Giving Musical Form to Your Thoughts

Interview with Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: The Finnish composer, Magnus Lindberg, told Dansk Musik Tidsskrift that future composers will be very much occupied with computer music and also with spectral analysis, which is Lindberg’s own special interest. Having also worked in these areas, do you agree with Lindberg’s evaluation?

Jukka Tiensuu: It’s an exciting method to work with. A number of composers, including myself, have discovered the benefits of spectral analysis. For this purpose I have conceived computer programs and attempted to incorporate information about sound in various forms. I worked for four years (1978–82) at IRCAM in Paris, which is the foremost place for such research. The study of sound structures—the microcosms of sound—has, indeed, been one of the most important new trends in the 1980s. However, I would say that spectral music and computer music are only part of a larger field, and it is certainly an overestimation to refer to them as the future of music. Music isn’t simply sound and structure, it is the passing on of ideas.

AB: Which ideas are you concerned with and where does the aesthetic necessity in working with computer music fit into realizing these thoughts?

JT: First of all I have to say that working with the computer is but a small part of my work as a composer. I am not devoted to computer music as such. However, it functions as a very effective tool in certain areas. Computers can manipulate the information that you feed them: calculate, compare, draw logical conclusions. Then they can present the result in different forms: graphically, as sound, as numbers, as written text and so on. Remember, even though you use the computer as a tool, it isn’t the same as writing computer music. The machine is of use only in giving form to thoughts. I think that the computer is valuable because it can, for example, produce a composition from one’s diverse suggestions: you feed the computer the basic information and it carries out the operations much faster than you could do by hand. For gifted composers, this has resulted in an almost explosive development because you can try out things that, without a computer, would take more than a lifetime to realize!

AB: I would like to repeat my previous question: you have written an article entitled ‘The Shortest Way’, where you mention ‘searching the music’s innermost being’ and about having ‘crystallized your spiritual vision of the world in a composition’, and of ‘spreading and collecting spiritual energies’. I am interested to know what is the ontology behind these formulations. Let us look at a concrete example. In one of your recent works, Tokko, you use the computer and the human voice. I hear a kind of dualism, or yin and yang, between the synthetic and the human. How does this choice of materials match your aesthetic ideas? Why is it necessary for you to use a computer-generated tape in this work?

JT: I don’t think that it’s a matter of necessity. Just as it isn’t at all necessary for me to play the harpsichord, it’s just that I really love to. The use of computer in the case of Tokko was not just an experiment but rather a challenge for me, not least because this particular juxtaposition of a computer-generated tape and the long, ‘holy’ tradition of our amateur male choirs, which, to my knowledge, hadn’t been used before.

But it is interesting when you speak of ‘necessity’ as an aesthetic category. It’s said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. But one can also turn it around and say, ‘new inventions become the mother of necessity’. I think that when you have a computer, then you feel the necessity to use it. It’s the same with instrumental developments: as a musician one has to test and become comfortable with the latest developments in order to see how they can be used in music.

AB: The persistent desire to investigate new material constellations makes me think of the diversity of your work. You don’t compose many works that fall into the same categories. As soon as a new combination has been tested you abandon it. You seem to think that each new work should be ‘from scratch’, in a manner of speaking, so that a new work opens up a new world.

JT: Yes. That, at least, is my ideal. I have no wish to write variations on earlier works. The process of creating a new piece is in itself the most important experience for me. So, when the piece is finished, I lay it aside and don’t want to look at it any more. This process cannot be combined with a revival of earlier ideas. I also listen to the performances of my own music only if the musicians think it’s necessary.

This reminds me of György Ligeti’s situation in the 1970s when he had had enough of using the same ideas in so many pieces. Everyone expected him to write the same thing, from Atmosphères onwards. He wanted to compose something totally different but simply didn’t dare to do it, perhaps because he was worried about disappointing his audiences and losing his ‘fame’. It is a very common situation: if a young composer discovers something that ‘sells’ well, he is tempted to continue in the same style and later it becomes almost impossible for him to change direction. These mechanisms are even stronger in commercial music.

AB: But for example, as an explorer of new musical landscapes Miles Davis kept his fans and his good reputation.

JT: Yes, and it shows that one just has to have the courage. But I am convinced that there is a moment of hesitation before one takes the step. And Ligeti actually did it; he changed his style to a certain degree.

AB: After the Horn Trio . . .

JT: Yes. And that’s when he again demonstrated that he is a great composer. Of course it’s not enough just to change—the quality of what you do is more important than the style.

AB: Have you made such a complete shift as a composer?

JT: Well, not such an abrupt change. But if you look at my whole output you will not find any particular line or direction. All my works point in different ways. Risto Nieminen once wrote that it is easier to list what isn’t in my scores than what is. And indeed there isn’t much that I would definitively exclude from my music.

AB: I haven’t found any distinct use of quotations.

JT: In 1980 I actually composed a chamber work, Tombeau de Beethoven, that consists exclusively of quotes from Beethoven’s music.

AB: In the course of our conversation you have referred to ‘communicating ideas’. Could you explain what this means?

JT: Many composers draw a thick line between music and what happens outside of it. They say, ‘Music begins here and stops there; there is nothing outside, next to it, or behind it’. Even if they realize there is something, they don’t want to know about it. I certainly try to cross the boundary between music and what lies behind it. I insist on music being larger than life.

My time at IRCAM was a very important period for me. Not only because of the institution itself, but the experience of living in Paris (1977-82), which is a very inspiring city to work in. Some composers will not listen to other composer’s works at all; they claim that it might have a negative influence on their own work. I am just the opposite; I like to absorb and to get inspired by everything from my surroundings, including the work of other composers. Philosophically, I am very inspired by the Eastern way of thinking of the world as one whole. Much of Western science relies on studies of phenomena as if they were separated or independent from the rest of the universe, although chaos theory, which is very popular now, is getting closer to the wisdom of the East. To put it squarely: everything that happens is related to and influences everything else. For me this has the consequence that no matter what I do I don’t feel that it’s useless or unrelated to my ‘main’ activities. For example I can study modern physics and then use what I have learned when I play the harpsichord!

In this respect our education system has gone astray. The instrument teacher at the conservatory teaches only the instrument, not theory, history or aesthetics—not to mention anything that lies beyond the world of practical music-making. The ideal situation would be if the instrument teacher taught everything, so to speak. Like in the traditional Indian music where music and life are taught by the same ‘guru’. In that way one develops a concept of the whole.

If you are familiar with the musical philosophy of the middle ages—up to the Renaissance—then you know that music was considered to be a path to deeper understanding: namely, it can enable us to understand the cosmos, God’s creations and His intentions, because music can convey the incomprehensible divine on the more comprehensible human level. Music can bring you to an understanding of the meaning and functioning of the universe in a musical microcosm. These thoughts are close to the philosophies of the East and possibly also to the Western philosophy in the future.

The meaning of music for man has concerned me greatly for many years. You don’t find any culture or any society that has no music. You can manage without technology, cars and houses, but not without music. I think that’s of utmost importance to keep in mind. Many people compose music for concert halls; few dare to insist on writing in order to exercise a positive influence on humanity. It sounds, perhaps, a bit self-aggrandizing to say, but if you write music to alert people, to give them new energy and to inspire them, the role of the composer becomes really important. There is no recipe for doing it but you have to have it in your mind every time you begin to compose or practise music. You have to try to make sure that your influence stays positive.

In this regard Giacinto Scelsi, the Italian composer, is something of a role model for me because he emphasized the spiritual aspect of composition. His music was a revelation in the 1970s because it was somewhat unique in Europe; nothing like it had been heard before. Because Scelsi’s music had been banned for decades, there were suddenly not only a few new works, but a whole series of unique creations to discover. I wasn’t the only one who was deeply moved; more and more people are falling under the spell. Unfortunately Scelsi hasn’t composed anything for harpsichord, but I have studied and practised his works for piano for a long time.

AB: In order to tie this into our introduction, Scelsi is, something of a father figure for the French spectral composers, partly on the strength of his microtonal research. You improvise; Scelsi did that too. So there is probably a fascination on several levels.

JT: Yes. He was not just an investigator in sound, not just an architect; he also had a spiritual outlook from which we can learn a lot.

AB: You have mentioned composers like Xenakis, Ligeti and Scelsi all of whom have inspired you. I know that you have also been interested in Brian Ferneyhough, studied his works, and performed his music. You don’t take on easy tasks. I know that you practised Xenakis’s Khoaï for three years before you dared to perform it. Is there also an element of mental training in such work?

JT: I hope so. I get so much from working with different concepts, practising a difficult piece, studying scores, and so on. It is fascinating because it is so different from what I myself would create. It is a whole other world that one gets to enter for a while. It can be music from the so-called primitive cultures, ethnic music, animal music, African music, Indian music, folk music, renaissance masters . . .

AB: As a performer you are something of a specialist in renaissance music. Has working with this music had an influence on you?

JT: Until now I haven’t noticed any special impact myself, but recently I have been thinking along these lines. However, you will probably not hear Gesualdo quotations in my work in the future. When I study old music, I try to find the best pieces and especially try to find out why they are the best. The point is that in that period everyone used, broadly speaking, the same composition technique. And yet there are works that are clearly better than others. This fascination probably reflects something in one’s own mind: one dreams of writing a work that won’t simply disappear in the vast sea of works, but can stand up and convince just by its exceptional quality.

AB: You mentioned that you resist listening to your own works, but that you respect musicians who ask for suggestions during the process of preparation. This touches on your double role as a composer and performer. Don’t you know, better than anybody, about the benefits of performing new music, namely, that you have the composer at hand when there are questions or problems?

JT: Naturally. But there is also another general problem that I myself have experienced: musicians often believe that if they play a new piece they do something of a service for the composer. That’s not so. If they perform a service, it’s for the audience. In the same way, you shouldn’t compose just to give musicians the possibility of performing a new work. To reach the public is the final goal. When you have that in the back of your mind, even when actually composing, it influences you so that you don’t compose ‘just something’. You have to have something meaningful and new to say—the audience comes to listen to your work with great expectations! That’s an enriching thought for me.

I have the same attitude when I perform; I don’t improvise solely in new music. When I play old music I always improvise cadenzas, passages, ornamentation, etc. In that way, in a concert, neither I nor the audience know beforehand what’s coming. It would be too predictable and thus ‘cheating’ to play a written-out cadenza.

AB: Do you want to communicate with the audience so much that you think about it while you are working? Or do you also allow yourself to compose for yourself?

JT: That is a difficult question to answer because the question contains a hidden allusion. It implies: are you egotistical or aren’t you? And I believe that it is more complicated than that. I have composed many works just for myself, and I think that’s completely legitimate. As a matter of fact you can create musical diaries without thinking of publishing them later. Many people keep diaries without thinking of publishing them as such—we need only think of Sibelius’ diaries. I think it is good for a composer to compose works for himself in order to learn more about himself. As soon as you get paid for writing a work for somebody else, it looks different. If you are honest, you must produce something that’s worth listening to, and therefore you have to think of the audience. But you also know that the audience doesn’t know what is best for it; you can’t ask a ‘member’ of the audience for a definition of a good piece of music. The composer must know beforehand how the piece will work, so that it gives the ‘total experience’. People come to a concert in order to experience, and to discover something special.

AB: You mention Sibelius with a tinge of irony. Younger Finnish composers often think that he is something of a millstone in the national heritage. How do you see it?

JT: When you live, work, and compose in Finland, you become almost fed up with Sibelius because you meet him at every turn. He is, so to speak, your daily bread! He is so omnipresent that you almost forget he was just a very good composer. It is also irritating to have him everywhere and it becomes hard to like his music; you can read about his music in all the papers, everyone studies him, there is always someone who is writing a new book about him.

AB: Aside from the Finnish ISCM section, the society Korvat Auki (Open Ears) is the most important organization that supports new music in Finland. It has been run by young Finnish composers like Jouni Kaipainen, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Tapani Länsiö, all of whom were students of Paavo Heininen. What you have in common with these composers is an attitude that opposes Finnish traditionalism, and, in light of what you have just said, a skepticism about monumental works. But it seems now that the young composers are reconsidering the big symphonic forms. Kaipainen has written his first symphony and Lindberg has composed works in the ‘grand style’. Even though you can’t speak of the ‘heavenly length’, the younger generation seems to be mature enough now to undertake large-scale works. Can one identify a turning point for your generation in this regard?

JT: If you think about the large forms in the traditional sense, where tensions span very long periods, I don’t think we’re talking about a turning point. I’m thinking about the Romantic era when the public was acquainted with the rules of tonality. When the romantic composer initiated a dominant suspension he could hold on to it for as long as he wanted: everyone knew that the tonal resolution would come along sooner or later. It wasn’t difficult to play with perception over a long period. In today’s music you don’t know what’s going to happen. Previously the audiences were more uniform. Today the public is a mixture in which you cannot expect to find such consistency. One person might come from a background of Mozart and Beethoven, while another is a rock fan, and a third has, just out of curiosity, come in off the street. There is no common language that you can refer to. So to compose a work that builds on the well-known expectations of the listener is now problematic in the same way that it was impossible to build large forms in the seventeenth century, when there wasn’t yet available a fully developed tonal system. Consequently, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the public didn’t know what to expect because so many works didn’t follow traditional conventions. You could let any chord follow any other, and no voice-leading rules were necessary. It was impossible to build large forms.

Today when you write a symphony you often avoid the problem in the same way. If the work lasts forty minutes, for example, it can be broken up into five segments each of which lasts only eight minutes. But on the other hand, many present-day orchestral works are shorter and consist of only one movement. I think problems start accumulating when the length exceeds, say, half an hour. Just look at the composer Kalevi Aho who composes symphonies that are fifty minutes long. He has to use traditional techniques in order to make things work. If you start from scratch to create your own musical world following your own rules, it is difficult to build up long tensions guaranteed to work for the majority of listeners.

But in Finland something has happened with the conditions for newly-composed music in recent decades. In the 1970s, there was virtually no contemporary music culture in Finland. There were of course composers, but there were no concert series, no festivals, no large presentations of new music. But as you mentioned, the Finnish ISCM section and Korvat Auki began to present the international avantgarde at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s. Even so, Korvat Auki was more like a private club where members supported performances of each other’s works. Later came the more internationally orientated Helsinki Biennale in 1981 (now called Musica Nova, ed.), and I started Time of Music in Viitasari in 1982. If you look at the situation today, you will see contemporary music programmed at nearly every festival in Finland. Directors feel that they have to have new music, or it won’t be a really decent festival. Also, going to such a concert has become socially important, one wants to experience new music with other people, to talk about it and perhaps to influence it.

© Anders Beyer 2000.

The interview was published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000. The interview was also published in Danish: ‘At give sine tanker musikalsk form: Interview med den finske komponist Jukka Tiensuu’, Danish Music Review, vol. 66, no. 1 (1991/92): page 10-14.


Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948) is a harpsichordist, pianist, conductor, teacher and essayist, in addition to being a composer and founder of the festival for contemporary music in Viitasaari. A forerunner of the young modernist generation of 1980s Finland, he studied at the Sibelius Academy under Paavo Heininen, and in Freiburg under Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough. Relinquishing development in the conventional meaning of the word, Tiensuu concentrates on timbre and harmony to achieve the characteristic ‘lucid clarity’ of his work. His Tokko (1987) for male chorus and computer-synthesized tape won first prize at the 1988 Unesco International Composers’ Rostrum in Paris. Tiensuu’s scores are available from the Finnish Music Information Centre and his music is recorded on the Montaigne, Finlandia and Ondine labels.