finding a voice: young nordic composers

Talk to just a few composers about why they do what they do, and it quickly becomes apparent that, almost without exception, becoming a composer wasn’t something they specifically chose to be. For many, it originated from an inner sense of vocation, one that emerged early in their lives, usually when they were still very young.

Typical of this is Icelandic composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, who says she can’t recall a specific moment when she decided to become a composer. ‘I only remember strong urges to produce what I was sensing, to manifest the sensations in some way, and this is what I still do.’

Mette Nielsen. Photo: Mads-Peter Eusebius Jakobsen 

Mette Nielsen. Photo: Mads-Peter Eusebius Jakobsen 

This is echoed by Danish musician Mette Nielsen, for whom composition evolved so naturally as to become an integral part of growing up. ‘When I was very young I made up songs, and later, when I began learning to play an instrument and read music, I started to write music down. It just grew over the years, and at some point a music theory teacher told me he thought I should apply to the academy of music to study composition. The choice was not to start composing, the choice is somehow always to not stop.’

Swedish composer Ansgar Beste discovered his love for composing by initially pursuing numerous aspects of music. ‘I studied conducting, piano, music theory, composition and arts management simultaneously’, but his path eventually became clear, causing him to declare, ‘I’m burning mostly for composition!’ 

This inner urge to create goes hand-in-hand with the outer act of performance. Like Beste, for both Nielsen and Snæbjörnsdóttir their creative evolution grew in parallel with performing: Nielsen plays accordion, while Snæbjörnsdóttir creates multimedia ‘materialisations’. This is also true of Faroese composer Unn Paturson, who turned to writing out of expediency. ‘When I started singing in small vocal groups in the nineties, we often had difficulty with finding new material to sing. This is how I started out; it was easier and more fun to arrange the music myself.’ Finnish musican Tytti Arola boldly pushed her creativity towards improvising. ‘Live improvisation was at some point terrifying for me, but spending time with my ideas alone and then presenting them to an audience felt extremely nice.’ 

Tytti Arola. Photo: Mimmi Helkiö

Tytti Arola. Photo: Mimmi Helkiö

Young composers today are more able than their predecessors to access easily the full gamut of music, contemporary and historical. Not surprisingly, this enormous diversity makes it mark on them, particularly with regard to challenging and redefining what it means to be a composer. Tytti Arola’s outlook is typical of many young composers. ‘I have a tendency of getting easily excited about my ideas and that enthusiasm drives me further, but it also makes me go in many different directions: one day I identify myself as an experimental sound artist, next day I’m a classical violinist and the next day I’m doing electronic music for films. Therefore it’s difficult for me to say that I’ve chosen to be a composer – I would say being a composer is one aspect of my work, but I do so many other things as well.’

Danish composer Eyvind Gulbrandsen agrees, keeping an open mind about how to express himself musically: ‘I no longer worry what a piece may turn out to be. If it makes sense that the piece should be presented as an installation, a performance, a concert or something completely different, then I go for that. Even sound shouldn’t be a requirement; if it makes sense that the performers don’t make a sound, or that the piece resembles a dance, a choreography, more than a musical piece, so be it. No holds barred.’ Arola sums up this outlook bluntly: ‘The idea of being a full-time composer, i.e. just ‘contemporary music’, doesn’t appeal to me.’

More than most, young composers require opportunities to be supported and heard. Such opportunities are few and far between, which can make the appeal and enthusiasm for being a composer difficult to maintain. Beste regards this as a dramatic and frustrating change from previous decades. ‘Young composers have to struggle hard, write lots of applications, undertake lots of networking and fundraising activities, in the hope of getting funding for a few commissions per year: lots of non-artistic work distracting me from what I really want to do.’

Therefore, for composers across the Nordic countries, the annual Nordic Music Days are an important and invaluable resource. Mette Nielsen thinks of the festival as a kind of rite of passage, a means to acceptance in the world of ‘adult’ composers, while Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir describes it as ‘composers and musicians coming together in warmth, uplifting each other’. It thus plays an important part in the hopes and aspirations of young Nordic composers. ‘I’m proud to be part of the festival’ says Tytti Arola, ‘the long history of the festival is quite extraordinary and it’s great that there is this platform to hear Nordic contemporary music.’ Unn Paturson wholeheartedly agrees, ‘Nordic Music Days really focuses on the people that actually write the music, and I’m thrilled and honoured to be part of such a big event! Really inspiring!’

Simon Cummings