Kimmo Pohjonen: Accordionist Extraordinaire

Anthony Shaw BY

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With the aid of added microphones, digital relays and delays, he has dragged the accordion wheezing, shrieking and wailing into the new century
kimmo pohjonen To claim that behind every successful man is a strong woman is clearly twaddle. To say that behind every successful (read busy!) Finnish musician is, in one form or another, the Sibelius Academy, is much closer to the mark. Accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen served his time in both the classical Helsinki Conservatory and then the Academy's Folk Music Departments, before stepping out on his glittering solo career in 1996.

From that first concert on, and with the aid of added microphones, digital relays and delays, he has dragged the accordion wheezing, shrieking and wailing into the new century. Taking it by its bellows, and with an acute awareness both of the prejudices the instrument brings as well as the visual appeal it can also offer, he has composed and performed in a multiplicity of styles and tastes. Starting with recordings of modern Finnish folk pieces during his student days, along with JPP founder Arto Järvelä in Pinnin Pojat, Pohjonen progressed to a place in the band of Finnish punk poet and musician Ismo Alanko Säätiö, then to the founding of an ongoing relationship with percussionist and sampling artist Samuli Kosminen in Kluster.

Along the way, he has followed his instinct for experimentation (hear the final five minutes of hidden sounds on track ten, "Avanto, of his 2002 CD Kluster) and developed his contacts within the Finnish artistic establishment, with filmmakers, choreographers and dancers, and produced film and ballet scores. A major leap forward occurred in spring 1999 when he opened the night in Austin for King Crimson's ProjeKct Three. Nowadays he has a continuing involvement with Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto, working under the title KTU (pronounced like the holy Tibetan peak, K2). But don't confuse this with the Finnish traditional ladies gymnastics association of the same acronym!

Inspired by a commission initiated by Kronos Quartet leader David Harrington and first performed in Helsinki in summer of 2004, Pohjonen has lately extended his modus operandi back towards his classical roots. Entitled Uniko, the piece is being performed in Finland with local string quartet Proton, along with a new sampling specialist Juuso Hannukainen, before Pohjonen brings it to the States for its US premiere at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2007. Then he will be reunited with his long-term sampling partner Kosminen and the Kronos Quartet. AAJ met Pohjonen in this Helsinki garden on a sunny July afternoon, soon after he had returned home from a major KTU concert in Jaen, Spain.

All About Jazz: So, you are having a busy summer?

Kimmo Pohjonen: Yes, I just got back from a great concert with KTU performing at 2:30 in the morning to over 20,000 people!

AAJ: That's a long way from your roots in The Accordion Club of Viiala [a village just south of Tampere].

kimmo pohjonen

KP: True. My father introduced me to the instrument first when I was about ten, and then I started going along to the club. I was the only young boy there, with this huge instrument and a bunch of old guys playing accordion tunes, under my first teacher Voitto Mäkelä. He also introduced me to dance music played in restaurants which was very popular here still in the 1970's. I suppose that's where my professional career began.

AAJ: But surely things only took off after you moved to Helsinki?

KP: Yeah—and not so quickly either! I first came to Helsinki when I was 16 to study classical accordion here at the Helsinki Conservatory. It was pretty tough for a number of years attending lessons, playing, and practicing seven or eight hours every day—you know, Bach, organ compositions, and pieces for classical accordion. It was a very tight and narrow range, really incredibly far from what I do now.

In those days I never expected to play my own music. At that time classical pieces were the way to get really deeper into the music if one didn't want just to play dance music or folk tunes. At that time, the late 70's, I really thought I was going to be a concert accordionist with a dark suit and tie.

AAJ: So how did you make this leap in the dark, into the folk genre?

KP: I had a kind of revelation! I went to a concert by a group of students from the Folk Music Department of Sibelius Academy. It was Maria Kalaniemi, Arto Järvelä and three other girls—a band called Niekku. They were playing without sheet music. It was so refreshing after all that studying and practicing I had been doing. So I applied to join to their department, and not so long after, I was playing with them.

AAJ: And this was the time when you started experimenting in your music?

KP: Absolutely. And it was mainly one man who was responsible for this—Heikki Laitinen. He was the leader of the department, and he was the one who had this philosophy of "If you want to do it, you can. He was particularly keen that as musicians we would find and develop our creative skills. He more or less forced us to start composing, and then as well to develop our singing voices too. So without him, I don't know where I would be today—no voicing, maybe no experimentation.

kimmo pohjonen

AAJ: You played with Arto Järvelä for a few years in Pinnin Pojat?

KP: I suppose that was an important transition period for me. We were both living in Helsinki, and we played a lot around Finland and Europe. We even had some tours of the Far East—India and Pakistan—and South America too. And of course this opened my eyes to other music.

AAJ: You really started to broaden your horizons then?

KP: Yes, you could say that! I listened at one time to lot of Tex-mex music—Queen Aida and Flaco Jimenez. And then there was an Argentinian period—Piazolla, Dino Saluzzi, Luis Di Matteo—and I visited there in the end of the 1980's too.

AAJ: So really, there have been phases of different influences.

KP: That's right. In those early days, I listened a lot to 1950's Finnish band music like Taito Vainio. And don't forget the time I spent in Africa, in the early 1990's in Tanzania. I played a lot of thumb piano there—the mbira!

AAJ: And around this time you also started to dabble in electronics?

KP: Well, even when I was playing with Arto, I had gotten interested in different effects and sounds. I had tried putting the accordion through a Leslie amp and used some guitar boxes too. But it really took a leap forward when we were invited to play as guests with one of Finland's first ethno-jazz groups, ZetaBoo. Some of them were also students at Sibelius Academy, and it was their guitarist, Jarmo Saari , who showed me his equipment [looping and sampling devices]. It hit me like a thunderbolt that I could use something similar, and with additional microphones too. This was just before I had my first solo concert around 1996, so I just had time to build up some simple effects to use there.

AAJ: And we can hear these effects on your first album, Kielo (Rockadillo Records, 1999)?

KP: Well, by that time I had been playing with Ismo Alanko's Säätiö for a while, and I had refined the sounds a little, I think. He is a very influential artist for my generation [the founding member of the defining Finnish punk band, Sielun Veljet] and this band had many virtuoso musicians [Marko Timonen on drums, Samuli Laiho on guitar, and Samuli "Teho Majamäki on vibes, winds and assorted percussion]. Playing with them really helped me extend my sonic palette!

AAJ: And then you linked up with Samuli Kosminen?

KP: That started after around 1998 when we were both invited to play with Tapio Rinne's Rinneradio. When I was starting to compose Kalmuk for the Tapiola Symphony Orchestra (Westpark Music, 2002), I was looking for a percussionist with a non-standard style to work with.

It was August 16, 2000 when Samuli came along to try things out, and was showing me these sampled sounds. And I had this idea—what about sampling some of my non-standard sounds? So we set up some mics and put the samples through his processor—and there it was: my sounds produced though his hands. What a birthday present for me! That was the start of our working relationship, and of Kluster, or I should say Kluster Duo—not to be confused with the Moebius-Roedelius-Schnitzler band of the 70s.

align=center>kimmo pohjonen, samuli kosminen

Kimmo Pohjonen with Samuli Kosminen

AAJ: And this partnership has been very productive!

KP: Yes, we have worked a lot together since then—first those two discs, Kluster (Westpark Music, 2002) and Kalmuk, which in turn led on to the whole project with Kronos in 2004. Then we have worked on film music, like Antti-Jussi Anttila's Jade Warrior. And we have also composed some music for a Finnish "circus theater performance, Keskusteluja.

AAJ: And then there's KTU?

KP: That all started, I suppose, with a concert I did at the Electric Lounge in Austin, Texas back in 1999 opening for Crimson's ProjeKct Three. I had played at an international convention in Berlin the year before—and word got through to the guys, and they invited me to join them. It all took a while to develop, but we had the premiere performance in Helsinki in 2004 and then some concerts in Japan.

AAJ: How did that music fit in with your previous projects?

KP: I think Trey and Pat have a very keen sense of experimentalism, and I find that very stimulating. One thing is that with TU [Gunn and Mastelotto], the audiences are always mainly male. So the guys said it was really nice to have some women coming to see them with KTU. I think our audiences are actually quite mixed.

AAJ: So there is a clear difference in audiences?

KP: Yes, there is a difference. But it's the location which makes the biggest difference to the audience make-up. In Savoy Theatre here in Helsinki, we always have a lot of ladies, and it's a great venue—especially for an audience who are sitting down. That makes a huge difference to an audience—and it makes quite a difference to my playing whether the audience is still or moving. In fact, maybe we should consider playing my latest notated piece, Uniko, in Tavastia [Helsinki's main medium-sized, standing-only rock club].

And then there's the timing of the gig—like in Spain when we started at 2:40 am. That can make a huge difference to the way an audience reacts. But there it was just great—an outdoor concert, you know, a real Woodstock feeling!

kimmo pohjonen

AAJ: Does your music with the string quartet show a different side of your personality? Maybe a more female side?

KP: Well with four string players, there are automatically so many more colors. In Uniko there is a variety of feelings and colors. There are more colors with the strings, but there are also some very strong, powerful, and even ugly pieces. But I suppose you could say that the KTU music is at heart more male, if that is revealed in its audience appeal.

AAJ: So what about more recent recordings? You have had quite a busy time lately with KTU and an album with Eric Echampard.

KP: Well, that was now a couple of years ago—2004 and 05. With KTU's 8 Armed Monkey ( Thirsty Ear, 2005) we used recordings from the concerts in Tokyo, and some from Helsinki. And then Pat [Mastelotto] got to work on them back in Austin, editing, mixing and assembling—a lot of tweaking!

Uumen (Rockadillo Records, Westpark Music, 2005), with French drummer Eric Echampard, was recorded totally in France, at Maison de la Culture in Amiens—totally improvised music. I had Heikki Iso-Ahola there as engineer, which was great for me. Then we mixed it back here in Helsinki, in Seawolf Studios on the island of Suomenlinna—a great place too.

AAJ: OK. While we are on these strange names and places, let me ask about your principles for naming tracks.

KP: Well that's always a tricky one! You know I always try to find something that is direct, and hopefully which is easy phonetically. Maybe that's my Finnish background [being, like Italian, a very consistently phonetic language]. I suppose it's always a mixture, always a compromise of meanings, sounds and letters!

AAJ: Right! How about Uniko for example? And the first tracks: "Utu, "Liuos and "Plasma ?

KP: OK. [Long pause, by KP's standards!] Well "Plasma is obvious isn't it? It's a truly international word. The other two are actually Finnish, meaning types of mixtures or flux—first of light like haze, and then of water, some sort of solution! But it's really not just a translation; it's more a feeling that words don't really give a clear idea of!

AAJ: And Uniko is "poppy, isn't it?

KP: Yes. But it also has the idea of "dream or "sleep from the Finnish uni. And doesn't it sound something like "unique?

AAJ: Yes, I got that! But you never can be sure with titles and names.

KP: Well I want people to get their own ideas and images from my music. It's not my job to predict what they get from it!

kimmo pohjonen

AAJ: But your performances are renowned for their visual features.

KP: Yes. I have always thought that as a performer you really need to think about the way you look as well as your sound. I suppose it goes back to my time as a student in Helsinki working with dancers and choreographers who are so very conscious of their image on stage. So with all my shows I use two engineers—one for sound and another for lighting.

So with Uniko there is surround sound as well as a strong visual show. But then again, in some parts are also periods when there are no actual colors, just the music. The audience really have the chance to add their own choice of colors.

AAJ: Roll on! October 3, 5 and 6—Kronos Quartet, Kimmo and Samuli at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Selected Discography

KTU, 8 Armed Monkey (Thirsty Ear, 2005)

Kimmo Pohjonen with French drummer Eric Echampard, Uumen (Rockadillo Records, Westpark Music, 2005)

Kimmo Pohjonen with Tapiola Simfonietta, Kalmuk (Westpark Music, 2002)

Kimmo Pohjonen, Kluster (Westpark Music, 2002)

Kimmo Pohjonen, Kielo (Rockadillo Records, P Vine [Japan], 1999)

Ismo Alanko Säätiö, Pulu (Poko, 1998)

Pinnin Pojat, Gogo 4 (AMK, 1992)

Photo Credits

Middle photo with Samuli Kosminen: Tuomo Manninen

All others: Kalle Björklid

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