Kimmo Pohjonen: Whatever you do, just don't call it a squeezebox

Louise Gray meets an improvising accordion player a million miles from 'La Vie en Rose'

Thursday 23 January 2014 05:05
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Nothing can quite prepare the unwary for Kimmo Pohjonen. Detractors might say that the Finnish musician is only making up for all the bad press accordionists have had, and it's tempting – bearing in mind the hordes who have been terrorised by café renditions of "La Vie en Rose" – to hear them out. But Pohjonen is different. Wrestling with a vast five-row chromatic accordion that's hooked up to some effective digital effects, he's a performer whose blend of virtuosity and resolute experimentation is routinely likened to that of Jimi Hendrix or Laurie Anderson.

British audiences will get a chance to experience Pohjonen's sound this month when the Finn returns to Britain – his Kluster show was one of the star attractions of David Bowie's Meltdown festival in London earlier this year – with Kalmuk. Performed alongside electro-percussionists Samuli Kosminen and Abdissa "Mamba" Assefa and 15 members of the Tapiola Sinfonietta, one of Europe's best-known chamber orchestras, Kalmuk is probably Pohjonen's most ambitious project yet. Named after the southern Russian tribe and taking its inspiration from a painting by artist Martii Innanen ("It's naive in style, I suppose, but there's an extraordinary weirdness about it. I love it," Pohjonen says), Kalmuk destroys the careful sonic placement that chamber music traditionally implies, and recreates it in a permanent flux, visually and structurally.

Pohjonen knew that his ideasmight arouse opposition in the Sinfonietta. "I told the manager a year before we began work that I would want the musicians to move around, to improvise, to connect their own instruments to various electronic units," he says. "This way, those who felt that they couldn't work this way wouldn't feel compelled to do so."

In the event, half of the Sinfonietta opted out, but even so, he faced a certain amount of perplexity from the remaining members. "What was difficult for them to understand was that I didn't want to make the piece ready when we started rehearsals. I didn't write down notes for the musicians, so there was no question that we would play this way or that. I wanted to experiment, to play, if necessary, one section over and over, rather like a rock band may do. The process itself is the most interesting aspect of working with people. It was a continual trial and error, and little by little, any problems there were disappeared."

There was something more. "What I got from the Innanen painting – and I've taken into Kalmuk – is this idea that each of us has an animal part that no one else can see," Pohjonen says, moving onto shamanistic tradition, something that he researched while at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy. "That's a big part of Finnish culture, and one that's very much interesting to me. In the 1980s, I used to go to see a shamanistic theatre group in the north of Finland, and found it fascinating – I've read those books about people who eat mushrooms and bang drums to go really far away. I think it's also the same kind of method or situation."

Although Kalmuk may not take the theme of shamanistic transmogrification to the hairy-pelted conclusion that Björk reached in her video for the single "Hunter", Pohjonen was certainly aiming at wearing down the civilised veneer of the orchestra. "I know, it's not easy to be a beast on stage. You're aware of the audience. Sometimes you're ashamed of looking wild, but I've found that when you can go into the music somehow more deeply, when everything becomes intuitive, then you don't care how it looks. I love to watch the musicians in Kalmuk change their style of playing." He mimes the transition between a sedate violinist and a frenzied one. "I think it's good for them. And it's good for the audience to felt that energy coming out."

Manipulation, or transformation, is at the core of Pohjonen's music. (Indeed, he's recently based one five-hour show, Manipulator, on precisely that.) But this shouldn't imply that Kalmuk is one vast free-for-all. Its recordings demonstrate a piece that veers from full-on bombast to surprising delicacy. Carefully wrought arpeggios give way to clouds of electronic noise that dissipate with the same kind of harmonic delicacy of a Ligeti. And at all times, you are aware of a constant movement, rather like an orchestra on the march.

It would be more accurate to describe Kalmuk as a piece in progress. Its unclassifiability suits Pohjonen for it allows a certain freedom. "We've spoken about shamanism, getting access to the primitive, to this power of change. But change also means the same person doing different things. Maybe transformation is a word that says not-me any more. It's just a question of finding it and controlling access to it."

Kimmo Pohjonen and the Tapiola Sinfonietta's 'Kalmuk': RCNM, Manchester (0161 907 5278) Wednesday; Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (024 7652 4524), Thursday; All Saints Church, Newcastle (0191 4434 555), Saturday; Gardner Centre, Brighton (01273 709709), 4 Nov; QEH, London SE1 (020 79604201), 5 Nov. 'Kluster' is out on Rockadillo/BMG. 'Kalmuk' is out on CD (BMG) and DVD (Lilith) on Thursday

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