For composer Sebastian Hilli the concept of sticking to one musical genre or formula is too limiting. We interview the Teosto Prize winning composer, whose influences range from contemporary classical to psychedelic rock to free jazz and back.
You have to know the rules in order to break them, the saying goes. This applies perfectly to Finnish composer Sebastian Hilli’s composing methods.
As a teenager Hilli used to listen to rock music and played in a heavy metal band. In a music-oriented high school he found modern classical which immediately caught his focus.
”Quite soon I started composing and writing my own music. In Sibelius Academy I learnt the parameters and the structures. I felt like my composing was in control. Everything was planned in various levels”, Hilli says.
I struggle with the concept that there would be ’pure’ genres that one is not allowed to mix. So the attempt to reach out rather than in has become central in my work
Since then he has tried to get rid of that control. Simultaneously, Hilli, born in 1990, has risen to fame.
December 2018, on Finland’s independence day, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra premiered Hilli’s composition Snap Music. Few months later the piece won the prestigious Teosto Prize, worth 20 000 euros, awarded by Finnish performance rights organization Teosto.
Listen to Snap Music (Premiered 6th December 2018 at the Finnish Independence Day Gala Concert by Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Hannu Lintu)
Open-minded state of mind
Movements of modern classical music kept evolving from another through the 20th century. According to Sebastian Hilli, the age of pluralism has been reached by now.
He is exemplary of the current state of mind. Pitchfork.com reviews classical records. Composers such as Anna Meredith and Ellen Arkbro visit Helsinki and play for open-minded pop audiences. Hilli, also, has been inspired by free jazz, acid house and psychedelic rock of the 1960s.
”My percussion and tape piece Psycho Wood (2018, watch the video link below) had several references to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles and “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. There were some tones and ’sound situations’”, Hilli says
”The modern music scene is still quite serious. Of course I take it seriously too, but I struggle with the concept that there would be ’pure’ genres that one is not allowed to mix. So the attempt to reach out rather than in has become central in my work.”
Modern music has its own traditions, that are not being taught in the academies, but I am confident that the musicians are able to internalize what I have written
For example, Hilli might strive for a piece to sound like ”big band”, which is not so usual in the context of classical music.
”This brings some challenges, when the musicians have been educated in classical tradition. It takes an insight to understand the character. Sometimes it’s the conductor who makes it clear to the orchestra”, Hilli explains. He continues:
”Modern music has its own traditions, that are not being taught in the academies, but I am confident that the musicians are able to internalize what I have written.”
In addition, Hilli writes programme music, which used to be almost banned in the very form-centric modern classical tradition.
When Hilli composes, he starts with the title.
Snap Music was about ”snapping”, losing the psychological control of self in our overly intensified digital society.
”The concept has to be so clear that people will spot it. The name has to justify itself”, Hilli says.
”I want to create music that is based on clear concepts. It is the core idea of my composing process in general.”
Gender equality taking off
In Finland the gender equality of composers has been widely discussed this autumn.
The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat investigated that only three percent of the music performed this year by Finnish symphony orchestras is composed by women. At Finnish chamber music festivals, the percentage was five.
Sebastian Hilli says that he has noticed some positive change lately at the field of modern classical music.
”At these modern classical festivals, 50–50 equality has been a goal for a while. But in the context of symphony orchestras, the positive development is yet about to start. At least we talk about these issues now.”
The biggest reason is obvious, though. The majority of the music repertoire is written by dead composers and it’s hard to rewrite history.
According to Hilli, equality comes hand in hand with adding new compositions into ochestra repertoires.
”In Sweden these institutions haven’t worried about losing their audiences – instead they trust their own curatorial quality. It seems to have worked there.”