Mika Vainio

Portals: The Varpuja of Finland

Our second Portals feature takes us to Finland, where local musician and guest-writer Utu Lautturi dives into some of the many musicians and styles to emerge from this beautiful nordic country. 

Utu Lautturi is a Finnish multidisciplinary artist, composer and experimentalist, living and breathing audio and visual arts since early childhood. Immersed in nature worship, the arcane and mythical, bending all boundaries of auditive self-expression, Utu has slowly gained recognition for his strong organic ambient/experimental releases and intense live performances as well as collaborative works with various native and international artists. Utu's debut album, Nielu, was released in January 2015 through Pale Noir.

With such high regard for the many artists and musicians to emerge from his country, I couldn't imagine a better voice to guide us through the rich spectrum of music that has grown from the mystical rivers and woodlands of Finland in recent years. Utu has selected some of the most interesting artists and styles of Finnish introspective music, portraying acoustic and electronic elements, as well as fusions, landing on a ten-track mix of lesser-known and more internationally popular artists. And as with every Portal's feature, Utu has dug-deep into the featured tracks and given us everything we need to explore even further.

~

The Varpuja of Finland, by Utu Lautturi.

In a country as small as Finland, the borders between artists creating different types of ambient/electronic/atmospheric music are artificial at best. Contrary to  Finnish artists' achievements in heavy metal or psy-trance scenes, it is impossible to decipher or pin-point any distinctive style or "sound" in what I like to call, by a broader term, Finnish introspective music (engulfing styles such as ambient, electronic, ethnic, electroacoustic, neofolk and others).

It's common for musicians from different styles to collaborate, creating a plethora of musical fusions. However, I feel Finnish introspective artists have something in common. There is an indescribable melancholic magic present in their music, a fluid solidness, a solemn intent of sorts. To me, this magic is entwined with the awe-inspiring extremes present in Finnish nature. It is the magic of endless mid-summer light when the burning eye of the sky barely scathes the horizon for weeks. It is the magic of the long polar night when even tiny glimpses of the sun might stretch to over a month in-between.  Spring and Autumn in Finland are both short, colorful bursts full of wonder, inducing a strong sense of cyclic change. Perhaps it's this naturally enforced surrender unto the change of seasons, or the fact that even from the largest cities you're never more than half an hour away from vast forests, lakes and rivers, that helps us reflect upon Finnish music as primarily organic, even when produced solely by electronic means.

With the sounds of traditional instruments like the Kantele and Jouhikko (both capable of producing beautiful ambience and droney atmospheres) engraved in our cultural genes it is no wonder Finns are easily drawn towards introspective music. Not to forget, as a natural consequence of living in a country with an often harsh winter lasting up to six months there's a lot of time to sink inward, both to create music and to enjoy the creations of others.

Brelo - Pohjoinen (North)

Brelo is a group of Kantele players exploring the boundaries of traditional and modern composition. In Pohjoinen [North] Brelo do homage to our northern landscape by conjuring simple yet vivid pictures both bright and dim. The track is taken from Brelo's 2009 release Uusikuu [New Moon] which features enjoyable variations of different types of Kantele playing. The versatile Kantele also suits a wider spectrum of ambient music extremely well, as can be heard in the beautiful compositions from the likes of Finnish ambient projects Marrasmaa and Nest (not to be confused with the sublime Norway/UK-based ambient/electronica project of the same name).  Last summer A.T. of Nest invited people virtually to follow a live Kantele performance at his home, which you can watch here.

 
 

Pekka Lehti & Outo Voima - Artsi

When it comes to emotional content, acoustic instruments seem to carry more weight than electronics and I feel the following pair of tracks are great examples. Starting off is Artsi (a Finnish nickname), Pekka Lehti's collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Jouko Kyhälä. The same sounds, rhythm and melodies could be produced by various electronic equipment, but I have a feeling the end-result, although certainly beautiful in its own way, would lack the soul it has through this acoustic instrumentation. The track exhibits a rare kind of force; it drives onward; yet guides within; cosmic mysticism blending with humane spiritual longing. As one of Finland's most revered bass players and genre bending composers Pekka Lehti has a colorful musical history. Artsi is a cut from one of his more avant-garde and experimental albums, Sohjo.

Another important Finnish avant-garde artist I want to mention is the widely renown accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen. Kimmo is a virtuoso, taking accordion playing and musical composition through its extremes, as heard through his extensive multidisciplinary career. He delivers exquisite avant-garde performances with Kronos Quartet (the only non-Finnish group/artist mentioned in this article, by the way) - watch them here.

 
 

Mir-0 - Liplu

Mir-0 is one of Finland's pioneers in 'looping' and the epitome of a musician creating solely for the sake of art itself. The featured track, Liplu, is a part of Mir-0's debut album Shhh which is very hard to obtain (as are all of his releases).

Using mundane objects, self-made instruments and vocals, Mir-0 creates mind-boggling, rich, trance-inducing labyrinths of sound that he describes as inverse pyramids. In a live situation Mir-0 relies on looping and effects but Liplu and other tracks on Shhh are recorded live performances all the way through. A tiny speck of Mir-0's live magic can be witnessed through a clip from his Recycled project below. 

 
 

The underground 'looping' scene in Finland is rich with a range of interesting artists such as Kulkija [Wanderer], looping various acoustic and electronic instruments and Ihmineläin [Humanimal], an acappella loop project, to groups like the electroacoustic rhythm n' dance duo Loop Repeat and the busking trio Juurisähkö [Root Electricity], who combine various ethnic instruments and percussion with throat singing and beat-boxing - watch here.  

 
 

Salatullah - Orvokin lehto / Paavoharju - Olet maailman syli

Languages are unique but some have evolved to take uniqueness a step further. The Finnish language is one of the most versatile and difficult languages in the world and I wanted to include Finnish spoken word because of its richness and poetic phonetics. I couldn't think of a more suitable piece to represent this than Yahayakayak & Pinewoods' album Salatullah. This duo, comprised of a respected Finnish rap/spoken word artist and a talented electronic music producer, is what I regard as one of the most amazing ambient & spoken word albums ever created (and as a name your price download!) Orvokin lehto [Violet's Grove], featured here, describes and is dedicated to, Prophet Muhammad by means of a stunning, almost sacred word play. 

 
 

Sometimes when mixing, exciting and strange things take place. I had collected various suitable lyrical tracks to my computer and accidentally started playing them all at once. Muting them one by one I ended up with two tracks playing simultaneously - Orvokin lehto from Salatullah and Finnish experimental group Paavoharju's track Olet maailman syli [You Are The World's Lap], a cut from their critically acclaimed album from 2013, Joko sinä tulet tänne alas tai minä nousen sinne [Either You Come Down Here Or I Will Come Up There].

The official music video for Olet maailman syli overflows with Finnish melancholia. 

Arktau Eos - The Urn

Any mix of Finnish introspective music isn't complete without some dark ambient. As with other types of music, some of the most internationally known Finnish groups and musicians tend to be of the darker side,. And one of the most well known Finnish dark ambient groups are Arktau Eos, hailing from the incense filled halls of Aural Hypnox - a harbour for a few other strong dark/ritual ambient acts including Halo Manash

Arktau Eos are the very essence of ritual ambient. The trio are best known for their self-made ritual instruments and mesmorizing, powerful live performances which I strongly recommend. The Urn is part of the double-album Ai Ma Ra, released as a limited version in 2009.

In addition to excellent ritual acts, the Finnish dark ambient scene has some lesser known composers such as Ovro (unconventional conjurer of surrealistic soundscapes, and illustrator of dreams and nightmares with a very distinct style), ówt krì (operates between ambient, noise, industrial and darkness exclusively on self -modified or -assembled guitars) and Kausemus (experimental musical project jazzing around weird, ambient and futuristic themes). 

 
 

At the end of the accompanying mix, The Urn dissolves momentarily into Kantele artist 
Arja Kastinen's experimental piece Nietsivoo (the name of a traditional wind-instrument, from the album Kajo [Shimmer], 2005). Kastinen was the first person in Finland to earn a Ph.D. in music back in 2000. With an extensive and varied discography in the art of Kantele playing, she specializes in old musical style meditative Kantele improvisation. 

A wonderful example of her playing, below.

 
 

Tenhi - Salain

To anybody familiar with the international neofolk scene Tenhi doesn't really need an introduction. Since their first demos in 1997, Tenhi have enticed their audience with immaculate compositions seeping archaic mysticism, nature worship, nostalgia, poetry and musical ingenuity. Their rare live performances (the last two were eight years apart) and virtual silence, have covered the group in an enigmatic aura, leaving their fans on the look-out for more dark pearls to emerge. Tenhi's inimitable sound is immediately recognizable and each of their tracks a masterpiece, so it was extremely difficult to choose a feature.

Salain [Shapeless] is off their phenomenal, perhaps most melancholic, album Maaäet (2006). To those wanting to dig deeper into esoteric Finnish neofolk music I recommend the Anima Arctica label, home to various acts such as Pyhä Kuolema [Holy Death] and Tervahäät [Tar Wedding]. You can go through their wonderful radio/sampler for glimpses into the roster. Other noteworthy artists inhabiting the colorful Finnish neofolk scene include dirty folk/blues artists Pekko Käppi and Faarao Pirttikangas as well as the ethnic fusion group Aalto [Wave].

 
 

Ous Mal - Oksat

Ous Mal's work inspires both old and new generations of Finnish ambient and experimental artists.

His meticulous compositions fuse a myriad of elements and styles, breathing tangible life and bright, vivid tales - truly some of the most captivating and interesting sound design to emerge from Finland. Ous Mal's track Oksat [Branches], from his 2009 release Viime talvi [Last Winter] serves as a crux in the accompanying mix, pointing towards its serene end.

Ous Mal's work is at times very experimental, and so I'd like to introduce another very special Finnish experimental artist; the legendary Grand Old Man of experimental self-made instrumentation, Umpio. I've had the privilege of witnessing Umpio perform live, and he is nothing short of phenomenal (as broken, scratchy, delicate, dusty experimental sound design and noise goes). He also makes and sells different types of contact microphones at a ridiculously low-price with international shipping, so do check his stuff out.

 
 

Katajamäki - The Song Of Electric Whales / Pan Sonic - Comparative 

One of the first lesser known Finnish ambient artists that made a lasting impression on me was Katajamäki. One of his finest works is The Song Of Electric Whales, released in 2013 on the free download EP What The Swan Saw. The first time I heard this track its eerie atmosphere completely trapped me and hasn't let me go since. Whenever I want to be dragged under the surface of my mind and explore it's caverns in dim light, I listen to this piece. Katajamäki is a good example of the aforementioned high quality present in Finnish underground ambient/electronic music. From old timers
E-Musigruppe Lux Ohr and Nemesis, (both creating classic synthesizer/sequencer based ambient journeys, ranging from minimal to cosmic) to smaller scale composers like Sarana [Hinge] and Mooma.

 
 

A Finnish name anyone into ambient, experimental sound design or electronic avant-garde music should know, is of course, Pan Sonic. Nowadays mostly working solo, Pan Sonic member Mika Vainio continues to be one of the most interesting artists in the field of modern electronic experimental and avant-garde. The other half of Pan Sonic, Ilpo Väisänen, is also still active (among other projects) as a part of the Finnish/German duo Angel

What happened earlier in the mix with Orvokin lehto and Maailman syli also happened with Katajamäki's The Song Of Electric Whales and Pan Sonic's track Suhteellinen / Comparative (featuring Hildur Gudnadottir on cello, from the album Katodivaihe / Cathodephase). I played the tracks on top of each other and they fit perfectly. It was like they were meant to be played this way. I feel Katajamäki's track creates the emotional stage and pulse for Pan Sonic's hyper-minimalist composition.

Usually I listen to music with the intention of trying to decipher what its creator(s) had in mind and try to reflect my own experience. I don't feel the need to make my mark on other people's work, but this is one of those rare cases when through accident, two completely independent pieces of art brought together, seem to fuse into something more than the sum of their parts.

For those aching to hear Suhteellinen / Comparative in it's plain, even raw, minimal beauty and force, here it is. 

 
 

Ari Porki - Spirit Of Ice Lantern

To end this mix I chose Ari Porki's Spirit Of Ice Lantern (from his free download album Waterway, released in 2015). Not only because Ari fits into the theme of this mix perfectly with his musical inspiration of the four seasons, but also because I feel this piece beautifully portrays the two opposites of our Northern climate. The obvious all-encompassing tingling and glistening glitter of ice present, but something else too...

Throughout The Spirit Of Ice Lantern you can hear a warm soundscape reminiscent of oars and a rowing boat; of easygoing summers in a cottage beside a lake. These two opposites create a soothing yet heightening combination I felt was a great place to leave us. At the end, I mixed some of my own field recordings of summer thunder, rain and birds to give you a taste of what Finland might sound like right now, here in the endless light of the Northern summer.

 
 

The name of the accompanying mix, Varpuja [twigs], serves as a reminder that however profound and beautiful, all artists and their wonderful music are simply twigs in the huge tree of musical expression expanding through the history of humankind. I dedicate Varpuja to Avaruusromua [Spacejunk], a national weekly radio show that's been exploring and showcasing both native and international introspective music for 25 years. 

 
Imagine a clear lake in the midst of a vast forest. Fir, Birch, Aspen and Pine grow on its shore, rising side by side from a lush undergrowth of Blueberry, moss, grass and hay, supporting lichen-bearded branches. Lingonberries flower, the citrus scent of northern Labrador tea. On the shore, a rock to rest upon, to dip your toes from. Fish poking tiny ripples into the lake’s still surface, feeding on water striders nearby. The distant farewell of the cuckoo echoing across a clear sky of burning dusk. This lake is one of thousands of sweet water reservoirs left in Finland after the last ice age, just over 10 000 years ago.

The lake knows all four northern seasons well enough; how, during a few short summer months the sun barely kisses the jagged tops of the forest, driving both elk and man mad. The lake has also witnessed relief from the clutches of the long grey, damp and dark Polar Night arriving in soft, pristine layers and sheets of snow. However, during the last century, snow has arrived even later and the melting ever sooner - the time of White growing shorter year after year. Only dull and dread remain. But the lake remains untouched by the mental turmoils of man. The lakes waters have served as safe haven for massive flocks of migratory birds, and so it will continue to do until it either dries out or eutrophicates. Its ever-vibrant surface will continue to provide a skating alley for water spiders and shelter for all kinds of insect and spider eggs. The lake has seen and reflected all the shifts and shapes of the sky, millennia after millennia of constant change, itself unchanged, only played by the wind at certain moments. The lake knows that in time, even the most ferocious waves will calm, and ripples turn still. This is all the lake knows. But there is one one thing the lake is a completely stranger to: haste. The lake knows no haste. It is always now for the lake, or it will forever be soon enough. Either way there is nothing the lake could, or would do if it had the power to change the course of time.

And so it is, by the shores of this lake I wish to lead you with this mix, to find a space within yourself akin to the lake, to tune into the pulse of seasons.
— Utu Lautturi
 

Portals Episode 2: The Varpuja of Finland (by Utu Lautturi) d/l

 
 

Tracklist:

01. Brelo - Pohjoinen
02. Pekka Lehti & Outo Voima - Artsi
03. Mir-0 - Liplu
04. Salatullah - Orvokin lehto / Paavoharju - Olet maailman syli
05. Arktau Eos - The Urn
06. Arja Kastinen - Nietsivoo
07. Tenhi - Salain
08. Ous Mal - Oksat
09. Katajamäki - The Song Of Electric Whales / Pan Sonic - Comparative
10. Ari Porki - Spirit Of Ice Lantern

https://soundcloud.com/utu-lautturi
https://www.facebook.com/utulautturiartist

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If you missed the first Portals feature on Modern Classical, you can read it here.

 
 

Substrata 1.4 in review

 
 

This was my second year in a row making the trip up to Seattle for Rafael Anton Irisarri’s Substrata Festival, but this year, I approached it a little differently. Whereas last time I put together a festival preview and spent time looking into the artists’ involved, last year had afforded me enough trust in what Rafael would curate, and I put my OCD to one side. Apart from Markus Guentner and Mika Vainio, I wasn’t familiar with the other artists set to perform – and I felt pretty good about leaving it that way.

The festival was once again held at the beautiful Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford District of Seattle, perfect for the hazy Seattle summer evenings and an intimate space for the attendees to immerse themselves in over the next three days.

 
 

Thursday night began with Gregg Kowalsky taking his performance close to the audience and echoing Raf’s purpose for the night: “The composer as both the outrider and map-maker in their simultaneous manifestation and guidance through geographic, abstract, cosmic, oneiric non-place”. Subtle cracks came to life through numerous tapes played back through the mics – a constant puppetry by Greg as he flicked between minimal analog hardware inputs and three portable tape-decks. Short and sweet, I couldn’t help but want more from Gregg’s creaky, intimate sounds.

New York City-based Julia Kent took to the stage and immediately changed the mood in the room. As the sun began to set, Julia settled down bare-footed with her cello and quickly began looping numerous string parts, conjuring up the presence of multiple instruments and compositions depicting the drama and emotion from an epic film. Gently acknowledging the crowds reaction to each short but sweet performance, Julia played through to a dramatic ending and remains one of my favourite acts from the festival.

There are no headliners at Substrata, but Markus Guentner was my biggest anticipation of the week. The ASIP contributor has long been a hero of mine and this was my first time seeing him live. With his modest set-up, including his notorious PC (Markus loves to sign off emails with “sent from a PC”) adorning an ASIP laptop sticker, Markus wasted no time getting stuck in to his beautifully textured Pop-ambient sound, progressing through layers of signature textures and recognisable elements. It was, as expected a pure joy to consume in this environment.

 
 

Friday played host to “the evolving field of electro-acoustic composition in it’s intersection with fringe pop, folk, improvisation and non-rock form” starting with Australian Sanso-Xtro. Her set began with random synth-stabs, never confirming to melody, rhythm or pattern and to be honest, it lost me entirely. But when she picked up her guitar and gently strummed home a repetitive melody peppered with tiny string flicks, (and what i’m sure most people would recognise as great guitar playing), she made amends and I began to enjoy her unorthodox and experimental approach.

Koen Holtkamp followed, sat stern behind his analog equipment to the right-side of the stage. I quickly fell into Koen’s subtle shifts and expansive ambience as he masterfully grew his sound to a cacophony of synths pounding through the speakers from all four corners. By the end of his set I felt like I was sat in the middle of a square room of TV screens, lit with brightly coloured circuit boards. It was a modest yet powerful performance.

Raf’s personal hero Carl Hultgren (from Windy & Carl) closed the Friday evening with an ever expanding wash of shoegaze. It was non-descript, yet perfect – I felt myself nodding off numerous times as he gently caressed his guitar into the ears of an audience lulled into every millimetre his fingers moved across the strings.

If the Saturday night from last-year was anything to go by, it seems like Rafael saves the more epic and immersive characters for the closing night. This was no different, as upon entry, the stage was adorned with hundreds of cables depicting an analog synth heaven- “the night’s performers are all sculptors of ambient sonic narrative created from the colluvium of sound’s rawest materials” and a night in which Raf decided to take up the position behind the mixing board – “Bring earplugs” he said.

 
 

Evan Caminiti stood at the front of the stage emotionless as he took to melding, mixing and plugging his world of wires. His pulsating electronics slowly evolved into beautiful landscapes – a feat I still struggle to understand when there’s no single laptop involved – my lack of understanding of analog hardware showing, but my appreciation for it growing, especially after performances like this.

Mika Vainio - one half of the minimal electronic duo Pan Sonic, upon closing all the blinds and turning off the lights, sat in the middle of the stage with just a single lamp shining on his analog synth set-up. Stern faced, the familiar stabs hit hard and I could tell Raf had raised the levels . Non-confirming yet rhythmic, Mika slowly but surely built his glitchy structures from nothingness into full-on head-ringing bangs of the purest, most appreciated sounds possible from the equipment at hand. A true master of his art, there were five seconds in-between beats at times, and I felt myself itching for it go on one more time, harder, louder and bigger as he aggressively plunged and stabbed synth cables, creating a raw and unforgettable musical experience.

Seattle based Mamiffer took to the stage to close Substrata 1.4 – the only use of the grand piano helmed by Faith Coloccia, with Aaron Turner taking the lead-presence on stage behind the guitar. Dark and intense, drones were soon shattering around the space with the subtle and quaint voice of Faith and her keys tinkering in the background; unplugged from the main output, i’m pretty sure this was on purpose to help create a sense of depth for the audience and to let the power of the guitar shine through.

A continuous piano and melody and a sweet looping voice were a stark contrast to the sheer strength coming from Aaron’s guitar, and whilst the first 10 minutes seemed a little unsettling, the next 15 or so absolutely blew my mind as Aaron slowly progressed his drones from high-pitched streaks into raw, bone-rattling depths of solid colour. The contrast worked beautifully and the progression was timed to perfection – injecting subtle tonal shifts as the piece grew higher, louder and bigger. Mamiffer’s performance was dark and poignant.

As I walked out of the space that night, I didn’t hear anyone say a thing. Nobody needed to talk about how good that was; how much better one artist was over another; or what they were doing next after the show. When you are immersed in the performances you see at Substrata, you are paying witness to music in its purest form – a vision that Raf pays very careful attention to crafting and a vision that has profound effects on those lucky enough to enjoy it in these settings. It’s not about the individual artists, it’s the overall experience you walk away with.