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Arenas for experimental music in Finland

by Juuso Paaso, Taneli Tuominen

There are more events for experimental music in Finland than ever before. The majority of clubs are in Helsinki, but there is an active scene in other major cities too. Despite facing financial hardship, the organizers are contagiously enthusiastic.

Clubs clubbing together

In the early 2000s, Finnish music underwent a series of underground upheavals with the emergence of an entire cluster of new clubs for experimental music.

Broadly, we may divide the new events into two groups, one having its origins in the sphere of popular music and the other in the sphere of classical music. The former is inspired by underground culture, while the latter has turned to electronic noise and performance art as a tool kit for creating new sounds.

But despite their different origins, the new experimental Finnish clubs share an interest for improvisation, a small scale and the organizers’ sincere love for music.

Though called ‘clubs’, most of them are actually irregularly organized events which are often kicked into action by a contact from a foreign artist. Finnish artists mainly join the show at this point, and such events often facilitate further networking. There is not a single club in Finland based on Finnish experimental music alone; hence, unfortunately, there is not a single artist in Finland making a living out of experimental music alone.

Anton Nikkilä, founding member of the Avanto Festival and an old hand at experimental music, explains that since what little money there is available goes towards paying foreign performers, it is difficult to find resources that would give permanence to Finnish musical experiments.

Strange bedfellows

Many of the clubs grew out of the practical needs of their organizers to find a space and an environment for the music which they and their friends enjoy. The present authors, frustrated by the narrow and predictable range of gigs available, decided to found the Potlatch club in Helsinki in 2001. The organizers of the Boring as Fuck club, also in Helsinki, mention a similar motivation for the founding of their club in 2004.

It is the active contribution of individuals, as both musicians and administrators, which is the driving force behind these clubs. Foreign contacts are forged through mutual interest, and this also lays groundwork for foreign tours by Finnish artists.

Tulipesä [Firebox] in Turku and Mental Alaska in Tampere, the pioneers and innovators of today’s club scene, are akin to the above-mentioned Helsinki clubs in that they seek to carnevalize music, to surprise audiences and to challenge preconceived notions. The connection to the underground of the 1960s is obvious: the main thing is the sense of something happening. It is also necessary to gently nudge the audience every now and again.

The primus motor of Mental Alaska is Arttu Partinen, while Tulipesä, originally set up as a meeting ground for different approaches to free music by Niko-Matti Ahti and Tero Kemppainen, is today piloted by Roope Eronen, among others. Through the contacts they established while playing in a band called Avarus, Partinen and Eronen have managed to bring many interesting artists to Finland. Their contacts to international underground circles have been an important catalyst in the emergence of a psychedelically tinged noise/rock scene in Finland.

In the shadow of the big boys

Because the Finnish enthusiasts in this area of interest are a very small crowd, it is difficult if not downright impossible to run a club on box office takings alone. On the other hand, the activities are too marginal and too amateurish from the point of view of the keepers of public money. The situation is slightly better outside the major cities, since there is less competition for the regional cultural grants.

Sometimes even a rather traditional approach to music can generate a surprising experimental tangent. A case in point is the Fly-Rite Festival in Tampere, organized by the Tampere Jazz Happening ‘friends association’ founded in 1999.

The association parted ways with the jazz festival where it was founded because of the festival’s increasingly conservative programming. Fly-Rite, which is organized at the Telakka [Shipyard] and Vastavirta [Counter-current] bars, continues to champion free and experimental jazz but is also interested in rock, country and “anything that shows a genuine love for music”, as Simo Laihonen from the association puts it.

It says something for the spirit of freedom from cultural institutions that Vastavirta is the leading punk bar in Tampere.

Freedom and professionalism

An interesting group among the clubs is formed by those which combine performance art and music, such as the performance art clubs Nyrjähdys [Sprain, or Twist] in Lahti and Là-bas in Helsinki. Instead of bars, these tend to operate in multi-purpose venues such as the Cable Factory in Helsinki and the Lahti Art Brewery. They occupy the fringes and margins of the performing arts.

The first Thursday of every month is the meeting day for Helsinki Meeting Point, which each time brings together four dancers and four instrumentalists who, as a rule, have never met before. ‘Emphasizing the moment’ is the only acknowledged rule in the group’s search for a common language and shared moments.

Non Repetat in Helsinki and Praesens in Jyväskylä focus on how music is created in space, the moment of improvisation where the structure of sound and the logic of its development take centre stage. On the other hand, Petri Pirtilä and Matti Kauppi of Non Repetat and Sami Nybacka and Anja Mauranen of Praesens also share the passion for ecstatic noise shown by Tommi Keränen, an active participant in the Äänen Lumo [Enchantment of sound] club.

Indeed, Keränen’s work with the association behind Äänen Lumo has considerably advanced the status of noise, sound art and free improvisation in all their forms in Finland. The association has brought several important artists to Helsinki and at the same time has managed to raise the profile of Finnish experimental musicians.

The only really professional promoter in the area of experimental music in Finland is Artemi Remes, who works for the independent Fullsteam Agency. Remes organizes high-profile gigs in Helsinki for the hottest names in experimental rock music and runs a monthly Black Box club where experimental films are screened between musical performances.

This survey clearly shows that experimental music is in a promising state of flux in Finland at the moment. As long as the clubs manage to avoid becoming mutually exclusive in their identities, fruitful cross-fertilization can be assumed to continue and increase.

Three and a half festivals

There are currently three festivals in Finland focusing on experimental music. The largest of them is the Avanto Festival, organized for the eighth time this autumn.

The Inari Festival of Experimental Music (IFEM) was organized in Lapland for the second time in early September. Held in the villages of Inari and Ivalo in the far northern reaches of Lapland, the festival brings experimental musicians to the wilds amidst the brightest blaze of autumn colours.

IFEM was born in 2005 out of discussions between guitarist Pekka Kumpulainen from Ivalo and sound artist Simon Wickham-Smith from Britain. The festival has featured experimental musicians from Lapland and rising names in Finnish free improvisation and noise such as Topias Tiheäsalo and Tommi Keränen. This year, the festival also included foreign musicians and film-makers.

Because the festival is small and remote from any major centres, it can freely try out even wilder ideas than festivals closer to the heartland of Finland can. An example of this can be found in the concerts organized on board M/S Inari II on Lake Inari and on islands in the lake.

In Helsinki, the first Lal Lal Lal festival was organized in May this year. It was a three-day underground-inspired event masterminded by Roope Eronen and Arttu Partinen, who also founded a record label with the same name in 2001.

Both the festival and the record label consciously seek to break down musical barriers. Thus, for example, the festival easily juxtaposes such things as the homespun electronic minimalism of Nuslux and the unfettered free folk music of Kheta Hotem.

The range of venues brought a genuinely urban festival feeling to the three-day event: the first night was at a rock club, the second focused on sounds in a gallery space, and the concluding event was, as per festival traditions, held in a bar.

The present authors have organized the Potlatch festival in Helsinki in 2005 and 2006 alongside running a club. These festivals presented a wide range of interesting experimental and popular music.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi