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Pounding the keys

by Riikka Hiltunen

The role of keyboards in folk music has changed over the last few decades. The folk musicians of today really like to manhandle the traditional harmonium and the piano has finally made an entrance as an instrument for playing folk music. More and more keyboard players are stepping out as soloists.
The harmonium and the piano play a central role in the instrumental arsenal of today’s Finnish folk music. Many musicians play both, even though they are distinctly different instruments.

The pedal harmonium, which in its operating principle resembles the accordion or the harmonica, is most often associated with folk music and there is a definite cult of the vintage in effect. Musicians prefer old instruments and new ones aren’t really being made.

Piano, on the other hand, has a rather brief history in folk music. Its sound is readily associated with other genres, which makes playing it in a way that sounds like folk music a challenge. Pianists who play folk music can already be found in several generations, though. Other, smaller keyboard instruments are also finding their way into the selection of instruments folk musicians play.

From harmony to solos

The first Finnish harmoniums were built in the 1860s and, thank to its versatility as an everyday instrument it spread quickly. Churches would buy small and inexpensive harmoniums instead of organs. At school and home it replaced the piano. Even many people born in the 1980s will have encountered a harmonium sitting in the corner of the school music room, before they were finally replaced by pianos.

The harmonium found its way into folk music fast and its role as a provider of harmony has been constant throughout the history of chordal folk music. The way it’s played has, however, changed over the years. Where the traditional role focused on accompaniment, modern musicians have also embraced playing lead and explored the outer reaches of what the instrument is capable of.

One of the musicians central to developing keyboard playing in folk music is composer, arranger and musician Timo Alakotila, who started out on the harmonium, but later adopted the piano as his primary instrument. Alakotila still plays the harmonium in one of contemporary folk music’s pioneering groups JPP, as well as in Nordik Tree and Troka.

Alakotila says his playing style used to be quite simple, consisting of mostly Kaustinen-style three-chord comping. His interest in more complex chord structures was awakened early on, influenced by his pop and jazz studies, as well as the innovative way in which Swedish band Forsmark Tre used the harmonium. Alakotila uses the entire range of the instrument. Using the upper register to find new sounds and textures is characteristic of contemporary harmonium playing.

Alakotila finds playing the harmonium in a rhythmic manner especially challenging. This is an area where he says many of the younger players really excel. ”If you want to play rhythm, you have to play the harmonium as aggressively as you would the drums, whereas on the piano you can get a percussive sound with just one note. Eero Grundström and Milla Viljamaa, both of whom play smaller travel harmoniums, are great rhythm players.”

The use of dynamics is another area where the harmonium and piano differ. On the harmonium, pedaling creates dynamics. The principle is the same as when playing an accordion. The leakier the bellows, the easier it is to control the dynamics. It’s possible to make a crescendo or a diminuendo for one note.

Every harmonium is unique and size is one of the most important factors influencing the instrument’s rhythmic and dynamic agility. Alakotila prefers larger harmoniums, because the big sound works well with violins. His love of big harmoniums does occasionally present some logistical challenges, as far as playing live goes. Alakotila’s solution has been to buy a separate harmonium for the American continent, as well as a couple of instruments to be stored in Continental Europe.

Vigorous virtuosos

The harmonium is Eero Grundström’s number one instrument and a Mannborg travel harmonium built in the 1910s is his most beloved keyboard: ”Four octaves, been around the block and has taken a beating!”

In Eero’s hands the harmonium is an extremely versatile instrument. The role of both man and harmonium changes depending on the ensemble. In small ensembles, such as duos, which Eero finds especially fun, he can play a soloist role and even improvise. In the incredible Spontaani Vire, his role is that of a traditional accompanist, so the harmonium plays chords and bass lines. Often the band’s bass player Sara Puljula manages to hold down the bottom-end fort with such verve that Grundström ends up in a role reminiscent of a jazz pianist.

Grundström has also been known to wear the hat of a ”rock keyboard player”: in both Suomen Miesorkesteri and Iso Karhu, Grundström plays reduced harmonies on the harmonium, one-handedly.

Even though the harmonium is one of the more traditional folk music instruments, finding your own style of playing is still possible. ”Other instruments have really influenced my playing, since there really aren’t many harmonium players out there to model my playing on. There are entire areas of playing where no predecessors are to be found at all, such as archaic or Balkan music. Then I tend to look to accordion or violin players or any number of other instruments for new ideas,” Grundström notes.

When an instrument that has traditionally been used for accompaniment steps into the spotlight, it is often greeted with confusion: ”People are still astonished that you can use the harmonium as a lead instrument, and that you can play it fast. Sometimes listening to the same reactions over and over again gets a little tiresome, but, on the other hand, it is a selling point for people. Just like with my other main instrument the harmonica. Playing these ‘freaky’ instruments is a doubleedged sword!”

Pilvi Järvelä (Tsuumi Sound System, Vidar Skrede Dynamo Band) and the more lead-oriented Milla Viljamaa also play small travel harmoniums. The latter’s solo album Minne (2011) recently won the Teosto award and the record even made it into the World Music Charts Europe upon release.

Järvelä and Viljamaa are also accomplished teachers. Many little pianists in music schools have caught the folk music bug and the genre has a lot to give to pianists who are familiar with other genres of music. Teaching materials have started to come out over the last few years. Pilvi Järvelä (née Talvitie) has published Kamupiano – Kansanmusiikkisovituksia pianolle (2008) and Milla Viljamaa Kansanmusiikkia pianisteille (2008), as well as Kansanmusiikkia pianisteille – alkeet (2012). Timo Alakotila, together with another pioneer harmonium pumper Timo Valo, put together a book Tämmäysopas (2010).

The stripped-down piano

The not-so-traditional piano has found its way into folk music and in this area Timo Alakotila casts a long shadow. Alakotila started using the piano in the early 1990s, while playing with accordionist Maria Kalaniemi. ”It has been an interesting trip, trying to come up with ways of making the piano sound like a folk music instrument. The sound of the piano is so closely associated with classical and jazz. For example, playing folk music with a trio consisting of piano, bass and drums is really hard. There are great examples of it working, though, like the Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, who made some great music in the 1960s.”

One solution to the problem is stripping harmony down to its bare bones in a systematic and analytic manner. ”You can utilize tensions similar to those in jazz, but you have to use intervals in a certain way. I’ve put in a lot of hours, but some discoveries have also been pure luck,” Alakotila states. ”With the harmonium, you can play the jazziest chord in the world, and it’ll still sound like folk music!”

Alakotila still works with Kalaniemi and the latest fruit of their collaboration is Åkerö (2012), which made it into the number four spot on World Music Charts Europe. Alakotila’s piano is at its jazziest in a group called Luna Nova and with Tango Orchestra Unto he plays traditional and contemporary tangos.

The style Alakotila has developed for playing folk music has become so characteristic, it can be seen as an obstacle for developing the role of the piano. Part of the reason why Eero Grundström prefers the harmonium is because it’s possible to find a unique style and speak with your own voice.

”I never managed to develop my own style on the piano, since the stylistic influence of Alakotila is so strong. Piano has remained an instrument for playing a certain style of modern folk music – it invites the musician to use a big ambitus and play jazz-influenced chords. I’m really looking forward to new players finding new ways of playing more traditional or archaic piano, for example. Or how would you play Balkan music on solo piano?”

Helmi Camus has embarked on a journey of exploration into playing archaic music on the piano. It’s an area ripe for creating new styles and renewing old ones, since keyboard instruments are traditionally not a part of archaic music. Alakotila also mentions Matias Tyni and Neea Harju as exciting new keyboard talents.

Composer and musician Juha Kujanpää also operates in the area between folk music and jazz. He works with groups such as Kirjava Lintu, Karuna and Ville Ojanen Band. Kujanpää says he is most comfortable with the acoustic piano, but also likes to play harmoniums and electric instruments. “From a composer’s point of view, different keyboard instruments in general are a great resource. Different sounds and ways of playing inspire me to write different kinds of songs. A song written on the harmonium is usually very different from one written on the piano.”

Exploring new instruments

There have been a number of keyboard experiments over the years, but compact wind instruments with keyboards, like the melodica and claviola, seem to have become a fixture in folk music’s instrumental selection. Eero Grundström admits to playing a role in this: ”I wasn’t the first to use a melodica to play folk music. I think it was in 1996 that I heard Swedish accordionist Lars Hollmer play one at an Accordion Tribe concert at the Savoy Theatre in Helsinki. The next day I went out and bought a melodica with an air tube and a music stand to put it on. This way I could play the melodica and the harmonium simultaneously.”

Accordionist Johanna Juhola, as well as Milla Viljamaa, have taken a liking to these handy little instruments. On her latest album, Milla Viljamaa plays the celesta, too, which is better known as an orchestral instrument.

In the story of keyboards in folk music, experiments with electric instruments represent a separate chapter. In the 1980s Karelia experimented with synthesizers, as did the Progmatics in the 1990s. Nowadays, especially Grundström and Kujanpää play a lot electric instruments, even though they, too, seem to prefer organic sounds. Grundström has ended up playing acoustic instruments through electronic effects and Kujanpää has explored sampling and modeling acoustic keyboard instruments, as well as combining the sound universes of the harmonium and analog synthesizers. This is an ongoing journey.

Translation: Arttu Tolonen

Featured photo: Saara Vuorjoki