in Columns

What do I hear, how do I hear?

by Minna Leinonen

"I write music like I hear it. A composer’s voice is a blend of encounters, influences, sharing and privacy, life situations and changes in the living environment." This column is part of the series "On my music and beyond", where composers and other music makers write about their music.

When I was a teenager, my music theory teacher once put on a record of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, where the singing voice of an 11-year-old boy is mixed with the sounds of sine waves, white noise and a bubbling generator. My teacher mentioned a friend who in his spare time watched an aquarium while listening to that work. I recall thinking what a strange friend that must be and wondering whether I would ever know anyone who would listen to this odd music of their own free will while watching an aquarium. Yet listening to this music was the most memorable experience in the entire course. Something in it resonated in me, leaving a permanent mark.

And as chance would have it, when I later went on to study composition at the Tampere Conservatory (then part of the Pirkanmaa University of Applied Sciences, now the Tampere University of Applied Sciences), I met another composition student who one day mentioned having listened to Gesang der Jünglinge while watching an aquarium! I gained a good friend, and with a third composition student we began to meet regularly to study scores. These meetings fostered my belief in my budding composer identity.

I began studying composition as a main subject in my twenties, partly through happenstance, partly through encouragement from my teachers, partly through support from my fellow students, and after a long period of deliberation. My composition teacher at the time said “we’ll make a composer of you yet,” and went on to say that one could actually make a living out of it if everything goes really well. I knew there was a huge risk involved, though. I only knew of one female composer at the time, and my aquarium friend noted that the number of Finns who managed to make their living from composing could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

Yet I was drawn to composition as a profession. But I was also scared stiff, and I wanted to qualify for a ‘safe’ occupation as well, so alongside my composition studies I studied to be a music theory teacher.

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What is the crucial moment when you can be confident that your work is viable? Good enough to live on? Uncertainty breathes down the neck with every grant application, and even more so with every rejection. I have worked incredibly hard, but is it enough? After each grant approval and each period of stretching every penny, I am overwhelmed with gratitude at the confidence shown in me. You can indeed make a living out of this, one year at a time when the going is good. Though one year is a long time these days, as more and more jobs come in very short instalments, this continuous state of incompleteness and lack of long-term planning nevertheless erode my confidence in the future.

Particularly after starting a family, I have found myself thinking whether I could become a full-time teacher. I would probably have scarcely any time for composing, but on the other hand I am inevitably attracted by the regular income, the occupational health services, the good working environment, the brilliant colleagues and the enthusiastic composition students. Coaching ashtanga yoga could also be rewarding. So why do I write music?

Well, there are many reasons. The feeling when you get to your studio and are alone with your music. A good feeling, excitement and calm. Happiness and joy in being able to do this work. No one commenting on how the work should be done, and my timetable is my own. Composing is a private venture, and as such suitable for someone who needs their own space. Composing is a powerful vehicle for self-expression. It is a passion. Without it, part of me would remain muted. Composing has become an integral part of my persona.

But composing is not just about working in solitude; it is also very much about sharing. It is about listening to the environment and to other music, about sharing thoughts with colleagues, about consulting musicians and learning from consultations. It is about participating in working groups and about questioning your thought patterns. It is about finding your living environment, life situation and leisure activities reflected in your composing. Inevitably, it is also about reflecting on social situations and phenomena.

As recently as a few years ago, I thought that my music was inspired not by nature sounds but by sounds of the city. The landscape at Koli, for instance, felt quite alien as inspiration goes for a modern urban person. But now, living at the root of the world’s largest moraine esker in the proximity of a nature reserve, things have changed. Even the passage of seasons affects what I write. Recently, many of my works have found their initial impulses in primeval forests and in birds. My living environment influences my compositions.

Where I hear things affects what I hear. What I hear affects what I write

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As a young piano student, the most modern music that I played was by Joonas Kokkonen. The fourth-based harmonies of his Sonatina were fascinatingly quirky and alien. Today, Kokkonen’s idiom sounds harmonious and accessible to my ears. Why do I hear this music in the way I hear it now? Why does Kokkonen’s music now sound mellifluous though once upon a time it sounded tense? Our ears (or internal hearing) make distinctions, find patterns, identify earlier experiences and details. Perhaps it is about how you approach that which is alien.

The idea of alien-ness continues to fascinate me. Stockhausen left a permanent mark on my teenage self. Art is not meant just to please us; it is meant to provoke thought and to sensitise viewers and listeners to changes in their living environment. Our ears become sensitised and accustomed and learn new things.

I write music like I hear it. A composer’s voice is a blend of encounters, influences, sharing and privacy, life situations and changes in the living environment. Life influences art.

What I hear affects how I hear. How I hear affects what I write.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Heikki Tuuli

Minna Leinonen

The works of Minna Leinonen (b. 1977) are often inspired by everyday, extra-musical phenomena such as daily objects or sounds. Leinonen has written music for, among others, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the ICE ensemble (New York), and many Nordic ensembles and musicians. She has also been involved in projects in which the music communicates with other artistic genres such as a video, acrobatics, documentary or installation.

Minna Leinonen began working for an artistic doctorate in 2013 at the Sibelius Academy. She is a member of the Board of the Society of Finnish Composers and is at present working on a grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation. She won the 1st prize in the Lied competition of the Majaoja Foundation in 2018.


Forthcoming premieres:

Sirri (2018) 
Mikko Perkola (viol), Uusinta Ensemble
3 February 2019 Musica nova Helsinki

Homegallery (2019) 
defunensemble 
Oct 2019 

Rememoror (2018)
Ville Hautakangas (piano) 
22 September 2019

Chamber opera Alma!
Premiere forthcoming in 2020

The Society of Finnish Composers has published a 13-part documentary series on Finnish composers. Minna Leinonen is one of them.