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Violinist Pekka Kuusisto and snowboarder Enni Rukajärvi – a conversation about music, sports and competition

by Loviisa Pihlakoski

How similar are the fields of music and sport? Violinist Pekka Kuusisto and snowboarder Enni Rukajärvi discuss performance, art, competition and overcoming oneself. This article is part of a series that has previously featured composers Kaija Saariaho and Olli Virtaperko discussing composition, and pianist Kirill Kozlovski and runner Topi Raitanen discussing competition.

PK: As I see it, singing and dancing are basic human needs. At best, playing is a form of singing, and snowboarding is, in my opinion, a form of dance that has gone through some kind of evolution. In general, do competitions play a big part in your calendar, or can you approach snowboarding purely as perfoming art? 


ER: There may be competitions that are more oriented to the public, so that it becomes a show, but in general, creativity is brought out more on the filming side: you shoot videos of your runs, and people watch them a lot. Competing is only a fraction of what snowboarding is. In my case, competing has been a big part of my career, but everything else has been even more important to me – the videos and my style.


PK: What exactly do you do in these videos? How much planning work do you do at home? Or do you just do the same course many times – does everything just happen on site? 

ER: So in practice, brands ask the snowboarders they sponsor to do videos, and they turn into ads. For instance, Vans tries to bring out the artistry of snowboarding, not just the technical performance but the snowboarders’ personalities, and their videos are really well made. Filming is different from competition runs, since you can plan the runs yourself in advance. I spent last spring in Northern Norway filming a couple of projects. In the mountains, the weather conditions affect what you can do: how much snow there is and where you can go. You can think about tricks or the terrain in advance, but the final way of implementation becomes clear when you hike up the mountain and see some snow that’s nicely formed, that you could jump from and make a turn there. In the end, there is improvisation involved.

Of course, a slight competitive feeling can arise during filming, if there are many snowboarders in the same video and we start competing to see who can do the best, coolest things, but usually this is all in a good spirit of togetherness so the atmosphere isn’t really competitive at all.


PK: Are there any “Holy Grail” tricks in snowboarding, where you try the same thing dozens of times in one competition – a bit like Tony Hawk’s 900 in skateboarding? In violin playing, within the framework of current competitions or concerts, it wouldn’t be possible to try one thing 50 times in front of an audience until you can pull it off. If you try to do the same spin in front of an audience dozens or hundreds of times, doesn’t that take the focus of the art form in a sort of strange direction?


ER: Competition has gotten to the point where you always have to do one more rotation. Men make four rotations, and someone has already done a 2000-degree spin. It doesn’t make any sense and it doesn’t look good either. But the competition forces you to try to do tricks that are more technically difficult all the time. I personally treat competitions as if they’re a performance. The most important thing is how your run looks, not whether I win or not.


PK: I read that you used to collaborate with an energy drink brand, but that you don’t anymore. Is it common to not agree to cooperate because of values? We don’t have sponsors in terms of marketing cooperation, like in boarding. I wouldn’t be able to imagine a similar situation in my field, where a “Tesla artist” is playing the Sibelius violin concerto, for instance. 


ER: I’m a bit jealous of that. The energy drink issue is challenging, because it’s one of the biggest supporters of snowboarding. But it wasn’t my thing. It’s easier to cooperate with partners that I’m glad to advertise. There’s clearly a breakthrough going on now, people are emerging who see values as more important than money.


PK: There are many fields, like gastronomy or even snowboarding, that meet the definition of art. I’ve wondered why they couldn’t somehow be part of the same system of state participation that provides financing for the cultural sector in Finland. Some PR expert should rebrand snowboarding as an artform!

Pekka Kuusisto by Bård Gundersen

The 'Invincible' attitude

PK: A few years ago, I was working with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra for a week when the Olympic Committee came to watch our rehearsals and we took part in a discussion with athletes. It was hard for them to believe that we don’t have physical therapists or doctors with us on tour. What kind of team do you have with you at competitions?


ER: Sometimes there are staff along from the Olympic Committee or the Finnish Snowboard Association, especially at the most important competitions, but not always. At a pretty early stage, I assembled my own team of people who are easy to connect with. Haven’t people in your field thought that it would be important?


PK: There wasn’t any discussion about that in violin lessons – at least not when I was studying years ago. We have a problem with this ‘invincible’ attitude, which you can see when someone has a problem – for example, tennis elbow or tendonitis, which are very common – but they don’t say it out loud. It can be a stigma. It’s annoying that young people are given the impression that they should always be in tip-top condition, even though musicians injure themselves quite frequently. I’m no stranger to fatigue and injury, and I’m happy to call time out when I’m not in shape. 


ER: Fortunately, there are a lot of things that have finally begun to be discussed in sports. There’s been a realisation that it’s beneficial for younger athletes to be able to speak directly about things, whether they’re physical or psychological issues. I’ve had a lot of minor fractures that have forced me to be on the sidelines for a couple of months, but fortunately nothing major. At the beginning of my career, when I was breaking through, I really travelled and competed a lot. That phase was exhausting but luckily I was able to recover from it within a couple of years, and I was still able to work during that time. At competitions, you have to repeat yourself a lot, and if there are a lot of them, being able to do some filming in between helped me to psychologically keep up my motivation.


PK: For us, it’s completely normal to have bookings even two years into the future. Because of the pandemic, a lot of things have been left hanging in the air, which now have to somehow be fit into the calendar. Because of that, many people are suddenly doing huge amounts of work, and there’s a lot of exhaustion and injuries. Right now, when I look back at my calendar from 2019, I wonder how that was even possible. 


ER: I feel that I already have such a serious routine for slopestyle that I can do the basic stuff even if I’m tired, but if it’s a new situation, if I’m too exhausted mentally or physically, I can’t perform in the same way. Last spring’s trip was long, and in the final stages I noticed that I couldn’t even do my own basic things technically as well anymore, because I was tired.


PK: When I’m faced with a difficult situation, for example right before performing a new, technically challenging piece, I play some pelimanni folk music. Something in line with the soul of the instrument, which was born specifically from the hands of a player – just because the violin is fun to play. In that moment, I don’t think about what I’ve been practicing for the past few months. It breaks up the performance fog that can block out what’s most important. Do you have a pre-run routine to make sure that you’re in the right mood?


ER: I think more about the feeling than the technical side, and before a demanding run I might go down some other hill for fun and just look for whatever feels good. 

Enni Rukajärvi by Rami Hanafi

Looking to the future and exceeding oneself 


PK: My future plan is to move more into conducting. Outwardly, it might look like a lust for power – which it undoubtedly is, because it allows you to direct the actions of a larger number of people – but the truth is, one day I may face the violinist’s "best before" date, at least in terms of my hands. 

However, in terms of physics, there’s something strange about conducting an orchestra. I’m used to having a musical instrument in my hands – then movement comes naturally. When you operate with just your hands without an instrument, you’d think there would be more freedom, but it’s harder for me to relax without a familiar tool. That’s why I went to talk with choreographer Valtteri Raekallio a while ago, and he directed me to the ‘gaga movement’ method that is used in contemporary dance, and to find new ways to use my body. Something like that might be beneficial in snowboarding as well.


ER: That’s an interesting thought. The balance between relaxation and good performance sure is important. I have a tendency to get nervous, but I’ve been lucky in that I can still perform well at the crucial moment. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also worked on it with a psychological coach. Being keyed up has sometimes also helped in competitions. There are many talented boarders who just can’t handle the competition situation and they have to train to be able to succeed under pressure. 


PK: I’ve also been lucky in that I haven’t been nervous about performing for a long time. Maybe it’s because from the beginning – that is, since I learned to play – improvised playing has been a part of what I do with the violin. When I turned professional, sometime around the age of 20, I spent a lot of time with musicians who dared to go on stage without any plan and still put on a great full-fledged performance. That’s when I realised that – unlike in snowboarding – you can’t break arms or legsdoing this, even if something goes wrong. There is very little to be afraid of.


ER: For me, it’s probably some kind of competitive spirit that I’ve managed to perform well under pressure. It’s a cool feeling if you can put your soul into the competition under all this pressure, doing things with enjoyment and dedication. That’s probably why I’ve stayed on this path, and it’s made this profession possible. Now, however, I’m at the point where I’ve given everything I can on the slopestyle side. I’m transitioning toward freeriding and I’m looking forward to challenging myself in a new way. Alongside that, I can do videos with a focus on style and art.


PK: I’m playing the Sibelius violin concerto in Japan for the first time in a long time in early 2023. What I'm most worried about is that my performance might just stay in its tracks – that is, that I won't be able to surpass myself. If it doesn't feel like a significant step forward compared to what I’ve done before, it’s not worth doing it. After all, the Sibelius violin concerto is the concerto I have played the most – after the competitions in my early career, it became my trademark. The role of the soloist in it is really, really interesting. It's difficult, almost impossible to play flawlessly, but what's more interesting is how you treat the role of the soloist. The most difficult thing is getting to the necessary level of depth, making it feel artistically reasonable. And the curse is also in the fact that the more one plays or studies one piece, the deeper you desire to get into it.


ER: How interesting! I was just about to ask if it sometimes feels like you lose something when you play the same piece many times, since you've already performed it so well, but you can go really deep there and always find something new!


PK: Yes, and in a concert situation, you notice that you can do things that weren’t possible during rehearsals. Adrenaline boosts your performance. Although sometimes it can also be the other way around, that something works at home but not onstage. After all, we’re only human. 

Translation: Wif Stenger

Featured photo: Pekka Kuusisto and Enni Rukajärvi (photo editing by Lasse Lehtonen)