A certain material, tone combination or chord is nothing on its own, but in the context of a work, it and its significance reaches beyond itself. And similarly, a musical entity can – when all pieces click together – reach over and beyond music as a phenomenon, to interpret humanity. To be available to others, to be recognised: as evidence of what it means to exist,” writes composer Lotta Wennäkoski. This column is part of the series, where composers and other music makers write about their music.
April: the landscape is bare, and the light is as harsh as it always is at this time of the year. And just as I tend to do at this time of the year, I’ve been reading T.S. Eliot. — I was neither/ living nor dead, and I knew nothing/ looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.
This spring, those verses carry a different kind of charge now that the coronavirus pandemic has stopped our busy world in its tracks, including the concert scene. It seems that the word in this column’s title, beyond, is forcing its way into the limelight. This is despite the fact that my own everyday life has so far remained more or less unchanged, with the obvious exception of cancellations of concerts and long-awaited performances.
I continue to sit in my basement office, spending most of my time composing. I’m working on a commission from the Savonlinna Opera Festival, my opera Regine, which will still need months of solitary work. The opera is about Søren Kierkegaard’s bride – and thus about Regine and Søren’s famous and at times obsessive love story, which has provided a context for those reading and researching the philosopher’s literary output. The main characters’ central struggle involves distinguishing their own will from that of God’s – a topic that seems not too distant in this spring of the coronavirus, regardless of one’s worldview. Something quite unexpected has occurred, disturbing our lives and showing our personal choices in an entirely new light: both their consequences as well as the possibility to make our own choices.
Nevertheless, about music. I would crystallise my composing like this: I make timbral music, while also pursuing a dynamic form (instead of a static one). I often choose to include some “conventional elements” such as melodic fragments, but my textures are nevertheless coloured by unusual playing techniques and non-traditional sounds. The key words are combining and proportioning – the former is related to how the vertical takes shape, the latter to the horizontal form.
Another element I always crave is a sense of airiness and space: I like to imagine that I’m kneading space into my texture, in all the in-between spaces, including vertical ones – in other words, silence. Clarity is equally important: in my predecessors’ music, I tend to love an economical approach and ideas with a crystallised identity more than overabundance or extended durations. When searching for strange sounds, I try to focus on the ease of producing them on an instrument. My relationship with composing, in general, is largely driven by concrete requirements and practical considerations. For example, symphony orchestras interest me not only as an instrument, but also as a collective of top musicians and simply as a workplace, and I try to consider all these aspects when I compose.
On the other hand, when I begin a new piece, I almost always try to discover some sort of an overarching idea beyond the music itself, and I mount and examine my musical ideas against this central concept. My starting point can be a phenomenon, like a double entendre which inspired my orchestral work Flounce (2017), or different types of fabrics awakening different mental images, which I used in my flute concerto Soie (2009). A single note or sound can sometimes suggest an identity for an entire work – this happened with the sound of rubbing in my guitar concerto Susurrus (2016). Tone painting is another technique I am drawn to: if a poem describes a softly folding cloth (such as in the Hungarian language movement of my choral work Ommel), I may write a whole passage based on descending glissandi, refining and sometimes reworking them in the process.
Words are typically important – I remember how invigorating it felt to sit in my Francophone friend’s kitchen at the time of composing my flute concerto, and leaf through dictionaries to consider different meanings and etymological dimensions of different title suggestions, not to mention the phonetic qualities. The words chosen for my composition titles are always tied to the specific language in question, and I don’t wish them to be translated unless it is temporary and done simply to help comprehension. Yet I’m also delighted when another language unexpectedly gives a word a broader significance horizon, to the extent that I sometimes seek it on purpose.
But then: starting points, concrete or otherwise, are still just starting points. The resounding reality of the finished piece, music, simply refuses to return to its starting point or be defined by its details. (And maybe this is the very reason they should be discussed in slightly more hesitant tones.)
What is it then? Everything being well, it is about recognition, I think. Musical material, through working and proportioning, begins to carry meanings which are born precisely within the context of that particular piece, in the web of meanings that it creates. A certain material, tone combination or chord is nothing on its own, but in the context of a work, it and its significance reaches beyond itself. And similarly, a musical entity can – when all pieces click together – reach over and beyond music as a phenomenon, to interpret humanity. To be available to others, to be recognised: as evidence of what it means to exist.
Of course, this is maybe, perhaps, embarrassingly and intolerably, a vision all too pretentious to apply to my own music. I return to the T.S. Eliot book on my desk: These are only hints and guesses,/ hints followed by guesses; and the rest/ is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
Spring is coming, through a harsh light.
Published in FMQ in spring 2020