Ilari Kaila is a Finnish-born composer, based in Hong Kong and with strong ties in New York City. He is the Chelsea Music Festival 2015 Composer-in-Residence, a residency which highlights work from an emerging composer reflecting its global programming. This year’s Festival features the music of Finland and Hungary, and Kaila’s composition “Cameo” headlines the 2015 season’s June 12 Opening Night Gala at Canoe Studios. A separate world premiere performance and a collaboration with the Festival’s Finnish Ensemble-in-Residence Avanti! further introduce Kaila’s latest music to New York City. We caught up with Ilari as he prepares for his premieres to learn how his global artistic network shaped his path as a composer.
How did the artistic culture in Finland affect your path to composition?
Being born and raised there, it’s hard to pinpoint any particular, distinct influences– I found my way into music immersed in that culture, and music is the art that probably most defines Finland. Much of Finnish contemporary music has some characteristics that I can identify in my own music, too, regardless of aesthetic outlook or the ideologies that some attach to their aesthetics. At the same time, I’ve had a complicated history with the Finnish composition culture. I began my studies at the Sibelius Academy in 1998, and I was let know in pretty straightforward terms that my kind of music was really not welcome. I continued my studies in the States, and being exposed to so much diversity and aesthetic plurality in New York was very liberating and inspiring.
You have strong relationships with India, Hong Kong, New York, and Finland. How has each artistic community contributed to your music?
Having been able to live and work in so many different places has really amplified the feeling I had when I first came to New York, that I just mentioned: the thrill of experiencing a wide spectrum of approaches to music. This is something that Esa-Pekka Salonen has also talked about, how moving to LA gave him a powerful realization that there is no single correct way to make music. It’s something I’ve always believed, but believing something is very different from a visceral, inspiring experience.
South Indian Classical Carnatic music is one of your major influences. How did you connect with the South Indian arts scene?
My background in music was pretty unacademic before my formal studies. I played in various bands and improvisation projects, and before enrolling at the Sibelius Academy, I’d already been spending a lot of time at their folk music department. I was generally curious about different ways of approaching improvisation which, to me, is intimately tied with composition. Some of my friends had spent time in North India, studying classical Hindustani music, and I ended up learning and playing with them. This was before the time of YouTube, so much of our rehearsals consisted of mimicking what we heard on CDs. We probably sounded terrible, but the process opened up a whole new musical world for me. Later on, the Sibelius Academy began an exchange program with a school in Chennai, South India, and I had the great opportunity to travel there to learn Carnatic music.
Aside from composing, you are also an educator. How does your experience as an educator affect your artistic life?
For me, teaching has always been an important part of my own learning and the development of my craft. It’s a privilege to immerse yourself into the scores of masters, to dissect them, to try and see how they’re put together, and to mimic them with the help of your students.
What are you excited about in the Chelsea Music Festival?
I’m particularly looking forward to working on two premieres featured in the Chelsea Music Festival: a new trio for piano, flute and viola titled “Cameo,” and a small piano prelude I wrote last summer, which the Festival’s Co-Artistic Director Melinda Lee Masur will play. It’s really an honor to be the Composer-in-Residence for the Chelsea Music Festival this year, and I can’t think of a better way to return home to New York.
Kaila’s works can be heard at the Chelsea Music Festival’s Opening Night Gala (June 12), Toccata and Groove – The Bach Effect in Finland and Hungary (June 13), and Carte Blanche Avanti! (June 15).