Composer Maija Hynninen – Balancing technique and intuition

Studying and working in Paris and California has helped Maija Hynninen to hone her voice as a composer and understand the importance of networking.

In early May, a major chapter in Maija Hynninen’s career as a composer ended as she graduated with a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. Six years of doctoral studies culminated in a work for chamber orchestra entitled Mobiles.

The years outside Finland have shaped her as a composer, while studies abroad have coincided with turning points in her personal life. Nine years ago, shortly after the birth of her first child, she went to study at the prestigious IRCAM Institute in Paris. In 2016, she decided to begin doctoral studies in California during a tumultuous period when her middle child suffered a severe illness. The bold decision paid off, as the whole family adapted well to life in the US, and Hynninen turned a new page in her composing.

“When I returned to Finland from Paris, it was a challenge to get 'back in business' after maternity leave. Now I’ve experienced how difficult it is to get back into the field when arriving from abroad,” she explains.

Now, though, Hynninen finds herself in a completely different situation than nearly a decade ago. She is full of a new kind of assurance and faith in her own voice.

“I’ve become more confident in the fact that this is how I compose. I’ve been interested in the same things for a long time, but now they’ve crystallised,” she says.

Fascination with orchestrality

Hynninen senses this self-confidence concretely in her work. While working in Paris on a George Ladd Prix de Paris grant last winter, she entered a flow state such as she had never experienced before.

"I’ve never done three works at the same time before,” she says, “and I got them all done on time!"

One of them was Mobiles, the final project for her doctoral degree. In creating this work for 11 musicians, Hynninen used a digital orchestration tool developed at UC Berkeley.

In America, I enjoyed the ​sharing of ideas. I want to get into a dialogue of sharing.

Hynninen is now fascinated by the orchestra. Although known for electroacoustic works, she has always been interested in sound and the characteristics of instruments. Her compositional process is often a multi-phased journey of exploration and slow handcraft, drawing on technology.

Hynninen wants to focus more on orchestral composing, but finding opportunities isn’t easy. She has been realising the importance of networking.

“In America, I enjoyed the ​sharing of ideas. I want to get into a dialogue of sharing. Now I’m on the board of the Society of Finnish Composers and I’ve found it important. Together we’re stronger – someone else’s success takes nothing away from me!”

Fungal mycelium spreads

Contemporary composers must work to gain visibility, says Hynninen – but adds that she was not prepared for this during her studies at the Sibelius Academy.

“They might even say ‘don’t contact anyone, they’ll contact you’,” Hynninen recalls.

“This was connected to the old-fashioned composers myth that if you’re good enough, your music will speak for itself. That is true, in a way, if only you can get your works out there and into the attention of the right people. Often, though, works don’t make it from the composer’s drawer out into the world.”

Digitalisation has dramatically changed how composers manage their visibility, says Hynninen. When she began her studies, compositions primarily existed as physical scores and live performances.

“Now it’s important to get a good recording of a performance, and to be able to go on social media to say, hey, I just finished a new work,” she says.

While working in Paris during the winter, Hynninen took advantage of networking opportunities.

Now it’s important to get a good recording of a performance, and to be able to go on social media to say, hey, I just finished a new work.

“As a Finn, networking often feels painfully difficult for me. It’s important to simply set up meetings and present your work, to get to know musicians, other composers, conductors, artistic directors... You never know where it might lead.”

At the same time, Hynninen points out that time spent creating contacts is always time away from composing – and as a composer she primarily wants to create something new rather than market her existing works.

According to Hynninen, it is often assumed in Finland that artists must first reach an audience in their home country before going international. Those dynamics don’t necessarily apply in classical contemporary music. Sometimes international cooperation can be the key to opening doors in Finland.

“My projects have often started through patterns of musical collaboration,” she says. “Then things can start to spread between people like a mushroom’s roots.”

Photo: Olivia Ting

Ideas flowing like lava

It is possible to create quite good music with the help of a solid technique, but Hynninen aims to ensure that intuition is also included. In California, she experienced a “hippie atmosphere” that encouraged her to open up to spontaneity.

Hynninen, who has long sought to balance technical tools and visions, has recently found that equilibrium increasingly falling into place.

“Whereas before I harnessed my ideas with technique, I now let my ideas flow like lava and settle into shape,” she says.

Whereas before I harnessed my ideas with technology, I now let my ideas flow like lava and settle into shape.

She is currently working on a soundscape, a kind of auditory sculpture that will be installed in front of the Porvoo Art Factory, as well as a new work for violinist Maria Puusaari.

Typically for Hynninen, the inspiration for the violin work lies in technology: she and Puusaari are experimenting with solar panels and batteries, and testing whether they can collect enough energy to produce live electronics. This also expands the theme into ecology. Hynninen has also considered the environment in the Porvoo soundscape, as the rights to the work have been purchased for 15 years.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the landscape and soundscape change over 15 years, and whether some species of birds will disappear during that time, for instance,” says Hynninen.

Browse Maija Hynninen's works on Music Finland's CORE website.

Listen to Maija Hynninen's "Incandescence" performed by RSO at Musica nova Helsinki festival

Maija Hynninen: Dawn Breaks

(Ravello Records, 2019)