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Finding your voice in a foreign country

by Santeri Kaipiainen

Among Finnish jazz musicians, those who have completed an entire degree abroad remain very much a minority. Yet seeking perspective away from home may help find a voice that can become internationally distinctive. This article features three pianist-composers for whom studying abroad proved to be a meaningful choice.

“I had been writing music for two decades but did not feel ready to share it publicly. It took a long time for me to get rid of the notion that I had to be ‘ready’ as a performer in order to release an album. Recording involved a perfectionist dread of creating something that I would regard as immature decades down the line,” pianist Anni Kiviniemi confesses.

Her début album Eir was released on the We Jazz label in January. The single ‘Tiu Dropar’ from that album ended up on a playlist curated by Jamie Cullum on the in-flight entertainment channels of British Airways and Lufthansa. The single was also commended in Finland, receiving the ultimate accolade of five stars from Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest daily newspaper.

And yet Eir is not a typical Finnish jazz album. It was recorded in Oslo, which is where Kiviniemi completed her Master’s degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Kiviniemi’s first experience of the country was not in Oslo, though, but at the Trondheim Conservatory.

Anni Kiviniemi. Photo by Ira Aaltola.

“Their teaching methods were very collective and focused on learning by ear. No musical decision was bad if the student was able to explain why they did it. We were firmly encouraged to write our own music and to rehearse and improvise together with other students.”

Kiviniemi subsequently relocated from Trondheim to London, to Iceland and eventually to Los Angeles, but her bands did not travel with her. In Trondheim, Kiviniemi performed her music solo, in a quintet and in a trio, and at the time she was already working with Hans Hulbækmo, who also appears on Eir. After three years in Trondheim, Kiviniemi felt it was time to leave.

“And this is why none of my bands have survived for more than a year or two. It is also why it has been difficult to make a name for myself as a performer in the long term,” says Kiviniemi, who currently lives in Los Angeles.

“This is not an easy city for a jazz musician. It’s difficult to contact venues, it’s very difficult to move around without a car, and everywhere is a long way from everywhere else.”


Musical encounters in Amsterdam


Ida Alanen likewise released her trio début in the past year. She is in her second year of studies for a Master’s degree in jazz piano at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

“I really wanted to live abroad, amidst a different language and culture. I also wanted to continue my studies, but I couldn’t find an interesting enough Master’s programme in Finland,” says Alanen.

Alanen had graduated as a musician from the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in 2019 and had already been accepted as a student in Copenhagen when she opted for Amsterdam instead. Her choice was motivated by the international profile and networking of the Amsterdam Conservatory.

“While the Sibelius Academy admits basically just one pianist per year to the Department of Jazz, in Amsterdam there are more than 40 jazz pianists studying at any one time. A huge number of different musicians each with their own voice.”

Alanen is particularly fond of the freedom to structure her studies as she wishes.

“Most of the courses I’m currently taking are in fact in styles not traditionally considered jazz. Fewer than one in five students are Dutch, so I now have colleagues and friends from all over the world.” 

Ida Alanen. Photo by Teemu Kekkonen

Alanen formed a trio with bass player Jonathan Bäckström and drummer Benjamin Nylund before moving to Amsterdam.

“It started partly by accident in 2020. When the pandemic shut down all live performances, I focused on writing music and practising. We met to play music just for fun, and finally we ended up as a trio for performing my music.”

The trio released their début album on the Norwegian label AMP Music in 2023. Titled Awake Asleep, its overarching theme is dreams.

“When I’d almost finished writing music for the album, I realised that the tracks were mainly about the dream world and about the grey area between sleeping and waking, or at least this idea was present in them in some way. I read about this author who reviewed problems in his work in the evening before going to bed and then returned to the matter in the morning when his subconscious had processed all that in his sleep. I began to do that for writing music,” Alanen explains.


Broadening jazz horizons


Numerous other Finnish musicians have studied in Amsterdam, such as Aurora Hentunen. Her quartet expanded into a quintet on her third album, Little Further, which will be released on the Eclipse Music label in October.

“While my first album, Second Spring, practically wrote itself, and on Frost I sought out ‘weird’ things in music and in myself, Little Further is a reflection of dark clouds, a time of war and a post-pandemic mental state. I aimed to write music in a way different from before, with input from the pop and indie side of my musical thinking,” says Hentunen.

The new album features effect pedals and synthesisers more than before – elements that have a strong presence in the work of the electronic music duo Meow Piglet formed by Hentunen and another Amsterdam alum, Branislav Vlaisavljević.

“Most of my colleagues caught the jazz bug in their teens at the latest, but at that age I was mostly listening to indie and alt-pop. The first jazz pianist who really made an impression on me was Esbjörn Svensson, and I think that this is very evident on my first two albums.”

Aurora Hentunen. Photo bot Jade Sastropawiro

Hentunen did not really begin to appreciate the world of jazz until she left the Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences on a student exchange to Groningen in the Netherlands.

“There were weekly guest teachers from the USA giving masterclasses and workshops, and I began to understand a lot more about modern jazz, about composing and about arranging. In the student bands, you had to learn a lot of jazz repertoire very quickly.”

Hentunen was impressed. In fact, she was so impressed that she did not want to return to Finland at all but applied to study in Amsterdam.

“It was fun to discover how many people from Finland had come there to study jazz. It is an attractive place because it is so large, so wealthy and so international.”


A plethora of opportunities


Hentunen, Alanen and Kiviniemi all note that there are pros and cons to being a freelance musician abroad.

“You might think that competition is tough with so many musicians out there, but the population of the Netherlands is so much bigger than the population of Finland that the music scene is much more varied,” says Alanen. “Also, other places in Europe are within easy reach of Amsterdam, so if you have a distinctive sound and way of making music, you can easily find a niche for yourself. Sure, the competition is stiff, but not everyone is competing for the same gigs.”

“You don’t need to drive for six hours to get to the next city; it’s only half an hour by train,” Hentunen continues. “There are plenty of venues with live music all week round, so lining up gigs for 12 days in succession is no big deal. It’s also a good way to raise the profile of your band.”

Alanen does point out, however, that the money is not necessarily as attractive as in Finland.

“Performance fees are often distinctly lower than in Finland. Many musicians are obliged to work second jobs. Even so, there are more full-time musicians per capita here than in Helsinki.”

“On the other hand, there are more venues when performers are not so expensive, and when ticket prices are low, people can be encouraged to come and listen to something new,” Hentunen points out.

“I have more work available in Amsterdam than I would probably have in Finland, so moving back is not really on the cards,” Alanen explains. Her spring includes an album launch tour with the Amsterdam-based KAMA Kollektiv, which is led by trumpetist and vocalist Kirsi-Marja Harju, who has lived in Amsterdam for eight years and is also an alum of the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Kiviniemi’s account of the scene in Norway is almost diametrically opposed. Musicians are paid handsomely even considering how high the cost of living is in Norway.

“Jazz is regarded as a point of national pride and a part of the country’s music brand. Because Norway is a rich oil-producing country, there’s money available for supporting jazz, and my colleagues have been able to buy themselves houses and cars before reaching 30,” says Kiviniemi.

When she lived in Trondheim, musical life in the city was anything but international. “Nearly all the professional musicians were Norwegian. It seemed that something of the atmosphere was lost when we switched to English. I was ‘the foreigner’, and from Finland, no less – a subject of stereotypical jokes for Norwegians at the time. Because of this, I was somewhat withdrawn in social contexts, even though I should have just persisted in speaking Norwegian, mistakes and all. When I began to learn the language in earnest, my self-confidence improved and I began to get more gigs.”

Having lived abroad for most of her life, Kiviniemi does not consider that there is anything particularly Finnish in her music.

“On Eir, for instance, I do hear my time in Norway – there are allusions to Norwegian folk music. The material is freely conceived but quite melodic.”

Finally, Kiviniemi notes that things have changed in Finland too.

“Helsinki is very international today, and you can find lots of musical things to study in Finland that back in the day you would have had to go abroad to discover.”


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Fature photo: Julius Töyrylä