Reinventing the old folk sounds
by Hannu Tolvanen :: 2003
The winds of change in folk music have been felt in Finland as elsewhere. Or have the new discoveries in fact been around since ancient times? The myriad shades and tones inherent in the human voice have always been put to good use in traditional Finnish folk music. In the days when the human ear was still sensitive to the slightest variation, even a tiny innovation might prove significant. Some genres of folk singing used the voice with infinite variety: laments, incantations, lullabies and cattle calls each required a different tone and register. The range of styles has grown wider the closer we come to the present day, so much so that Finnish folk singing could be said to have developed a school of its own in which timbre has become a boundless resource.
Heikki Laitinen and the power of the human voice
The pioneer of novel vocal sounds in Finland has been Professor Heikki Laitinen
, researcher, musician, composer, teacher and avant-gardist. He studied composition with Erik Bergman
in the 1960s and for two decades produced numerous happening compositions and improvisations. The 1970s found him in the ranks of the Kankaan pelimannit
, a folk group interpreting the old ballads in authentic style.
Improvisation in the company of dance
|Ten years later he was probing even deeper into his texts in interpretations that were increasingly expressive – a reminder of his happening improvisations and their freedom of expression. A good example is the ballad 'Kaarlo and Kerttu': as the song proceeds and the story gets more and more gloomy, so the tone of voice changes to groaning and bawling, thus stepping up the gloom and doom.|
Heikki Laitinen's chief hangout in the 1980s was the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, of which he was one of the founding fathers. As a teacher of voice, in particular, he has passed on the avant-garde spirit to almost all the vocal folk music graduates. They could almost be said to constitute a school. His own discography is relatively slight but exemplary, but then he has been most at home in live performances that almost always turn out to be breath-taking experiences for his audiences.
During the past few years Laitinen has frequently joined forces with dancer Reijo Kela
and accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen
in a line-up that calls itself Kelavala
. Their venues have varied from one extreme to the other: one day Kela may be dancing on water, at another time in a sand pit, to the accompaniment of sound improvisations by Laitinen. Sometimes the performances may last several hours.
New sound qualities hold a fascination for Heikki Laitinen, whether they be produced on an instrument or by a human voice. The search for new sounds, shades or timbres has added a wealth of nuance to his singing (or voice production). This search is in a way the very core of his concept of folk music, and its greatest resource. In 1997 he wrote of the outlook for folk music in the new millennium: “Avant-garde will also attract its own schools, questioning everything, tearing tradition to pieces, asking folklore and the people who perform it ironic questions, or simply and sincerely just trying to give voice to it in the genres of the new millennium.”
Elsewhere in the world there have been artists like this making versatile use of their voices for a long time. Such names as Meredith Monk
, Sainkho Namtchylak
, Ivá Bittóva
and Marie Selander
immediately spring to mind. Some very traditional cultures also use voices in ways quite unlike those of Western Europe, the best-known being the overtone and throat singing of Central Asia in general and of Tuva, Mongolia and Tibet in particular. These techniques are numerous and each produces very different sounds.
The Laitinen/Kela partnership was further cemented with the founding of the Suomussalmi Group of four musicians and six dancers devoted to the combination of improvised dance and music. It has led to numerous performances in very varied surroundings: a marsh or a forest, nocturnal Helsinki, and always with surprising results.
|One of the rare Laitinen sound releases, and one in which vocal improvisation plays a major role, is the incidental music to the play 'Pidot' by the Peukalopotti Puppet Theatre dating from 1996 (HRCD-111, 1997). The play was in fact more of a theatre supper complete with food and drinks for just twelve diners at a time. Together with Maria Kalaniemi and Anna-Kaisa Liedes Laitinen created a very distinctive soundscape. His own indie label, HecRec, has since released three demonstrations of the infinite potential of the human voice.|
Generic borders blurred
Anna-Kaisa Liedes is one of the best-known names in the Finnish school. Now in the process of completing a Doctorate in the Folklore Department at the Sibelius Academy, she is concentrating on the diversity of the human voice. On her first solo disc, 'Kuuttaren korut' (OMCD44, 1994), she still adhered almost entirely to tradition, but she has since been moving gradually in an avant-garde direction. She does, however, still display a sovereign
command of traditional styles as well. Her disc 'Äänimerkki/Sound-Signal' (HRCD-113, 2002) produced as part of her Doctorate is a musical dialogue with percussionist Petri Korpela
that is pure musical avant-garde and proves that there are no fixed boundaries between musical genres.
Giving her debut concert in October 2003, Outi Pulkkinen
is another vocal artist with roots in tradition. Together with Jouko Kyhälä
she has done a lot of music for dance theatres in particular. Voice and bowed harp (crwth) blend with the sounds of a mouth organ and keyboards to produce highly descriptive music. A good example is the music to the dance work 'Intiimiä ajatustenlukua' (JUMI001, 1999).
A third soloist is Meri Tiitola
, who released her debut disc in her own name this year (HRCD-114, 2003). This operates across the traditional music of Finland and East Asia, but the accompaniment could just as well be said to draw on the same sources as Western modern music.
MeNaiset lean on Finno-Ugric tradition
|Anna-Kaisa Liedes and Outi Pulkkinen are founder members of the female vocal ensemble calling itself MeNaiset. Founded in 1993, the group went into action with songs of the Finns and related peoples. Early in its career, in 1995, it already did a sound improvisation production with Swedish Marie Selander. Called 'Minne Läpikuultava kissa', it was performed at the Human Voice festival in Helsinki, an important sound improvisation event. Also featuring at the festival were other leading Finnish vocal artists, along with Ivá Bittóva and Sainkho Namtchylak.|
Although MeNaiset nowadays stick more to traditional songs, vocal tricks of all kinds are still a major item on their agenda. They have continued their search for new soundscapes in the installation 'Kohtaaminen' (2000) and in the sound performance 'Sonic Eye' (2000) produced on the ramparts of Suomenlinna sea fortress by Mark McLoughlin
for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).
Sound improvisations and experiments with the human voice in a sense culminated in Iki-Turso
, a sound theatre inspired by the 150th anniversary of the "New" Kalevala (the Finnish national epic) in 1999. Convened by Heikki Laitinen, Iki-Turso has addressed itself to the archaic practice of rune-singing and sound improvisation. As its first project it produced 14 rune-singing concerts, all different, devoted to Kalevalaic epic and lyric poetry.
Each concert also included an improvisation contest on a given text: legends, stories. Little by little the group has shifted its gaze to sound improvisation and performance, i.e. to anything that could be classed as sound theatre. Since the rune-singing project Iki-Turso has produced a few other large-scale works. 'Äänenpäivä Suomenlinnassa' (2000) was a wander in sound round the sea fortress ramparts, vaults and bastions lasting all day, 'Muistolaulu Marijalle' (2001) a series of sound performances at the Mari exhibition at the Museum of Cultures, and 'Imaanin huuto' (2002) a sound theatre production staged at the Museum of Finnish Art, the Ateneum.
Only one of the eight members of Iki-Turso, Juha Valkeapää
, is not in any way connected with the Sibelius Academy. In his own solo productions he has kept company with very many different circles. In the City Talk series in Calgary and Zagreb he gave voice to various objects he came across in the street, such as hydrants, police cars and telephone kiosks. The result was a kind of extended Sami yoik. The same astonishing feature can be detected in Iki-Turso and the solo works of its members: avant-garde and archaic expression are really very close. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun.
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 4/2003.
Translation © Susan Sinisalo
Heikki Laitinen: Iiska Siirilä
Anna-Kaisa Liedes and MeNaiset: Ilari Ikävalko