There are no tunes (there is only inspiration)

 Probably the idea that has provoked my thinking the most since I first heard about it, is the thought that there are no tunes. The idea was presented to us in a seminar with Heikki Laitinen while we studied ad SibA and when I first heard of it, I thought it was really disturbing. The Tune, I would say, is at the heart of Swedish folk music. I have grown up learning tunes, with teachers who have been telling me that the only important thing is the tune: we don’t need arrangements or harmonies or fancy concert clothes or anything else, as long as we have the tune and do it justice by playing well. (In a larger perspective, of course, this reflects the romantic idea of the Work.)

The idea itself is fairly simple. The tune as we know it, is an artefact without that has no (historical) validation. There simply are no tunes. There might be ideas for tunes, themes, structures, dance types etc. But the closed, defined, entity which is an A-part like this and a B-part like this and you repeat them over and over again (perhaps with small variations, but always staying true to the tune) is a falsification invented by 19th/20th C. thinking.

When I started to think about it, the idea intrigued me and I found it fascinating. Of course, I thought a bit about whether it had historical accuracy or not. (And when talking with Swedish folk music historian Magnus Gustafsson, he greatly questioned the idea of discarding the tune as an entity, but did approve of some of the implications the idea has.)
But in the end the historical (lack of?) correctness of the idea didn’t matter to me. I found the idea interesting and inspiring, I wanted to understand it and I wanted to understand how that idea could affect my playing. If there are no tunes, what can we then do with the material found in old manuscript books? If I discard the idea of a tune, but rather treat the notes as a suggestion, an idea, what happens when I play the ‘tunes’ I already know? What can I do with them? The more I thought about it, the more inspiring I found it, and the more I began to get ideas of how to turn the idea into music. It opened up doors to completely new ways of treating old material. New ways of interpreting old manuscripts and the material found there.

A lot of the methods I have been using when exploring this idea are found in the text about archaic music. In Finland they make a distinction between pellimanni music and archaic music, where the pellimanni (swe: spelman, eng: fiddler/(folk) musician) music roughly corresponds to what is called folk music in Sweden and the rest of the Nordic countries. (Denmark has a more anglified definition of folk music, including also singer/songwriter type of music (visesang), but that is again another discussion.) And it is in the tension field between archaic music and the thinking that surrounds it, and pellimanni music, that I have worked the most with the idea that there are no tunes.

My quest is to try to understand how this idea can be turned into music, if I use the pellimanni repertoire of Skåne that I’ve been playing all my life. In trying to connect the methods and features of archaic music with the pellimanni music, I have found great inspiration in Polish folk (mainly the mazurek- and oberek tradition of the Mazovia region) music and in the hardingfele repertoire from Norway. Both these traditions have similarities with both pellimanni music and archaic music, both when it comes to how the tunes are made up, and how they are being treated by the musicians. In the end, I feel that this is still very much work in progress. It is fascinating, but also frustrating and annoying to find that this ‘simple’ idea, that ‘there are no tunes’, is so difficult for me to turn into musical praxis.

To try to understand the idea, and get closer to it, I have made a lot of experiments with trying to dissolve the tunes while playing them. One method has been making variations with the method I described under archaic music. Another one has been to start with playing just a single note, and then gradually adding notes, rhythms etc. to slowly get closer to ‘the tune’ but often never really getting there.

Something I haven’t done very much yet, but intend to work more with in the future, is to treat the tunes according to principles of modal music. Somehow I feel that my sense of a ‘tune’ is very connected to my perception of (Swedish) folk music as mainly being structured according to harmonic principles. If I could find a more modal approach to playing the tunes, I think that would bring me closer to a world where there are no tunes.

I don’t know how fruitful these experiments have been, and I don’t know how good they actually are, if the aim is to understand what it means that there are no tunes, but at least it has been interesting, and resulted in some music that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

One of the reasons why I have to struggle so much with really understanding the idea, and how to make music from it, is that tune as idea and entity is so strong within me. It is what I have grown up with and it is what I have been taught throughout my musical life. This new way of approaching music is based on completely different concepts of what music is, and I suppose it takes some work and time, to get that idea incorporated in my playing. It probably doesn’t help either that this idea also contradicts conventional thinking about music in western society.

[As soon as I get hold of the recordings here will come a musical example from the exam concert in May 2013, of what kind of music all these ideas have resulted in.]

Meta

My thinking about this idea is also interesting on a meta-level. One of the things that occupy me, and that puzzles me as an artist, is how to incorporate theoretical ideas into musical practice. This is a very concrete example of how it can be done. Of course, this is something which is based on an idea which is already about music, but it has other implications (about originality for instance, and the right of the artist, any artist, to make their own decisions) and it is possible to derive ideas about the world in general from it, the same way that it would be possible to derive the no-tunes idea from ideas about society and the world.
For me, this question illustrates very well the possibilities and power of combining musical practice and theoretical ideas, and through that, I find it very inspiring not only for the music that can be created straight from the idea itself, but from all the other music it suggests could be created from other ideas.

Postlude

The idea that there are no tunes is for me deeply connected with the whole way of thinking at the KaMu-department at SibA. It seems to me that it is at the root of much of the artistic work that is carried out by teachers as well as present and former students. For example I put this idea together with the concept of “the three-day wedding musician” (first presented to me by harmonica player Jouko Kyhälä at a seminar during the Nordtrad conference in Helsinki april 2012): In order to be able to play for dancing for three days in a row, the musician didn’t actually (or necessarily) have a repertoire that covered that much material, but instead had concepts for tunes, musical skeletons and themes that were used for variation and to create “new” “tunes” on the spot.

Body as method

When asked about how the movement from function towards art had been done I realised that bodily experiments had been an important part in the process. In general there has been a synergy between several different processes that has worked paralell, all involved with breaking my learned patterns and expanding my action space within music, expanding my personal stage. A lot of this took part during the semester in Helsinki, even if it had been started during the preceding semesters in Stockholm and Odense.

I started to play [include hyperlink to text about playing] with the instrument, experimenting with what sounds I could get out of it but I also started to play with my body and with my voice. And I think it was very important as an opener for me, that I got bodified experiences of my increased personal stage to aid me in using that also when I was playing the fiddle.

A lot of it started in Kunkkula and the Kandiakatemia week we had there, quite early in the semester.

The week provided musical-physical inspiration in many ways

  • Starting every day with yoga-like excercises, creating a physical state of being that very obviously improved my ability to work, create and develop.

  • Doing contact improvisation – which is also something I had been doing a bit of before, but not in a context that created such an obvious connection with musical activities.

  • Doing various forms of physical/body/dance-improvisation, that always showed very clear paralells to different aspects of music.

  • Doing voice/body-sound improvisation.

  • Just being surrounded by other people who did ‘weird’ stuff with their bodies and voices also served as an inspiration.

Among other things, that week resulted in the physical experiment described shortly here.

I also got further input (lessons) the that gave a lot of physical experience, especially within the masteriakatemia course. We had quite a few hours with a dancer (Giorgio Convertito) who provided the idea that dancing/movement and music/sound is different aspects of the same thing. Where musicians are concerned about organizing and making impact on time, dancers are concerned with space, but in the end it is the same thing. Phrases in space and phrases in time are different expressions of the same thing, and time and space is the same thing. These lessons provided a very interesting perspective on how the body can be used to develop various aspects of music (e.g. phrases) without using the instrument.

After the week in Kunkkula, and spurred further by the Masteriakatemia lessons, I continued using my body as a tool for development on my own. I gave time to starting the days with various forms of body warm up and I used body/movement-improvisation as a way of opening up body and mind. All this ended up with the idea that by challenging my body’s habits, I can move outside my normal boundaries, my comfort zone, and this gives experience that I can use in my playing as well. For me this became a method of approaching the Art. This is also something I intend to explore more, and definitely something I will make use of more in my future musicianship.