Dead Traditions?

(Originally posted here, November 27, 2012)

I’m reading parts of a Ph.D dissertation about the Folk Music Department in the Sibelius Academy and I stumble on this quote:
“The most fundamental ideological point of departure for creating contemporary folk music is that folk music should be a living tradition.”
(It’s on p. 190 in the linked document, for anyone interested…)

I wonder: Is not the being alive part something which is of essence for a tradition? Can it be a tradition if it’s not alive (and thus moving, changing, developing etc.). If it’s dead, is it not then just an artifact, an object to admire (or dislike) but not something you can use? I wonder only because it seems like it’s often required within folk music to state that what we do is part of a living tradition. There are no dead traditions. There are only dead objects.

If it’s tradition it’s alive and kicking. If it’s alive and kicking it’s probably part of a tradition (i.e. part of a chain of thoughts, ideas and actions that humanity is resting on). If it’s dead, we would best bury it. It probably stinks.

/Sven

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.

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.

The Education

During my time in musical education, I have continuously been presented to ideas of more ‘artistic’ nature, ideas that in different ways concerned (folk) music as an expression of Art. Also some of my own thinking and development has taken that road as well. The idea to produce Art has been exciting and appealing, but also felt a bit dangerous. And either way, I was fairly certain that I wasn’t an artist and I certainly wasn’t allowed to do art. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t crazy enough, I didn’t have good enough ideas.

As I was making my way through the NoFo degree I gradually started to get used to the idea that folk music could be a form of art, and a folk musician was then and artist. The idea probably started growing already when I began to study music at the academy in Malmö in 2008 and it definitely grew stronger when I changed from studying to be a fiddle teacher, to be studying to be a performer (which is what I did when I began my NoFo studies). The real shift however took place during the semester we spent in Helsinki at the Sibelius Academy (SibA).

I think there are several reasons why it was in Helsinki and at the SibA I began to think of myself as an artist. One of the reasons I think simply has to do with timing. It took some time for me to really start to believe in myself as an artist and as a performing musician; in the third semester of the NoFo studies, the idea that I could become a freelance musician, and that it actually would be possible to make a living playing music, began to sink in. But it is definitely not just a matter of time. The folk music department at the Sibelius Academy is a very special institution and it provides a very special environment for personal and artistic development. It is an institution where the idea of folk music being art, and folk musicians, student and teachers alike, being artists, is very strong. And since that idea is present everywhere in that institution, in all activities that take place there, it is natural that that is the place where the idea of myself being an artist would start to grow on me.

So in a way the whole process of ‘becoming an artist’ could be seen as just adapting myself to a new community and its values. The folk music department at SibA was the first institution during the NoFo studies where I really had a sense of belonging, and then it’s natural that I also adapt the values of that institution, just as I had been doing before, only in a really different environment.