“For me, music is always there, although it’s not always audible. When me and my instruments play each other then it becomes audible. I am interested in a more holistic approach to playing. It’s not only my instrument, but my fingers and hands and my whole body that is rooted in and makes my music.”
Kantele player Hanna Ryynänen has recently got her master’s degree at the Sibelius Academy and has recorded her debut solo album. It was recorded live on a 21 string kantele – no overdubs – which Ryynänen plays with her fingers, with a stick and with a percussive technique slapping the strings and the body of the instrument which is perhaps her hallmark. “It might not make sense to some people. Why do you hit the kantele? What is happening? But it’s a part of me.”
Ryynänen’s music is episodic, as if depicting different scenes. The album begins with ‘Huomen’ (Dawn) and what could be the silvery light of sunrise – and gets progressively louder, more bright and active. But, she explains, the word can mean both ‘dawn’ and ‘tomorrow’, so it could also be a glimpse of a seemingly bright future.
Ryynänen grew up in Espoo and took up the kantele aged eight – quite late, she says. Her elder sister played guitar and Hanna wanted to follow, but she was taken to a kantele teacher instead. “After the first lesson I didn’t need anything else but kantele,” she remembers. “The kantele is an easily approachable instrument because you can get a good sound even without any skills. I very much fell in love with the sound – even of a simple five-string kantele; it encourages you to approach the instrument in a creative way, because there is the whole world in those five strings.”
One stick, five fingers, 21 strings
From the beginning Ryynänen was interested in creating her own music. There are key figures in kantele playing that have taught and influenced her, notably Vilma Timonen, Timo Väänänen, Maija Kauhanen and Pauliina Syrjälä who’s known for her stick playing on the Saarijärvi kantele.
There’s something quite funky about the stick technique on the kantele. It’s more dynamic, with incisive sounds and more overtones compared to the softer plucked technique of playing. She’s named her album Taite (Turn), “because a debut solo album is a kind of turning point, but also the turning point is to be me. My percussive playing style has been a big part of accepting myself as a musician.”
On the title track ‘Taite’ (Turn), Ryynänen uses a pencil-like stick on the five bass strings of the instrument at the beginning. The sound has a bite and dynamism to it, rather like a bass ngoni lute from Mali also with its pentatonic sound. This opening section, she says, is based on two bars of a Karelian maanitus from Suistamo (now in Russia).
“It comes from the older layer of folk music. It’s dance music with an archaic character – small themes that you vary to create an ongoing soundscape. The musicians in the archives were really talented kantele players to play such fast and demanding melodies. There’s this specific style of fingering in which your hands work together and create the soundscapes together. In newer music on the [larger] concert kantele, the right hand generally plays the melody and the left hand plays the accompaniment, but in this Karelian kantele tradition your hands are integrated and it’s impossible to recognise which hand is doing what.”
After this section she puts away the stick and first uses her right hand to slap top and bottom notes in the bass, a fifth apart – stopping the other strings from vibrating with her left hand. And then she’s all over the instrument, slapping out jangling clusters of notes with both her hands, then withdrawing to the very upper reaches and splashing out washes of colour along with percussive swipes on the body of the instrument. It ends with her slapping and deadening the lower strings that have been resonating so strongly before. It’s quite a tour de force. This is perhaps what distinguishes Ryynänen amongst the other great kantele players in Finland.
“Even if there are very many kantele players, I really admire them all,” Ryynänen says. “I think we’ve been able to create an atmosphere where we actually support each other. I feel we have a flourishing environment and I give myself an identity with my music. I don’t consciously think how to make myself stand out.”
Tones and textures
Ryynänen plays a 21 string kantele specifically made for her in 2012 by Kari Kauhanen, the father of Maija Kauhanen. The Saarijärvi kantele is quite a sophisticated instrument that became popular in the late 19th century in and around the town in central Finland of that name. It started to disappear in the 1960s and 70s. While keeping the sound of a folk instrument it offers many sonic possibilities.
‘Ääriin’ (Boundless) starts from a soft haze of notes which acts as a kind of prelude – inspired, she says, by the runo song tradition. Then there’s a more active section when the bass gets lively, almost like a ‘walking bass’in a rock band with softer notes cascading over the top, followed by chords with several audible layers in the music.
“I wanted to do something melodic with the bass and then you think what the melody strings do?” The music returns, arch-like, to a softer, gentler mood to finish. It feels like you’ve been on something of a journey.
Ryynänen admits that she doesn’t really think in terms of melodies. “I think in tones and textures and structures,” she says. She doesn’t really admit how much is fixed and how much is improvised, but says “when the improvisation comes, I must be totally in the music. It is created in the moment and I must be 150 percent inside it to make it special.” She’s certainly a master of different textures – soft and muted, rough and scratchy, rhythmic and ethereal – and always the stick-plucked bass notes that somehow root it.
The eight tracks on Taite each have slightly enigmatic one-word titles. And while some of them are purely abstract, others do have representational ingredients. The piece ‘Muisto’ (Memory) starts with simple chiming sounds. “This is quite personal and sensitive with quite deep connections,” explains Ryynänen. “I try to imitate church bells inspired by the memory of my father’s funeral. I use a long wooden stick and put some Blu Tack on the strings so they don’t ring so much.”
The bell connections are certainly audible at the beginning, but then the music moves on – although always referring back to the bell sounds. “It was one of the toughest days of my life,” she admits, “and I started wondering how to make music out of these feelings. I needed to find a way of getting this strong feeling out of my system and I thought of using these Karelian Orthodox church bell melodies, although my family isn’t Orthodox.”
Kantele friends and relations
As well as Finnish and Karelian influences, Ryynänen is also interested in the other Baltic zithers of the region. The fast-moving track ‘Virta’ (Flow) is influenced by a strumming technique on the kokles, the Latvian version of the kantele. “It’s used on smaller kokles,” she explains. “You create melodies by changing the chords very quickly. Instead of playing a chord and picking the strings that you mute. If you change the chords very quickly you can make make melodies going up and down.” In her Kave-duo with Timo Väänänen, she also uses a nars-juh with five plucked gut strings as played by the Khanty and Mansi people of Western Siberia and the Gdańsk gęśle, a lyre-like instrument dating from the 13th century as reconstructed by Rauno Nieminen.
Ryynänen also plays in the Duo Selina with fellow kantele player Sanni Virta and in a four-piece group with Rauno Nieminen, Senni Heiskanen and Timo Väänänen called Sarijartwi Candlet. They are all playing Saarijärvi kanteles and concentrate on archive recordings made in the 1950s, 60s and 70s from the more recent layer of folk music with polkas and other traditional dances.
“We get to know interesting musicians through the archives and it’s like the archives are our teachers. Rauno knew some of the musicians which is extremely valuable. Rauno himself played with Arvi Pokela, who is usually described as ‘the last Saarijärvi kantele player’ and now Rauno plays with us.”
Ryynänen plays the large concert kantele but finds herself more and more attracted to the smaller instruments. The concert kantele is played with the bass strings closest to the player and the treble strings furthest away, while the Saarijärvi and smaller kanteles are played the other way round with the highest strings close.
“I think kantele players are multi-instrumentalists because the instruments are so different and the playing techniques are so different,” she says. “At the moment I play mostly Saarijärvi kantele, which is now the closest to me. In the Saarijärvi kantele there are actually many different kanteles. The five bass strings are like a five-string kantele and there are 16 melody strings, so it’s also like a 16, ten or five-string instrument.”
Sometimes kantele playing can seem a very static thing, with the player sitting hunched over this strange looking zither with however many strings. But many players have recently challenged this image. For example, Pauliina Syrjälä, who pioneered the revival of the stick technique with the Saarijärvi kantele, plays in a dynamic standing position, whereas Maija Kauhanen, who might play sitting down, surrounded herself by an array of percussion instruments. Hanna Ryynänen uses the instrument itself as a percussion instrument and moves dramatically with it. All these musicians are bringing a new energy to kantele playing.
I feel this music through my body and it’s about allowing myself to be free,” she says. The physicality of the playing is, of course, visible on stage, but also audible in the music. “I live my life through these instruments with interesting dialogues and journeys. When I find a new sound on my instrument or a new way to play it, it’s like it has a new characteristic and then it becomes a personal process and I try to find something new in me. It’s a journey to get to know myself when I make music.”
Featured photo: Mikko Malmivaara