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Folk musician Timo Alakotila and the freedom to collaborate

by Riikka Hiltunen

Musician and composer Timo Alakotila has found the perfect balance between working alone and with other musicians.

It feels a bit pointless to ask Timo Alakotila how many musicians he has collaborated with over his career. The pianist/composer/arranger is a longstanding member of ensembles such as JPP, Tango Orchestra Unto and Troka, as well as continuously engaging in a stream of new collaborations. He has been playing with violinist Mauno Järvelä since 1972 and with accordionist Maria Kalaniemi for the past thirty years. His more recent collaborative partners include songwriter Saima Hyökki, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and saxophonist Elias Frigård, among others. In addition, he plays regularly with Sibelius Academy students as well as fulfilling commissions as a composer and arranger across many different genres.

Alakotila says he seems to both naturally gravitate towards these joint projects as well being increasingly active in pitching his own initiatives to others. As a musician, he enjoys the artistic freedom which is enabled through a five-year artist grant from the state, for the fourth time running.

”There was one year where I held a half-time position at the Sibelius Academy, but at all other times I have been a part-time teacher. This has allowed me the full freedom to work as a freelance musician, composer and producer as well”.


Age makes no difference in music

Different collaborations are rewarding in different ways. Working with instrumentalists teaches about different instruments, and cross-genre projects help maintain a fresh approach to work.  Combining the classical sound with folk music groove is particularly inspiring to Alakotila as a composer. His fifth violin concerto titled På Väg [On the way], written for violinist Elin Johansson and premiered in Sweden’s Umeå in February 2020, combines classical and folk music influences. Alakotila is currently working on folk music infused arrangements for viola quartet.

Alakotila works with musicians from a whole range of age groups – some collaborations go back to the 1970s, while some of his colleagues were born in the 2000s. Age, however, is a non-issue for him.

”When it comes to music, age makes no difference. Folk music unites amateurs and professionals, the young and the old. This is what makes jam sessions so great. Many young musicians who play traditional music have already acquired a pretty extensive repertoire which makes it easy to find a common language.”

As an example of one his more recent collaborations, Alakotila mentions cellist Iiris Tarnanen’s solo album titled The Day I Was Born, which he has co-produced with Ilona Blom from the ensemble Tuuletar. A student at the Nordic Master of Global Music program, Tarnanen will release her debut album this spring

”The project includes many students across different departments and cultures. A collaboration with this kind of diversity is mutually enriching in terms of acquiring musical skills and knowledge.”


Timo Alakotila and friends at G Livelab Helsinki

Favourite ensemble as a role model, source of teaching material and collaborative partner

When asked about important collaborative partners over the course of his career, Alakotila singles out the Swedish ensemble Väsen, who certainly has a loyal fan in him. Alakotila first heard the group in 1990 when he performed with the JPP at the Burträsksvängen folk music festival during their tour of Northern Sweden. Since that first encounter, Alakotila and Väsen have often been performing at the same events. Alakotila has formed a strong connection with the group’s guitarist Roger Tallroth, who has played in the ensemble May Monday together with Alakotila and the Irish-English accordionist Karen Tweed.

One of the highlights of their joint projects was a 2019 concert in Kaustinen where Väsen celebrated their 30th anniversary and shared the stage with three Finnish groups for a retrospective of their pieces. All of the three guest ensembles featured in the concert – JPP, Frigg and Tsuumi Sound System – are top Finnish contemporary folk groups, and even the rehearsal process made a lasting impression on Alakotila.

”Working through three pieces as a massed orchestra of four ensembles felt like a magical and historically significant event. I am sure this concert at the Kaustinen Festival Arena remains as an unforgettable, unique experience for the audience.”

Alakotila has also utilised Väsen’s music frequently in his teaching. Notations of their pieces have been used to examine harmony, phrasing, form or arrangement techniques, as well as marvelling the group’s special drive in their ensemble work. Last autumn, Alakotila was invited to examine Väsen’s music on an even deeper level when the group humbly asked him to notate all of the works from their latest album Rule of 3.

”I could not imagine getting a better or more interesting job offer, so of course I said yes! Now, in March 2020, my work is close to the finish line and I am a million new experiences richer for it, diving under the surface of Väsen’s music and trying to discover all of the fine details that this perfect music has to offer! In Väsen’s music, all of the pieces simply seem to fit together. The three-player ensemble sounds like one large instrument, and at the same time like a big orchestra which functions seamlessly!”

Alakotila’s work includes a lot of solitary toiling as well as joining forces with others, and both aspects are an important part of being a musician.

“Musicians work in isolation, practicing, composing, arranging, writing or playing, but the power of ensemble playing and collaboration with others really refines their work and is the source of their greatest enjoyment, reward and delight!”

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Marko Mäkinen