"All the young men came to view it, all the aged with their children,
mothers with their beauteous daughters, maidens with their golden tresses;
all the people on the islands came to view the harp of joyance,
pride and beauty of the Northland."
Thus it was spoken 1000, 2000 or 3000 years before electricity -- in a modern sense anyway -- was invented depending on one's favorite etiological theory. What the above quotation from the Kalevala, the Finnish epic comparable to the Iliad and Odyssey (Greece), the Song of Roland (France) and the Mahabharata (India), is talking about is of course the kantele, a magic harp of the Suomi and the traditional Finnish folk instrument at least since the 19th century.
In general terms, the kantele belongs to the zither family of instruments (cordophones) which includes the Japanese koto, the Arabic qanun, the Russian gusli and the Romanian cymbalom. At least its kinship with similar instruments in the Baltic area -- Karelia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia -- is well documented.
"Whence the harp's enchanting arches? From the jaw-bones of the monster.
Whence the necessary harp-pins? From the pike-teeth firmly fastened.
Whence the sweetly singing harp-strings? From the tail of Lempo's stallion.
Thus was born the harp of magic from the mighty pike of Northland."
Rather than the bones of the fish (pike), it is pine, spruce and alder that have traditionally been used to make the hollow body of the kantele. Strings were originally made from horsehair and only later from brass and metal wire. The oldest kanteles had 5 strings tuned to a diatonic scale. As the centuries went by, the number of strings increased first up to 8-14 and then to 20-30 towards the end of the 19th century, implying changes in playing styles.
|In the 1920s -- at the time when Finland was moving from DC to AC in its distribution of electricity -- a 36-string kantele with a system of levers to raise and lower the pitch appeared. It was the first-ever acoustic kantele suitable for playing serious concert music. Yet it took another three quarters of a century for the instrument to get a solid-wood body with internal microphones, volume pots and output terminals for plugging it into an amplifying system. That happened in 1999. Surely kanteles with microphones existed before but they were acoustic. The first genuine Stratocaster kantele is no older than five years and its sound therefore still very much open to exploration.
|This development didn't come out of blue, of course. What prompted it in the first place was the renaissance of kantele playing in the 1960s and a general revival of folk music in Finland during the 1980s. The Sibelius Academy, a leading seat of music learning in Finland, played a key role in the renewed interest of kantele playing. Today all the kantele|
|models and techniques are in active use and it is fair to say that Finnish kantele music has become a crossover genre. From folk tunes to popular music, from serious art music to avantgarde and experimental music, the Finnish zither has found its way into the repertoire. Timo Väänänen's record Voyage | Matka for Ondine [OCTO 409-2], released in 2001, is a true manifestation of this trend.
"Youth of every tribe and station, vainly touched the harp of fish-bone;
could not find the notes of joyance, dissonance their only pleasure;
shrieked the harp-strings like the whirlwinds, all the tones wore harsh and frightful.
In a corner slept a blind man, lay a grey beard on the oven,
rousing from his couch of slumber, murmured thus within his corner:
"Cease at once this wretched playing, make an end of all this discord;
it benumbs mine ears for hearing, racks my brain, despoils my senses,
robs me of the sweets of sleeping.""
The story goes on that the kantele refused to sing in melody and concord but in the fingers of its creator and so was returned to him. Timo Väänänen is not the creator of the kantele he's playing but he's certainly a master -- if not the master -- of the 39-string, 5.5-octave electronic device. His instrument was designed by second-generation Finnish kantele crafter Hannu Koistinen who continues his efforts to expand the sound world of the kantele to new fields of musical expression.
As many Finns do, Timo Väänänen started his musical training early. Over the years, he's been playing various types of kantele, won many prizes and performed on stage in both Finland and abroad. Moreover, he's performed three out of the five doctoral concerts required for a PhD in kantele playing (at the Sibelius Academy). Voyage | Matka is his first recording in which he was able to fully focus on the electric kantele to explore its modern language.
The leaflet claims that "the music for the disc emerged under the Spanish sun in the village of Arenys de Mar near Barcelona on the Catalonian coast in December 2000 - a time when Finland is at its darkest, snowy and cold." Well, what appears after the dash is certainly true. But so does in a sense what comes before it. I think some kind of Spanish influence is evident in some of his compositions: hand clapping, knocking the kantele's surface, rhythmic elements etc. Still, anyone born and having lived under the Finnish culture long enough to call himself a Finn can also detect traditional kantele idioms as well as the typical sound of metal strings. (Being exposed to it from early childhood, some Finns have ambivalent feelings about the metallic sounds.)
|Kalevalaic poetry has always been sung. It's called rune singing. 4/4 and|
|5/4 rhythms were used and the melodies typically spanned no more than five or so notes. Kantele playing is no different. The melody and accompanying chords are constantly intermingled. The sound of the accompaniment is no less important than the melody. The player creates a tonal world, moving within a narrow but constantly varying range. Playing does not result in formal compositions per se but instead produces freely flowing, syncopated two-voice music that progresses through small variations.
The above description of kantele playing by and large fits Timo Väänänen's approach on this album. No doubt one can also find more complex elements in it beyond my competence. The music's effect on the listener is suggestive. This effect is not attenuated by the mood of the record, fairly nicely depicted in the titles of the pieces - "Magician", "Rainy Window", "Winter Wind' and indeed, "Voyage". Never -- not even in the two vocal pieces -- does this music succumb to the delicate but fatal trap of the vulgarism that underpins much of so-called New Age music.
Finally I can't resist putting in a word for audiophile considerations because this record is bound to attract many mainstream audiophiles. Its high frequency presentation (the kantele's highest note, C4, is at 2093Hz) is sparkling and beaded, stimulating and exciting in the same way as Andreas Vollenweider's electroacoustic harp recordings used to strike many vinyl-sound lovers in the 80s and 90s. But there's more. The lowest open string, contra G, freely sings at 49Hz, i.e. roughly in the same range as a double or electric bass! However, it's not merely bass extension, it's the dynamics and power. I don't know if Väänänen actually wears metal plectra on his index fingers but the sturdy effect of playing the lower notes is impressive, sweet and titillating. With this record, the woofer section should be capable of producing tight and clean mid- and upper bass as well as the lower midrange. Micro dynamics and timing should be on the same level too for the constant firing of 1/16th notes.
"There was neither man nor hero, neither ancient dame, nor maiden,
not in Metsola a daughter, whom he did not touch to weeping;
wept the young and wept the aged, wept the mothers, wept the daughters
wept the warriors and heroes at the music of his playing,
at the songs of the magician."
Tears came flowing from the master's eyelids too:
"Larger than the whortleberries, finer than the pearls of ocean,
smoother than the eggs of moor hens, brighter than the eyes of swallows" ... and down went
"to the blue-mere's sandy margin, to the deeps of crystal waters,
lost among the reeds and rushes." After some time the master asked:
"Is there one in all this concourse, one in all this vast assembly,
who can gather up my tear drops from the deep pellucid waters?"
And for the one who could bring the tear drops back, he promised beauteous plumage and golden service. Came a raven but the raven failed his master. Came a duck, and
"thereupon the duck departed, hither, thither, swam and circled,
dived beneath the foam and billow, gathered Wainamoinen's tear drops
from the blue-sea's pebbly bottom, from the deep, pellucid waters;
brought them to the great magician, beautifully formed and colored,
glistening in the silver sunshine, glimmering in the golden moonlight,
many-colored as the rainbow, fitting ornaments for heroes,
jewels for the maids of beauty."
This the origin of sea-pearls and the blue-duck's beauteous plumage.
Kalevala translation by John Martin Crawford