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Kimmo Pohjonen: A Very Cool Instrument


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Certain instruments have yet to place themselves beyond how the public and most musicians perceive them, but that hasn't stopped some musicians from distinguishing themselves by taking a different path with them. As Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar, so is Finnish musician Kimmo Pohjonen to the accordion: a conceptualist and master improviser who has boldly taken his instrument beyond what has previously been thought possible.

The use of electronics in any genre is potentially the most exciting development for the music in decades. It has given musicians—jazz, improvising or otherwise—a new set of tools to mold and shape sound, and they are using them to re-contextualize their music within a nervous and evasive 21st century. With the use of electronics, Pohjonen has turned his five-row chromatic accordion into a mean machine.

A fearless musical adventurer, Pohjonen is a man of many projects, and most of them coexist simultaneously. Many of those projects reside only in live settings and surpass his recorded output. Between 1999 and 2013, Pohjonen has been involved in several different projects with diverse concepts and collaborators, from collaborating with the renowned Kronos Quartet on Uniko (Ondine, 2011) and his KTU trio, with King Crimson alum, drummer Pat Mastelotto and Warr guitarist Trey Gunn, to his project with Finnish farmers, Earth Machine Music, Kluster (Westpark, 2002), with right-hand man, sampling expert Samuli Kosminen and Murhaballadeja / Murder Ballads (SiBa, 2012), with singer Heikki Laitinen. These established him as one of Europe's most talented accordionists, improvisers and composers. His delicate relationship to the accordion is like basketball player LeBron James' relationship to a 10-foot-high basket: amazing things happen.

All of this was interestingly portrayed in a recent documentary by Finnish Director Kimmo Koskela, Soundbreaker, which traces the 35-year career of this unique artist and musical pirate.

All About Jazz: How did Soundbreaker come about?

Kimmo Pohjonen: It was a German producer who contacted Finnish director Kimmo Koskela, a while ago, to make a film documentary about me. I knew Koskela from a film project before and he asked my opinion; I replied that I was not interested in a documentary about me. At the time I was 39 years old and I told him that documentaries consisted of talking heads and most of the documentaries deal with old or dead people. I didn't see any reason for making a documentary about me. Then he began persuading me and we had many meetings, where he asked me what I would like to do. I said that I would be interested in some sort of a music movie or feature film. We started the script but we never got funding. But we began shooting and, in the end, I agreed to make a documentary. At last we had something for funders. That is in short how we ended doing the documentary.

AAJ: The film portrays that in the beginning you had difficulties with accepting the accordion. Can you talk about your relationship with this instrument?

KP: It's really different now. I started playing in the '70s, when I lived in the countryside. In the village, only the adults were playing accordion and it was music for grownups. Nobody from my generation played accordion. I got it from my father and I played in a local group consisting of older people. I played folk tunes and it was kind of nice, but very uncool. I didn't dare tell my friends that I played accordion because it was so uncool. At the time, I was more interested in sports and hanging out with friends so, in a way, it was a compulsory thing; I was pleasing my father.

But somehow I continued, and at the age of 15, 16, I thought that I could be a musician and I moved to Helsinki, where I began studying classical music. At that time, I saw myself as a performer playing classical music. Later, I got back to folk music when they had folk music department at Sibelius Academy, and the whole time during my studies, my relationship with the instrument was a bit strange. I didn't feel I was myself when I studied classical or folk music. I began playing harmonica, bandoneon, and various other instruments. I even gave up the accordion because I couldn't feel the instrument.

Later, at the end of my studies in the late '90s, somebody asked me to do a solo concert and prior to that I had studied African thumb piano, bandoneon and pump organ. But then I realized that my main instrument was the accordion, which I had been playing since I was 10 years old. I had to find out what would please me. Then I started to dabble with electronic effects, microphones, effects and loops, and that was a huge moment for me—when I realized that I was standing in front of a soundworld where I could create anything through improvisation, without notes, without writing anything on paper.

That kind of opened up a new world for me. That is the world I've been inhabiting for the last 15 or 20 years, and now I can proudly say that the accordion is a very cool instrument [laughing]. It was in the mid-'90s when I realized I had to find my own way, my own sound, and my own ways of making music. I have done so many things that I never expected to do in my life, and I have had so many great experiences with different projects, different kinds of musical styles.

AAJ: How do people react to your unorthodox approach to the accordion, with all of those alterations?

KP: It all began when I was rehearsing at school, when people began talking about misusing this and misusing that: "He is hiding behind effects and loops." But I didn't care at all. I had one rule: I wanted to please myself and nobody else. Regardless of what people say, I will do what I want even if I have to do only one concert a year—only if it pleases me 110 percent. In a way, there was a lot of frustration during the first concert, as there were a lot of things to be done, but the audience's response was immediate.

To many, that was the best concert at the festival. Quite soon after that I was booked for the WOMAD festival in Berlin, where there were lots of new acts and beginners, and my concert that weekend was most talked about. Suddenly, my international career started and I could leave all the other projects and bands, and I started with my own thing. It was a kind of a fairy tale, in a way. That was the beginning.

AAJ: How do you translate your ideas into compositions?

KP: For me, that process of composition is just going to my working space, where I start to play and improvise. Or I just search for new sounds. Either I play or I search for new sounds and those sounds sometimes give me the impulse for improvisations. And I constantly make recordings of myself, and when you play longer, you play lots of repetitions and you don't think at all. Actually, I'm after a mood where I'm creating something that I didn't know existed. That is a great moment, when you grow something that you didn't even know that you could do. Later, when I'm listening to what I have recorded, and if there is something interesting, I can push and develop that further towards a composition. That is my process.

AAJ: On the other hand, how do you translate your compositions into live performances?

KP: The thing about my compositions is that I always memorize them, which means I have ten different projects going and everything is in my memory. Sometimes you go crazy when you have to remember so many things, but the good side to that is when you memorize it there is no correct or incorrect version. It is like, you have memorized a version that is two days old. Of course, there is the project with Kronos Quartet, which is the most composed project I have ever worked on and I have to memorize very well where we are and how we do it. If I am playing a solo or anything else, I have to be flexible and do today's version. With classical music, you have to memorize longer parts, long notes, Bach or whatever, and you are always afraid of losing control or if your memorization is incorrect. In my music, I don't want to be a prisoner of my own music. The structure and the phrasing are there but they give me freedom to play, regardless if I'm in Skopje or in Finland.

AAJ: What kind of experience do you want to give your audiences during your live shows?

KP: Most people all over the world are really busy and are mostly stressed by their daily lives. They do many things and I do as many things as I can. For me, a concert is a sacred moment—to me that is a some sort of a ritual, from start to finish. And when I do a 60 or 90-minute concert, I concentrate only on the music, and I want the audience to have the same experience as I do. The audience can relax and they don't have to clap or sing. Actually, they can do whatever they want. I enjoy being onstage and having a beautiful experience, and I would like the audiences to have that kind of possibility as well. I hear all kinds of stories after my concerts, often very interesting stories, and it is nice to hear what people go through in their thoughts during the concerts. It's not only music.

AAJ: One of the scenes from the documentary shows you playing while a wrestling match was taking place. How did you get the idea to orchestrate the music to a wrestling match?

KP: In the late '90s, at a folk festival in Finland, an older musician told me that he used to play accordion for wrestling matches. I thought it was a joke. I had never heard of this before. I went searching the files—old newspapers—and there wasn't anything about it; nothing was filmed. For me, it was such a strange subject, and I wish I was there at the time to see an accordion player playing against a wrestling match. Then I started to interview old wrestlers and old accordionists, and I found out it was a useful combination to have an accordionist playing during a wrestling match.

I heard lots of great stories about what was happening at the times, I thought: I have to do it again. I got ten wrestlers and I used old stories, but when I'm working, everything I do has to have that feeling that what I'm doing is something new and that it hasn't been done before. Then we created some sort of a musical performance or theater based on those old stories. It was great. It was wonderful. The work I did with the wrestlers was an example of what I like to do— pure musical projects where I only play music. This includes projects with machines or ballerinas. Those projects are another part of me and I like visual things in a manner that I feel people haven't done before. At the moment I'm working with a ballerina—I never thought that I would ever work with a ballerina [laughing]. I like to amuse myself by doing different things and the wrestling project was really a great opportunity to get to know all those guys that I never knew existed. It's really crazy sometimes what can be cool.

AAJ: Earth Machine Music is another experience for you, consisting of farmyard sounds and machines that you trigger with your accordion.

KP: For Earth Machine Music, I recorded sounds in the country and made music out of it. Some of the sounds are triggered by the accordion and sometimes I use those sources of sounds during the performances like driving the tractor in front of the audience and putting microphones on the engine. Using all that gear as a sound source is great and in moments like that it is very visual. The audience can actually see what those sounds are like, as well as the music composed for those sounds.

AAJ: What sort of moods and ambiances did you seek to capture on EMM?

KP: I'm someone that was born in the countryside and for the last 20 years I've been living in Helsinki. I feel people are not really interested in what is happening in the countryside at the moment. Most of the time, when we hear news from the countryside, it's either bad news or sad news. Therefore I did this project from a different angle and I did it by performing for people in the countryside. All of the concerts were done in the countryside. For example, for the concerts in England, people had to travel from the cities into the countryside where the farms were. I felt very strongly that I had to be there and work with those people, even though they didn't have a clue what I was doing. They were very nice and open-minded, and were both willing to participate, and very grateful that someone was interested in them. Also there was a social aspect to this project.

AAJ: How did the Murder Ballads project with Heikki Latinen come about?

KP: Heikki Latinen is my mentor, a former teacher, and is someone who has always encouraged me to do my own thing. We got an offer from a festival to make this project about murders. In Finland, there were always songs with different angles towards murders. Of course, a murder is a horrible thing, but there is a black humor present in those songs. For example, those two guys that are featured on the front cover, I used to sing songs about them when I was younger. In a way, there was a kind of admiration for these guys.

I remember when I sang how one of them was addressing the other: "You kill this woman's husband so I can marry that woman." I remember when I was singing that song as a five year-old boy, there was an admiration. Therefore, when we set out to do this record, we wanted to have different angles to the subject—lamentations, different kinds of murder songs—and make a compilation out of it. Of course, making a record with a hero of mine, Hekki Latinen, means a lot to me.

AAJ: What inspires you to write new music as you simultaneously juggle various projects at the same time?

KP: I work with sound and in my workspace I try to find new sounds through my accordions and with electronics. It is an endless world with new colors and sounds. That always keeps me busy and it gives me energy to come up with something new. At the moment, I have a new duo, but this time it's with my daughter, who is 17. She plays drums. That is a beautiful collaboration, and I'm also working with a ballerina. It all depends on who you are working with and how you perceive that person. That also gives you ideas. These are probably the main things. And whenever I have nothing to do I always improvise, which always gives something.

AAJ: Please talk about your collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Later this year, in London, you will be performing with them at the Barbican. How did it all begin?

KP: [Violinist] David Harrington got my solo CD and then he contacted me and asked me to compose something for them. For me, that was great and a wish come true as, at the time, I was hoping I could write something for a string quartet and suddenly I was contacted by Kronos Quartet. I told them that I would like to approach things differently as I work with electronics and samples, and that was the basis for the work. I went to San Francisco with [percussionist] Samuli [Kosminen] and, after the first rehearsal, we realized that it was ok and that I should compose more and do a bigger project. In the end, we did a DVD and a CD, and it went really well. We still perform these compositions with the Kronos Quartet. Sometimes I work with a Finnish quartet as Kronos is very busy. It is the most composed project that I have done because Kronos' parts are written. In a way, there are improvisations, but it's written music.

AAJ: What's it like to be playing with the ex-King Crimson rhythm section, Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn?

KP: Those two are really great guys. I'm so happy actually that we are going to tour again soon. It is always fun with those two guys. Pat is like a crazy bear from Russia who plays drums so well, and with Trey's Warr guitar we work as a power trio. I play bass with my upper side of the accordion, so I can share the lower frequencies with him. Therefore, whenever I take the bass he can solo and whenever he takes the bass I can solo. With Pat on drums it is pure fun. It is us. It is pity that we all live so far away from each other—Seattle, Texas and Finland—so it is not that easy to get us all together. Luckily there are opportunities for us to gather.

AAJ: How have all of these projects and experiences helped you evolve as accordionist and as a composer?

KP: It is amazing to look at the great opportunities I have had with my accordion. I have played with all kinds of people, and those were different kinds of collaborations or projects with a different angle. And I've been influenced by those people; they've influenced my playing. In a way, it was some sort of exchanging of energy with these people. When I think about it, I can't believe how lucky I have been, to have these kinds of opportunities. If you believe in the work that you do or want to do, and work with some of the guys that we were talking about, that certainly influences your instrument, your personality...everything. It is more than I would have ever expected.

Selected Discography

Heikki Laitinen, Kimmo Pohjonen, Murhaballadeja / Murder Ballads (SiBa, 2012)
Kimmo Pohjonen, Samuli Kosminen and Kronos Quartet, Uniko (Ondine Records, 2011)
KTU, Quiver (7dMedia, 2009)
KTU, 8 Armed Monkey (Thirsty Ear, 2005)
Kimmo Pohjonen and Eric Echampard, Uumen (Rockadillo, 2005)
Kimmo Pohjonen, Kalmuk (Westpark, 2002)
Kimmo Pohjonen, Kluster (Westpark, 2002)
Kimmo Pohjonen, Kielo (Rockadillo, 1999)

Photo Credit

Page 1: Edigio Santos

Page 2: Pavel Strazay

Page 4: Anastasiya Kononenko

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