The composers-in residence project ten years on - a dive into the recent past and back into the future

Antti Häyrynen, 2.8.2007

Ten years ago, in 1997, the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras (Suosio) and the Finnish Music Information Centre (Fimic) launched a joint campaign entitled Back to the Future. This campaign, which became better known as the composer-in-residence project of 14 Finnish orchestras and composers, ended back in 2000 but is still talked of as if it were still running. And indeed, in the case of some orchestras, it is both alive and thriving.

The idea itself was nothing new, since there is a long tradition of composers-in-residence in, for example, British and American orchestras. The duties of the composer-musician able to turn his hand to a variety of assignments have their origins in the historical maestro di capella or court composer that finally died out with the dawn of the 20th century. Some countries still have honorary court composers of lofty status; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, to quote just one, has been Master of the Queen’s Music since 2004.

Back to the Future was, however, a project with a difference in the way it was carried out, and as a collective venture far from feudal. Or maybe the aim in Finland was to serve the public at large in the manner enjoyed by aristocrats in eras past. The title had been borrowed from the sci-fi trilogy Back to the Future I-III (1985-1990) for young people directed by Robert Zemeckis still topical at the end of the nineties. At the onboard seminar in January 1997 the director was still Bob Rafelson and the project went by the name of The Composer Calls Twice.

The project was subtitled “the composer as part of the orchestra”, and the objective was “to return to the era when the composer was a natural part of the orchestra, one of its members”. “Composers and orchestras were still close to one another in the 18th century,” the Back to the Future prospectus went on. Since no such era existed in Finnish history, “we are thus going back to the future, to an era when the composer was one member of the orchestra, one of its musicians.”

Examples of such partnerships abounded, such as Vivaldi and the Venice Pietà, Haydn and the court at Esterházy, Mozart in Salzburg or Brahms and Meiningen. There were models of good working relationships much closer in time as well, such as that between Pehr Henrik Nordgren – one of the participants in the project – and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, or Kalevi Aho and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Their partnership was already well established before the project began. Whereas others did not wish to copy their example, they were happy to draw inspiration from it.

Tapping in to talent

The composer-in-residence project sought to activate not only composers and orchestras but audiences, too. “The orchestras want to make better use of their composers’ talents; the composer will join in the work of the orchestra as a person and a colleague,” stated a press release in March 1997. The composer would in turn “be more totally committed to the orchestra than before”.

For the audience the project promised both mysticism and realism: “From the point of view of the ordinary listener, the co-project represents an opportunity to get closer to the very heart of musical creativity, the frenzied process that gives birth to music and without which no musical culture would exist… It signifies the presence of a composer as a real, live person – not as a historical myth wearing a wig.” “Touch him!” urged the campaign poster.

The press releases kept insisting that Back to the Future was a campaign designed not to promote Finnish music but to construct and try out new types of partnerships; to produce new works conceived in close interaction; to make music news again and to enhance the profiles of towns with orchestras. The campaign-like launch was guaranteed to draw widespread attention to itself and the relatively short duration would ensure sufficient interest right through to the end.

It was agreed beforehand that each orchestra would commission a new work lasting some 15-30 minutes and that the composer would plan a concert for which he would write the programme notes and about which he would give talks and attend discussion sessions. Visits to schools, workshops and composition laboratories, public lectures and lessons at music schools were also planned for the composers. This gave them a chance to study the art of promotion and in return they promised to “woo” the media, the political decision makers and cultural opinion leaders.

Off to the future for the price of an all-zones ticket

The credit for fathering the idea is shared by the then Executive Directors of their respective institutions, Kai Amberla (Suosio) and Pekka Hako (Fimic). The participants in the campaign were urged to focus on the principle of partnership, and this still applies today. Most of the preparatory work on the project was done in 1996. The careful, holistic planning and execution became salient features of the project.

The lion’s share of the funds was swallowed up by the commission fees, towards which the Finnish Cultural Foundation donated the sum of FIM 300,000 (€50,000). The fees varied according to the size of the piece and the composer’s name between FIM 9,000 and 40,000. Funding was also received from Veikkaus Oy (the Finnish betting monopoly) through adverts in the season’s listings and concert programmes. There was also a varying degree of collaboration with the relevant local authorities, local media and some companies.

The commissions were paid for by the orchestras and their partners. Orchestras could apply separately for a commission grant, the decisions on grants being made by the Executive Directors of Suosio and Fimic and the Finnish Cultural Foundation. The orchestras were free to choose their composer from a list drawn up by Fimic and Suosio, and because the composers and orchestras were all different, each partnership came to acquire its own distinctive features.

Six of the 14 composers were resident in the same town as their orchestra, and Kimmo Hakola, who agreed to be composer-in-residence of the Joensuu City Orchestra, was at the time living at Kesälahti right in the south of the province of North Karelia. The composer’s physical presence was significant outside the Helsinki region, living artists being rarer birds in the provinces.

In other respects Suosio and Fimic shared the responsibilities as best suited their own mandate. Fimic provided the orchestral parts of new works, published brochures, issued press releases and supplied photos and composer profiles. The Suosio music library lent out, free of charge, the parts for works chosen by composers for their concerts, assuming that they possessed these works. Fimic also awarded composers travel grants of up to €500, but despite being reminded, many of the orchestras did not avail themselves of this benefit.

Considering its scope and its visibility, Back to the Future was a ridiculously cheap campaign. It did not require any additional staff whatsoever, though it must have meant extra work for those involved. The new working procedures took some getting used to for composers and orchestras alike, but they also provided both parties with some lasting experiences.

Instructions for composers and orchestras

The campaign initiators did not, from the very outset, hesitate to describe their campaign as “the most significant event of the 90s in Finnish music”. The commission agreements were mostly drawn up according to the prevailing standard, but the emphasis was on collaboration between the composer and the orchestra, and a separate agreement was signed concerning this.

The residency carried a number of obligations defined in advance and applying to all partnerships; these were written into the agreements. In addition to one commission the orchestra was to perform at least two other works by the composer. The composer was to plan a concert suitable for the instruments in the orchestra and featuring not more than one contemporary work. The composer was to write the programme notes for this concert.

Composers had to be present at the rehearsals and performances of their works, and to lead a discussion before or after the concerts. The orchestra had to include the composer’s name in its staff list and have visiting cards printed for him. The agreement could, as an option, also include lectures, visits and education sessions, but the composer was in any case obliged to attend various PR events.

Sometimes the regulations were very detailed, the aim being to create as close a tie as possible between the composer and the orchestra. In this respect they were quite strongly reminiscent of the prenuptial negotiations in former times. The composer was to be admitted to the orchestra’s bar circles but was also reminded to “behave properly” at sponsor events. Composers were expected to have knowledge, skills, opinions, visions, ideas, daring and crazy idiosyncrasies – and “if they do not, they are not true composers and deserve to be fired”.

The orchestra was in turn to be partner, employer, boss and mate, all rolled into one. Somehow the orchestra’s latent creativity and talent also had to be tapped. The marriage was certainly no easier than in private life. “Honesty is the only way to generate trust,” orchestras were counselled. Through the orchestras the project radiated out to the local politicians, to artists and persons of note in other fields who were invited in larger numbers than usual to attend concerts and other events.

Dealing with the media was a major item in the instructions. The methods applied were familiar in the business world and political campaigning, but not so much in the arts. The role of Suosio and Fimic was to be made clear in all dealings with the media and all concerned were to speak of the project with enthusiasm, with no reservations and as one voice; strict loyalty and confidentiality were binding on all.

The national launch of the campaign at the Kunsthalle in Helsinki was attended by 23 media reps, but the coverage in the local media was all the more momentous. The slow response of the music press was disappointing, as was the sceptical attitude of the weekly news journal Suomen Kuvalehti and of Seppo Heikinheimo, the most influential music critic on the leading Finnish daily, Helsingin Sanomat.

The combined national and local interest made the project more media sexy and the international press followed suit once operations were under way. The attention of the local and regional media nevertheless proved to be most valuable of all: they came to look upon Back to the Future as “their own thing”, and because of its national dimension, it did not give the impression of being a provincial flash in the pan.

SWOT analysis

In order to promote bonding between the orchestras’ General Managers and composers, Fimic and Suosio organised a seminar on board ship at the beginning (January 1997) and end (January 1999) of the project. During the latter a SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis such as that familiar from the worlds of business and academe was made.

Listed as the project’s strengths were the attention aroused by the massive launch, the small initial resources required, the local focus, the reaching out of contemporary music, the enhancing of positive local feeling towards music, the fact that the project had given the composers a face, the interaction between national and local, the positive impact accompanying the new scheme, the synergy advantages and the composer’s new roles.

Individual orchestras found it was easier to win the commitment of local decision makers for a big national project than for one of their own. It also opened up new opportunities, strengthened the cultural life of the community with the presence of composers and raised the status of new music with premieres and commissions.

Among the weaknesses mentioned were that only half the Finnish orchestras joined in the project, conductors were relegated to the sidelines, there was not always a uniform policy in, say, dealings with the media, the finding and committing of partners was sometimes abandoned half way and there was not enough money available. The resources of some orchestras were also meagre and concern was expressed over the standard of both the compositions and the orchestras.

The opportunities generated by the project included new sources of funding and collaboration, lasting favourable publicity, the enthusiastic response of audiences and of young people in particular, the dispelling of preconceived ideas about composers/contemporary music, the new alliance between composition and performance, and the lasting growth in media interest and audience figures.

The project could also be used to mould and enhance the profile of a specific orchestra, to increase the players’ motivation and to give even small orchestras a chance to establish a dynamic relationship with a composer. Development of the repertoire planning was also seen as a major opportunity.

Identified as threats were failure of those concerned to commit themselves to the partnership, the fickle way in which the media tend to change course, preconceived ideas among members of the public and a feeling that the project was directed too much “from on high”. There may be too much on offer (saturation), and the timing may be wrong. Sometimes the personal chemistries of orchestra and composer may simply not be compatible, and the composer may become branded as being the property of a particular orchestra, and vice versa.

All this analysis should have been done openly in the media. The arts media occupy a dual role in supporting and promoting culture while at the same time making critical assessments, and it is not enough for this latter role to be confined solely to concert reviews. It is permissible, and indeed recommendable for the media to join in campaigns on behalf of music, but afterwards, at the latest, the resources and ability to draw conclusions must somehow be found.

The participants then and now

Fourteen orchestras and composers signed up for the composer-in-residence project, and only one partnership, that between the Vantaa Pops Orchestra and Tuomas Kantelinen, never got off the ground. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra began its partnership with Jukka Tiensuu a little after the others. The project was designed to last 1-3 years, but it meant the orchestras and composers concerned hardly had time to break the surface even.

Some of the orchestras that rejected the idea had special reasons for doing so. It would have been difficult for the Finnish National Opera to confine itself even with limitations to a single composer. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra likewise felt it could not commit itself even temporarily to one composer and gave as one of its arguments its national mission to perform contemporary music.

Similarly the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra was already profiled towards contemporary music and experimental programme planning. It already had an unofficial composer-in-residence in Magnus Lindberg who had, as a member of the Avanti! Association and sometimes of its Committee, taken an active part in the orchestra’s planning. Some non-starter orchestras were accused of being passive and the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra, for example, came under attack for this in the local press.

Missing from the list of composers were, in addition to Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, the old brigade (Bergman, Rautavaara, Heininen, Meriläinen and Sallinen) and the entire younger generation. The youngest of the composers to take up the offer was Juhani Nuorvala (b. 1961), and some of the composers chosen from the Helsinki region caused rancour among their provincial colleagues. Ultimately the composers were chosen by the orchestras, after no doubt giving some thought to personal chemistry.

Back to the Future officially terminated at the end of 2000. Ten orchestras then decided to continue their partnership with their composer-in-residence. Seven still mentioned their composer-in-residence in the Suosio Concert Calendar for spring 2007, which means that half the partnerships have proved more or less permanent. Added to which Jarmo Sermilä has been composer-in-residence of the Hämeenlinna City Orchestra since 2004.

What was achieved?

The campaign achieved its objectives well. The composers used the opportunity to descend from their ivory towers and adapted well to their new roles and obligations. Their input helped the orchestras to explore new avenues and many of the compositions were genuinely made to measure for orchestras and their players.

Under the project 37 new compositions and 10 arrangements or new versions of existing works were premiered in 1997-2000. Creative work was also done at workshops and in music education projects. Some of the works were composed for orchestras direct, some for their musicians. Meanwhile, Finnish orchestras not involved in the project premiered 135 Finnish and 16 non-Finnish works.

It would perhaps be going too far to say that the most significant Finnish works of the 1990s were composed in connection with the project. Nor was this the objective, but the new works were in any case the project’s biggest investment. As a consequence, too much emphasis was possibly placed on the composer’s other roles as producers of ideas and mascots for their orchestras. The news value of premieres was also reduced by the accelerating flood of new Finnish compositions: no fewer than 116 in 2005, for example.

Some of the works were too challenging for the inexperienced orchestras, while some left their orchestras with a somewhat flimsy impression. Works continued to appear after the project ended, such as Kalevi Aho’s Symphonic Dances and Tuba Concerto in 2001, Kimmo Hakola’s Kantele Concerto Riite (Crust Ice) and Jouni Kaipainen’s Symphony no. 3 in 2003. The composer-orchestra partnerships in many towns only really got up speed once the project was over. The idea of made-to-measure compositions has been carried on in the campaign aiming to yield commissions for works for children introduced by Suosio in 2005-2006.

Of all the individual ideas inspired by the Back to the Future project, the one that sparked off most enthusiasm was the concert with unusual repertoire planned by the composer-in-residence. This maybe suggests that orchestras tend to be somewhat stick-in-the-mud in their programme planning, which is often conductor-led and which the programme and artistic committees have failed to enliven sufficiently. The splashes of colour introduced by composers into the repertoire have not yet provided the key to new programme policy, but they have opened the gates of opportunity a crack.

In addition to the commissions the orchestras performed many other works by their composers, thus helping audiences to form an overall picture of their composer-in-residence. The orchestras had reservations about taking up composer’s offers to conduct. During the project the composers got to know the nature, structure and social dynamics of their orchestras better and in the smaller towns forged working links with their audiences, schools, music schools and orchestras’ patrons’ associations.

Together the orchestras and composers gained publicity they would have found difficult to achieve on their own. The orchestras managed to shake off the “institutional” impression that seemed to have taken root in them. The General Managers and players welcomed the opportunity to break away from routine and became more innovative. In the most successful cases all the members of the orchestra staff learnt to view their work through new eyes.

The project was a chance for audiences to catch a glimpse of the composer as a real live person. The discussion events generated dialogue and broke away from the teacher-pupil configuration. The educational impact cannot be underestimated even though the results are difficult to measure. Elsewhere in the world orchestras have long had education programmes of their own and Back to the Future demonstrated the need for a lasting tradition of this kind in Finland, too.

The media took notice as arts institutions stepped out of their habitual mould, giving them an opportunity to raise the torch of creativity. I will not quote from the press here – though there is no shortage of comments – but in their attitude to the project the reports were positive in by far the majority of cases. The local and regional media in particular were able to shine and they kept a close track on the project.

Back to the Future proved that the media, orchestras and composers can be “on the same side”, and that they have communal interests that can be discussed before going into action. In future, it might be a good idea to provoke debate before the start of a campaign. This would avoid the impression that the media are just adding to the choir of voices and would assign them a more diverse role.

All in all, the break with everyday routine fired all the parties involved, though it was not always possible to feed the flames with substance. More than anything else, the project created the feeling that something new and unusual was happening. Herein lay the project’s pioneering nature in the dissemination and marketing of Finnish music.

The fact that Back to the Future has been one of the most widely copied arts projects in recent years says something about the force of the hype behind it. The composer-in-residence scheme has been successfully adopted by music schools and young composers. Composer and other workshops and unusual programme ideas have also been carried out elsewhere, often without the composer-orchestra dynamics of the original project.

The campaign taught that orchestras must constantly seek new strategies, invent new ways and contexts for presenting traditional repertoire and spy out new works or chart ones that have so far passed unnoticed. Back to the Future sparked off a trend that appears to have continued in, for example, the Oulu, Jyväskylä and Tampere orchestras. The already active partnerships in the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra became even richer and closer.

In 2000, as a follow-up to the composer-in-residence project, Suosio, the Finnish Musicians’ Union, the Finnish Performing Music Promotion Centre (ESEK) and the Helsinki City of Culture Foundation organised a one-week Open the Doors to the Orchestras campaign in which 21 orchestras participated. This did not prove so memorable and was reminiscent of a conventional PR stunt devoid of the dynamics generated by interaction.

The future?

Back to the Future was also successful in that Kai Amberla and Pekka Hako were able to put their ideas into practice without the need for compromise accompanying large committees. A certain amount of laid-back humour was all part of the game and gave the whole thing street cred. The two captains and the expertise of their two organisations complemented one another. It is difficult to imagine the same project being repeated as such, but it would undoubtedly be possible to develop a co-venture inspired by historical models and music itself.

In 2007 the orchestras were asked to give their assessments of their composer-in-residence projects in retrospect, but few bothered to reply. From the replies that were received it seems that a period of four years was considered too short for the project, but at the same time the orchestras felt it was unnecessary to create a permanent composer-in-residence system. The orchestras with favourable experiences have continued to develop the system, while others have been content merely to enjoy the fruits of the project.

The project organisers, Suosio and Fimic, learnt many useful things from the project. Fimic reckoned that because of the project, it now looks at Finland more intensively than ever before in its history. Since the project, Fimic has become more and more of an export organisation, but the substrate for Finnish music and the conditions for success still remain.

The strong support of the Finnish Cultural Foundation was in line with its long-term policy of preserving the vitality and regional distribution of Finnish culture. Many of the experiences of Back to the Future could be processed into further measures at moderate cost, but despite its stated objectives, the Government has been conspicuous by its absence from such development work.

The orchestras stated in their replies that they would no longer (in 2006) be able to provide their own funding in the way they did in 1997. Disregarding the grants received for commissions, the project could most definitely have done with more funds to carry out ideas not in line with the orchestras’ basic work. Such ideas operate in precisely the areas of which Governments’ culture programmes speak in the most eloquent terms: in reaching out to children, the elderly and other special groups, in a new kind of cultural and popular education.

It is to be hoped that the Government will, in the future, show greater enthusiasm for supporting projects of this type, without an endless round of committees, working groups and reports. The local authorities should see from the evidence just how much positive publicity can be achieved via their orchestras, but only with sustained effort. The financial investments need not be large, but they cannot be included in the orchestra’s normal budget.

Although the orchestras’ joint composer-in-residence project officially ended in 2000, Suosio and others are still monitoring its state of health and progress. The enquiries indicate that the project acquired a dynamic image and that it offered not only the initiated a chance to make contact with actors in musical life.

Something should be learnt from the project. Fimic may ask itself what it could do on behalf of Finnish music in Finland. The Finnish orchestras are parts of a brilliant network that could provide the foundations for projects of very different types. The orchestras should ask themselves what sorts of projects they could carry out to liven up their operations – and remember that there is strength in unity.


Orchestra / Chief Conductor 1997 /Composer-in-residence:

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam / Jukka Tiensuu

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra / Tuomas Ollila  /Jouni Kaipainen

Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Hannu Lintu / Mikko Heiniö

Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä  /Kalevi Aho

Oulu Symphony Orchestra / Arvo Volmer  /Olli Kortekangas

Tapiola Sinfonietta / Jean-Jacques Kantorow / Juhani Nuorvala

Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä / Ari Rasilainen / Tapani Länsiö

Joensuu City Orchestra / Atso Almila / Kimmo Hakola

Vaasa City Orchestra / Pertti Pekkanen  /Markus Fagerudd

Lappeenranta City Orchestra / Pertti Pekkanen  /Markus Fagerudd

Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra / Juha Kangas  /Pehr Henrik Nordgren

St. Michel Strings / Juha Nikkola  /Eero Hämeenniemi

Hyvinkää Orchestra / Tuomas Pirilä  /Harri Vuori

Vantaa Pops orchestra / Markku Johansson / Tuomas Kantelinen

New works (37) and new versions & arrangements (10) composed under the project 1997-2000:

Tapani Länsiö: Hit (1997), Nine Settings of Poems by Paavo Haavikko (1998)

Jouni Kaipainen: Completion of the Karelia music by Jean Sibelius (1997), Nyo ze honmak kukyo to (1999, arrangement of the 3rd movement of the Clarinet Quintet), Millennium Fanfare (1999), two songs by Juice Leskinen (Pyhä toimitus, Musta aurinko nousee, 2000)

Olli Kortekangas: Ark (1998), Winter Music (1999), Ruutanturruutus Fanfare (1999), Virtaa Fanfare (1999), Cello Concerto (2000), With Songs of Gladness for baritone, boys’ choir and orchestra (2000), Les nuits blanches (2000)

Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Rock Score (1997), Horn Concerto (1997), Little Polska in a Minor Key (1999), String Quartet no. 8

Juhani Nuorvala: Fanfare (1998), Sinfonietta for Strings (1998, arrangement of String Quartet no. 2), Clarinet Concerto (1998)

Markus Fagerudd: Circles of Solitude (1998, Lappeenranta), Iigo-Iigo (1998, Vaasa), Vid mans strand (1999, Lappeenranta), Arco naturale (1999, Lappeenranta, arrangement of String Quartet), Ingrepp IV (1999, Lappeenranta)

Eero Hämeenniemi: For Poets and Dancers (1998)

Mikko Heiniö: Symphony no. 2, “Songs of Night and Love” (1998), The Knight and the Dragon (2000)

Jukka Tiensuu: Alma (1998, also Alma suite I-III)

Kimmo Hakola: Fanfare (1997), Solenne (1998), Sinfonietta (2000), musical fairytale Topsy Turvy (2000)

Harri Vuori: Over the Moon, Under the Sun (1999)

Kalevi Aho: Ad astra Fanfare (1997), Otetaanpa miehestä mittaa, Lahti FC anthem (1997), completion of the Karelia music by Sibelius (1997), Kallio Church Bell Tune (1997, orchestration of the tune by Sibelius), Praetorius: Vom Himmel hoch (1997, orchestration), Vogler: Hosianna (1997, orchestration), Seven Inventions and a Postlude (1986/1998), Solo V (1999), Solo VI (1999), Solo VIII (2000), Symphony no. 11 (2000), Three Interval Fanfares (2000)

Still in partnership in 2007:

Lahti Symphony Orchestra,  Kalevi Aho

Lappeenranta City Orchestra , Markus Fagerudd

Oulu Symphony Orchestra, Olli Kortekangas

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra,  Jouni Kaipainen

Turku Philharmonic Orchestra,  Mikko Heiniö (also Anders Hillborg)

Vaasa City Orchestra,  Markus Fagerudd

Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra,  Pehr Henrik Nordgren

Hyvinkää Orchestra,  Harri Vuori

New partnership:

Hämeenlinna City Orchestra,  Jarmo Sermilä


Translation: Susan Sinisalo