With the greatest of squeeze

Kimmo Pohjonen is on a genre-busting mission to drain the accordion of every last drop of music
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The Independent Culture

I don't often feel the need to check my life insurance policies before going to a concert, but the thought did cross my mind during a recent visit to the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell. I groped in vain, in the darkness, for the ejector button on my front row seat while, just inches away, Finland's answer to Keith Flint of the Prodigy wrestled with the writhing monster that emerged out of the red lights and smoke.

I don't often feel the need to check my life insurance policies before going to a concert, but the thought did cross my mind during a recent visit to the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell. I groped in vain, in the darkness, for the ejector button on my front row seat while, just inches away, Finland's answer to Keith Flint of the Prodigy wrestled with the writhing monster that emerged out of the red lights and smoke.

Suddenly the danger turned to exhilaration. I was transported into a strangely fascinating sound world. I was standing on a grey Finnish seashore, the seabirds crying as they circled above. Then I was shivering, surrounded by the sounds of strange insects creeping up the walls, before tears rolled down my cheeks as I heard the far- off strains of the saddest melody in the world. Accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen has a lot to answer for.

Yes I did say accordion, but this is no jolly squeezebox, pretty tunes and big smiles. The man who takes on a 15-kilo snarling beast - and wins - has a mission: to drain the accordion of every last drop of music and, in the process, to find a means of self-expression which unashamedly explores the whole gamut of human emotion.

Kimmo's compositional tools are his voice, his accordion and his electronic box of tricks, which enables him to sample and loop live, on stage, and interact with it via the quadraphonic sound system.

In Helsinki last weekend, Kimmo directed the Tapiola Sinfonietta, one of the most respected chamber orchestras in Nordic countries. They were taking part in a project in which Kimmo will prove that there's life beyond the music stand.Not that it was part of his mission to put a cat among the orchestral pigeons. The idea came from Satu Angervo, manager of the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

At first Kimmo wasn't keen: "My way to do music is so different," he told me. "I compose mainly without notes, with lots of improvising, using a sound system, effects, lighting and so forth. My style seemed incompatible with that of an orchestra. But I got an idea. Why not try it so that the orchestra could be presented like my solo concerts? After all the accordion is often said to be an orchestra in one instrument. Because of my folk, rock and classical backgrounds, my musical language is very different, so I realised that actually it would be interesting to cooperate with one of the best classical orchestras in Finland, to find new sounds from the classical instruments.

"I decided to try something nobody has done before with a symphony orchestra, - to find new sounds using sound system and effects, playing improvised music together with orchestrated music, performing without a score, using good lighting and so on. Two percussionists from the Finnish experimental rock scene also make a significant contribution to the project. I wanted to make a symphony that would raise eyebrows, including my own!"

Eyebrows shot up early on, when Kimmo suggested that the violin might sound better if the musician ran while he played. "They have to be ready to do different things, even if they seem strange." Kimmo mentioned a few of his wilder ideas before they started, so that the more "conservative" players could pull out. "I didn't want to waste valuable time and energy trying to persuade, convince or teach reluctant players. Half of them stayed, and that was perfect for me!"

Kimmo let them use music stands for early rehearsal but, as the concerts approached, they disappeared. "At first they didn't realise why it is so important. But I believe that the players in the orchestra hear each other differently when they don't have the stands - each player expresses him or herself better. When one plays without scores, the energies emerge and flow much easier. We can then transfer that energy from stage to audience."

Kimmo speaks from personal experience. He trained as a classical accordionist at the Helsinki Conservatoire, having grown up in a small Finnish town playing folk accordion in local clubs. Towards the end of his course he happened to go along to a concert given by students of the Folk Music Department at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy. It hit him like a thunderbolt that he was missing out. "I was playing from scores eight hours a day but it wasn't coming from my heart. Classical training was about rules; how you should play, and shouldn't. It took me years in the Folk Music Department to realise that the main thing is to improvise. You do the feelings and try to forget those rules."

Kimmo's work with the orchestra is not about a musician from one area experimenting with others from a different background. He believes he's offering them a chance - of freedom of expression. Lying on the floor, talking to their instruments, playing standing up... these are all things to help them discover new things about themselves.

Player Jukka Rantamäki was one of the adventurous ones, game for anything. "Playing with a microphone attached to our instruments wasn't new," he says, "but hearing the result not only amplified but also delayed, looped and sampled, that was something we hadn't done before."

Will this project have any long-term effect on the orchestra?

"For sure, but not suddenly. The week after Kalmukki, we are playing our Mozart symphonies the way we'd play them anyway, but as these different experiences accumulate in years to come, I hope it will give us new tools to improve both the audible result and the work done inside the orchestra."

And what about the audience for the concerts at Helsinki's Savoy Theatre? While Kimmo and the orchestra had a good time, wasn't there a danger that an audience might be just an eavesdropper?

"In this kind of 'crossover' project, there is always the danger that you only scratch the surface of what's possible. If we go deeper, the audience picks up on it. Positive or negative, both are good. I hope they have an experience with different feelings, as our weather in Finland. Beautiful, soft, warm, windy, ice-cold, light, dark, friendly, ugly, harsh, colourful, mysterious..."

Kimmo Pohjonen appears on 'Later with Jools Holland' tonight at 11.05pm on BBC 2. Fiona Talkington presents Radio 3's 'Late Junction', which is currently featuring Pohjonen's CD, 'Kielo'.

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