Monday, March 12, 2007

The Electric Kantele (Finnish Folk zither)

Arto Sirén: An ancient instrument enters the modern era
(text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 3/2003)

Kimmo Pohjonen, Timo Väänänen and
Ismo Alanko around Koistinen model

The electric variant on Finland's national instrument, the kantele, is an open invitation to play and compose not only folk but music in any genre.

The history of the kantele would, in the light of contemporary research, appear to stretch back about two thousand years. Developments were slow until the mid-19th century, when interest grew following the publication of the national epic, the Kalevala. In time, the kantele came to be regarded as Finland's national instrument – a process that was to curb further modifications for decades to come.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the kantele acquired more strings (the traditional model had five), but it was still tuned
chromatically. Not until 1927 did Paul Salminen, a resident of St. Petersburg who settled in Finland in 1919, come up with a concert kantele equipped with a mechanism allowing the player to raise or lower the pitch. It continued to be played in the National Romantic spirit, however, and the sound produced was weak.

Many would claim that the gentle sound of the kantele, which lends itself perfectly to meditation, is in fact one of its strengths. Yet others regard it as the main obstacle to spreading beyond Finland's shores. And indeed, the soft sound was one of the reasons why, at one time, it was obliged to make way for the fiddle and accordion on its native soil, in Finland and Karelia. Since the kantele was rediscovered in the 1970s, its volume has been the subject of growing attention.

Advances in the teaching of the kantele and the growing number of players have made people more aware of the instrument's potential. It has thus expanded into the classical, world music and other arenas, and in doing so encountered challenges of a new kind. Over the past few decades solutions to the problem of audibility have been sought by building instruments of a construction designed to yield a louder sound, and by exploiting electricity and amplification technology.

First electric kantele in the USA

The attitudes of the Finns to the electrification of their national instrument have nevertheless been reserved. The first electric kantele was made not in Finland but in the USA.

This historic instrument was produced in the 1940s by Vilho Saari, an emigrant from Halsua. The impact of the world's first electric kantele remained slight, however, and it did not excite the Finns in the same way as the electric guitar developed at about the same time and destined to sweep the world.

Not until the early 1970s were the first steps towards electrifying the kantele taken in Finland, when the Karelia ensemble led by Edward Vesala and Seppo "Baron" Paakkunainen tried amplifying the sound with microphones. Even so, the instrument still had very narrow application, and external mikes continued to be virtually the only means of amplification. Yet the idea remained ticking over in the minds of players and instrument makers.

Breakthrough slow

A new page was turned in the history of the electric kantele in 1983, when Jussi Ala-Kuha built a 26-stringed electric kantele on the lines of a semi-acoustic electric guitar at his instrument workshop in Kaustinen. This electric kantele by a builder widely known for his guitars and mandolins underwent exhaustive testing with an electric guitar, bass and other instruments.

The experiments and faith in the potential of the new instrument were further enhanced by the EMF kantele microphone patented by Kari Kirjavainen in 1984 and still in widespread use. Also dating from about this time was the 5-stringed electric kantele of innovative design made by Rauno Nieminen. Having successfully passed all the tests, the electric kantele made its appearance in the Salamakantele ensemble from Kaustinen. Among the experimenters were Hannu Saha, who later made the kantele the topic of his doctoral dissertation, and the American-Finn Carl Rahkonen.

Having set off along a new track and been the subject of much debate, the electric kantele met an overwhelming wave of opposition from players. Such slogans as "great new potential", "modern", "revolutionary design" and "kantele enters new spheres" were not compatible with 1980s concepts of the Finnish national instrument. Jussi Ala-Kuha refused to be daunted, however, and continued working on the kantele alongside his other stringed instruments. He still looks upon the acoustic kantele as the basis for his electric models, but has incorporated sound-improving features borrowed from the kanteles of the first half of the 20th century and the zither, a kindred instrument familiar in Central Europe.

“I don't make flat, board-like instruments because I don't consider they produce a good sound,” says Jussi Ala-Kuha. “Instead, I have sought ideas from the models made in the Perho River Valley, the heart of Finnish kantele culture, and used them to build electric ones as well. The main idea throughout has been to amplify the sound of an acoustic.”

Ala-Kuha makes JAK electric kanteles to order as a supplement to his main items, which are guitars and mandolins. Over the years his workshop at Töysä in South Ostrobothnia has produced ten semi-acoustic electric kantele models, the biggest of them fully-mechanised ones with 33-37 strings designed for professional use.

The kantele hits the media

The public at large has really become aware of the existence of the electric kantele over the past few years, through the models designed and manufactured by Hannu Koistinen of Rääkkylä while working on a development project for the concert kantele. But despite the recognition he has received for his work as an instrument builder and to make the instrument better known, the electric kantele was not invented by him. Nor do the slogans employed in advertising the new electric kantele differ much from those applied to the instruments of Ala-Kuha twenty years ago.

In addition to his pioneering development, Koistinen does, however, enjoy a more favourable climate of opinion than his predecessors. This has to some extent assisted marketing of the Koistinen electric kanteles in the past few years and afforded them greater coverage by the media.
Hannu Koistinen, who began making kanteles in the late 1980s, was originally inspired by the work of his father, master kantele maker Otto Koistinen, from the late 1950s onwards. In addition to improving the technical properties and gaining publicity for the instrument, son Hannu is eager to give it a new image.

“The electric kantele opened my eyes to the need to seek out the dynamic aspects of the instrument, and not just its gentle, beautiful sound. Even so, the instrument alone is not sufficient to change the way people think; because an instrument only really comes to life when people start writing new music for it. I shall be interested to see what turns up, and I'm sure that the electric kantele will, like the ordinary kantele, spread further and further afield in the next few years, and no longer be confined to Finland.”

Folk and World Music
Timo Väänänen
with the "Wing" Catchy design

Just recently, Hannu Koistinen has concentrated on developing a whole range of electric kanteles. Alongside the big electric model, his Wings series of instruments with 5-15 strings played at the neck like a guitar has seen the light of day. Despite the widespread interest aroused by the small kanteles equipped with the microphones of Kimmo Sarja of Kaustinen, the Koistinen flagship is the 39-stringed electric kantele in orange Lamborghini paint that has caught people's eyes with its modern design.

“I've found giving the instrument a new design challenging, and I look on design as a major way of modernising the kantele. Because the design is what gives the instrument its image.”

Kantele artist Timo Väänänen has been in on the development of Koistinen electric kanteles since 1997 and is particularly pleased to see the innovations introduced in the small kanteles.

“The small electric kanteles lower the threshold for players thinking of taking up the instrument. They also work well in an ensemble, where they usually assume the role of a comp instrument. A big kantele is much more demanding to play, and it may not be so easy to accommodate in a band. A big electric kantele covers the same register as keyboards, and the quality of the sound can be altered by various effects, just as on an electric guitar. Even so, there is no clear model for using it in an ensemble.”

The big electric kantele has already become very popular, calling forth various views on the music composed for it.

“Kantele development has reached a very dynamic stage,” says Väänänen. “The instrument has lost none of its diversity and will no doubt continue to make progress under the influence of players and builders. I'm very curious to see how the rising generation of kantele players exploit the potential of the electric kantele. They have a bigger than ever range of instruments to choose from, an open mind on music making, and opportunities for better and better tuition. So I reckon that ten years from now, we'll have come a long way in playing the electric kantele.”

Traditional and new sounds

Thanks to the sound-processing options nowadays available with an electric kantele and modern technology, it is impossible to specify any particular sound ideal for the instrument. In the future, the kantele may travel further and further away from its traditional sound and context.

“The kantele of the future will act as a sound source for increasingly synthetic projects,” reckons kantele builder Hannu Koistinen. “Or at least it has all the potential for this. Yet despite all the processing, I don't think the inherent character and timbre of the kantele sound will really change very much. All in all I believe the kantele has just as much chance of making a go of it in world music as any of the other instruments already being used worldwide by the great stars.”

The electric kantele is a marvellous tool for the player who grasps its full potential, but players' sense of style is also being tested more and more as the sound and the ways this is used expand.

“It's important to understand sound qualities in playing the electric kantele,” stresses kantele researcher-musician Hannu Saha. “Failure to do so will destroy both the instrument and its powers of expression. In this respect there are no ready models to work from; in the long run, experience is the best teacher.”

Saha expects the electric kantele to acquire far greater significance in the future. “Yet it's important to remember that it will never fully replace the acoustic kantele. They are two different instruments, just like the acoustic and electric guitar.”

Growing interest

The publicity afforded the Koistinen electric kanteles has aroused growing interest in the models made by others, too. These others include Ala-Kuha, already mentioned, and Pekka Lovikka, who began making kanteles in 1983 and this spring brought out his own electric kantele.

“At first I wondered why make an electric kantele, but when I looked into it, and having made a few, I came to view the potential and idea in a new light. The very look of the flat kantele helps the player to do away with any restricting images of the instrument and to venture out into new fields and listen to it with a new ear,” says Pekka Lovikka, director of Ylitornion Soitintuote.

According to Lovikka, the flat kantele further permits a new kind of contact between player and audience. Despite the innovations and ongoing trends, Lovikka still views the results with humility and restraint. Despite what may seem to have been major steps forwards, he does not see any real limits to the instrument's development. His works produce electric versions of all his big kanteles, and these will shortly be supplemented by a range of small electric ones.

Like Hannu Koistinen, Pekka Lovikka has faith in the future of the electric kantele, but he has not been at such pains to give the instrument a new shape and image. Instead, he wishes to make the potential of present-day electro-acoustics available as such to interested kantele players. One of the users of the Lovikka 39-stringed electric kantele painted an electric shade of blue is Outi Nieminen, a member of the pioneering world music ensemble Piirpauke and now, with her husband Ismaila Sane, of the Senfi duo devoted to Finnish-Senegalese music.

“The sound box kantele is a precious, magnificent instrument and suitable for almost all kinds of music, but not for amplified ensemble playing. That's why for me, at least, the electric kantele is an invaluable tool,” says Outi Nieminen. “Working as I do in a multicultural environment, I can be an equal member of the band even in a big hall, and still be heard. I would say from experience that the electric instrument is enriching kantele music and, with all the new things it has to offer, bringing it closer to young people. This will not, however, take place of its own accord. Instead, players will need to adopt an even more liberal attitude both to the instrument and to different musical styles.”

Another advantage of the electric kantele is that it withstands changes of climate much better than an acoustic one. The Lovikka Electric Tropical model that has just gone on the market will make life much easier for kantele musicians travelling and performing in various corners of the world.

“The great thing about my present instrument is not only that it can be heard better, but also that I can play it in the frozen north or in Tenerife or hottest Africa and it behaves in exactly the same way,” says Outi Nieminen.

Exports reliant on random contacts

The ability to withstand climate changes greatly enhances the export prospects for the kantele. Pekka Lovikka reckons there would be a considerable demand for Finnish kanteles if only the makers and interested buyers could find one another better than at present. Due to the meagre marketing resources, exports are for the time being still to a great extent reliant on random contacts.

One of the bottlenecks in the export of acoustic and electric kanteles is, in Pekka Lovikka's opinion, the lack of tuition in the large instrument abroad. There is great interest, especially in the United States, but it tends to fall off in the absence of teachers and tuition. The high price of the large kanteles also makes people stop and think before investing in one. As the volume of production and the number of manufacturers increase, the prices will probably fall to some extent, but it is pointless to expect any drastic drop as a result of mass production. The price of a large electric kantele of professional standard at present (2003) varies between €3,800 and €10,000, depending on the model and the maker.

Now that the electric kantele has found its niche in Finland, it remains to be seen how it will fare abroad. But thanks to the sustained efforts of a number of people and the new electric models, the kantele is better equipped to satisfy players' wishes and increasingly varied needs.

© Arto Sirén
Translation: © Susan Sinisalo

Pohjonen, Väänänen, Alanko: Aki Paavola
Timo Väänänen: Ilari Ikävalko

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