Timo Väänänen

Alive Through the Imagination

Novgorodin kantele | Novgorod lyre
Novgorodin kantele | Novgorod lyre

by Timo Väänänen 

from the book Kantele eläväksi [in Finnish]

translated by Nathan Riki Thomson & Timo Väänänen

Where does music come from? Does it originate from another world, from the imagination, from an instrument? At least it requires some degree of imagination. What does the imagination need in order to produce music? The ability to hear and make use of different types of sounds makes it possible to produce many kinds of rich music. Ancient instruments found museums provide an opportunity to create music that would not otherwise exist. These instruments hold lost worlds within them, which are waiting to be rediscovered.

A thought that often enters my mind before going on stage with my kantele these days is, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to play! Wonderful!” Despite having made preparations, plans, and even rehearsals, I may then abandon everything. I trust that the music will happen in the moment, through improvisation.

What do I expect to happen when I sit behind the instrument and place my hands on the strings of the kantele? At its best I feel a path opening ahead of me. I react freely to the sounds and textures, and to the story, which I have just created in the moment. I do not necessarily hear or plan the music in my mind beforehand. I simply lift my hands, let the playing happen naturally and follow the road, which has been created for me by the sound.

The sound leads the improvisation. Stories, landscapes and pictures appear in my mind. Sometimes even music. I can simultaneously be the listener and the musician. At best, I feel that I am an observer and the music simply flows through me. I can allow myself to be completely immersed the music.

When I improvise, I am guided by the timbre of the sound. The sound of the kantele has not been standardised and there are no established ideas about how the instrument should sound. Some players and listeners may have a particular idea about how the instrument should sound, but these preferences vary greatly. The fact is that there are an incredibly wide variety of sounds that can be produced by the kantele. The diversity of these sounds could be divided into two main areas

1. The sounds defined by different historical periods. These sounds are connected to the different functions of the music, fashion, styles and the individual tastes of people from different periods of time. What possibilities have there been to produce instruments? What have the goals been? What functions has the music had?

The development of the Kantele is documented from a historical perspective. First are the 5 string kanteles, then the number of the strings multiplies, but the hollowed structure remains the same. Box kanteles start to appear, which lead to the concert kantele and finally the electric kantele. It is possible to document the history of kanteles in this kind sequential order, but in doing so you might miss one particularly crucial point. Interestingly, all of the different varieties of kanteles that we know of are still been played today. Older varieties are not replaced by newer ones. The newer versions of the instrument simply open up different musical possibilities. Different instrument types have also carried on independently of one-another. There are still several types of old small kanteles existing and actively being played today. E.g. Archaic, traditional, developed and modified.

The other main area of development could be defined by how rich and varied the sounds have become, and the cross-fertilization of sounds from different periods of time. How rich do we want the present day sound to be? Does it include sounds from different periods of development, from different eras? The present, the past, the distant past? And why should we combine sounds from different places?

The quality and richness of sound is very important to me. Most of the music I create is composed through improvisation. I am dependant on a wide variety of sounds. The greater the variety, the more tools I have for composing. I have had the experience many times of discovering music within me that I would not have otherwise imagined, without the inspiration of the distinctive sound of the instrument I hold in my hands. These instruments have ranged from traditional and new kanteles, to museum models, as well as developed, modified and fusion instruments.

Baltian kantelekansat -levy ja Vucinsin kokles | Kokles by Vucins on the cover of the Baltian kantelekansat album.
Baltian kantelekansat -levy ja Vucinsin kokles | Kokles by Vucins on the cover of the Baltian kantelekansat album.

Latvian kokles and Novgorodian lyre

I studied the techniques of Latvian kokles playing in Latvia for several months. There I had the opportunity of playing and studying the Latvian equivalent to the Finnish kantele, with fellow student Sari Kauranen. I had no prior knowledge of this tradition or style of playing. The most inspiring thing for me was experiencing the instruments unique sound, under the guidance of our Latvian teacher, Valdis Muktupāvels (born 1958). The beautiful sound of the loosely tensioned strings was further enhanced by the resonating top part of the instrument, together with the low strings, which were tuned at the same pitch. The sound was remarkably resonant and rich and it had a big impact on me. We were also fortunate enough to meet a luthier of these small traditional instruments. Donāts Vucins (1939–1999) had several kokleses and hurdy-gurdys hanging on the wall of his workshop. The instruments were crafted in the traditional way by carving one complete block of wood. The top part of the instrument was later added. Strings were attached to a metal bar at one end and to wooden tuning pegs at the other. We bought kokleses for ourselves as well as one for the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department.

This instrument by Vucins inspired me think about developing new instruments. I began to imagine a small kantele, which would have more low strings than the Vucins model in order to create bass end sounds, combined with a continuous top, to create a rich and strong sound. Wooden tuning pegs would be used to obtain a softer sound, which is not possible with metal pegs. I then commissioned the Finnish luthier Hannu Koistinen (born 1966) to build this instrument in 1997. These experiments with the sound and structure of the instrument later influenced the development of the Kirjokansi kantele model. I was an active member of the development team, together with architect Ilari Ikävalko (born 1970) and luthier Jyrki Pölkki (born 1953). The Vucins model as well as the new models we developed have remained as core instruments in my set up as a performer ever since.

Suunta: Kristiina Ilmonen, Timo Väänänen & Anna-Kaisa Liedes (kuva/photo by Ilari Ikävalko)
Suunta: Kristiina Ilmonen, Timo Väänänen & Anna-Kaisa Liedes (kuva/photo by Ilari Ikävalko)

I was again surprised to find a very different sounding instrument when I came into contact with the Novgorod lyre, which was somewhat similar to the kantele. I was performing in the Kantele Festival in Petrozavodsk, the Capital of the Karelian Republic, Russian Federation, in 2007. It was there that I met Alexander Leonov, who plays Novgorod lyre and is also a luthier. I commissioned Leonov to make an instrument of this type for me. One year later we met in the Sommelo Festival in Kuhmo, Finland and Leonov had the finished instrument with him. It was a beautiful instrument carved from the top in the traditional way, with the top section added later. In the middle of the top section Leonov had carved an ornament depicting a sorrow bird. The Strings were gut, which I have now replaced with nylon strings for practical reasons. The gut strings were too unstable when re-tuning the instrument. For solo playing this would not be so crucial but when playing in the Suunta Ensemble with Kristiina Ilmonen (born 1966) and Anna-Kaisa Liedes (born 1962) it is vital for me to have stable pitch and control of the tuning.

I would not have imagined the un-sustained, rough sounds of nylon or gut strings working on kantele. This is not something I would have conceived of. But when I suddenly had the opportunity of exploring this sound on a new instrument it was very inspiring. I could easily transfer traditional techniques from the small kantele onto this instrument, which had been reborn from the ground of the ancient city of Novgorod. The music that I have produced using this instrument has surprised me. This has happened many times with new instruments. I did not have any prior knowledge of how to play this Novgorod instrument. I simply started to play it by using the techniques I already knew, and begun to discover my own way of playing the instrument. The open design of the instrument allows you to play right in the middle of the instrument, as if you are inside it. I have found this to be very natural in terms of posture and ergonomics.

The most well known researcher of Novgorod lyres was Vladimir Povetkin (1943–2010).  Finnish luthier and researcher Rauno Nieminen met Povetkin in 2002. ”I was on a research trip, which was organised by Estonian researcher Ain Sarv. There were also some folk music students from the Viljandi Music College in Estonia, Sibelius-Academy in Finland as well as other Nordic institutions. Sturbjörn and Gerd Bergelt from Sweden were also part of the research trip”, Rauno Nieminen explains.

Ontrei: Timo Väänänen & Rauno Nieminen (kuva/photo: Ilari Ikävalko)
Ontrei: Timo Väänänen & Rauno Nieminen (kuva/photo: Ilari Ikävalko)

The Researchers and students visited the Ancient Music Centre in Novgorod, Russia, where research is carried out into ancient music and 10th–14th century instruments found in the Novgorod’s archaeological sites. ”Povetkin and his colleagues gave a concert and lecture for us. They played instruments that they had reconstructed, based on broken pieces of ancient musical instruments found in Novgorod. Swedish musician Sturbjörn Bergelt had his own selection of medieval lyres from Novgorod, Opole and Gdansk with him. He was interested to know how these lyres, with their ‘open playing window’ could be played. With the term ‘open playing window’ he is referring to the hole at the top, under the strings”, Rauno Nieminen explains. ”Povetkin has used the term lyre gusli when referring to these kinds of instruments. Bergelt presented the results of our research trip in his book ‘Hör du harpan’ in 2006. There is an accompanying CD, with recordings made on the 17th of May 2002, in Novgorod. Povetkin plays solos and performs with the dancers and singers”, Rauno Nieminen explains.

”This was a long awaited meeting for me. I had previously only read Povetkin’s articles. One thing we all had in common was that we were all researchers, luthiers and musicians, and that we shared similar methods. This was to be the first and last meeting for the three of us. I met Storbjörn a few times after that, but they are sadly no longer with us.”

This meeting inspired Rauno to undertake further research. ”I began to plan my research by using the method of re-constructing and re-building copies of ancient instruments and then playing them. I developed the technique of making copies of historical instruments. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to discuss my studies and the methods I was developing with Povetkin and Bergelt. I did however find inspiration and lots of practical help from their work and publications.”

Povetkin was one of the first researchers who built and also played the instruments he made. As an archaeologist he understood and utilized the working methods of experimental archaeology. ”Povetkin achieved much more than researchers who only study literature. Povetkin can be regarded as a pioneer of experimental archaeology within instrument research”, Rauno Nieminen says.

Inspiring sound and collaboration

Pauliina Syrjälä (born 1976) is one of the pioneers of ‘Saarijärvi kantele’, which is the style of kantele playing from central Finland. Pauliina herself says that it was pure luck that she became aware of this traditional kantele style. ”Thinking back, the defining moment for me was when I got an instrument from my teacher Sinikka Kontio, which had such a beautiful, inspiring sound. For some reason, at that time there were not many Saarijärvi kanteles with a good sound in the Folk Music Department at Sibelius Academy.” Pauliina recalls. ”The quality of the sound is the most important thing for any musician. There were not many players of this style and tradition of kantele playing before me. One reason may have been because the instruments were in such bad condition.”

Pauliina has developed some small changes of her own to the instruments. Collaboration with instrument makers is vital. ”Collaborating with Kari Kauhanen in order to make these small changes has been easy. I asked Kari to add more bass strings to the instrument, which was not such a big change, but it opened up a whole new world for the player. It is good to remember that small changes may not be very demanding technically for the luthier, but they can have a dramatic affect on music”, Pauliina explains.

”Although collaboration between the luthier and musician is important, this only works when the luthier is open to the ideas and needs of the player.” The player also has to think carefully about what he or she wants, and learn to communicate it clearly to the luthier. Pauliina Syrjälä has also collaborated with luthier Jyrki Pölkki. ”As Jyrki Pölkki has said, players should learn to state clearly what they want, in order to develop the instrument. In earlier times players just took what was available. At its best, this kind of collaboration is about mutual respect, which serves to develop deeper knowledge and understanding of your own instrument.”

”I am fascinated by the possibility of finding new things in the museum instruments. When explaining about her Jooseppi Pohjola style instrument made by Rauno Nieminen”, Pauliina says, “I have not come across a better sounding instrument, which is so well suited to the stick strumming style. Pauliina finds the limitations of an instrument inspiring. ”E.g. the lack of half tone switches creates positive limitations, which force you to use your imagination in order to create new playing techniques. Perhaps the bass lines are slightly limited when you only have five notes, but these limitations make things interesting. I have not been drawn to experiment in the same way with the concert kantele, where you can do almost anything. I also enjoy the fact that experiments do not need to happen only with modern looking instruments. You can also do ‘weird things’ with a traditional looking instrument”, Pauliina sums up.

Revival and the museums

”When the Sibelius Academy started to educate professional folk musicians in 1983, it was obvious that they would hold the responsibility of keeping old music and instruments alive”, explains professor and musician, Heikki Laitinen. Why should you keep instruments alive? ”There are many possible and necessary answers to this question. One concrete view is that there have been many sounds throughout the course of history that should not be lost. There have been many strong examples of this in all styles of music, not only in folk music.”

”Another answer for this could be that every one has the possibility and the right to experience and experiment with the music of the past. There are many people who have created new things after a period of infatuation with the sounds of the past”, says Laitinen. He continues: ”The third answer is to nurture knowledge and scientific curiosity. What was life like in the past? Music, instruments, sounds? What were the aesthetics of the music?”

Heikki Laitinen describes his own feelings about the museum instruments and their replications as passionate. ”The beauty of the museum instruments is always startling. Some of these instruments have been acquired by the collectors in very bad condition and simply abandoned, so imagination is often needed to re-create them. But we have imagination. We need museums to house exhibitions of these instruments so they can be admired. We also need to build and play replicas of these instruments. This is the situation in the European museums of music. Of course you could also have a music room in a normal museum. Even a temporary one”, Heikki says.

The situation in Finland is such that there are a large amount of instruments in the museums, but often information is not available about them. Heikki Laitinen says that co-operation between luthiers, researchers and museums is vital. ”There is a big need for co-operation. There are thousands of instruments to be discovered, researched and revived. There is plenty to do. I could easily make a list, instrument by instrument, but this is best left for a research team to do. I will just mention the most urgent matter, which is a database where you could access basic information about all of the instruments housed in the museums. With that knowledge you could then plan how to make a more detailed catalogue. Risto Känsälä from the regional museum of South Ostrobothia made a general list of the 60 local museums. The results are incredibly interesting. I gathered information about the kanteles housed in the museums some years ago, and the lack of this kind of database was a big hindrance. The collections of the museums are tremendously interesting though.”

There are 84 kanteles in the Finnish National Museum. Musical instruments, like any other group of objects, do not hold special status. ”The collection of musical instruments in the Finnish National Museum has been gathered during the course of more than one hundred years. Instruments have been acquired through purchases and donations. Often they are acquired one by one, not as a collection”, explains curator of the Finnish National Museum Aki Arponen. ”I don’t have exact figures of the total number of musical instruments housed here, but there are around 150 instruments in the historical collection alone. There are instruments in the ethnological, Finno-Ugrian and ethnographical collections.  The sea and land excavations also include musical instruments.”

The oldest musical instruments in the Finnish National Museum are from the end of the prehistoric period and the Middle Ages. The newest instruments are only a few years old. The collection is diverse, ranging from percussion, wind and string instruments, to bells and organs. ”Musical instruments have always been part of the main and changing exhibitions, but I have the sense that over the past 10 years interest has grown, and the instruments are been researched more.”

”The collection of the National Museum is large and diverse but the amount of researchers are few. Therefore it should come as no surprise that we don’t have an expert on musical instruments”, says Aki Arponen. ”One of the main objectives is to ensure that the instruments remain in the same condition as they were when we acquired them”, Aki Arponen explains. ”This means monitoring of the storage conditions as well as active conservation. We do not aim to make the instrument playable. By their nature, instruments contain within them a lot of inherent information, which is yet to be researched. We strive to preserve this silent information”, Aki Arponen explains.

Pohjola: Rauno Nieminen, Timo Väänänen & Kari Dahlblom | Rauno Nieminen, Timo Väänänen & Kari Dahlblom are playing Saarijärvi kantele at the Finnish Kantele Museum.
Pohjola: Rauno Nieminen, Timo Väänänen & Kari Dahlblom | Rauno Nieminen, Timo Väänänen & Kari Dahlblom are playing Saarijärvi kantele at the Finnish Kantele Museum.

In Jyväskylä, volunteers run the Finnish Kantele Museum. Researcher and kantele player Kari Dahlblom founded the museum. His path to the kantele tradition of central Finland came via Karelia. Dahlblom has studied different forms of Russian Karelian kantele and Russian gusli. E.g. the chromatic kantele developed by Victor Gudkov. ”I was trying to find the old forms of the kantele, which Gudkov used as a starting point for the development of the chromatic instrument. I gradually realised that the kanteles of my own region had not been researched, and I discovered a forgotten world. When you add this to the existing kantele world, it creates a rich variety of instruments to choose from, depending on the situation and the music”, says Kari Dahlblom. Dahlblom’s substantial book about the kanteles of central Finland will be published soon.

Getting to know these local traditions then sparked the idea of having an exhibition of the instruments. For this reason the Finnish Kantele Museum was founded at the Folk Players House in Palokka. ”There needs to be the opportunity for Finns and other people to see and try many different kinds of kanteles.” In this museum it is possible to play some instruments and also listen to Kari Dahlbom’s playing. ”This is unique in the world. Our goal now is to build glass cabinets, storage facilities and security for the future. My dream is for this to become a professional museum.”

Kindred of Kantele

Laura Lukenskenė

I made a visit to Povilas Stulgas Museum of Folk Instruments with my Kindred of Kantele team (Leena Häkkinen and Kari Dahlblom) in the summer of 2010. Their collection of Lithuanian kanklės instruments, which are similar to kantele, is impressively diverse. There are carved small instruments, box instruments and concert instruments, as well as experimental instruments and established models from different eras. The main aim of the Kindred of Kantele project is to publish a book about different kantele-like instruments. We had travelled to the museum to examine the exhibition for this reason, as well as to interview researcher Romualdas Apanavičius and researcher and musician Laura Lukanskienė.

As she took replicas of museum instruments from the glass cabinet, Laura Lukanskienė explained that “the old Lithuanian sutartinė tradition is an oral tradition, and it is also played on kanklės.” She began to play a strange, polyphonic whole-tone-scale melody on the five string kanklės. As a listener my thoughts began to stir. What was happening? This kanklės was taken out of a glass cabinet in the museum, and the tune she played was sourced from the traditional music collection. In this present moment we are immersed in this colourful music, with all of its resonances, diversity of sounds, stories and landscapes. A path is opening to the past, present and future. •