Compositional style

Before beginning to compose a new piece of music, I always begin by drawing out the overall form on paper. I divide the space on the paper so that time moves horizontally from left to right, while vertical space represents the contours of register, the order of the orchestral score, or other significant matters that require their own space. I have developed a series of shorthand symbols to depict a variety of musical situations. From these sketches I can see at a glance how, for instance, one instrument moves between two textural layers of the music. The sketches are a good way of representing the work as it takes shape without getting bogged down in details – they come in later, when I start composing the music, the notes themselves. Constantly thinking of the staves, the bar lines or the harmonic development of the work during the initial planning stages would be like working with someone who clings to every small detail.

Ideas sketched out like this are not only very clear but, what’s more, they are quick to produce. I’m able to jot down an idea I’ve come up with for an ongoing work almost anywhere, even in the middle of a cycling trip. Another useful way of remembering abstract ideas that flood the mind is by thinking of keywords.

Drawing the schema of the work like this is a way of trying to see both the overall form and the details all at once. To my mind the form will always dictate the nature of the details, though on the other hand the form must consist of those details. After defining the overall form of the work, I turn to the other musical components: melodies, harmonies, rhythms and textures. These too I initially plan by drawing them out or by conceiving of the music in abstract terms. For instance, I develop the melodies in a work without using musical staves. It is only once I begin composing the music itself that I bring all these elements together, and it is then that the form I have sketched on paper is finally given musical shape and notation.

Making fair copies of new pieces is what I enjoy least about my work; it is a mechanical and unmusical chore, nothing but a necessary evil. I am not interested in what the music looks like but in its aural results. As far as copying is concerned, the computer is an excellent tool because it has no personality of its own and is endlessly adaptable. Moreover, it cannot have any impact on my thought processes of the creative aspects of my work.

While I am composing, I consider the notion of choice to be something of an illusion and make a conscious effort not to make any specific choices or decisions about the music. Nonetheless, I still find myself having to consider how the music should progress. The word that most aptly describes my working method is a ‘system’. Techniques and theories don’t help to further creative aspects of my work; in their rigidity and exactitude, music theory and analysis are too clumsy to be of any help. An analytical understanding of the music only comes after a musical thought itself has taken shape, as musical material must first be created in order to become the object of analysis. As far as possible, I try to compose music that is ready immediately, without hesitation. To a great extent, the process of composition is about stretching material, pruning back material, and over time I have come to realise that theoretical practices help me in neither of these endeavours. That which is mechanically produced cannot live or breathe, and strict rules must never be allowed to stymie richness and diversity.

In order to complete a new work, I have to create new material constantly. I cannot simply wait for inspiration to strike; rather I put my brain to work in a manner that I like to call a ‘prepared brainwave’. First I define what my composition needs at any given moment. Then I listen to the surrounding emptiness with what one might call a ‘musical stance’, and I firmly believe that I will then hear what it is I’m looking for. In this way I can reject all conscious attempts to force an idea or a melody to appear. By ‘emptiness’ I don’t mean silence but rather a darkness in which I decide to see something. I find that distancing myself in this manner is a natural and speedy way to work.

Musical compositions should come into being naturally, without being forced. The work is like a path that materialises the further you walk along it. You just have to look at it from the right angle to be able to see how the path continues. Compositional work consists of an innumerable number of questions, but if they are defined carefully enough, the majority of them will eventually answer themselves. A far greater challenge, however, is to understand what the right questions are, what the decisive factors may be. In order to succeed here, I need the compositional system I have developed, the roots of which date back to my childhood. Back then, composing way a game. While studying at the Sibelius Academy, I learned to classify and analyse things. Now I try to compose with as much ease as when I was a child, but now fully aware of what I am doing.

I experience music as a mass in physical space, like an abstract sculpture through which one can walk again and again. When I am composing, I zoom in and out of the details I am working on. In the same way I can watch, say, a familiar opera, zoom away from certain details, see the whole performance in simpler terms, then move on the next scene or act. This manner of thinking, too, stems from my childhood: as a child I used to draw great, swirling timelines of the operas and symphonies I had heard. These timelines probably have their roots in the grooves you find on vinyl records. If I wanted to listen to a particular section again, I had to place the stylus back on the record at exactly the right spot. I would turn the record in the light; louder sections appeared rough while softer sections looked far smoother. It was as though the record were a rollercoaster that we travel along while listening to the music. Moreover, I consider listening to recordings, going to concerts and operas, as essential for the study of music. We can learn a lot about music simply by listening to it. It is worthwhile listening to recordings without the score, as trying to follow the music commands a large portion of our concentration.

As a child, one day I discovered that I could whistle and hum at the same time. This realisation opened up a new world for me. Until that point I had tried to imitate the sounds of different instruments by singing them. This new skill came in handy when I had to complete counterpoint assignments, and nowadays I often use it to examine two rhythmic or melodic layers of the piece I’m working on. I also use the piano a lot in my compositional work. I don’t need the piano for improvisation purposes or for experimentation, but it helps speed up my work. My thoughts seem to move faster with my fingers on the keyboard.

I name a lot of my works after mythological themes, as I consider myths to be at the foundation of our culture. I believe that a true artist, regardless of his own will, will be the source of his own art, a source which varies archetypes in its own way and at its own pace. As an individual, I see no particular reason to compose. Composition is beyond such reasons. Perhaps I compose simply because I can.

– Sampsa Ertamo (2012)

Translation: David Hackston