in Articles

“Subtle is the new fortissimo” – The Superpluck trio pushes timbral and cultural boundaries

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

Focusing on contemporary music, Superpluck are a trio made up of three plucked instruments. Over the past five years, Rody van Gemert, Eija Kankaanranta and Assi Karttunen have taken aim at prejudiced and established networks in Finland and beyond.

When a trio has an unusual lineup of instruments, its founding recital cannot feature anything but world premieres. When Superpluck made their début in 2019, they gave no fewer than 12 first performances.

“That was a really heavy concert,” says Assi Karttunen. She plays harpsichord in Superpluck, while Eija Kankaanranta is on kantele and Rody van Gemert is on guitar. They have not exactly been easy on themselves since then, either. The combination of three plucked instruments (hence the name) is challenging in many ways, and the trio have heard their fair share of puzzled comments: No bowed string instruments? How can it work when all the instruments are so quiet? How do you write music for an ensemble that has no melody instrument?

Over the past five years and a bit, Superpluck have taken aim at these prejudices and proved them wrong by giving world premieres of pieces designed for them, some two dozen to date. They have sparked discussion in the field of contemporary music more widely. 

“The string quartet is still the gold standard, but what if the standard in the future could be something like this?” asks guitarist Rody van Gemert. 

The sound produced by the combination of guitar, kantele and harpsichord excited all the trio members. 

“Our instruments are very different in colour and technique, but they also have a lot in common,” says kantele player Eija Kankaanranta. “The combination produces a fascinating and surprising sound.”

“I sometimes feel like, who played that sound? Where did it come from?” Karttunen says. “We create sounds that we’ve never heard before. In the context of contemporary music, it actually makes more sense to play a combination of instruments that haven’t been put together before.”

The notion that an instrument with a ‘quiet’ sound would need to be paired with a more robust instrument revealed an interesting bias in Western musical culture. Is a loud sound always the most appealing?

“Quietness is commonly seen as a weakness, but volume is not absolute. Our strength is in that our combined sound contains millions of nuances even if we objectively never reach a fortissimo,” explains van Gemert.

“We have a very wide range of quiet,” Karttunen adds.


Networks in Japan

Uncommon duo combinations of instruments are quite common in contemporary music, and the coming together of Superpluck was preceded by its members performing together in pairs. The three of them had become acquainted at the DocMus graduate school of the Sibelius Academy, where Karttunen and Kankaanranta completed doctorates. Karttunen and van Gemert had begun to make music together, initially playing works by Renaissance composer William Byrd and then commissioning music from composers such as Juha T. Koskinen.

When the duo were touring Japan, a composer floated the idea of a concerto for harpsichord, guitar and harp. But instead of a harp, it occurred to Karttunen to ask kantele player Kankaanranta, with whom she had previously performed music by Matthew Whittall and John Adams.

“When we decided to perform as a trio, it was immediately clear that we would perform contemporary music, specifically works by Finnish and Japanese composers,” Kankaanranta explains.

Indeed, the most valuable partners of Superpluck are contemporary composers from these two countries. The decision to look eastward was instinctive rather than conscious: van Gemert had studied with guitar guru Norio Satoin Japan, Karttunen had old Japanese friends, and Kankaanranta was familiar with the idiosyncratic kantele scene in Japan.

Superpluck quickly established a pattern of working with Japanese music universities, not representing the Sibelius Academy but instead relying on funding from Finnish foundations, and with Japan-oriented associations, particularly the Scandinavia-Japan Sasakawa Foundation.

The début recital of the trio at Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki was also a show of force by the composition class at the Aichi University of the Arts, as five of their students had each written a piece for this new plucking group. Professors Akira Kobayashi and Rica Narimoto from the same university had also been inspired to write works of their own.

Superpluck were amazed at the high quality of the works thus produced. The combination of instruments had inspired a highly diverse range of approaches. Some of the students involved in this initial project remain in touch with the trio today, and several Japanese composers have come to Finland to study through this connection. Superpluck have also collaborated with the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, where they were in residence in December 2022. The group always gives lectures or courses during their visits to Japan.

Connections to Japan are currently lively and mutual, but the group is also planning collaborations in Spain. The trio’s most recent tour of Japan was in 2022, and the next one will be in two years’ time. Each trip is preceded by several years of busy planning, including commissions, fundraising and university projects. Superpluck now have an invitation to perform with Ensemble NOMAD, Japan’s most prominent ensemble specialising in contemporary music.


Kuvateksti Kuva 1: Superpluck with Finnish and Japanese composers after their début recital at the Temppeliaukio Church. Photo: Uwe Florath

Hear the latest thing at the club

It is no accident that Superpluck have such robust networks in Japan in particular. Plucked instruments, such as the koto and shamisen, are very important in Japanese traditional music, and subtlety and quietness are typically valued in Japanese aesthetics. Japanese composers have been excited about this combination of three plucked instruments, some going as far as to say that this is exactly what they have always wanted.

In Finland, commissions tend to focus on works for orchestra or for string instruments, because they have a high status. Composers writing for an unusual lineup may well wonder whether the piece will ever be performed again. In the case of the repertoire commissioned by Superpluck, however, we can already see the pieces being taken up by other performers. This shows that there is demand for new music among professionals of the guitar, kantele and harpsichord. Recently, the NYKY ensemble at the Sibelius Academy performed Sea of words by Yuiko Mukai, which Superpluck premiered at their début recital in 2019.

Last year, Superpluck launched their own concert series, Superpluck Club, of which the fourth edition will happen in November 2023.

“The idea was to create a facility for encountering contemporary music in a spontaneous, relaxed atmosphere,” says Kankaanranta, who initially came up with the idea. “We commission new pieces for the Club and invite visitors to talk about things freely, not just the musicians and the composers but others, too. We’re also developing fun things like playing contemporary music bingo or serving Japanese snacks. This is an agreeable way of bringing contemporary music to audiences that is very much in character for us.”

The Club series was made possible by funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation and Arts Promotion Centre Finland. Finnish composers are becoming increasingly interested in Superpluck, and quite a few are lining up to write for the group.


Tolling bells and crisp rhythms

Composers writing for Superpluck have used all kinds of strategies to delve into the potential of the guitar, kantele and harpsichord. Skärgården by Olli Virtaperko is an entertaining and challenging piece that plays with modulating rhythms. The trio name this as one of their favourites. Kello [Bell] by Yuna Kurachi creates sounds minutely modelled on the tolling of temple bells. Juha T. Koskinen draws on Japanese influences in many of his works, including Unabarawritten for Superpluck. 

The processes leading up to world premieres have revealed insights and pleasant surprises. Dislocated resolutions by Natsuki Niwa, premiered in spring 2021, is described by Kankaanranta as a wild game of pinball.

“I was just about ready to give up on the piece when I had the insight of playing it with a plectrum,” says Kankaanranta. “That made the quick, explosive attacks and rhythms in the piece work.”

Most of the Japanese composers who have written for Superpluck are women.

“We were fascinated by the fact that we met so many female composition students and composers in Japan.Perhaps in the future the composition scene in Japan will be dominated by competent, internationally oriented women?” Kankaanranta envisions with enthusiasm.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. 

Featured photo: Antti Ignatius