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.