Loituma: Things of Beauty
It was mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been spending a lot of time with folk music lately. Regarding that, I recently discovered something new, because someone sent me this. (There’s audio.) Don’t spend more than 20 seconds with it, because it’s just an endless loop.
This little cartoon is one of those goofy things that quickly propogate all over the world because people have too much free time. But fortunately, for me, it led to my discovery of the wonderful Finnish folk ensemble Loituma. My curiosity about the music on that silly animation quickly led me on a path through Google, Wikipedia and iTunes, resulting in a spontaneous purchase of their 1995 album Things of Beauty.
To introduce Loituma a little bit, here’s a video of a complete live performance of the song “Ievan Polkka”, which was excerpted for that cartoon. Of course, this song is a lot of fun, and the vocal arrangement and performance are masterful, but I discovered that most of Loituma’s music is much more nuanced and subtle. Many of the pieces on this recording are based on the same kind of repetition and modality that draw me to Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt, although I suspect it’s approached from a different angle.
Loituma are a Sibelius Academy-trained group of four vocalists (three female and one male), accompanying themselves with kanteles (traditional Finnish zither/harp-like instrument) and occasionally violin and other instruments. While their music draws on a variety of influences, I am particularly attracted to the elements that seem to be of the Finnish folk tradition(s). There’s quite a bit of pentatony and a tendency toward rather static harmony based on pedals. However, I know nothing of Finnish musical traditions, so I approached Loituma’s Hanni Autere, who was kind enough to confirm my suspicions and to further elucidate the subject.
The [folkloric] charasteristics we have come, for example, from “kantele music tradition”. The oldest kantele music contains a lot of pentatony, and it’s often meditative with, as you noticed, a lot of rarely changing pedals and simple harmonies. As for the newer tradition in Finnish music, the scales and harmonies widen as the variety of instruments grows.
Hanni also makes an interesting point about how the musical tradition is tied to the instrumental possibilities of the kantele. I supposed this is true in a number of musical traditions where, say, you might find a lot of pedal drones in vocal music that can be tied to traditions of bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy.
There are many kind of kanteles, and nowadays they basically vary from 5 hair-stringed to 40-stringed electric ones. The style of music changes as the number of strings grows. The biggest kanteles have a pitch changing system that’s related to the concert harp system. In that sense, kantele is more like a harp but otherwise I think it’s closer to zither.
Among my favorite pieces on Things of Beauty, one common element is fact that the harmonies are built upon pedals that rarely change, if ever. When they do change, it’s pure magic. My favorite example is the second track, “Kultaansa Ikäväivä (There Is My Lover)”. This is not a traditional folk song, but an original song on a traditional text, composed by Loituma member Timo Väänänen.
It begins with a very simple, pentatonic ostinato played by a single kantele. During the course of the song, additional kanteles are added, playing complementary ostinati, resulting in lovely cascading sonorities. Until about halfway through, the tonality is rigorously tied to an A pedal. Here’s a little bit of the beginning of the piece:
By about halfway through, the harmony has become quite rich, with the adding of ostinati and the intruduction of slowly changing sustained, non-vibrato violin notes. But then, something wonderful happens: a low D is introduced, changing the pedal and thus the whole character. A minute change in the texture, and we’re in a new, deeper place. Here’s what that sounds like (mp3 – 0:50). You’ll hear the pedal change to D, and then back to A in the lower octave.
An even better example is the all-kantele piece “Valamon Kirkonkellot”, probably the most Reich-like case. Here are some excerpts: the beginning (mp3 – 0:42), after about a minute (mp3 – 0:22), and here’s the big pedal change (mp3 – 0:46). Just as with many Reich pieces, you sort of know it’s coming, but you don’t know when it will be.
Getting back to pentatony, “Viimesen kerran (The Very Last Time)” is a traditional song presented by Loituma as a lovely a cappella arrangement. It’s a very simple pentatonic tune that I would swear up and down is a Hungarian folktune if it were played for me without text and out of context. This is interesting, given the distant relationship between the Hungarian and Finnish peoples.
This arrangement is exquisite in its simplicity. Fortunately, at the beginning we get to hear the tune (0:48) in it’s purest form. Gradually, wordless voices enter as accompaniment, bringing about some wonderful harmonies as the two upper voices move around over a low A pedal. The harmonies build and really blossom (0:35) during the course of the song.
“Kun mun kultani tulisi (Missing Him)” is another traditional folksong, arranged here for voices and kanteles. Although it’s not pentatonic, it also uses a pedal and wordless vocal accompaniment. Again, the harmonies that emerge (1:14) over the pedal are wonderful.
Things of Beauty is published in the U.S. by Northside – Nordic Roots Music.
P.S. — Isn’t the Finnish language beautiful to listen to?