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Maria Kalaniemi - Music begins in freedom

by Elina Roms

Musician and composer Maria Kalaniemi has been overturning popular conceptions about the accordion and music played on it for almost three decades now. Active in many areas, she is also engaged in research, teaching and festival planning.

Accordionist Maria Kalaniemi (b. 1964) looks out of the window of her classroom in the Sibelius Academy premises at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. The Department of Folk Music moved to the seventh floor of the brand-new building only a few months ago, to rooms with a view taking in the National Museum and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.

“This is where a music university should be, in the thick of all things cultural,” Kalaniemi says and commends the environment for its inspirational qualities. The contrast between here and the Department’s earlier premises on an industrial estate on the fringes of Helsinki is striking.

Maria Kalaniemi is one of the first to have graduated from the Sibelius Academy with a Master of Music degree in folk music, and since then she has created a distinguished career. Much acclaimed as a performing artist, she continues to teach future generations of folk music professionals as she has always done; hence her satisfaction with the handsome new premises at the Musiikkitalo.

“Teaching has always been very important for me. It is not just a bread-and-butter thing. I feel that 50% of my professional career is about teaching. I have taught a lot of young talented musicians who are now making a name for themselves, and not just accordionists. My job is in fact more like that of a producer, and I like it very, very much,” says Kalaniemi.

A finger in many pies

As a musician, Maria Kalaniemi is known above all for her lyrically sensitive yet intense performance style. In the course of her 30-year career, she has significantly contributed to the revitalisation of the role of and playing techniques on the accordion in folk music. For instance, she has developed a style where the left hand plays a prominent ‘melody bass’ role instead of just underpinning the accompaniment.

In recent years, Kalaniemi’s work has divided itself quite naturally between composition, performing, teaching and festival planning. This year, she is artistic director not only of JuuriJuhla, a folk music festival in Espoo celebrating its 10th anniversary, but also of the Sibelius Academy’s own music festival, Sibafest (27 January to 4 February).

“Apparently I have a need to organise things in addition to just creating and performing music,” says Kalaniemi.

This year marked the first incarnation of Sibafest at the Musiikkitalo.

“The programme was of course heavy on folk music and accordion music because of my involvement. But because I love all kinds of music, the range was broad and featured all of the fine work that is being done in the various departments of the Sibelius Academy.”

Every now and again, Kalaniemi likes to take a break from performing and everyday cares in general to focus on composing, or on listening to archive recordings, or on other research. She completed an artistically oriented doctorate at the Sibelius Academy a couple of years ago; but since then, she has returned to juggling various musical projects simultaneously.

One of these projects is Åkerö, the recently released disc she recorded with Timo Alakotila, containing original compositions, traditional tunes, and folk music of Finland and Swedish-speaking Finland in original arrangements. There are even tangos and schlagers in the mix, as the duo are no strangers to surfing the genres. Despite the fact that both Kalaniemi and Alakotila have hectic schedules, the disc is tranquil, harmonious and intimate.

“I have been making music with Timo for 20 years, and it has been wonderful. When we are both busy, we find time to relax musically together. When we play music, we just play music without stopping to think about it. We have developed a non-verbal form of communication.”

Another current project for Kalaniemi is Vilda Rosor (Wild Roses), a concert programme focusing on the exploration and revitalisation of the musical heritage of Swedish-speaking Finns. The recording of this programme topped the European World Music Charts besides being a valuable cultural contribution in that the folk music of Swedish-speaking Finns is not exactly in the mainstream.

“I listened to a lot of archive tapes for this project. It is a great and fascinating world. The ballads, for instance, are very fine, and I love the archaic Swedish in which they are performed. And there is something special in being able to sing in my native language. It is just so inexplicably important.”

Music with roots

The JuuriJuhla (RootsFest) festival is a job that Kalaniemi holds dear, as she is keen on promoting the musical virtues of her native Espoo, the city flanking Helsinki to the west. Espoo has a long tradition of fiddlers, and there are still numerous active folk musicians in the city.
Kalaniemi’s own roots go beyond Espoo, both to the west and to the east: her mother is from Swedishspeaking western Uusimaa, while her father is from a very different environment, the municipality of Juva in southern Savo in the east of the country. This mix of two very different Finnish sub-cultures is uniquely present in Kalaniemi’s music.

“I grew up in a bilingual home, which was a very rich environment. My father loved to sing old songs in the Savo dialect, which he retained in his speech in a very strong form to the end of his life. My other home language was the western Uusimaa dialect of Swedish, which my mother and her mother spoke,” says Kalaniemi. This was fertile ground for the roots of her musical identity.

Kalaniemi had the opportunity of exploring her musical roots and her musicianship while working on her doctorate some years ago. That work bred insights and innovations which continue to inspire her music-making to this day. Her artistically oriented doctorate eventually consisted of five concerts, the sheet music publication Kevään kurjet (Cranes of Spring) and an autobiographical narrative entitled Rantakoivun alta runon soittajaksi (From birch tree to runo player). She completed this project in spring 2010.

“It is really important that I managed to get it done. I had been playing with any number of bands and projects for so long that I felt I had to just stop completely to focus on what my musicianship is really about. When I was working on my doctorate, I had long periods of doing nothing but practicing and doing research at home. Even though it is now all done, I took away a lot of things that contribute to what I am doing now.”

How exactly do you play a runo?

One of the major threads in Kalaniemi’s doctorate was a combination of voice and accordion into what she calls ‘runo playing’, after the traditional runo singing referring to the singing or chanting of orally transmitted folk poetry. Kalaniemi’s concept is based on the traditional runo singing and pastoral music, the oldest Finnish music there is. This music is not usually associated with the accordion. It is lyrical, meditative, variable and conducive to improvisation. The concept of runo playing then translated into a concert programme entitled Bellow Poetry, but the story actually began much earlier.

“I played a lot of archaic music with a band named Niekku in the 1980s and 1990s, including kantele and jouhikko tunes, but those were played on those specific instruments. I remember thinking that it would be wonderful to perform that music on the accordion too. But the time did not become ripe for this until the 2000s, when the material began to mature and I began to write new music based on it. I do not use the traditional tunes, but instead create a mental and musical landscape of my own based on them.”

In ‘bellow singing’, Kalaniemi combines the sound of the accordion with her own voice to create new colours. This style too goes back to her childhood, as her work on her doctorate recalled key childhood memories for her.

“My mother’s mother was a highly positive and fiery soul. She would sing instrumental folk tunes at home. I began to recall her wordless singing during my work for the doctorate and wanted to incorporate that into my own music. It was a special experience for me, and it brought home to me what music is all about: conveying emotion.

“Another deep-seated early memory is of my father Matti, who was moved to tears when I learned to play my first waltzes. A few measures was all it took to make his eyes well up – it must have been happiness and melancholy all at once. So I learned at a very early age that music is not just about pushing buttons: it is very much about a mixture of emotions.

“My grandmother also influenced my choice of instrument. When I said that I wanted to play the piano, she said that bringing a piano into that household was out of the question. So we went to Lassi Pihlajamaa’s accordion shop in Helsinki, and I picked out a small white accordion for myself,” Kalaniemi recalls.

She began playing by ear and went on to study at the Espoo Music Institute, where she was also exposed to classical music and contemporary accordion music. In the meantime, she had been doing dance music gigs since the age of 12, playing humppa, waltzes, schottishes and other traditional dances. It was through her parents and the folk music group at the music institute that Kalaniemi gained her first contact with fiddler music. The Sibelius Academy was a natural choice given how immersed in music she had been since childhood.

Continuous renewal

Kalaniemi prefers not to write music but to create new material with instrument in hand. “I like having pieces not locked down on the page; composing should have a degree of freedom. You can always do things differently and revise. Obviously, compositions do not just fall out of the sky; it is hard work, and to gain inspiration you have to strive for it.”

The principle of continuous natural renewal also explains why certain pieces recur in her concert repertoire.

“Of course I always perform new material, but there are some tunes to which I keep coming back. They acquire new shapes and moods over the years, but I just never get tired of them. For instance, opening a concert with my piece Kuun henki (Spirit of the moon) puts me in the mood for the rest of the programme. And there’s a Finnish folk tune named Istuinpa sänkys laidalla (I sat on the edge of your bed), into which you can always work new nuances and colours. It is hugely inspiring for tunes to live their own life and to look different one year from the next. Of course, as I adopt new material, some old material is gradually discarded.”

Kalaniemi likes to perform both solo gigs and appearances with other musicians. She has at one time or another been a member of many of the major Finnish ‘new folk music’ ensembles, but her projects are not confined to Finland. One of her best-known international projects is Accordion Tribe, which has acquired a cult following in Europe. Its members apart from herself were Bratko Bibič, Lars Hollmer, Guy Klucevsek and Otto Lechner. The five accordionists collaborated for 14 years and were the subject of the documentary film Music Travels. Sadly, the fruitful project came to an end after Lars Hollmer died in 2010.

“Things begin and things end. I have enormously fond memories of the band and its tours. Accordion Tribe is one of the greatest things I have ever been a part of,” says Kalaniemi.

“Performing alone requires a really intense stage presence and commitment, but it has its upsides too. For instance, in pieces requiring a lot of improvisation I can go wherever I like in the moment, there is a lot of freedom. But on the other hand, I have realised that I am very much a chamber musician. I love making music with other people and exercising the special sort of ear you need for that. These two aspects balance one another. I love playing music on my own, but I equally love being a member of a band.”

Attitude is the key

Although a lot is happening in folk music in Finland today, many concert halls are still hesitant to put folk music on the programme. Marginal genres need marketing support and above all attitude, according to Kalaniemi.

“We need to provide concert venues and record labels with information about what is going on in the field of new folk music and to encourage them to programme these groups. When you have a concert, you will find an audience. That is the great thing about the Musiikkitalo: people come just to see the building and may end up hearing music that they did not even know existed.”

But being in the margins also means you have more freedom. Kalaniemi finds herself in a good place just now in that she has plenty of performing opportunities, particularly as she tours abroad too. There is no one to determine or limit what sort of music it is proper to play on the accordion; she has all the artistic freedom she wants.

This was not always the case. Older Finnish generations in particular have a strong emotional attachment to the accordion. “It really is a Finnish soul instrument. During the Second World War, the accordion was the instrument that the men typically lugged around in the trenches to while away the boredom between battles, channelling emotions both merry and melancholy,” says Kalaniemi.

“Because of this, many people in Finland associate the accordion firmly and inseparably with traditional dance music, pieces like Metsäkukkia (Forest flowers, a traditional waltz) or Säkkijärven polkka. Fortunately, horizons have broadened quite a bit since then, or so it seems. We have a lot of fine musicians playing classical music, folk music and jazz on the accordion, and with their performances the domain and perception of what it is possible to do on the accordion have been blown wide open. This is wonderful, because for me the important thing is to be able to do both Metsäkukkia and runo playing without them being mutually exclusive: all styles are just pearls in the great necklace of music.”

“It is also obvious to me that in folk music the major challenge is to do different things. If the music were strictly limited by specific aesthetic criteria, there would be no challenge. For the performing artist, it is this challenge that makes the music and the work worthwhile,” says Kalaniemi as she packs up her accordion and steps out through the revolving doors of the Musiikkitalo into the Helsinki winter.

Maria Kalaniemi 

:: born 1964 

:: graduate of the Sibelius Academy and Lecturer of Accordion there since 1995 

:: completed an artistically oriented doctorate at the Department of Folk Music in 2009 

:: Artist Professor appointed by the Arts Council of Finland 2005–2010 

:: involved in many major Finnish ‘new folk music’ ensembles and in international projects, most prominently Accordion Tribe


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Elina Brotherus

See also:

Maria Kalaniemi’s album Svalan #1 on the July 2017 World Music Charts Europe.