Joel Jäventausta is third prizewinner in the 2019 Zemlinsky Competition, an international initiative of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), which exists to promote and encourage the development of young composers
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
When I was 13, my grandfather bought a tiny 2-octave keyboard that I really enjoyed playing. This lead to piano lessons, which in turn led to doing advanced music at school and exploring the core classical repertoire at home as well as in concerts. Thankfully I have also had very supportive people – family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, friends – around me to this day. In school my music teacher, Noel Morgan, guided me towards a career in music, for which I am ever grateful.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Three teenage memories of concerts stand out: seeing Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct his Violin Concerto; seeing James MacMillan conduct The Confession of Isoble Gowdie; and seeing Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I was just starting out in music and having explored mostly pre-20th century music, I think these listening experiences showed me a very different world. I could list many composers, musicians, people, pieces and experiences that have influenced me so far, though perhaps too many for this interview.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I guess the main challenge is to be able to be a composer in the first place. It is a precarious and unusual career option. This does not mean it is not worth it, though: as far as I can see, it is the only thing I want to do in life! I am lucky to have not yet encountered any significant frustrations though, other than relatively short periods of creative blocks.
Of which works are you most proud?
It tends to be the most recent piece(s). Perhaps this is because you have put so much time and effort into thinking and crafting the work that you can’t help but to feel a bit proud of what you’ve achieved. I would hope this is the case with most artists.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I just love writing music. Sometimes composing is easy and sometimes immensely difficult. I can get stuck so easily for days on end, but then suddenly be able to write many minutes of music in very short periods of time. I think this creative pendulum is what makes composition so interesting and enjoyable (though it is easy to get frustrated). Having solid deadlines is very helpful. It makes you think about the music you are writing in a different way – it brings you back to earth and the reality.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I am so humbled to have worked with really fantastic musicians in the past few years. Knowing the unique sound of the musician(s) I am composing for and collaborating with, has a wonderful impact on the music. You get to know exactly what they enjoy playing and what they are capable of technically and as artists and therefore write with their sound in mind.
Here is an example of a close collaboration I did with violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved:
How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?
This is the hardest question to answer. I take a lot of inspiration from other arts and books of fiction and non-fiction. These can have a direct impact on the structure, form, pacing, drama of the piece and so on; or a more abstract impact such as inspiring specific feelings, atmospheres, sounds and ideas. Having synaesthesia (a sensory phenomenon, which to me manifests in strong associations of music with colour) affects the way I perceive paintings and other visual stimulants such as photographs, tapestries or even descriptive passages of prose or poems. I always compose with colour and imagery in mind, inevitably. I also love nature and the quiet. All of this feeds into the music I write, in ways that are difficult to explain.
How do you work?
I try to stick to a routine. I like to work from morning to midday and again later in the afternoon. Late evenings work great for me too. I try to put time aside for listening and score studying as well as reading, but often composing can take all the time available in a day. In the past few months I have been working on a commission for London Symphony Orchestra’s 2020/21 season and whilst it has been the most enjoyable and challenging process, it does take a lot of time. In terms of actual writing, I usually plan and draw the structure of my pieces on paper. Then I try to imagine what kind of soundworld the piece will inhabit, scribbling down descriptive terms onto the structural plan. Once this is done, I start writing…and things change immensely from the initial plan. But you have to go with your muse.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As a composer, I hope that I will be able to offer an experience to the listener that will move them in some way or another. I believe that I have a responsibility to communicate something. But that is up to the listener to decide. On a more practical level, I would consider success to have regular work coming to my way, to make a living of my art and keep writing the music I want to write.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be pro-active and ambitious, yet humble and grateful.
What is your most treasured possession?
Bookcases filled with books and scores. (And my laptop, where all my music is)