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.

Riddley Walker

The idea of how knowledge is transmitted in an oral, memory-based cultures showed up in the novel ‘Riddley Walker’ by Russel Hoban. The novel is set in a distant post-apocalyptic future where the stories from our present-day world, and all scientific knowledge we have today, has been transformed (mutilated one could say) in the oral transmission through the years. Even more interesting, Hoban explores the development of language through time. The whole book is written in a pretend future dialect of English, extrapolated from present day Kentish. What he has done with language in his book, is directly applicable to music and how we treat (and could treat) the material found in old manuscript books. And the method (i.e. the way of thinking) could be applied heading (aiming) both backward and forward in time. We could listen to recordings, and try to imagine the development that has led to the result, and then try to think backwards to figure out what the music might have sounded like some 100 or 200 or 400 years ago. But we could also (as Heikki Laitinen would have suggested, and like Hoban does) direct the imagination forward, into the future, and try to figure out what the music will sound like in 100 or 400 years.

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.

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.