Helsinki-based Japanese composer Mioko Yokoyama has carved a niche for herself in Finnish contemporary music. For her, composing is an endeavour to make the listener feel that the music was worth hearing.
“In my opinion composers, myself included, see themselves as doing something good and meaningful for the world, but the world might not consider our work as important as we do. So composers also have a responsibility to convince audiences about the importance of their music. Of course, this doesn’t always mean that the music should be pleasing. It is equally crucial to take the audience out of their comfort zone and into new areas”, says composer Mioko Yokoyama, explaining her experience of the meaning of her work.
As a composer, she must first discover new areas of experience herself, and this cannot be achieved only through writing music; one must also listen to, analyse and study a lot of new music.
“The role of the composer is to act as a filter between reality and the listener, making real life into something different than what the listener is used to. Of course, it’s impossible to convey my ideas to everyone, but I hope to achieve that with at least some of the listeners – a feeling that it was a good thing to be hearing this music today”, Yokoyama says in a video chat. It is mid-January, and she is in Tokyo preparing for the premiere of the first half of her string quartet From the Earth.
Watch: Awai e (2017), Premiered by Makiko Oba, 11 November 2017, Helsinki
In Saariaho's footsteps
The title of the work – and in some ways its style – is a tribute to Terra Memoria by Kaija Saariaho, performed on the same programme at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan concert hall.
“Kaija gave me the chance to compose this string quartet by recommending me to Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. I did not know that she had done so until I received the commission! So I wanted to pay homage with my piece.”
The venue is a distinguished one, which added another layer of excitement to the premiere.
“Especially as, in my experience, Japanese audiences of classical music are not necessarily enjoying contemporary pieces as much as Finnish audiences.”
Composers, myself included, see themselves as doing something good and meaningful for the world, but the world might not consider our work as important as we do.
Yokoyama’s January continued with a performance of her piano trio Kinesis in Vienna. This is one of the six pieces shortlisted by the Society of Finnish Composers in a recommendation for the World New Music Days in the Faroe Islands in June. Her next world premiere will be in February, with the Uusinta Ensemble performing Mineralization for flute, clarinet, violin and cello. This is the second piece that the ensemble have commissioned from her.
Watch: Talking Metals, Talking Drums (2022), Joint-commissioned by Gaudeamus Festival, Time of Music, and Warsaw Autumn, premiered by Ulysses Percussion Ensemble, 25 June 2022, Paris
Shape shifting musical motifs
“I imagined the core of a mineral or a crystal having chemical reactions and changing its shape. I like the effect of many instruments sounding as one, the situations where the listener doesn’t recognise who makes the sounds. For me it resembles a crystalline mineral with its complicated shapeshifting reactions”, Yokoyama explains.
“People have told me that a rhythmic approach is characteristic for my pieces, and I still like percussive sounds, but recently I have shifted my interest slightly more towards pitches. I would like to explore and study that world once again.”
In my experience, Japanese audiences of classical music are not necessarily enjoying contemporary pieces as much as Finnish audiences.
Having graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts, Yokoyama relocated to Helsinki to study for a Master’s degree with Veli-Matti Puumala at the Sibelius Academy. She completed the degree in 2019.
“One of the biggest changes in my composing that I picked up from Finland has been the order of the process: first laying out a plan, a greater structure of the piece, before writing actual sounds. I tend to construct big movements, but with Mineralization I decided instead to have smaller and more complicated structures, where the musical motifs shift shape and expand, like looking at a material through a microscope.”
Watch: Piano Concerto (2021), Commissioned and Premiered by Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, Pf: Mioko Yokoyama, 2 July 2021, Porvoo
Settling in Finland
Last year, Yokoyama had three premieres: Agape for flute, Gear Type Fauna for guitar, kantele and harpsichord, and Forward Loop for saxophone and trombone. After From the Earth, there is more to come in 2024: she has written a 30-second tune for the Tampere Biennale to be played by the carillon at the former Frenckell paper mill in Tampere every fifteen minutes. In the spring, percussionist Kalle Hakosalo will premiere a solo percussion work. A composition or arrangement for a modern instrument combined with a Baroque instrument is in line for summer, and her saxophone quartet for the Saxtronauts ensemble will be premiered at the Uuden Musiikin Lokakuu [New Music October] festival in Oulu.
She is also working on a horn trio for a Norwegian ensemble and a work for the Kaaos Ensemble quartet. She feels quite settled in Finland, not only because she has plenty of work but also because she has been learning the language.
It’s impossible to convey my ideas to everyone, but I hope to achieve that with at least some of the listeners – a feeling that it was a good thing to be hearing this music today.
“I can already communicate with musicians about performance instructions and other comments – although not perfectly – without having to change to English.”
Looking forward, she would be interested to write music for a Baroque orchestra or for a dance work.
“When I was younger, I was thinking more about the next, bigger steps. But now I’m happy with my present career, composing music for skilled and amazing musicians and communicating with each of them to create a performance.”
Watch: Circular Spell (2018), Premiered by Markus Hohti, 23 May 2018, Helsinki
Further reading: Mioko Yokoyama's article "On my music and beyond: On the search for enjoyable contemporary music" on Finnish Music Quarterly.