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Four electric guitars boldly going where no music has gone before

by Elina Roms

If Sähkökitarakvartetti were a room, it would have no walls, and you would have to check your titles, hierarchies and genres at the door. This is a space which many contemporary composers would like to enter.

Helsinki-based guitarists Lauri HyvärinenJuhani GrönroosSigurdur Rögnvaldsson and Jukka Kääriäinen form an ensemble that does exactly what it says in the title: Sähkökitarakvartetti translates quite simply as ‘electric guitar quartet’. The group was originally put together as a project for a single concert, but because of the keen interest shown by composers and audience alike, and the positive chemistry between the four musicians, the only possible conclusion was to keep going.

The four guitarists come from diverse backgrounds. Lauri Hyvärinen is an experimental guitarist and sound artist in whose work improvisation is in a key role; Juhani Grönroos is involved in a variety of projects from rock and pop to experimental contemporary music; Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson is a musician of Icelandic descent who is active in jazz improvisation; and Jukka Kääriäinen works with contemporary music and free improvisation. They share an exploratory mindset, a profound familiarity with the resources and potential of the electric guitar and an unprejudiced approach to music, and of course a good vibe – the word ‘fun’ came up a lot in the interview.

Sähkökitarakvartetti have contributed to the creating of new works in a major way. 

Sähkökitarakvartetti – photo by José Figueroa.

Every new piece is an exploration of the expressive potential of the electric guitar

The quartet were officially established in 2017, and to date they have more than 25 works specifically written for them in their repertoire. Typically, any work written for Sähkökitarakvartetti will continue to evolve after its first performance or recording into new versions. Every performance is unique.  

The roster of composers who have written for the group is highly eclectic. 

“Sometimes a composer will approach us, and sometimes we will approach a composer. We’ve been fortunate in that no one has yet refused to write music for us. The electric guitar offers huge potential for making music, and this is of interest to composers.”

One of the most recent additions to the group’s repertoire is Energiavaje [Energy deficiency] (2023) by Riikka Talvitie,Lecturer in Composition at the Sibelius Academy. It is to be premiered in Helsinki in June 2023.

“My initial ideas for the piece Energiavaje for Sähkökitarakvartetti were rooted in conceptual art. I posed the question of what would happen if electric guitars ran out of power. My idea involved generating electricity with some form of fossil-free energy, such as on an exercise bike,” Talvitie explains her creative process.

“This issue has only become more relevant as the price of electricity has soared. Ultimately, though, I decided that I should write a piece of music that can stand on its own, without the overarching energy economy theme.”

Talvitie is very much a composer of classical contemporary music. She says that she has written quite a bit for acoustic guitar but is not at all well acquainted with the potential of the electric guitar – an instrument usually associated with a very different genre.

“The quartet members demonstrated a variety of things for me, and they lent me a pedal that I could use to explore materials in my study. I encourage each performer to bring their own suggestions, idiom and colour to the work. It’s important for me that the material feels feasible and familiar for everyone, as if it were created in the moment.”

She considers it a strength that the ensemble has four of the same instrument, which means that each individual musician forms part of the structure that is built up in the course of the process. She notes that she made use of this equality of colour throughout the work, even though it includes some more soloistic passages too.

“I believe that this work could be performed in a number of very different versions in the future, once we arrive at a common initial understanding of what it is about. The performing space plays an important part in how the audience perceives the music. I’m feeling adventurous and expectant about the premiere.”

Juhani Grönroos by Miikka Varila.

Collaborating with composers is a process of learning together

Jukka Kääriäinen notes that some works have emerged through processes that might be described as open-ended collaborative composition, while in other cases the quartet has simply been presented with a nearly complete score on which they then begin to work. The process differs from one composer to another.

“The first thing we do is to examine whether the composer’s ideas are playable in the first place. We give feedback or may make some suggestions as to what would work better on the instrument. On the basis of everything we’ve done so far, I can say that it’s this process of collaboration that I love about working with contemporary composers. Often they want to work with us on the piece rather than just submitting a fully completed score. And they are usually open to suggestions. For me, this is a very positive thing,” says Kääriäinen.

A good example of a collaborative composition project may be found in Dust Devil (2022) by Meriheini Luoto. She is an avant-garde violinist in contemporary folk music, and working with Sähkökitarakvartetti was a completely new departure for her.

“I was delighted to be included in such a diverse group of composers and such a great project. This was one of my first ever commissions, so there was a lot of nervousness. I’d previously mainly written music for my own bands,” says Luoto.

“It was inspiring to focus on the features and sounds of just one instrument. There was a huge number of possibilities, and in the end product every musician has a personal style in handling their instrument. The title and idea for the work emerged at the very beginning of the process in this case, and it felt only natural to go looking for sounds that fit the image of a dust devil in the music.”

Jukka Kääriäinen by Jori Larres.

Luoto explains that she had explored the electric guitar by playing the instrument herself “without any actual guitar skills,” as she put it.

“By some miracle I managed to create a sound world that fit the theme of the piece and was able to demonstrate it to the band,” Luoto recalls. “Then I got assistance from Lauri Hyvärinen. We recorded a whole mess of techniques and sounds that allowed me to dive deeper into the work.”

In the end, Luoto wrote down the piece in graphic notation only, leaving a lot of interpretative room for the performers. This means that the work was very literally co-created with the band.

“My feeling is that the version on the album nicely captures the feeling that I was looking for from the very first, but there’s also a lot of things there that I couldn’t have imagined,” says Luoto.

A four-album pandemic project

The most recent album of Sähkökitarakvartetti – their third – was released in April 2023. It forms part of a set that will consist of four albums, concisely titled Sähkökitarakvartetti I, II, III and IV. The first two were released in 2022. Realised with support from the Kone Foundation, the recording project was launched when the pandemic had shut down all live concerts worldwide.

“In 2022, everyone was very uncertain about what the future would bring,” Lauri Hyvärinen recalls. “But we absolutely wanted to carry on with the project. We already had a lot of pieces and ideas for new commissions, so instead of preparing a concert series we began to prepare discs.”

The silver lining in all this is that now there is a collection of contemporary music written for this rare ensemble that opens up new vistas and is available to anyone, anywhere.

Each album has a loose thematic core. The first disc is electro-acoustic. The second contains three pieces, each of which uses different non-standard tunings. The recent third disc contains works by three composer-musicians who work in the sphere of jazz (Hafdis Bjarnadottir, Kalle Kalima and Pauli Lyytinen), but also two pieces by composers in other genres. The fourth disc will be more consistent in its theme and more open in its sound than its predecessors.

The recording project was entered with the same open mind that the quartet was used to employing before the pandemic. Every member brings his own particular bit to the table.

“If I commission a work, I’ll do it from my perspective and in the context of an aesthetic that interests me. It might be something that the other guys are not so familiar with, and so there’ll be interesting alternative views involved from the start,” says Lauri Hyvärinen.

Juhani Grönroos continues: “It seems that the composers who write for us have a similarly curious approach. Many of them are keen to explore new potential.”

“The composition process is a learning opportunity for the composer too. It’s interesting to try out the things you can do with this instrument, the sounds you can find. After all, the electric guitar is still very much beyond the pale for classical musicians,” Hyvärinen points out. 

Lauri Hyvärinen by Nuno Martins.

Boundless roles

Hyvärinen, Kääriäinen, Rögnvaldsson and Grönroos are such diverse musicians that it is difficult to pigeon-hole them. They have each written music for their quartet: Hyvärinen wrote Material (2017) and Tropes (2021), while Rögnvaldsson wrote A Day in the Life of a... Monster (2018) and Dettiforss (2021). Juhani Grönroos wrote a piece for Sähkökitarakvartetti titled Orb (2020). Jukka Kääriäinen, however, has not yet written for the quartet despite heavy persuasion on the part of his colleagues.

“I feel that writing for this quartet was a wonderful opportunity, like all projects where you can experiment with things. My second piece, Dettifoss, will be on our fourth disc. It involves trying out various harmonic solutions. It’s great fun to be performing in a group for which you’re writing music,” says Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson.

“I was asked to write a piece for the very first concert, when the band did not even exist yet. I hadn’t even met Sigge or Juhani at that point, but once I realised what it’s possible to do with this band, I wanted to write another piece,” says Lauri Hyvärinen.

Juhani Grönroos, on the other hand, wanted to focus on improvisation with these musicians in particular. “I’d been involved for a couple of years and learned to know the other guys, and I knew what great fun it is to make music together. So that’s what I concentrated on.”

“The piece is always a bit different when we perform it, which is exactly what I was looking for. One version of it will be included on our next disc. It’s called Orb, and it’s about ball games. I’m an avid basketball player,” says Grönroos.


Exploring the backwards passage of time

The quartet’s most recent disc concludes with Ajan Haju [Smell of time] by Kalle Kalima, a jazz guitarist and composer now based in Berlin. 

“I’ve had several commissions in recent years, for instance for the Lyon Opera, Ensemble Resonanz and the B’Rock orchestra, but this was the first piece I’d ever created for electric guitars only. I was happy to get the request, because the quartet is of such a high quality. Also, I had a surprising amount of time on my hands during the pandemic. The ideas just kept coming, and I was able to forget my lockdown anxiety,” says Kalima.

“I went to my studio every day and imagined what it would sound like to be on an alien planet where time passes backwards. That’s why the movement titles in Ajan Haju are I ‘Hedelmä’ [Fruit], II ‘Kukinto’ [Blossom] and III ‘Siemen’ [Seed]. I wanted to liberate my imagination from all boundaries and write something unique.”

Kalima notes that the problem with the electric guitar is that the soundscape may become tiring with a continued emphasis on the mid-range.

Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson by Janne Björn.

“My aim is to discover orchestral sound worlds, including percussive sounds and wide ranges to create a sort of three-dimensional space. In writing Ajan Haju, I drew on sound combinations that I’d developed earlier, but combined with the language of modern music. The piece is highly challenging, and the musicians have to use dozens of techniques, including flageolets, e-bow, slide, several effect pedals and manual preparation. I wanted to explore microintervals in addition to atonal and highly chromatic harmonies while also incorporating the sound world of the rock guitar and the polyrhythms of jazz,” says Kalima.

Kalima describes the process as intense. The work is almost completely through-composed and thus differs from many others of his works that involve a great deal of improvisation. Here, too, collaboration with the quartet was crucial.

“I was in regular contact with the quartet in a very fruitful interaction. Including a baritone guitar was their idea. It helped me extend the range of the piece. I’m really happy with the disc track, and I’ve heard a recording of an excellent live performance as well. The quartet spent more than a year learning my piece and the other great pieces on the album. They never quit, and the end result is wonderful,” says Kalima with appreciation.

Bringing out the electric guitar

In the history of classical music, the guitar is an acoustic instrument. The electric guitar is now making inroads into classical music for reasons that are partly aesthetic and partly practical.

“The classical acoustic guitar has such a soft sound that if you add an orchestra, you have to amplify the guitar – unless the guitar part is a solo completely separate from the orchestra. An electric guitar can be added to any ensemble you like,” Jukka Kääriäinen explains.

“Composers are excited about the technical potential of the electric guitar. Sami Kleemola, for instance, knows a lot about guitars, and his pieces are much about manipulating effects and not so much about playing the guitar as such,” says Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson.

Classical contemporary music, experimental music and improvised jazz have in fact been drifting closer to one another and slightly overlapping for some time now. The boundaries between them are no longer clear.

“It used to be the case for a long time that contemporary music for electric guitar was performed by musicians who had been playing classical acoustic guitar all their life. Now, we have performers in contemporary music who have specialised in the electric guitar from the first and are thoroughly familiar with its resources. This is a ‘game changer’, and as we’ve noted in our case, composers are excited about trying out what the electric guitar can do, since they know that they have our support and that we know the instrument inside and out,” says Jukka Kääriäinen.

“Irritating though it may sound, I believe that the electric guitar will eventually displace the classical guitar. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but the electric guitar will become an established part of the context of contemporary music. That’s how I feel now, anyway.”

Sähkökitarakvartetti by José Figueroa.

For all music of whatever kind, it is vital for it to remain open to changes, advancements, experiments and just playing around. Contemporary music is no longer delineated strictly on the basis of training or background.

“Maybe it’s a bit clichéd to say that genres don’t matter any more. It’s probably not even true. But for me, music and the arts in general are a sphere of freedom where genre boundaries can be ignored and transgressed whenever you want,” says Lauri Hyvärinen.

“The main thing is creating things together. We don’t need hierarchies or pigeon-holes or any other artificial limitations. One of the reasons why this band exists in the first place is to promote thinking like this.”

Sähkökitarakvartetti will soon have completed their four-disc project. Their efforts in commissioning and collaborating on compositions have produced an extensive repertoire that can be curated into a variety of concert programmes. Performing music is now hopefully returning to normal, and the quartet wishes above all to be able to give live performances again. 

Sähkökitarakvartetti and their new repertoire can be heard in Helsinki in May and June, but the group is also throwing out international feelers. It is still a quite unique ensemble, and now it has a foundation of repertoire and experience on which to build free creativity and to attract new audiences to enjoy contemporary music.

Featured photo: Miikka Pirinen

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi