|A surreal melding of man and music.|
Is there any instrument on the planet less hip than an accordion? That is, unless it’s in the hands of Kimmo Pohjonen, a Finnish musician and performance artist who has boldly taken the accordion places no one even thought of going before.
There was Earth Machine Music, a series of performances amid roaring engines on farms. (“Lock up your tractors! An electrifying concert with live farm machinery!”). And Accordion Wrestling, with Pohjonen providing accompaniment for body-slamming in the ring. And KTU, a collaboration with bass player and guitarist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto – better-known as the rhythm section of the prog-rock band King Crimson – that produced two albums and concert tours stretching from Moscow to Mexico City.
And in 2004, Uniko, a work developed with the Kronos Quartet that premiered in Helsinki, sold out three performances at the BAM Next Wave Festival in New York, and was recently released on DVD. Pohjonen will be reprising Uniko in Prague on Wednesday night with percussionist and longtime collaborator Samuli Kosminen and the Proton String Quartet, an ensemble from Finland.
Just don’t ask him to describe what it sounds like.
“I can’t put it in any box or categories,” he says. “The only thing I can say is, for me, it’s like Finnish weather. It can change a lot. It can sometimes be very nasty, and sometimes very beautiful. But otherwise, I can’t really describe it.”
This foray to the outer edges of the avant-garde had a surprisingly traditional beginning. Pohjonen picked up the accordion when was 10 years old, mostly at the behest of his father, who is also an accordionist. “We were in a small village where we would go to an accordion club, and I was the only young kid there, surrounded by older people playing music that old people like,” he recalls. “It was very uncool to be an accordion player at that time.”
So much so that Pohjonen eventually dropped the instrument to pursue studies in classical, folk and world music. But even musical sojourns to places like Tanzania and Argentina left him unsatisfied. Then, in the mid-’90s, he had an epiphany.
“I decided, I know the accordion best, I have to do something with it that pleases me,” he says. “So I turned to electronics and amplifiers, and started to manipulate the sound. And suddenly I heard so many great things I had never heard from that instrument! Then as I began composing my own music, I finally realized it’s worth playing.”
The electronics really took off on Pohjonen’s second album, Kluster, which he recorded with Samuli Kosminen.
“Samuli is a percussionist and electronics genius, and he had the idea to sample sounds from my accordion, then play them through his electronic drums,” Pohjonen says. “It was like having two accordion players on the record, but the other one is a percussion player. I was very excited about this idea.”
So was violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, who called Pohjonen after hearing his first album to suggest they do a project together. “I told him what I was doing with Samuli, and he said it would be great to do the same thing with strings,” Pohjonen says. “So Samuli and I started to compose some new pieces – I did most of the melodies and harmonies, and he did the manipulations for strings and accordion.”
The handful of live performances of Uniko were well-received, but the Kronos Quartet’s demanding schedule has made them hard to re-create. So Pohjonen finally decided to use another string ensemble.
“The two guys you can’t replace are Samuli and me,” he says. “It’s easier to replace the string quartet, because most of their parts are written. Samuli and I do a lot of improvisation, but other quartets can play the string music.”
And while Pohjonen may not be able to describe the music, he can tell you where it is likely to take you.
“My concerts are like a long journey inside to many things,” he says. “It’s so great to hear the stories afterward. Somebody tells you they thought of their mother, who died long ago. Somebody else was in hell, and it wasn’t so awful – it was red, but it wasn’t so awful, it was actually a pleasure. I think that’s a great thing, that we create something onstage, and you can create your own image in the audience, and have your own journey.”
And you don’t even need to bring the tractor.
To see the performance with the Kronos Quartet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o86Uh_5MoEw
For more on Uniko with the Proton String Quartet: http://www.kimmopohjonen.com/nav.php?url=proton.html
Photo: Marita Liulia