Finnish music – does anyone really know what that is?
by Fimic team :: 2009
Finland has a lot of land and not very many people. In our sparsely populated country there is room for music to grow and blossom. There is space for the most diverse of phenomena, the new and eccentric rubbing shoulders with the traditional and conventional. A number of Finnish musical curiosities have reached the world stage, from the monster heavy band Lordi to the fictitious world music of Alamaailman Vasarat. But wait – there’s more: cosmopolitan contemporary concert music by Kaija Saariaho, ultra-cool electro-pop bands, groovy jazz from The Five Corners Quintet and moody soul music from Tuomo, to name but a few.
Polished and professional
It is a commonplace to explain the vitality of the Finnish musical scene by referring to our extensive system of music institutes where for decades children and adolescents have been able to pursue music as a hobby at a high level of quality close to home. Although not every child is or wants to be a budding genius, there are numerous world stars of classical music who started in this way, from the iconic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to the emerging string quartet Meta4 and multi-talented violin virtuoso Pekka Kuusisto. What is more, the music institute system has produced a large body of educated music listeners appreciative for instance of premieres of pieces by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho or Magnus Lindberg, and the fact that Finnish orchestras are completely comfortable with performing contemporary music – not only in Helsinki but elsewhere in the country too – is also a product of the system.
Virtuosos may be found in other genres too. We may mention the classically trained heavy metal cellists of Apocalyptica, jazz polymaths from Iiro Rantala to the Louhivuori brothers, or Alexi Laiho of the Children of Bodom, sometimes described as the best guitar player in the world.
The robust professional competence of Finnish musicians also owes a great deal to top-notch university-level training. The direct impact of this is perhaps best visible in modern Finnish folk music. Founded in 1983, the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy rapidly became a key forum for a variety of musical traditions under the leadership of Heikki Laitinen and gave various talents the space to explore their creativity. In 2008, the department received the prestigious Womex prize for its merits in the genre of folk music. And the work goes on. For example, Professor Maria Kalaniemi, an alumna of the department, now teaches the accordion there, and new generations of musicians are evolving their own original styles, as in the case of accordion players Johanna Juhola and Antti Paalanen.
The Finnish Tone – is there such a thing?
What exactly does Finnish music sound like? The common stereotype is that it is in a minor key, melancholy and dark. This is admittedly true of a lot of Finnish tangos and schlager-type songs, the music of lost love, longing and nostalgia.
This sombre undercurrent is probably why Finns are so exceptionally keen on heavy metal: heavy rock is enjoyed across the board in all social classes in Finland, and Finnish heavy rock has established itself on the international music scene too. Bands such as HIM and Nightwish already have a solid fan base across the world, and the apostles of Finnish melancholy abroad also include Amoprhis and 69 Eyes. Internationally successful Finnish bands closer to the mainstream include The Rasmus, Sunrise Avenue and Poets of the Fall.
Finnish jazz may not be quite so depressive, but it too has been described as melancholy. The term ‘Nordic Tone’ is often used abroad to describe the lucid sound of Nordic jazz. This was pursued with success by Edward Vesala, and after him by Iro Haarla, a leading name in Finnish jazz who has recorded for the ECM label. Aspects of melancholy are also explored by young trumpet player Verneri Pohjola and the Ilmiliekki Quartet, whose chillingly lovely melodies are coloured with happy, free-wheeling solos. The Five Corners Quintet, who tour abroad extensively, have brought a fresh contemporary flavour to their traditional groovy club jazz.
Finland is about opposites and fusion
Being Finnish is not all about being down in the dumps; for every stereotype there is someone questioning that stereotype. Even the field of Finnish pop and rock is not all heavy metal; something completely different may be found in the girl energy of Pintandwefall, the indie punk of Disco Ensemble, or the indie rock of Rubik and Joensuu 1685.
Jimi Tenor struck out on a completely idiosyncratic path of his own in the 1990s. More recently hyped Finnish acts such as Le Corps Mince de Francoise have attracted attention in the British music press and in continental Europe, and the artists recording for the Fonal label, such as Islaja, have already become household names in alternative music circles in Europe.
Finnish classical music has long since escaped the shadow of Sibelius and taken off in a number of different directions: the accessible ‘fur hat operas’ of Joonas Kokkonen and Aulis Sallinen, the freshly brilliant musical genius of Kimmo Hakola, the uncompromising originality of Jukka Tiensuu and the central European aesthetic of Veli-Matti Puumala. The younger generation of composers has also found originally profiled styles and pursuits, such as the quarter-tone harmonies of the prize-winning Sampo Haapamäki, the compelling musical flow of Sebastian Fagerlund, the powerful lyricism of Lotta Wennäkoski and the fresh inventiveness of Perttu Haapanen.
In folk music too, efforts to question conventional approaches have been pursued with good taste and respectful of the tradition. Violin polskas are still played at Kaustinen, the traditional seat of fiddler music in Finland, but now they are played in the style of JPP and Frigg rather than that of the late Konsta Jylhä. The kantele has graduated from remote cottages to concert halls and rock gigs, and the traditional yoik of the Sámi has attracted a completely new and wide audience beyond the borders of Finland thanks to the vocal powers and range of expression of Wimme Saari. And although the eastern Finnish tradition of laments and lullabies is still alive and well, new Finnish folk music tends to be upbeat and good fun rather than sombre and slow. The boom in new folk music was spearheaded by Värttinä, and one of the most original products of this boom is the harmonica quartet Sväng, which creatively combines music from a number of folk traditions. Indeed, tradition has quickly acquired new meanings amidst rapid changes in Finnish society, as witness for instance the music of Jouhiorkesteri, who have brought the ancient bowed lyre called the jouhikko to the concert stage.
The curious characteristics of Finnish culture have often been attributed to our location between East and West, on the border between two cultures and two churches, in the remote northern reaches of Europe. If anything, Finns are adept at blending influences to come up with something new, to merge just about anything with anything else. We need only cite cases like the indefinable accordion wizard Kimmo Pohjonen or the bewildering fusion style of RinneRadio. And new combinations are constantly emerging – we can never know what will happen next.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi