records and recording. It is most encouraging that record production has increased during the last twenty years. In fact it has taken flight in an truly unprecedented way. The public has been given the chance to return to works, to listen to them over and over again. This applies equally to the works of the younger generation of composers.

One of the central pillars of Finnish cultural life, from the creative artist’s perspective, is the considerable financial support which it grants to individual artists and collectives. The system guarantees composers a basic living wage for 1, 3, 5 or 15 years at a time. It goes without saying that this frees talented individuals from a major burden and allows them to concentrate on long-term projects. It opens up opportunities for creating contacts, studying abroad, etc. In population terms Finland is a small country and publishing activities have not achieved the international proportions which would provide a significant platform for developing, promoting and exporting Finnish composers’ work. Looked at in this light, it is gratifying that Finland has been able to “look to itself” in providing concrete support. It shows a basic appreciation of the importance of Finnish art itself.

I have seen and enjoyed the benefits of this as a composer for many years, and as I look around me, I can witness the importance of it for our musical heritage. It allows the freedom to create, but there is another side to the coin: state bursaries are a welcome form of recognition for the composer’s work – work which in all its loneliness and isolation often seems irrational and “removed from reality”.

The bursary system has had its fair share of criticism. A foreign colleague once cast the seed of doubt when he said, “Isn’t there a strong chance that artists, as their powers wane, will be tempted to rest on their laurels?” What I have seen does not bear this out. Those powers – the innate fight for survival – are surprisingly enduring, and as I look at the gamut of Finnish music today, I am pleased to see an incredible wealth of expressive means and intent. This surely is a sign of Finnish composers’ industriousness and of their will to create.

The fundamental question is one of values, and decisions have to be made as to where society wants to put its money and how to go about it. This problem is not confined to Finland: it is a global cultural matter.

Similar critical rumblings have been heard in the home front. But it is a fact that art has always fallen back on patronage of some sort. And not only art. For goodness’ sake, take a look around. Right now, in 1994, Finnish delegates are negotiating to obtain subsidies from the European Union: agricultural subsidies, export subsidies, regional development subsidies, employment subsidies, you name it! The fundamental question is one of values, and decisions have to be made as to where society wants to put its money and how to go about it. This problem is not confined to Finland: it is a global cultural matter.

Sticking with the “profane” for the moment, I should point out that many Finnish orchestral works, mine included, have come into being through national radio commissions. Contemporary music festivals also exist, such as the Helsinki Biennale [now Musica nova Helsinki], Viitasaari’s Time of Music, the Savonlinna Opera Festiva and the Tampere Biennale. All of these focus on Finnish music to a greater or lesser extent and also commission works. It may even be true to say that Finnish composers have an easier time in getting public performances for their works than their Mid-European colleagues.


It is generally acknowledged – and rightly so – that the high point for a composer is the premiere of a new work. It is the culmination ad fulfilment of a long effort. But premieres have their darker side. Personally I have sometimes experienced a feeling of loss. The process which I have gone through in the company of a new work is suddenly thrown open to public scrutiny as if something private were being exposed, robbing me of the “right” to be with that new-born creature for even one short evening. Even during the orchestral rehearsals I feel that the work is slipping out of my grasp: its coming-into-being is no longer subject just to my will, but the will of others too. I observe in myself a tendency to shun these hurried and stressful situations. I have had the pleasure of working with talented conductors, finely-honed orchestras; for the most part, my first performances have been blessed with sense of quality in the making. But rehearsal time is always too short, like a rush to the finishing line, and one can only trust in the abilities of the performers to grasp the essence, and in their will to perform well. I would welcome a time when – as in the theatre – there would be ample space to weigh and counterweigh all inner and external considerations in the context of a rehearsal span which is truly sufficient. One consolation: it gets easier the next time. But when will the next time come? We go through the same crash course over and over again. And, for that same concert, the conductor has to rehearse “the” classic work of repertoire, the work which everyone knows: and it has to be rehearsed well, or the audience will notice that “oops, there went a mistake”. It is a vicious circle which perpetuates itself.

When a work of mine breaks through the ether, in concert or over the radio, I have sometimes felt drawn back to the comfort and solitude of my work-room, to the silent companionship of the man and his work, to the composition itself which starts to take on the personality of a “he” at a rate which never ceases to take me by surprise: a “he” which has its own will and refuses to be ignored. Any lack of sympathy towards it leads only to painful digressions and reversion to the sources of discovery.

In the main, a composer’s work consists of listening “inside the self” and the imagining of sonic phenomena in the privacy of one’s own cell.

Hermitude, you may ask? For me it is just my house at the rim of the forest; in summer, it means living in Lapland’s indefatigable light and silence.

Is this the stuff of which Finnishness is made?

I willingly acknowledge my own need to be informed about what is going on in the international arena of contemporary music. The influences I have been exposed to have been vital. Yet on the other hand I have started of late to treat them more reservedly, noticing that I need more quiet of mind, more opportunities to concentrate on the hearing inside the sounds and locating their essence, in which “the wonder of sound itself is allowed to flower”.

Perhaps the essence of being Finnish is to live in a world where trees whisper and forest-sprites and goblins are almost there to be touched. At least nature here makes it possible. 

Photo: Maarit Kytöharju / Music Finland

This column was first published in FMQ 2/1994 and is republished with the kind permission of Usko Meriläinen’s family.