I reviewed here the most recent album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat. Following that review, Stakula, the band’s leader, kindly agreed to an interview, offering some insights into the processes behind the music.
Valta is an addition to what by now is a substantial body of work, and Alamaailman Vasarat has established a distinctive sound. Has anything changed on this album compared to previous releases?
The most obvious changes were in the lineup. Before the Valta sessions, our new drummer Santeri Saksala had already performed with the band for a year, much to our enjoyment. The live performances really tightened up and had a whole new level of energy. In the Valta sessions, his knowledge and passion for the drums as instruments made a huge difference to album sound, not forgetting some of the most memorable improvised moments, like in the opening track “Riistomaasiirtäjä”. His contribution has made a huge impact in the overall sound of the band and we’re very happy to have him on board.
The most difficult move was the second lead change from trombone to trumpet/alto horn in the middle of the Valta sessions, sometime during March 2012. Jarkko Niemelä joined the band with background in classical, jazz and Balkan music – just a perfect combination of skills for the band. He learned and recorded all the new songs unbelievably quickly and we were able to keep the original release timetable. Now, after performing with Jarkko at several gigs all around, also the older songs have a new life with sparkling trumpet leads. This is certainly a Vasarat version II, so much has changed for the better in a very short time.
To understand Valta better, I need to go back a little bit: Huuro Kolkko, the album before Valta, released in 2009, was a concept piece with a complex storyline going through the whole thing. While interesting way to do music and we’re most happy with the end result, we didn’t want to repeat that all over again. But we didn’t just want to make a random collection of songs either.
So, Valta does have a concept, but it’s more ideological and less linear. Valta is a musical study about valta (a Finnish word for “power”) from several angles. Tyranny is one aspect of it and heavily present in the songs like “Riistomaasiirtäjä” and “Hirmuhallinto”. More subtle, but ancient power is found in dreams, legends and stories like Henkipatto and Hajakas. There’s also a lot of emotional power in everyday life of the ordinary people. Their joys and griefs are highlighted in songs like “Haudankantaja” and “Uurnilla”. But like most Alamaailman Vasarat albums, Valta gives the listener a lot of room to interpret the songs freely, maybe totally differently than what we originally thought. And that is the power of instrumental music.
In our thoughts, we always return to our imaginary country Vasaraasia, (name of our debut album from 2000), and in some way Valta is also the partial history of that place, a combination of short stories about how power has affected Vasaraasian people in the past and today. Valta may also be a prelude to fundamental change in Vasaraasia, maybe a prelude to the next album, we’ll see!
That combination of having something to say but also leaving listeners to weave their own stories from the music itself is interesting. I get the sense from all of your work to date that on the one hand you like to build ideas around your music, to create stories and conceits that frame the albums, yet on the other hand you sound as if you just take sheer delight in a great tune for its own sake. How does that balance out when you are composing? Do the ideas come before, after, or with the music?
As a long-time fan of movies, sci-fi and fantasy literature, etc. I’m always thinking about some sort of setting right from the start. It’s a natural way of composing for me and I suppose other band members may have picked up that technique along the way too, during these past 16 years. When I’m humming a melody in my head, I picture myself in an imaginary movie, sometimes as the main character, sometimes just an observer. Melody itself may lead to many changes in this imaginary settings and new ideas when it comes to arranging.
Orchestration and arranging are in many ways the most important things in Alamaailman Vasarat music production. All the instruments we have at our disposal are very flexible and we like to experiment with different music styles all the time, often combining them even in the same song. Also, because the music we do is instrumental, we don’t have to follow that many rules when it comes to song structures. Imaginary settings also free us to think outside the box and let the vision flow. All you need is a strong composition, everything else is open for discussion!
Given what you have said about how you compose, it seems as if video would be a natural medium for you, and there was some video work accompanying some of your earlier pieces. Is that something you plan to explore more in the future?
Yes, we’ve done some music videos in the past, starting with “Kebab tai henki!” which was shot in B&W 8mm in Helsinki and also “Violence trilogy”, featuring three music videos shot in B&W 16mm in Prague. All of those were sort of like silent short movies, scored by Alamaailman Vasarat. We even approached the whole projects like movies, starting with a proper script and all.
The funniest thing was when we were making “Kebab tai henki!”. The director called me and said that they had some good footage left but the song was too short to fit the footage in. I called Marko, our cellist, and we went to the rehearsal room to compose an additional part for the song. The director was kind of surprised but very pleased! The video got much better and the extra part is now permanently part of the song.
We’ve been thinking about doing videos like these more in the future, but it’s a question of funding and time. We’re big fans of grainy film which makes these productions much more expensive compared to shooting digital. But we’ll see, maybe it happens in the future!
Does the emphasis on setting extend to the physical setting in which the music is made? I gather there’s a story connected with the recent album involving a tower and some wine…
Yes, recently we’ve been experimenting with some unusual sound techniques. For the outro of “Hirmuhallinto”, the last track of the latest album Valta, I envisioned a water dropper which could act as a rhythmic background for the other instruments. It turned out even better when the band guys built it – we got a good sound out of a special metallic box which was hit by liquid drops from some four meters up, gradually slowing down as the liquid ran out in a very natural way. After testing, we found out that only using red wine as the liquid gave the right kind of sound. It also really opened up the wine!
Natural, slightly random elements during the recording process may give the music some unexpected and fresh feeling. They will also create great memories and make the sessions more special. I’m sure we will try these weird techniques out more in the future!
I sense in your compositions and in your comments both a joy in music and a seriousness about music. What would you say music is for? Why is it so important?
Hard question! Well, I don’t really know if anything is really “for” anything, but certainly music has an important role in defining human emotion in an abstract and untouchable way. Yes, it is based on movement of air, but still music triggers something in our minds which is way deeper than just physics or mere numbers. I believe as long as there are random elements in music and the path from a vague musical idea to listener’s ear is a surprising journey, music will stay important!
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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