In May, Cecilia Damström became the first female classical composer to win the Teosto Prize. Damström’s music addresses the most challenging themes of our time, from climate change to mental health. “Equality and empathy,” she says, “in the end, everything has to do with these two.”
Melodies themselves cannot really refer to anything beyond music, it is often said. The messages conveyed by music are always culture-bound mental images.
Cecilia Damström’s recent Teosto Prize-winning composition ICE takes up this challenge, taking a stand on climate change at virtually every possible level – solely through the power of the orchestra.
The inexorable melting of ice, the distress of the earth and visions of a more hopeful future are expressed through harmonic cells, the overall structure and sound associations such as a Morse code SOS message rung on a bicycle bell.
ICE was premiered a year ago by Sinfonia Lahti, which bills itself as the world’s first carbon-neutral orchestra.
“The main idea of the work actually came to me as soon as I received this commission,” says Damström.
“In my mind, I heard these chords that fade in and out. I began to study the structure of ice crystals, and because on a molecular level ice is made up of hexagons, the structure of the work became symmetrical six-tone chords that gradually ‘melted’ at an increasing pace. “
This is exactly how Damström describes her compositional process: the starting point is a ‘main idea’, followed by a meticulous research process.
“But there’s no way to know when that idea will come in, and it can take a while,” she says with a laugh.
Watch a video recording of "Requiem for our Earth" (2019), performed by Akademiska Damkören Lyran.
Now in her early 30s, Damström has already created more than 80 opus-numbered works, including orchestral compositions, choral and chamber music and stage works. Regardless of the type of ensemble, a composition is never ‘just’ music for her, but is always holistically linked to themes that are important to her.
Damström’s relationship with composition took shape when she studied it in her first year at Tampere University of Applied Sciences in 2008.
“Studying composition was really fun, but it felt a bit like being in an ivory tower. I wondered whether I could really make a difference in the world like this,” she recalls.
A key experience came at the premiere of her first choral work, when she heard how meaningful the piece, which dealt with loss, had been to a listener whose husband had just died.
“That’s when I realised that I could do something important with my music and be part of society,” she says.
Studying composition was really fun, but it felt a bit like being in an ivory tower. I wondered whether I could really make a difference in the world like this
Damström began creating music as a child, and holistic creativity came naturally at the Swedish-language Steiner school in Helsinki. But she was supposed to become a pianist, not a composer.
“That was my passionate dream from the age of 8,” she says.
Perfectionism doomed her dream, though. As a teenager, Cecilia began to suffer from such severe repetitive strain injuries that she had to take painkillers to play. Eventually she couldn’t move her hands. That put end to her playing, which was a terrible shock.
“It felt like what I’d been investing my whole life in had been literally torn away,” she recalls.
In retrospect, though, she sees this drastic change as a blessing: playing the piano was always terribly difficult. Composing, on the other hand, seems easy and natural to her.
“Sometimes an outside force has to be allowed to reverse the direction of one’s life,” says Damström, who is a Catholic.
When she could simply no longer play the piano, Damström composed a double-album’s worth of pop songs as her final project at the Steiner School. That’s when her mother encouraged her to apply to study composition.
Now composing is not only her profession, but also a way of perceiving the world.
“I hope my music can be that for others, too. Through emotions and art, you can get new perspectives of difficult issues in a different way,” says Damström.
Looseness fosters productivity
Damström is a full-time composer who completes about six works a year. This rapid pace is facilitated by a working grant from the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland as well as a publishing contract with Gehrmans Musikförlag in Stockholm. Through the sheet music publisher, she has her own copyist, for instance. However, artistic productivity is anything but a nine-to-five job.
“I might not compose anything for a month and then spend two weeks composing all the time. Sometimes I might create a piece in three nights,” she says.
“Creativity requires having some looseness in life and time to do things that are good for you.”
I’m privileged in that I’ve been permitted to create a rhythm for myself where I can produce so many works.
She does not have children, but she compares the process of creation to the birth of a child: a new work requires a long gestation, the process of birth and a period of recovery.
“I’m privileged in that I’ve been permitted to create a rhythm for myself where I can produce so many works. Sometimes it’s hard to say no when I’m offered such exciting commissions!”
Damström’s compositions are invariably based on some extra-musical theme. She is currently composing Wasteland, a joint commission for several orchestras that comments on the recycling and incineration of clothing.
"At the same time, I’ve been thinking about the fact that overconsumption is very often discussed in relation to fast fashion, which is associated with women, rather than talking about the pace of electronics consumption, for instance."
Musical form for important themes
Societal issues such as equality and the environmental crisis are intertwined in many ways through Damström’s works, such as Tundo! (2016/2018), an orchestral work inspired by the plight of refugees.
"If I don’t start out by thinking that now I’m writing orchestral music, but rather think of music through another perspective, I can find new exciting orchestral sonorities and soundworlds.," says Damström.
Often some detail becomes an anchor that opens up broader social themes. That could be, for example, a painting by Helene Schjerfbeck showing laundry drying and the artist’s statement about how the exhaustion of household chores takes time away from being creative.
I want to compose music that allows me to communicate important things to everyone, regardless of their background.
“Then I start thinking about how to make this idea work musically. My piano quintet Helene - Nuances from the Life of Helene Schjerfbeck includes the sounds of home appliances, and the wind instrument players sigh exhaustedly into their instruments.”
Once upon a time, Damström felt like she had an endless number of subjects intersecting in the background of her works. But gradually it has become clear to her that everything is ultimately connected to the two things that have always been most important to her: “Empathy and equality.”
Equality extends from her music’s societal stance to her relationship with the audience.
“All divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are problematic. I want to compose music that allows me to communicate important things to everyone, regardless of their background. ”