fear and freedom – body and soul

Autumn 2012, when we were studying in Helsinki with the NoFo-programme, we spent a week with the Kandiakatemia in the Sibelius Academy’s fantastic countryside facilities in Kallio-Kuninkala (commonly referred to as Kunkkula). Kandiakatemia is best described as a one week course in free improvisation for the bachelor students at the folk department.

One of the main things I experienced during that week, is how physical preparation and warm up, can affect mental abilities and create artistic (mental) freedom. Every day that week started with a good long warm up of the entire body, often with yoga-influenced exercises that put a strong focus on breathing. And this really did something to me. At the end of the week my whole being was affected. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg but my breathing was deep, slow and strong and I felt calm and at peace with myself. And that particular physical state of being had a strong impact on my ability to play the violin.

At the opposite end: I was sitting in Voss, practicing. I had slipped on the ice the day before and landed on my left wrist so I had a bad ache and couldn’t move my hand or fingers as freely as normal. However I was trying to use that as an advantage, practicing to play without pushing the string all the way down on the fingerboard. After a while I felt my breathing was really strained and my whole body felt tense and uneasy. And that made it impossible to play well. I tried to relax and focus on the bow and the sound I was making, putting my whole attention at the sound and just trying to get my body and movements to adjust intuitively to aid a good tone from the fiddle. However it didn’t work.

I don’t know why I felt like I did at that point, something was stressing me and that made my body tense. The main point is just to describe two different physical states and how strongly they affect the fiddle-playing. And how strongly the general state of the body, and how free both body and mind is, is connected to breathing. This has led me to the idea that I should start practicing yoga, to be able to control that better, and easier find a good physical-mental state of being whenever I need it.

Inspiration

During the autumn 2012 (while studying in Helsinki) I began thinking more about what inspiration is. I started to talk about it with friends, and it turned out that there were a lot of different ways of describing it and relating to it. I don’t know how much wiser I got from these conversations but at least they were really interesting, and at least I got some sort of idea about what I think inspiration is, and where I get it.

For me, inspiration is a thought that spurs me into creativity or into action. Inspiration is an idea that leads forward, suggests new ways of seeing things or suggests a possible development. Inspiration is open ended, never finished. It’s more about asking questions than delivering answers. Inspiration is pointing in a direction saying, ‘go there and have a look, you might find something interesting’ (instead of saying ‘go there and you will find this’). Inspiration is an open door or a window, not a signpost or a map.

I often find inspiration in stories, broadly defined. It can be a traditional story, like what is presented to us in books and other types of fiction, or stories from real life. Riddley Walker is a good example of the former, as is Moon Palace by Paul Auster, which contains some interesting thoughts on the quality of wide open spaces (which can easily be seen as a parallel to silence) as well as an interesting experiment about getting to know a work of art. Real life ‘stories’ that have inspired me during my NoFo studies is for instance the performance artist Marina Abramović and her work The Artist is Present, where she sits down in a chair, just silently looking into the eyes of whoever sits down in front of her. I’ve also been greatly inspired by hearing about singers today learning thousands of runo-meter lines, to somehow enter into the world of that music/poetry/language and see how it affects them. To me, the idea of doing experiments with yourself, like consously confusing your mind and memory by overloading it, or exploring your endurance, presense and openness in ways like Abramović, is an extremely powerful idea; an idea that shows that it’s mainly our curiosity, imagination, determination and our will to let go of conventions and things that doesn’t matter, that sets the limit for what we can do, as artists and as humans.

The idea of curiosity has radical implications also when it coems to practicing. The idea of practicing is normally that a set of exercises is going to develop a set of skills and that is the aim of practicing. But with an open and curious mind, there doesn’t have to be a known goal with the practicing. It’s possible to just do things, over and over again, and then see what happens, what the outcome is. This is something I learned from Jonny Soling at Malungs Folkhögskola, who spoke fondly about it. If you do an exercise for a period of time, something will happen. You don’t necessarily know what, but you know that.

Other stories doesn’t have to be as drastic. The Polish fiddler Jan Gaca, who at 80 yers of age is still playing for weddings and dances, and has become a super star of the present folk revival in Poland, is a source of inspiration by himself, serving as an example of energy, presence and rough skill. Or the German weaver and musician Küster, who lived in Skåne in 19th C. and started each day with drinking a ‘kaffegök’ (coffee mixed with alcohol) and then composing two tunes. This persistant composing, the continuous search for the perfect tune, shows the power of endurance. For me, these are great images to have at the back of my head, while I go about, evolving my own music.

Notes on improvising dance

(Originally posted here, 3 October 2012)

Dance as if it was a traditional dance, like if the movements have existed in hundreds of years, followed people in sorrow and joy, success and and failure. A part of a greater, ancient ritual.

Later addition: this goes for music as well. 
But remember to keep the movements and the notes young, fresh and new. Every note is played for the first and only time, and deserves attention and love in accordance with that.

Heikki Laitinen

During my NoFo-studies, no other person has managed to present so many interesting, inspiring and thought provoking ideas in so little time, as Heikki Laitinen did in our ca 90 minutes seminar in Helsinki.
For me, Heikki is more than just a real person. He has become an icon, a bearer of some key concepts or ideas that I find inspiring and interesting. And to be honest, some of the ideas that I ascribe to him, actually doesn’t origin from that seminar, and were actually not presented by him at all, but by other people (sometimes, but definitely not always, refering to him). I am less concerned with the living person Heikki Laitinen, even if I find it incredibly inspiring to know that he exists and to know that these ideas actually can become real music: for me it is the Idea of Heikki, the Heikki that exists in my head, that is important.

I don’t really care what ideas came from him, and what came from other people, and what comes from myself. Heikki Laitinen represents a state of mind, a vision, and an approach to music making and folk music. For me, he is the free-thinker, the one that spurs development; inspiration and development incorporated. It might sound very much like old-fashioned adoring of a (old, white, male) genius but I don’t think of it that way. As I said, Heikki Laitinen in this way is not a person, but an idea. The idea of possibility, inspiration and questioning of conventions. And the inspiration lies as much in what I know that other people (like Kristiina Ilmonen, Kimmo Pohjonen, Trepaanit and others) has done with these ideas, as it does in the ideas themselves.

Tradition

Prelude

In the autumn 2012 I wrote:

Searching through old manuscripts, there is plenty of evidence that music and musicians have always travelled and moved around. As I’ve been travelling in Europe, meeting musicians and music from different traditions, I’ve found a lot of inspiration seeing how many similarities there are between different cultures. I try to steal the best ideas from every person and tradition I meet, and incorporate that in my music. That’s my way of extending the meaning of tradition.

 I thought it would be good to add some lines to this thesis about my thoughts about tradition. It is difficult, since it’s a complex concept and it is a word which is being used extremely much within the folk music world, but with so many different meanings and definitions

———–

When I was studying at Malungs Folkhögskola with Jonny Soling, I asked him about his thoughts on tradition. What is it and how should we relate to it? The thing I remember most clearly from his answer is that “tradition is often being used as a hammer to beat someone else’s head”. There are so many things present in this short answer.

 Tradition is, within the world of folk music, a word of power and status. To have (know, be) the tradition is to have status and power. When people tell someone else that ‘that’s not tradition/al/’, that is saying ‘I know more than you do’, ‘I know how it should be’ and ‘I have the authority to tell you what is right’ all in one sentence.

Still, it often seems like there is no common definition of what tradition is, what we mean when we say tradition, what we include and what we exclude.

 For me, the most problematic aspect I think, is that we often tend to use the word traditional when we really mean historical or historically informed (as in Historcially Informed Praxis, the idea behind the modern day playing of what is called ‘early music’). But tradition to me is not something that exists in the past. Tradition is something that exists today and is moving forward. Tradition is moving, living, evolving culture. I like to think of tradition as a verb in present tense (heading for the future), rather than a (historical, fixed, defined) noun.

Another way of expressing it is a quote I also found somewhere in my notes:

“Tradition is keeping the fire burning, not worshipping the ashes”. (Google kindly informed me that it supposedly comes from Gustav Mahler.)

 I try to use the notion of tradition as a source of inspiration. As such it is easy to connect it with the idea of archaic music: if music is memory based, what does that do with tradition? And what inspiration can we find through thinking the music 1000 years back in history? And what if we think about the music 100 or 1000 years into the future? What ideas do we get from that? But tradition can be inspiring in so many ways. When I think of the music of Skåne, I get inspiration to ‘new’ ways of interpreting tunes, when I search for a more traditional (in the sense of historical) way of playing them. If the dancing and playing of some sertain tune type, like kadrilj or engelska hadn’t died out more or less completely before it was being revived in the 20th C. what would the music have sounded like today then? And what would the dancing have looked like?

 In the end, I don’t have a good definition of tradition. It is a word I think about a lot, it is an idea I am constantly relating when I am doing folk music, it is an important part of some of the ideas I have presented in this thesis. Even so, I am constantly revising what I think of it, how I use it, what I think about it and how important it is to me.

Skåne

The idea of Skåne is probably one of the concepts I’ve been using the longest time in my music making. In its simplest, original, form it is just about playing the tunes from the area of Skåne, which is something I’ve been doing throughout my musical life.. The idea has developed and grown more complex through time though. Some ten years ago I started searching through manuscripts and music books myself, to find ‘new’ (i.e. old tunes that are not in use within the folk scene at the moment) tunes I began to realise the problems that occur when you are to create an interpretation of a tune, based on a written source. The idea got even more complex when began questioning the contemporary (20th/21st C.) style of playing these tunes.

When looking through available transcriptions of older players (a lot of them made in the 1880’s) and texts describing their style, it is obvious that there was extensive use of microtonality and a lot of rhythmical variations and details that transcend the (imaginary) evenness of the regular quavers or semi-quavers you find in written music. However this has been very little explored and used by contemporary players of that repertoire. Rather, the main style is quite straight, and in my opinion there is not really any of the key players who make (or have made) conscious use of microtonality. (This doesn’t mean that then necessarily play with even-tempered intonation, but that’s a different question.) And so I’ve made it a task of mine to try to bring those elements back in use when playing the tunes from Skåne, which is the tunes that I’ve grown up with, and consider to be my repertoire.*

I haven’t done any proper research into they question, but I believe a lot of the explanation is to be found by looking into the fact that some of the key players in the first folk music revival, in the first half of the 20th C. came from a background in classical music, and either way had adopted the musical ideals of the classical world. Another part of it may be that Skåne is a region where the older layers of repertoire (e.g. polskas) had gone out of playing, before the majority of field recordings were made. Thus today’s playing of polskas (which, in Skåne just like in the rest of Sweden, is considered to be the tune type with the highest status, the most ‘genuine’ tune type within folk music) is based more on what is found in manuscripts, rather than repertoire learned from recordings, and in most of the manuscripts there is no information about rhythmical or intonational details.

On a greater level, the idea of Skåne is one concerned with identity, tradition, the history of Swedish folk music and the mystical/mythical connection between geography and style (discussed here). By playing the tunes from the region where I was born and still live, I fulfill many of the stereotypes of Swedish folk music, which I sometimes find a bit problematic, as many of them build on ideas I don’t believe in, or want to question.

On the other hand, it makes it easy to explore and get inspired by some of the ideas contained within these stereotypes. Like the connection between landscape and musical expression. I don’t really think this connection exists in an ‘objective’ sense, but the idea can be used for inspiration. What happens if I let my playing reflect the landscape around me? What does it mean for the music?

By fulfilling the stereotype (playing the tunes from my own region), and at the same time questioning the praxis for how it is being carried out (in this case by playing around with intonation and rhythmical details), I can get the best out of two worlds. I maintain my musical integrity and can still get accepted by the community. This is not an outspoken or thought-through strategy of mine but I think the image is not too far from the truth anyway.

*Sometimes this results in comments from the local folk music community about anti-social playing style, or that microtonality (‘quarter tones’) is something that doesn’t belong in the music of southern Sweden. When it comes to the ‘historical correctness’ of using microtones in southern repertoire, I could prove the critics wrong by quoting for instance the transcriptions of Lorens Brolin, Ola Lans and Jöns Andersson Ryberg (all found in Svenska Låtar Skåne, together with descriptions of their use of varying intonation/tonality). The critique about anti-social playing style is a bit different. It becomes a matter of individual vs. community and performing culture vs. participating culture. An example of the function/art-dichotomy at work.

Music-self integration

(This text is partly built on a reflection over Free Play and In I Musiken, written autumn 2011 for the FFK-course @ KMH with Sven Åberg.)

Experience is a key in creating a strong music-self integration. I have no knowledge of the psychological or cognitive factors involved in this, and the term is completely my own (though I would be surprised if no-one else has had similar thoughts) and I don’t make any claims that this has got any scientific value. It is, however, slightly based on reflections done after reading Free Play and Into the Music (In i musiken).

Autum 2011, early in the NoFo education I wrote this text for a course we did in Stockholm with Sven Åberg. (Translated spring 2013.)

I’ll try to do a small summary of my own development over the last years, with special regards to music and consciousness.

When I decided to go down the path of professional music making, it was mainly because I experienced that the Music gave me experiences I couldn’t get anywhere else. It was not about a feeling that ‘music is everything to me’ or ‘I have to express myself through music in order to survive’, but at the times when I was making music, especially with others, I could get a feeling of content, peace and satisfaction. Sometimes I would enter the world of music completetly, forgetting everything about time and space, sometimes it was just a comfortable feeling of connection and a strong sense of context.

Since I started studying music, these moments have actually become less frequent. There is more focus on the craft, on developing technique, style, expression etc. And the moments when music really captures me has become less common, and they never occur within the frames of education, but always outside it.

I have been interested in, and spent a lot of energy on acquiring various musics, styles etc, and much less energy on (consciously) developing my general relationship with music and my instrument.

But I have also started thinking a lot more. When I now have re-read the both books (Free Play and Into the Music) I realise that some of the thoughts they contain is stuff that has been present in a latent mode, below the surface, since I read them last time (which was before I started studying at Music Academy). They contain many thoughts that has helped me along the way, above all with getting a grip on the education as a whole (since I often experience music education to be very fragmented).

I experience that there is a long way to go before I reach ‘nirvana’ through music, but over the last years, I have been thinking more and more about how my musicianship affects other sides of life, and how it would be possible to use some sort of ‘spiritual’ development, to also become a better musician.

I’m on my way back to a state of being where music actually gives me transcending experiences, even if it’s a slow process.

At the same time: Does one have to have experienced nirvana to be a full-fledged musician? Is it first then, that music becomes divine? And does the music has to be divine? Always? Everywhere? Could it not just get to be some simple dance music sometimes? Or something which is in the background when you’re eating dinner or washing up?

Now, about a year and a half later, a lot of these thoughts are still relevent, but I have also moved on a bit. To begin with, it is no longer true that I haven’t had any transcending or capturing moments of music making within the frames of education. I would still say that there is something in the imperative of the education, that doesn’t help towards creating a good environment for music making. Something which, most of the time, limits the engagement of most people, limits how much of themselves they actually put into the music making. But during NoFo I have experienced capturing and transcending moments of music making, also within the frame of education.

But more importantly, I have been thinking more about, and also experiencing some aspects of, the connections between the music and the self, the ‘inner’ aspects of music making. And I am even more convinced now, that there is something to gain from developing the ‘spiritual’ side of myself, to develop as a musician. A strong, open and relaxed mind, confident and in contact with itself and in contact with the body, is a good start for making music. For me, there is actually a strong link here to the power of experience, which for me is an idea that in the end is about how body and mind gets connected. And since music making, in the end, is a physical activity (since it involves, and depends on, movement of the body, at least when playing the violin) that aims to express somtehing that begins in the mind, I feel it really helps to have a good mind/body connection.

Music/self, mind/body, feelings/movements. It seems to me like a perspective that is based on the whole, rather than splitting things up into pieces, is beneficial.

The two books, Free Play and Into the Music, has been very influential for me. I’ve read them at least twice each, at different stages in my musical development and education, and I always read them differently, relate to them in different ways. Apart from inspiring me to a lot of the thoughts presented in this text, they have also been very influential in leading me to the belief that ideas, however abstract and far fetched (in relation to music), have direct impact on how you make music, and what kind of music you are making.

Method for my artistic research (method for development)

The overall work I’ve been doing during my Master studies can be described as Artistic Research. In this work, I have used several different methods. Some very conciously chosen to aid development, some chosen just out of curiousity, and some not even considered a method until I look back at them in retrospect. Some of the methods are described in this thesis, like how I’ve been using playing and the body to move outside my comfort zone. Or how the contrast between text and music (concrete and abstract) provokes me, forces me to think and in the end also develops me. There is also a section on how I have been using ideas and concepts like origin, tradition, archaic music and the thought that there are no tunes as a source of inspiration.

During my studies I have also had great help from discussing with teachers, friends and colleagues, who have provided new perspectives and asked useful questions. I have also received a lot of inspiration from reading books and listening to music. Writing lots of notes has also helped me in processing information, reflecting and taking care of ideas. This has been helpful both in my artistic research and when processing my development.

Ideas

As a starting point for artistic development I have often used ideas or concepts (some people would maybe call it images, but for me that is a slightly different things). Sometimes the ideas are closely connected with, or obviously applicable to, music; sometimes they are more abstract. For me, an idea is expressed in words. If it is not expressed in words, I tend to think of it more as a feeling. And the tension (frustration) that exists between the words of the ideas, and the sound of the music is something that drives the development.

Still, I think that musical structure/form and setting may be used to reflect certain ideas about music and the world. Individual/group, horizontal/vertical development, tunes/no tunes, instrumental hierarchies etc. are just a few features that can be meddled with, to create different messages and let different meanings come forth through music.

I will try to describe some of the ideas or concepts I have been using, and how they have affected the music. This includes the idea of Skåne and how it relates to concepts of tradition and origin, my understanding of the philosophy of archaic music, and the idea that there are no tunes.

Archaic Music/Long Aesthetics

Early on when we began studying in Finland, we were introduced to the idea of Archaic music and long aesthetics. I was puzzled by it and it really took some time for me to begin to grasp what it is.

It was fascinating, to realise that there is a type of music, a musical universe, that somehow sounds so familiar and yet so strange. It was there, and that I liked the sound of it, but I didn’t understand anything of it. That provided a challenge that was very intriguing. I wanted to understand, wanted to grasp it, and wanted to try to make music on an archaic basis.

This is very much still a concept, an approach, an aesthetics, that I’m in the process of learning and understanding. This text is an attempt to describe how I understand it today, and how I’ve been using it so far.

 In short, archaic music can be described as music building on the oldest layers of Finnish traditional/historical material. Common features are short repetitive phrases, a limited tonal material, persistent repetition with constant, small-scale, variation, improvisation and an aesthetic built on slow development over long time. The ‘Tune’ as we know it, is not really present in archaic music: melodies are not considered to be defined, closed units, but rather starting points for music making, variation and improvisation. The slow development and long time perspectives creates both possibilities and challenges. The musical dramaturgy as we’re used to it gets dissolved and a completely different musical world emerges.

The performance praxis is based both on factual knowledge about how these tunes and songs have been performed in the past, and by ideas developed today. As I have understood it, a lot of today’s playing of archaic music is heavily influenced by the thinking (and music making) of Heikki Laitinen.

Another aspect of archaic music is how it relates to the development of music over a long period of time. What does it mean that we today play music that has its roots thousands of years back in history? And if we ask about the history, then why not ask what this music will sound like a thousand years into the future from now, as well? What does it mean to play music in a culture which is memory based and orally transmitted over thousands of years? Finnish language only existed as an oral language until the middle ages, the music was probably mainly memory based even longer than that, so the question is very relevant if we want to understand the music in a historic/cultural context. These thoughts and questions are very integrated in the idea of archaic music: to me they were completely new, and opened up exciting doors to new ways of relating to music.

(Random anecdote: during my stay in Helsinki, I read a book called Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban. I got my hands on the book in a quite random way, had never heard about the author before, and didn’t know anything about the book before reading it, but it turned out to feature exactly some of these ideas.)

To get a starting point in understanding archaic music,  I was told to listen to music by Hiite, Trepaanit, Arja Kastinen, Antti Paalanen and others, and slowly, I began to grasp what archaic music can be, and what the consequences are of this long aesthetics.

As it began to grow on me, I realised that there are several aspects of archaic music that touch on ideas I’ve carried with me for a long time. With some of these, the concept of long aesthetics provided a new way of understanding and developing these ideas, and a deeper understanding for the (artistic) consequences.

 Archaic aesthetics provided a completely new approach to variation. My variations of tunes before, had been based on the idea of keeping the shape and form of the tune. Changing one note for another, maybe mirroring rhythms or melodic figures or turning scale movements into triads or the other way around. But almost always keeping with the structure of the tune, not adding beats or bars and not changing the harmonic structure.

With an archaic approach to variation the result is quite different. Instead of approaching the whole tune (or a whole part of the tune) at the same time, I will divide it into much smaller sections, maybe one or two bars, maybe even just a few beats, and then loop these elements and create small-scale variations in rhythm, note sequence etc. If it is a tune with very elaborate character (e.g. a lot of semi-quaver figures) I might also try to scale it down to a more skeletal version, before I start making variations. When I feel that I’m ‘done’ with one element I move on to the next one and do the same with that one.

Treating tunes like this, provides a completely different way of understanding them. When I’ve been doing variations in this way, I have been able to find patterns and structures in the tunes that I otherwise wouldn’t have found. I have also frequently found similarities and connections between different tunes that were hidden when I treated them in a more conventional way.

I have been using variation as a method of challenging myself, both technically and musically, but also as a way of challenging the music itself. By exploring different ways of making variations, I have challenged my own idea of where the limits of the tune are.

Another aspect of playing which is closely related to variation is improvisation. This is also an important feature in the archaic music, and making archaic improvisation has both been a way of exploring the idea of archaic music itself, but also a way of developing my own musicality. Exploring the small-scale, down to earth, ‘simple’ aspects of archaic music making has opened up my mind to musical qualities that didn’t use to interest me very much. Tone quality, and making use of variations in tone quality, intonation and rhythmical details are some of the aspects of my playing that I feel have developed by doing (archaic) improvisations and using improvisation as a tool for development. It has also lead to a greater feeling of artistic freedom.

In the end, perhaps the most inspiring concept within the world of archaic music is the idea that there are no tunes.