With Eija KankaanrantaThe kantele is electric

Interviews 02.05.2021

The kantele is an old traditional Finnish instrument. The virtuoso Eija Kankaanranta plays it and improvises for many modern repertoires and contemporary compositions. 

Interview conducted on February 14, 2021

How did you choose to learn and play the kantele? Is this a long-standing story in your musical life or a recent discovery ?
I first learned the piano at the age of 5, following the family tradition. When I was 11, my mother suggested that I also take kantele lessons. My first teacher was very interested in expanding the repertoire of this instrument and encouraged composers to write for it. He encouraged students to play all kinds of music. Having played dozens of arrangements of folk music (because in the past that was the only repertoire), original compositions for the kantele always brought me a lot of novelty and inspiration. I entered the Sibelius Academy, specializing in classical kantele, and graduated in 2000. My artistic work includes a wide variety of projects as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral musician, band member and recording artist. I also teach kantele and its pedagogy at theSibelius Academy, of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

The kantele is a traditional Finnish instrument, close to the zither. Can you tell us more about it: its construction, its history, the contexts where it is usually played, its repertoire?
The Finnish kantele belongs to the family of Baltic psalteries and more broadly to the zither family. The oldest instruments often had 5 strings and were carved from a single block of wood. The number of strings and the size of the instrument have gradually increased over time, in parallel with the evolution of music. Today, there is a wide range of kantele models and playing styles, from the 5-string kantele to the concert kantele to the electric kantele with 39-40 strings and a lever mechanism for chromatic changes and modulation. What is remarkable about the kantele is that the various historical or traditional models and classical playing styles are used today alongside modern kanteles and contemporary playing techniques. Two specialist luthiers make concert kanteles and 4-6 others make small kanteles.
The repertoire covers a wide range of music, from early music to contemporary music, classical music, traditional music, contemporary folk music, pop music, rock music, text songs, etc. The kantele is a popular instrument and you can learn to play it anywhere in Finland, in music schools, conservatories, hobby associations, etc. There are teachers who specialise in folk and classical music, as well as professional practice courses at the Sibelius Academy.
Those who play the classical kantele concentrate mainly on contemporary music and sometimes on baroque music, or even the classical repertoire for piano and harp by composers such as Bach, Handel, Rameau, Dowland, Weiss, Ibert, Debussy, van Delden, Schenk, Sibelius.

Do you often play works by contemporary composers, such as the opera "Only the Sound remains" by Kaija Saariaho where I discovered you? Could you give me some examples?
Yes, my main focus is on contemporary music and improvisation. I have recently worked with Juhani Nuorvala, Miika Hyytiäinen, Lara Poe, Karmit Fadael (Netherlands) and Christopher Fitkin (UK) who has just written a fascinating 110-minute solo for kantele.
One of the most memorable collaborations was with Kaija Saariaho on her opera Only the Sound remains:

Some composers also draw their influences from jazz or rock, thus merging different styles, which is always interesting. Currently I am part of a new ensemble called Con Fusion, founded by Asta Hyvärinen (Finland). Her works represent both contemporary and rhythm music and the instrumentation is intriguing: bassoon, electric kantele, bass and a drum set played by the composer. Fascinating new versions of works originally composed for other instruments have been made in collaboration with composers. Juhani Nuorvala's beautiful Concertino was originally composed for basset clarinet and techno tape and we made a version for electric kantele in 2014. The most recent addition is with Japan-based composer Tony Uhm as we made a kantele version of his beautiful composition Der Frühling for harp and tape in 2020.

I also have a duo with flutist Camilla Hoitenga (USA), a trio called Superpluck with Assi Karttunen (harpsichord) and Rody van Gemert (guitar) and I play with Lisbeth Diers (Denmark) in a Danish-Finnish quartet (kantele, percussion, piano/accordion and guitars). 

You play an electric kantele, a beautiful red instrument, with electronic pedals and effects. Is it a customized version?
I have two acoustic concert kantels, an electric kantele (wine colored) and several smaller ones. Some were specially made or modified for me, like the 5- and 15-string ones I played in Kaija Saariaho's opera.
I use different effects and tools to play all my instruments, not just the electric kantele. For example, in Saariaho's opera, I play 5-string kantels with pencils and concert kantele with dulcimer mallets to broaden the sound field created by the fingers or fingernails. The sound of the instruments is also modified by sound effects and programming designed by Saariaho herself. Composers are very good at finding new sounds, and I sometimes present them with my own experiments so that they can incorporate them into their work.

You often improvise with the kantele: Generally speaking, what is the link between tradition and creation in your work?
This is a difficult question. I like to think that I'm pretty free in my improvisations, although of course the spirit and the playing are influenced by everything you've played and heard before.
If I try to analyze my improvisations (which I rarely do), I guess I use playing techniques and sounds I've used before (for compositions or personal creations) and try to get new things out of them. It's really nice to listen, react and create together in the moment, being aware of what's happening in real time, building a narrative or a common work - everything is possible and happens in the moment.

When I improvise solo, I tend to gravitate more towards an early form of minimalism, towards pop or jazz, like Gerhswin's Summertime , Piazzolla's Novitango , John Cage's Dream or Herbie Hancock's Chameleon , to name just a few of the pieces I've played and improvised on in solo concerts. Improvisation is also an important part of some of the ensembles I play in. The group Juurakko , for example, makes its own music by combining elements of blues and folk.
In a new duet with the singer Aino Peltomaa we combine the songs of the Brigittines, Finnish folklore and Karelian tradition with improvisation.

Do you also play traditional Finnish music on your instrument?

Yes, occasionally. The idea of separating or classifying music into different genres seems a bit useless, even a bit outdated. My background and training is in classical music, but I find inspiration in all kinds of music.
I don't want to underestimate or diminish history and tradition, but I have always been fascinated and inspired by working with composers and discovering new works. I am also very interested in dance and contemporary arts.
The ancient Karelian and Finnish kantele tradition offers a very enchanting and rich source of inspiration for modern kantele musicians and composers. I got to study the traditional playing styles a bit at the Sibelius Academy. Through that I came up with my personal idea on how the archaic kantele music might have sounded - it was already fading away due to the merging of new instruments like the violin when the musicologists and composers started to take insterest in the folk music towards the end of the 19th century..

Interview by Guillaume Kosmicki


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