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The archaic is avant-garde

by Heikki Laitinen

“'The archaic is avant-garde!', is a provocative catch-cry, but also the truth. It is also true that both the archaic and the avant-garde are necessary for the arts." This column is part of the series "On my music and beyond", where composers and other music makers write about their music.

Forty years ago, I arrived at one of the turning points in my life. I was working on my dissertation on the ancient 5-15 string Finnish-Karelian kantele and the music associated with it. I analysed different instruments and, in as much detail as possible, transcriptions that dated back sixty years. I soon realised that I would not be able to understand much about this music without playing it myself.

I was initially a pianist, but the ten-string kantele has since then been my main instrument. I began by working through the above-mentioned transcriptions, but with the limited amount of them – just a few dozen – I had to continue from where the notes ran out, and start improvising. I felt I had to absorb the transcriptions in order to create music using the principles and aesthetics found in them. It was entirely different from anything I had learned before. No beginning, no ending, no carefully structured overall form, but instead a certain state of being that has always existed and will always continue to exist. When I begin to play, I step into it, when I stop playing, I step out of it. At a few occasions, I have played the kantele in public with others for six hours straight. It is something I do not really wish to explain, to reduce into music notes, or even into words. Music flows through interaction, fingers move as if they had a will of their own. Even a beginner can join in, but those who opt to do so are facing endless practice.

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My dissertation did not get completed that time, but my musical world turned upside down. My next step was to delve into Kalevalaic runo (rune) singing – studying those very songs that Elias Lönnrot chose to create the Kalevala. Lönnrot compiled the Finnish national epic out of folk poems which he and others transcribed from traditional runo singers. I opened the biggest song book in the world, the 33-part publication titled Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (“The ancient poems of the Finnish people”), which contains archival transcriptions of folk poems. I listened to available archival recordings of runo singing, analysed them, and began to sing.

The 402-verse Sampo, which was sung for Elias Lönnrot by Arhippa Perttunen in April 1834 in Viena Karelia’s Latvajärvi, marked another turning point for me. Many of the verses are so similar to one another that it is almost impossible to memorise them or their order: they get mixed up. And even though the poem’s metre is complex and requires a lot of work to master, it eventually starts to act as a generator, producing new verses with ease. At first, I had to make a very conscious effort in order to learn how to create variations out of the tunes, but soon I was able to trust my own instinct which was being formed in the process.

I discovered unaccompanied solo singing. Its freedom of performance and its strength of communication were qualities that should have not been forgotten. It was an exhilarating experience to suddenly realise that I was a runo singer in the literal meaning of the word. The strangest thing was that although a long time had passed since the golden era of that genre, the sense of how to treat the poem, its metre or melodic progressions had never entirely disappeared. It is simply something too significant to fade away during just a few generations.

Later, I also began to perform and create laments. Their expressive nature is something quite unique.

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Before my musical revolution forty years ago, I had studied composition at the Sibelius Academy under Erik Bergman and his strictly dodecaphonic school, as well as written songs which I performed whilst accompanying myself on the guitar. I “wrote” songs, whereas my contemporary classical pieces were “composed”. Bergman was a good fit for me as a teacher as he was an ethnic music aficionado. He kindled my interest in world music instruments, all possible playing techniques and thousands of different tonal qualities. I was also enthusiastic about structured and free improvisation, instrumental theatre and performance art. Mauricio Kagel was my absolute role model. I named my 1971 performance opera “Make art, young man, and you may become immortal”.

Despite the complete overhaul of my musical universe, I never abandoned songs, Bergman or Kagel. Quite the contrary. In the past decades, I have made solo works and participated in many kinds of projects where ancient Finnish music has been turned into atonal performances. Dance and dancers have often been involved in order to establish an interaction with the audiences. Influences from every continent, and from Africa in particular, have gradually been adopted. Lamellophone playing from Tanzania and Namibia proved to have an aesthetic world and a musical structure that is similar to the ten-string kantele.

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A new adventure began when I started to delve deep into vocal improvisation. I used every imaginable sound that a human being can produce. It felt to me like those sounds had been used even before the birth of speech. In that manner, they represent humankind’s truest and deepest expression. Everyone has access to them and everyone will use them at least sometimes, between their first cry and their last sigh. There are, however, many kinds of societal and individual barriers preventing the use of the most dramatic of these sounds. But with at least some of these barriers removed, collective compositions have become works with astonishing qualities. 

I have explored my own vocal possibilities through hundreds of gigs. I often discover new vocal registers or timbres while I am performing. They feel like messages from thousands of years ago, even though they also represent the latest avant-garde. “The archaic is avant-garde!”, is a provocative catch-cry, but also the truth. It is also true that both the archaic and the avant-garde are necessary for the arts.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Photo: Timo Väänänen 

Heikki Laitinen

Heikki Laitinen, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy, composer, musician, poet, stage actor, performance artist and voice improviser. He worked as the head of the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy in 1983-1995, and professor in 2001-2008. In 2008 he received the State Prize for Music as acknowledgement for his work in the field of folk music. Laitinen's output includes also chamber music and circa 400 songs. He is one of the nominees for the Folk Music Creator of the Year at the Finnish Ethnogala 2019. He also continues his Murder Ballads project with accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen.