Interview with Markku Klami - June 2018

In June I had the chance to sit down with Markku Klami, whose work, Twirl, I will be performing a few times this coming fall. As part of my artistic project, I aim to interview and consult with as many of the composers whose works I play as possible. The goal is not only to discuss the specific piece that I am preparing, but to speak more generally about musical background and artistic philosophy. Understanding a composer's musical ideology not only contextualizes and aids the musical performance of a given piece, but also provides critical insight as I begin to study the differences between Finnish and American contemporary music cultures.


Lucy: First, if you don’t mind, would you mind telling me a little bit about your background - where you were born, how you started studying music, what instrument, how you started composing, etc.

MK: Yeah, I was born in Turku, which is the oldest city in Finland and we are very proud of it! I only moved to Helsinki 11 years ago. Before that I lived [in Turku]. And my life in music began early, I went to musiikileikkikoulu, for the young kids. It’s not like kindergarten but where you go once a week to play with music. So it’s kind of kindergarten but not everyday. I began that probably around 4-5 years of age, and did that for a couple of years, after which my first instrument was piano. But I have always been very lazy at practicing any instrument, so after a couple years with piano I changed to violin at the age of 9, and kept going with it until the age of 18. But I was never good because I never practiced, or usually only 15 minutes before the next class. And then classical guitar came into play, I was in high school, around 16 years old, and I had a better motivation with that instrument, so it has actually become my main instrument. But after the last degree in guitar in 2005 I stopped playing but I have been writing music for guitar so it is still a familiar instrument to me. And after guitar, when I was studying composition in Sibelius Academy, I went to piano lessons for a couple of years. I had a very good teacher who [had] me play way too demanding pieces, so I could actually make a contact with very good piano music, and try to play, but more learn how you can write for piano, so that was the thing there. And my studies have been composition, and before that I earned the teachers degree in music theory and solfege and music history, and everything… and before that I studied musicology for 1 year. So my background is rooted in music, but from different angles, somehow.

Lucy: Do you think that all those experiences contributed towards a [rounded musical practice]? [And] do you consider yourself predominantly a composer, or as much all of these things as possible?

MK: Yeah, I see myself as composer. Of course teaching is an important part of life, so you get some kind of income. And I love teaching as well, but composing is the primary thing for me. And it began around the age of 10. 

Lucy: Wow! Quite early.

MK: Yeah, I remember writing something for solo piano and I tried to play it, and my big sister, who was a cellist by that time, now she does completely different things, she said that “ah this is not good at all, you can use a rest here and use some more notation that and…” then it just disappeared for a couple of years. But then around 14 or 15 years old, I began composing music with computers, like digital software and synthesizers… that was like the launch for composing career. Somehow it slowly developed from there but then I noticed that, ok electronic music and popular music is not so much my thing. I did some gigs before the age of 20 and I saw the scene and I did not like it so much.

Lucy: Why didn’t you like it?

MK: It was somehow the people there, they [were], at least at that time in Finland, like “I know everything. Classical musicians are nothing compared to us.”

Lucy: Really?! How interesting…

MK: And I had the [classical] background… and those comments came from people who couldn’t read notation but they really knew how good they were. And it was too narrow a view.

Lucy: That’s fascinating, because it always seems like its classical musicians who are accused of being narrow-minded!

MK: Yeah! That usually is the term that is used around, “we are so narrow-minded”, but I don’t know any classical composer or musician who doesn’t like to some kind of popular music as well. But when you put it vice versa, there are very few people who [also listen to classical music]… so we are not narrow-minded at all.

Lucy: Oh wow, yeah that is true. I never thought about it that way.

MK: Yeah, and this led me to study contemporary and also older compositions, because that was the world that seemed, and even now, to me, endless… it has endless choices and possibilities and it will never end.  So this I will do until the end of my life!

Lucy: Do you think that’s quite common, amongst your composer peers here [in Finland], of sort an interest in building upon the foundations of preexisting classical music, in whatever form, and taking that as an inspiration or a motivation?

MK: Yes, at least it has been the tradition of teaching composition in Finland. But nowadays maybe the youngest generation of Finnish composers, and also composers abroad, seem, and I could be wrong, but they don’t respect the tradition so much anymore. And it has gone to more like, this, ‘performance art’. Contemporary music is quite widely seen as one kind of ‘performance art’ without basic knowledge of contemporary music or older classical music. And I would say that this, or rather if this continues, it might be a problem in the years to come. But I’m very much rooted in tradition, and I am happy about that.

Lucy: Do you think that problems will arise maybe from a greater riff between contemporary music and classical music? Or, sort of a difference in how audiences come to understand contemporary music traditions?

MK: Yeah, that could be part of it, but I would also say that it is somehow [like] our society these days. We live in this turbo charged world where everything needs to be done like *this* and people don’t have patience so much anymore. Everything needs to be ready and people are interested for maybe 5 minutes and then something comes up… so that might have an influence.

Lucy: …so with the elimination of the craft through which composition is produced it will become, or there is a danger of it becoming short-lived? As opposed to creation with the intention of it being long lasting for awhile to come…

MK: Yeah, some of the younger Finnish composers have even said to me, like, “who needs craft anymore?”. Coming from composer, that was like an alarm signal.

Lucy: What do they mean? Do they mean in terms of knowledge and proficiency in traditional…

MK: Yeah, like how to write polyphonic and different traditional styles, so this kind of traditional craft, which is the base on which we should build our careers, so there seems to be that kind of thinking as well that tradition is not needed anymore. But not everyone thinks like this.

Lucy: No, no, of course not, I was going to ask you if you had, or do you have in mind, or when you were starting your career and deciding what you wanted to do, was there anyone - musician or composer or singer or songwriter who sort of inspired you or motivated you? Or made you say, I want to have a career like ‘that’?

MK: Yeah, it was more like the inspiration came from different musical styles or the style of a specific composer, not so much from the career of some successful composer. And those big names have been changing throughout my career. At first Einojuhani Rautavaara, his later style, was very important to me. But there have been a couple of names which have been sticking like Oliver Messiaen, he’s so special in many ways. And from America, I admire Steve Reich and George Crumb, he’s phenomenal. So there are some things that just peak interest in me after many years. Um, I could mention many others as well but somehow my style has been developing in the direction of… I like avant-garde things but not so much. I still play with tones not only with noises and these kinds of things. Nowadays I’m very interested in composing long pieces with not so much happening, actually, the foreground of the music can be very sparse and little details happening here and there. But the way that this music happens, your sense of time… that’s something that’s very interesting for me.

Lucy: Do you think its music, or can it be music for the concert hall, is it music for, sort of, new spaces…? [For instance] when you go to compose, do you consider or are you very conscious of designing for a specific space?

MK: I have been doing some site-specific pieces, where I know where the premiere will take place. For example, there are musicians moving around during the piece. This type of thing interests me as well, but most of my works are not so… I have not been thinking so much of venue and space... most of my music is acoustic and quite silent, so you need a quiet space [like a concert hall].

Lucy: That makes sense. What is it like to be a composer in Finland? Do you find that [you're] supported in the work that you are doing? Do you feel that you are part [of a] big network here? We have already spoken of the advent of contemporary music here, but do you feel like it is a good place to be doing what you are doing or are there other places that you think might be better, or worse? 

MK: In many ways I would say that doing this thing in Finland, Finland is a very good place for it. We have quite good support from the state, and private funds, giving funds so you can actually concentrate on your work. And this is not the case everywhere. Still, and this is not only about Finland, but it seems that your aesthetics pretty much define how much opportunities you will have and [the types of monetary support]... I am doing quite well because I am not choosing my style based on what’s popular, or popular in festivals, I do my thing and luckily, there are musicians, like you, who are performing my pieces!

Lucy: I [feel] so grateful for the Music in Finland website [for finding out about works and composers] because there is not anything like that in the US. So when it came time to do this project, I just went on there, I looked for pieces and just pulled anything that sounded interesting, that looked interesting… But yeah, I think this site is incredible.

Let's talk a little bit about Twirl, because I’ve been working on it for about a month now. And my first question is: who Juulia and who is Christian?

MK: Christian is actually one of my oldest friends. And he got married to Juulia, and this was my wedding gift to them. And it was actually performed at their wedding as well. So that’s the story there.

Lucy: Oh ok! Are either of them clarinetists?

MK: No, no, no, actually they are not even familiar with classical music at all but they liked the gesture very much.  They like music, but they, well Christian is very interested in march music from the 2nd world war and his profession is political science and political history, he has been doing very much research in that field. So he knows a lot about German marching music, I don’t know anything about that [laughing]

Lucy: [chuckles] Yeah, I was going to say, I don’t really see the German march music in Twirl, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough…

MK: Yeah, you don’t find it there…!

Lucy: Oh thank goodness, thank goodness… I saw the note at the beginning about premieres, but was this piece a commission or was it composed for someone?

MK: No, this piece was actually part of my studies at the Sibelius Academy, I just came up with the idea of a solo clarinet piece. And actually this is the main part of the story. When I began writing this piece, it was in early 2008, probably in January or something. I was completely stuck with composing, I couldn’t do anything. And for this I can blame myself and probably Sibelius Academy as well [both laughing], because the tradition in the Sibelius Academy, and its better nowadays, in the 1970s/80s/90s there was this very strong modernist tradition and they really told you what is the right way to compose and what are all the wrong ways to compose…

Lucy: When you say modernist do you mean 12-tone, dodecaphonic…?

MK: Yeah, and serialism, so this European tradition, mostly from the German-speaking area, it has been very popular in Finland and Paavo Heininen who has been teaching composition from the 1960s [has] been a keen promoter of this kind of modernism. My teacher was also taught in this system, though he was also studying in the Soviet Union and somewhere in Europe, so not only in the Finnish tradition. But my teacher kept pushing me towards that direction, and it became somehow very mathematical and some kind of science. And it left me in the situation where if I wrote something, I couldn’t say to myself ‘why did you do that, why not some other way’ and then I was completely stuck, I couldn’t write anything. So then I came up with this idea, that “OK, now I’m not thinking anything, I just think of the voice of the clarinet and the different registers”, which I like in the clarinet and the clarinet repertoire and then I just began writing it. I did it in different phases in the first part of 2008 and so it was pretty much around this time in June 2008 that it was completed. And then I did some small things in the autumn as well. So it took very much time but it liberated me from this jail, because it was my fault, I listened to them too much…

Lucy: I think all students do at some point…

MK: …yeah and in that way it was actually a very good experience because you need to live through that, to be stuck and then find the ways to carry on and clarinet was my medicine. And actually in the same year I wrote my clarinet concerto. 

Lucy: Why clarinet? I mean was there a specific, I saw Marko [Portin] and Lauri [Sallinen] played some of the first performances, where these specific clarinetists in mind? Or was it clarinet pieces you had heard? Or clarinetists you admired…?

MK: It was both, the clarinet music, the sound of clarinet has always been very inspiring to me because there is so huge amount of different kinds of qualities, like the low register in pp, it’s phenomenal what you can do there. And you don’t get that kind of things from other woodwinds, I need to say. Clarinet somehow stands above them. And I worked very closely with Lauri in that process, and also with the clarinet concerto, and now I’m actually writing a new work for him, it should be ready by the end of July so there’s still a lot to do. It will be total quarter tone music for quarter tone clarinet and quarter tone accordion. So always the collaboration with musician is very important in composing. Since I was interested in clarinet, and then I met with Lauri, so it came naturally I think.

Lucy: It’s nice to hear, I think it happen too, with quite many piece for solo instrument or small combination, where the composer has someone who they are working with, but it’s not always the case. As an instrumentalist, you can sometimes tell, either the way something is written or the way something lays, the person either had this idea in their head versus an actual exchange with somebody who plays the instrument, the product can be very different. I’m curious, if you can remember, what sort of revisions or changes between Marko and Lauri’s performances, or before the final product? Do you remember?

MK: Um…it’s been 10 years, so mostly the collaboration with both Markko and Lauri was finding the well-sounding multiphonics and checking different kinds of things. I’m always [want things to be] not necessarily easy to play, but not very hard. [The] musical idea and how it sounds is the most important thing for me, and it’s great to hear from musician what would be the best way to achieve that kind of thing. So this was the main thing in the collaboration... I never want to write something that is very hard to play, because I still have colleagues around my age who go on bragging, you know, “I wrote that piece and its so hard that no one can perform it” and I would say that that’s a failure.

Lucy: It’s rough, I know composers, and I’ve played some of those works, and amongst instrumentalists it can be like a point of pride. [Of course] when the Nielsen Concerto was written, everyone said it was impossible and now it’s become standard. And when Francaix Concerto was written, I mean that concerto is still very hard, but it was impossible and now it’s become standard. Do you think that there’s sort of this, you know, idea that pushing the envelope is the only way to get the repertoire, or pushing the envelope technically, is the only way to get this sort of repertoire to expand.

MK: Yeah, that’s one point of view... but if you just try to write something that is way too hard, I don’t see the point of that.

A bit later, discussing the impact of living and working outside of Helsinki, and the regional differences within Finland related to media exposure and press.

Lucy: How do you think location influences composition in Finland?

MK: I would say that musical life is quite Helsinki-centered, in a way, so if you do something special, if you do it in Helsinki, you probably get some kind of exposure [coverage] for your project. But if it happens, for example in Oulu, it will probably not be mentioned in the media. The big newspapers, Helsinki Sanomat, Hufvudstadsbladet, they usually check concerts and things that happen near Helsinki.  For example, my second opera was premiered this spring in Pori... it was the first opera in [the] Nordic countries where the stage design was made by human size puppets. It was quite special. No one came from Helsinki to Pori to see that. So, [I believe],if it would have been even in Tampere, probably there would have been more media presence and people coming to the performances. So some things are really Helsinki centered but there are things happening outside Helsinki as well. And it could be that they are quite well known locally, but the big picture when you look - now that I live in Helsinki, I really don’t know what is going on in other parts of the country.

Lucy: So it’s more an instance not that necessarily attitudes towards new music [are different] [but] perhaps scale is quite different because you have more people here, more ensembles; sort of the philosophies are quite similar, nationally even, [but] because media, print, number of ensembles, direction of grant money [are] mostly Helsinki-based, it paints a picture that new music is a Helsinki-based practice when really it’s happening everywhere.

MK: Yeah it’s quite even... And if you think of the orchestra repertoire, we have a good [spread] of orchestras in different cities, but mostly the smaller orchestras in smaller cities play the traditional repertoire. Most of the contemporary music is played here in the capital area. And even 10 years ago, the head of the symphony orchestra in Turku, which is the oldest orchestra in Finland started in 1790, said in 1 interview, ‘we won’t play contemporary music, we only play music that the people want to hear.’

Lucy: This is what they said in Turku?

MK: Yeah, 10 years ago. And then they added [it]. [The rationale was that the] Radio Orchestra plays the new music, so none of the other Finnish orchestras need to do that. So that was quite strange comment 10 years ago from Turku, which is not small city.

Lucy: And they play quite a lot of new music now. It’s interesting we should have this discussion because I, you know, because I’m starting out in my research and I don’t know what will be helpful, so I’m starting my own survey, my own orchestral survey. I’m taking orchestras from Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and I’m comparing programming practices to the big 6 in the US and charting who’s playing what, who’s not playing what. But it’s interesting that Turku took this stance, because they do nowadays play quite much new music.

MK: Yeah, that person is not with the orchestra anymore, [but] it was one very interesting comment.

Lucy: And it just goes to show you how trends change. It is true, in terms of the 12 orchestras that I surveyed, this year Finnish Radio and also Swedish Radio played the most [contemporary music], kind of expectedly, and then also Royal Stockholm Phil played quite a lot. So it’s fascinating. Also as an American, looking at [a city like] Chicago: the CSO used to be directed by Pierre Boulez, and used to play a lot of new music, and then they went through Daniel Barenboim and Bernard Haitink and now Riccardo Muti... it's more conservative [programming]... I’m mostly just curious. I’m an orchestral player, and if I’m going to argue that players should learn this repertoire I should see if anyone’s actually playing it.


This interview will, of course, not be the only time I speak with Markku, in fact I met with him just yesterday to play Twirl for him before my lecture recital in Vilnius next week. But already, there were a couple important things he said that really connected him, in my opinion, to both Libby Larsen and John Adams. Like both Larsen and Adams, Markku has been very interested in technology, and I think it's fascinating that his first compositions (after the initial piano piece at age 10) used digital software and synthesizers. Adams experimented a lot with synthesizer around the same age when he was at Harvard, and both composers, I believe, are still influenced by the electronic sound medium. And both Klami and Adams are also very influenced by non-classical musical genres. That being said, they both are drawn to sound in a very specific way, for instance Klami's decision to compose both Twirl and a concerto for the clarinet.

All three composers also ultimately rejected serialism and atonality as a compositional style. Perhaps for different reasons, but all began making that decision while in college, and it has affected the reception of their works by different people at different times in their careers. While at University of Minnesota, Libby Larsen was criticized for including 'too many styles' in her music (one of them not being serialism). Adams ultimately felt that atonality lacked an expressive nature that is necessary for 'successful' art music, similar to the way the Klami could not defend a musical compositional decision when trying to compose serially (as he said, "I couldn’t say to myself ‘why did you do that, why not some other way’").

Finally, Klami's increasing interest in playing with the development and perception of time in his compositions reminded greatly of Larsen's approach in quite many of her pieces. As I continue to analyze Twirl and Larsen's Dancing Solo for the lecture next week, the stylistic influences for both composers and this temporal element will be key in analyzing and comparing these two works. Stay tuned...


Lucy Abrams