Today is a good day to think about the worth of composers’ work.
It’s vappu, the Nordic festival for higher education at universities and vocational schools and a celebration of work. Worth celebrating is also the fact that Helsinki University has employed a composer at the Musicology department for 376 years. Last Thursday, their work was no longer required. The longest standing incubator of composers in this country has gone cold . By rummaging through the lively Facebook discussion of Lyytikäinen’s poignant statement, you may find an English translation. I apologize that I cannot present translations of all the citations in this text.
I would also propose a toast for the artists that have occupied official events with speeches that create pressure on the ruling classes, notably the writer Laura Lindstedt and composer Kalevi Aho. They have extended their working desk to include their larger environment, and have been noticed. I hope there will be many more.
Let me attempt to join them. Not to be noticed. I get enough attention by dressing up in stripy tights even when it isn’t vappu. But to provoke thought.
While studying composition in London, a subject that we discussed among teachers and colleagues was the notion that composers have a social function in the world. Other than as contributors to musical creation or to the contemporaneity of the arts. The notion was very simply based in advocating listening.
A key looming figure behind this topic (apart from Cage) is Pauline Oliveros. In her recent presentation of the concept of deep listening, she sends out a striking invitation: ’To take a moment, now, to notice what you are hearing and to expand your listening to continually include more’. To continually include more. I find the juxtaposition of the acts of listening and inclusion beautiful. In the same speech, she also brought together ’listening’ and ’happiness’ .
I’m going to follow a tangent here. Oliveros’ concern is primarily with the sonic environment and the enhanced connection that the listener can have with it. I would like to build on that to seek how this connection could be applied to other areas. For instance, I find somewhat dreamlike comfort in the aspiration, that listening could be a carrier of inclusion and happiness. And that as a composer, I may have the possibility to be part in its realization.
What are the possibilities here? How can composers deal with the concept of inclusion in their writing? Could there be compositional applications? What good would it do?
I would argue that inclusion, at best, works to neutralize fear of difference. When someone or something comes across as being fundamentally different to you, digging deeper to find a common ground, a common fundamental, works to neutralize intimidation that might ensue.
There are substantial social issues at hand that require solutions. Underlying many of them is an irrational fear of difference.
Even within the welfare-state bubble that is Finland, the practice of inclusion is faltering. Finns strike to me as a quiet people with a great capacity to listen. Yet when they are faced with something or someone different, they never fail to point it out loud, and will only reluctantly give an ear to reasons not to be intimidated. Sometimes this takes on the cloak of humour, and goes unnoticed. Many are afraid, and tabloid newspapers feast on their guts and wallets. The world is overtly divided into the homeland and foreign lands.
Why am I so concerned about what a composer can do about this?
Fighting to overcome the fear of difference is one that one cannot delegate. By voting in a tolerant member of parliament, you are not yourself tolerant. Consequently voting a racist into power doesn’t necessarily make you racist. The responsibility to join the fight to neutralize fear of difference, and turn it into empathy and love, remains with you personally.
Writing music and advocating listening are interchangeable activities. They are close enough to be called the same. They project differently though. In advocating listening, a composer is by definition opening up to others, whereas writing music can be a solitary activity.
Perhaps this attitude could add to our work. The desk stays the same. I’m happy with my red lamp from Kierrätyskeskus, I don’t need to change that. I can still keep modeling my formal design with kids’ building blocks and work with five lines to the stave. But I could call my activity advocating listening. I expect interesting things to follow from this change.
You have now done your days work. Or maybe you are having an extended lunch-hour. If your avant-garde composition still can’t express your version of your involvement in the fight for inclusion, make it a daily routine to write, speak, show your solidarity, go to a demonstration, occupy a racist or callous space and make it embracing and warm.
In short, participate.
Composer and founding member of Korvat Auki Ensemble. Korvat activist since 2011. Chairperson of Ung Nordisk Musik Finland.
 After the blog text of composer Pasi Lyytikäinen Avoin kiitoskirje Helsingin yliopistolle, published on 28th April 2016.  After Pauline Oliveros On The Difference Between Hearing And Listening, a talk organized by TEDx Indianapolis, October 20th 2015