in From the Archives

Pekka Pohjola – Music speaks without words

by Vesa Sirén

“The world's best bass player”. Pekka Pohjola had this dinned into him all through the seventies: he was the Jaco Pastorius of the North, a man who was, if he felt like it, capable of performing miracles with his bass. Most of the time he simply didn’t feel like it, glossing over the tricky prestissimo bass solos because he felt the work as a whole was most important.

Even in those days Pohjola was at heart more of a composer, although he was known as the bass player in the legendary Wigwam specialising in progressive rock. If Pohjola had merely wished to be a virtuoso, he would probably have plumped for a career as a concert violinist.

“I studied the violin at the Sibelius Academy and won several competitions when I was a kid,” Pohjola recalls. “My teacher said I wasn't to attend the theory lessons because I was so talented all I needed to do was play.”

“My fiddling career stopped dead with the national violin competition in Kuopio. The famous critic Erik Tawaststjerna was on the jury and after the competition he came up to me and said I had just the right approach but my tone still needed a bit of polishing. I went back to the hotel, gazed out of the window, opened a can of beer and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here? This really isn't the place for me.’”

And so Pohjola said goodbye to classical music – for close on twenty years.


Mike Oldfield points the way to the stars

While he was with Wigwam, Pohjola began producing solo records. His Harakka Bialoipokku caused an immediate stir, both in Finland and abroad.

In particular Pohjola caught the attention of Mike Oldfield, whose output as a composer also included instrumental music and who was thoroughly depressed by the crushing reviews of his new record after Tubular Bells which had sold millions of copies.

Richard Branson, the owner of Oldfield's record company, invited me over to Mike's farm for a chat and a bit of music. At that time Mike was just a quiet country boy, and we got on well together.”

One thing led to another. While Pohjola was recording his next disc, Richard Branson called him and said, “Mike would like to produce your record.” Pohjola replied that he was right in the middle of making it. “Good, hop on a plane with your tapes and come on over.” The result was Keesojen lehto, which many think one of the most lasting Pohjola classics.

“Personally I don't like it at all because it mixes Oldfield's sounds with my music,” says Pohjola. “And Oldfield was quite a different person after attending a course aimed at making him more extrovert.”

Be that as it may, Pohjola nevertheless agreed to play on Oldfield's tour of Europe and had a chance to see what being a superstar really entails,

“I saw what it meant to be on a gig where money's no object. All I had to do was play and be driven around in a Rolls Royce.” After the tour, Oldfield invited them round to a pub and asked all the boys what they intended to do next. Pohjola had by that time made his choice. “I said I wanted to found my own band and to make my own records.”


Fans all over the world

Since making this decision, Pohjola has made a dozen or so records, including several classics, such as Kätkävaaran Lohikäärme, Urban Tango and Flight of the Angel. And while his sales figures may be nowhere near those of Oldfield, his little record companies in Finland and the United States have found a number of enthusiastic fans in Japan, the United States, Germany and Scandinavia.

“Those are the strongest areas. But there seems to be a tiny circle of fans who dig this sort of music in every corner of the world,” Pohjola muses.

The thing that appeals to Pohjola’s fans is the unhurried, northern and – in the opinion of many – Sibelian tone of his music. It fuses with the jazz, rock and classical traditions in a way that seems unusually natural. The result does not sound like a collage, but like carefully thought out and deeply experienced music – like Pekka Pohjola.


Symphony and Bukowski

In the past few years Pohjola has further broadened his range of musical expression. He has composed a symphony for a normal symphony orchestra and has plans for a record of settings of poems by Charles Bukowski.

“The symphony is not a symphony in the conventional meaning of the word – it does not observe symphonic form and is more of a musical journey.” A symphonic poem, then?

“Something like that. I sometimes tell people that Symphony is just the name of the piece,” Pohjola chuckles.

Pohjola got the idea for his symphony from the director of a Finnish record company concentrating on light music.

“He said, ‘Give us a symphony.’ I was quite taken aback but only too happy to oblige,” Pohjola recalls.

The symphony took four years to compose. Meanwhile Pohjola was studying orchestration (having missed out on theory in his earlier years). In its idiom, Pohjola's symphony is safely tonal. For him the use of tonality means “a declaration of love for the history of music.”

“Creating simply for the sake of it is futile,” says Pohjola with feeling. “l’ve heard quite enough music displaying the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome.”

The important thing for Pohjola has been learning by doing. Music doesn’t need to be very complex to begin with. His taste has developed in layers from the classical influences of his childhood via rock and jazz, so that each layer is still a source of inspiration.

Pohjola still shuns the idea that a composition is an attainment for which points are given according to how orthodox and how clever it is.

“I truly wonder how anyone can go about branded as a composer of new music, terrified of doing something he shouldn’t.”

Despite this, Pohjola does not confess to having anything against avant-gardism. He is, for example, full of praise for Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft.

“lt has something of the joy and childlike quality of music-making which I consider important.”

Joy, a childlike quality and surprising beauty are also to be found in the poems of Charles Bukowski which Pohjola has set to music. The songs were originally performed as part of a Finnish theatre production, but Pohjola is now planning a record on which they are performed in the original English.

“The whole project has taught me a lot, because I’m none too familiar with composing vocal music. I’m now having to edit the material, because the stresses are slightly different in the original language from those in the Finnish translations,” he says.


Full value for money

Finland's unique system of grants for artists has treated Pohjola well. He is the first composer devoting himself chiefly to rock to receive a 15-year grant that can, if necessary, be renewed right up to the time he reaches retiring age. This grant provides him with a basic income but it doesn’t pay for any frills.

“For me it has meant a chance to produce ambitious, ‘non-commercial’ music. As a composer I now feel I’ve reached a stage at which things are falling into place. The basic material in my subconscious is the same as it was before, but the end result is beginning to crystallise.”

Pohjola compares himself to Ingmar Bergman, who once said he directs the same film over and over again.

“I hope my music will touch some elements in the listener’s subconscious. If it does, it has understood the human being, who in turn understands music through his own experiences. Ideally this gives rise to a deeper form of communication than verbal dialogue,” says Pohjola the philosopher. “When all’s said and done, we're all in some sense on our own. The basic principle behind my music is trying to understand different thoughts and to create a functional link between them,” he says.

Discography (1972-1992)

1972      PIHKASILMÄ KAARNAKORVA. Love Records LRLP 71.

1974      HARAKKA BIALOIPOKKU. Love Records LRLP 118; in England B THE MAGPIE. Virgin V 2036.

1977      KEESOJEN LEHTO. Love Records LRLP 219; in England MATHEMATICIAN'S AIR DISPLAY. Virgin V 2084.

1979      VISITATION. Dig It DIGLP 4.


1982      URBAN TANGO. Pohjola PELP 1, PELPCD 1; in the United States URBAN TANGO. Breakthru’ Records BRS 1.

1983      JOKAMIES. Pohjola PELP 2, PELPCD 2; in the United States EVERYMAN. Breakthru' Records BRS2.

1985      SPACE WALTZ. Pohjola PELP 3, PELPCD3.

1986      FLIGHT OF THE ANGEL. Pohjola PELP 4, PELPCD 4.

1987      NEW IMPRESSIONIST. Rockadillo Records ZENCD 2013, Breakthru' Records ABCD7.

1990      SYMPHONY NR.1. Flamingo Music FGCD 4041.

1992      CHANGING WATERS. Pohjola PELPCD 5.

Pekka Pohjola (1952-2008) on Svart Records.

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1994, and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.