New Year’s Dissolutions

Looking back on the past year, I feel like I have grown even more determined in wanting to compose music that is true to my own musical ideals – my own “voice”, if you would.

Another direction would be to try to adapt my musical style, in order to appeal to or gain rank among those of my peers who might disdainfully consider my music as “popular” or “light”. I have on a few occasions been tempted to take that path, if only briefly, but have always decided against it.

Early on, I have to admit that it was mostly borne out of laziness. But nowadays, even as I have learned the skills and acquired the theoretical tools for composing more ”difficult” music, I choose not to as more of an ideological statement. It is not entirely unlike how some decide to go vegan not for dietary, but for environmental and/or ethical reasons.

A little more than a year ago, in last year’s end-of-year post, I wrote about two quotes I had come across and that I found inspiring in different ways. The two quotes came from two very different people living very different lives: Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and American activist Martin Luther King Jr. I still find both quotes equally inspiring, especially in combination:

”Never write an unneccessary note; one must live every note” (in the words of Sibelius). ”Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable” (in the words of King). Growing and developing as a composer and musician takes work and dedication, and in that work one must remain true to oneself and one’s music.

It is my impression that the influence of stern 20th century modernist composers and their lockstep academic offspring is waning, if slowly. Prominent and successful composers like Caroline Shaw, Emmy Lindström, David Bruce, Thomas Adès and others are living proof that it is possible to write contemporary music that learns from the past hundred-something years of chaotic musical evolution without disregarding what came before that.

Take a listen to Thomas Adès’ four Märchentänze – ”Fairy Tale Dances” – originally composed for violin and piano but later arranged by the composer for violin and orchestra and released on an album with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra a few months ago. Why isn’t this music programmed regularly? It has, in my entirely personal opinion, every possibility of entering today’s standard repertoire. Perhaps the difficulty of the violin solo part (written for amazing Finnish soloist Pekka Kuusisto) is a limiting factor. But other than that, what is holding the piece back? (Also, for something with a bit more bite to it but still absolutely, irresistibly catchy if you just give it a chance, listen to Adès’ piano concerto.)

Another piece of fantastic music with strings in focus: Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays for string quartet, also released a few months ago on an album with the Attacca Quartet. Part of Shaw’s style rests on the American minimalism of older composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, or of John Adams. Shaw combines that minimalist upbringing with an oftentimes almost tangible musical texture and a melodic sensibility that I really like. Also, check out Shaw’s Thousandth Orange recorded by French musical collective I Giardini.

David Bruce is famous not only as a composer but also as a prolific and adored videographer on YouTube. Listen to his beautiful and evocative song cycle The North Wind was a Woman, written from the perspectives of various aspects of nature. Bruce argues in a video essay from January 2019 against trying to please either a broader public or an academic one: “The fact is, attempting to appeal to an audience rarely works. […] If you have an artistic vision for the kind of piece you are trying to write, your goal really should be to block out the ideas of both audiences, and especially the academic one.”

Emmy Lindström recently had a major critical and commercial success with her opera-oratorio The Gospel of the Eel, based on journalist and author Patrik Svensson’s August Prize-winning book. Out of these four, Lindström’s music tends the most toward a classic-romantic idiom, but without peak romanticism’s worst excesses. I think Lindström’s clarinet concerto showcases her affinity for simple but elegant melodic and thematic writing, as well as her relaxed and playful side, with the concerto’s three movements titled “Flying High”, “Midland Hawthorn”, and – “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey”.

Too much of contemporary music is, in my opinion, incorrectly called “modern” with the implication that it is the music of today, of the 21st century. A great deal of that music, I would argue, is actually “modern” in the sense of 20th century modernism or, in other words, not really all that modern anymore.

Finally, on the cusp of the new Gregorian calendar year, I would like to posit this: While the avant-gardists of the 20th century could well argue back then that they were doing pioneering, unheard-of things that broke established norms; if they’re still doing the same things today, haven’t they by now turned into yet another well-worn and trope-ridden tradition like all the rest?

In other words: Stop calling yourselves and your music ’modern’ when you are by now so last century.

Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.