Arctic History
Early Avant-Gardening in Northeastern Europe before the Onset of Global Warming by Jukka Lindfors


After 40 years, it’s about time a rough guide to the recorded history of the early experimental/underground music in Finland was sketched. In 1961, the most radical Finnish music was produced in an experimental studio in rural southwestern Finland – that is, the bedroom of young student M. A. Numminen in his childhood home in Somero. That year, together with his friends (Tommi Parko and Pekka Kujanpää) who were also fascinated by contemporary electronic music and free jazz, Numminen recorded the first ever Finnish piece of musique concrète, Eleitä kolmelle röyhtäilijälle (Gestures for Three Belchers, featured on the compilation Arktinen hysteria, Love Records, 2001) which wasn’t released until 1967. Modern art is often accused of being difficult to grasp, but at least Eleitä, literally belched with the aid of fizzy mineral water, unfolds with exemplary ease.

In addition to singing Schubert’s lieds in a decidedly out-of-tune voice resembling that of a sheep, Numminen shocked the friends of high-brow culture in 1964 by participating in the Academic Cultural Competition, using an electronic, voice-modifying singing-machine in his solo vocal performance. Advanced as it was, unfortunately the bleepy gadget didn’t do much to enhance Numminen’s voice, even if the singer actually felt there was some room for improvement. In order to develop his equipment further, he turned to his friend Erkki Kurenniemi.

Kurenniemi had been an active participant in the earlier happening-type of concerts that had caused a great deal of general puzzlement. These had been arranged since late 1962 by Helsinki-based Suomen Musiikkinuoriso, a group of critics and composers (Erkki Salmenhaara, Henrik Otto Donner, Ilpo Saunio, Kaj Chydenius and Kari Rydman among others) who had a background in serious music and no connection to the Somero belchers. Improvisation, the use of chance and collage now became virtues. The happenings witnessed people playing grand pianos prepared with screws and nails, kicking the bottom of a piano, sowing peas in the audience, packing an iron and books in a suitcase or sunning themselves in the street. Musicians might play different solo concertos simultaneously – or whatever took their fancy. Noise was accepted as music, and so was silence: the group’s debut concert in December 1962 included a performance of John Cage’s famous four and a half minute portrayal of silence.

Electronic music, inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen et al, had been produced in Finland as early as in 1960 (the first compilation of early 60's tapes, called On-Off, will be released soon by the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art as part of Petri Kuljuntausta’s book of the same name). However, as a technical innovator and visionary Kurenniemi was a pioneer. In 1962 he started to build an experimental studio in a book storage room of the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki, and in 1964 he built his first synthesizer which took up a couple of square metres of floor space and had components salvaged from a local scrapdealer. Instead of the pure sine wave sounds often favoured in electronic music, Kurenniemi was interested in the square wave that, in practice, sounded like a distorted guitar. No wonder his invention was also applied in rock music.

He also helped composer Erkki Salmenhaara to edit and put together the first record containing Finnish electronic music, Information Explosion, that was made as a background loop for the Man in Society Pavilion of the 1967 Montreal Expo. Four years prior to that, Salmenhaara had already staged the first ever piece of Finnish live electronics, a concerto for two electric violins, which was described as “raw-sounding”. In his writings, he advocated the “impurity” of music, and was also interested in the underground music of the late 60's. With Information Explosion Salmenhaara made a conscious effort to avoid the typical sterility of electronic music by “sampling” various records representing the “information explosion” – a popular concept even before satellite television and the Internet.

Noisy machines
M. A. Numminen pursued his involvement with serious music by commissioning Kurenniemi to build him the Sähkökvartetti (Electric Quartet) machine which would enable live performances of electronic music. The “electric violin” of the contraption consisted of one potentiometer. The frequency of the “melody machine” was regulated by covering its photo-resistors with a piece of rubber. The “electric drums” which could also be played manually had a sequencer that repeated different rhythm patterns. In addition to a microphone, the singer was given an aluminium stick, and by closing its photo-resistors he could switch on various filters and distortion circuits. The whole repertoire of the group using this appliance consisted of only one piece, varying in length, called Kaukana väijyy ystäviä (Far Away Lurk Friends). At the 1968 International Youth Festival in Bulgaria, it didn’t take very long for a considerable part of the audience to walk out of the 4,000 capacity concert hall after being subjected to the tormenting wail of the gadget!

Kurenniemi used the Andromatic device he had built for a Swedish studio to record some of his own music in 1968. He reckoned people found electronic music, accused of being “lifeless”, strange only because it was a product of a culture alien to them. Kurenniemi imagined that mechanic, human-like beings, capable of dancing, could produce something resembling Antropoidien tanssi (The Dance of the Anthropoids). This early piece of bleepy dance music only gained wider recognition in 1970 when an excerpt of it ended up on Wigwam’s Tombstone Valentine album. That is why Antropoidien tanssi is the only piece of his ouvre (totalling not more than about a dozen compositions) that he gets the occasional PRS cheque for.

In 1970, Kurenniemi also completed his Digital Music Instrument synthesizer. It was a box, approximately 50 cm in length and depth and 20 cm high, that produced sounds when the connection strips on its cover were touched with metal pins. Unlike older sequencers, this clumsy piece of equipment even had memory units. It could store one hundred commands, so in practice only two or three bars at a time could reside in its memory. Later models were controlled by, for example, a video camera (Dimi-O), touch (Dimi-S, also known as Sexophone) or brain impulses (Dimi-E). The a-side of the record released by the small label Musica to promote Dimi started with Bach’s two-part inventions and finished with an improvised “outvention”, i.e. free electronics, in the midst of which the inventor of the machine can be heard roaring.

Sounds from sauna
The notorious underground band The Sperm, whose performances repeatedly violated osbcenity laws, debuted with Eteenpäin! in 1968. The untitled mini-album contained, in addition to the grunts and screams of the singer, weird neurotic noises, knocking, chafing and guitar sounds treated beyond recognition with tape echo, etc. All this had been created in the studio that the groups’s chief composer Pekka Airaksinen had built in his small sauna hut. Airaksinen created long psychedelic delays by playing an electric guitar through a tape recorder plugged into an amplifier and by further interconnecting tape recorders . The equipment was left constantly switched on because someone might accidentally kick a guitar lying on the floor and make an interesting sound. Mistakes were allowed, and even hoped for: a couple of years later, the self-financed Shh! album (re-released on CD in the late 90’s by Airaksinen’s Dharmakustannus imprint) had a 16 minute opening track called Heinäsirkat I (Crickets I) whose background rumble was actually feedback. The chirping cricket sounds were discovered when Airaksinen accidentally cross-connected the microphone and line input cables.

The Terry Riley/Andy Warhol type of repetition favoured by The Sperm was epitomized on visual artist J. O. Mallander’s solo single 1962/1968 from 1968. The tracks featured vote-counters repeating “Kekkonen”, the name of the overwhelming winner the presidential elections in 62 an 68, over and over again. Mallander also pioneered scratching on his Decompositions ep (Love, 1970) on which he deconstructed well-known jazz recordings by deliberately jumping the needle of the record player and looping key parts of the songs.

The Sperm withered away in the early 70's, partly due to the court cases brought against the group, but Airaksinen continued to work on his own projects. The album One Point Music, released in 1973 on his own O-records, contained e.g. sounds of raindrops. Both the level of the technology of the time and the working methods of Airaksinen are characterized by the fact that the background tape to Pieni sienikonsertto (A Little Mushroom Concerto), produced at the Department of Musicology, contains inadvertent backward sections that the composer eventually found quite agreeable. On the back sleeve of the record, critic Ilpo Saunio compares Airaksinen to contemporary giants like Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Gottfried Koenig etc. However, in actual fact Airaksinen stood closer to popular music, rock and jazz. Even at its most meditative, his music had the pulse of Afro-American rhythm music – it might have been faint, but it was there.

This rhythmic undercurrent is conspicuous on the recordings which were made in 1972–75 and released in the late 90’s under the name Gandhi-Freud by Dharmakustannus. The electronic dance music or rock of this duo consisted of synthesizer pieces, dedicated to different elements and vitamins (A, B, E, etc), whose titles remain exceptionally concise and to the point. Their music had a totally different attack, edge and rhythm than the acoustic and more aleatoric “green” free jazz played by the contemporaneous Samsa-trio, which Airaksinen was also a member of. In addition to Gandhi and Freud, the group could easily have sworn in the name of Howling Wolf, or Velvet Underground.

Punk and bleeps
Even if much of the late 70's punk rhetoric was directed against the preceding generation, many new wave names had roots in progressive rock and were interested in musical experimentation. In 1977 Kari Peitsamo made his breakthrough with simple and funny Jonathan Richman-type of pop songs. The next year Love Records released his Puinen levy (Wooden Disc; included on the 1993 re-release cd Kari Kolmas – Puinen levy). The ep showed that besides Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles, he was also influenced by John Cage and Ornette Coleman. The majority of Finnish rock fans failed to interpret his lazy one-chord guitar, heavily pounded cluster chords on piano and screeching out-of-tune violin as an extreme but logical form of punk and regarded the record as a questionable joke or a plain freak-out; only about 124 copies of the record were sold. The following double album Kari Peitsamo & Ankkuli (also re-released on cd by Love in 1997) featured a track inspired by Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, on which the artist abused three overdubbed pianos, but in the 80's Peitsamo returned to the traditional minimalism of three-chord rock.

Self-financed records were a perfect vehicle for the most elemental dormant talent. They were a manifestation of the fact that Finnish punk was not only about a certain type of music, but also an attitude that permitted one to record practically anything. Nokia-based group Yhtye’s remarkably compact Apatian tanssi (Dance of Apathy) (1979) consisted of 55 seconds of kick drum.

The Tornio group Aavikon Kone ja Moottori’s Karavaani (Caravan; included on the compilation cd The Golden Greats of IKBAL, Bad Vugum, 1995) was, in 1979, one of the first DIY records of the punk era and didn’t fit the common conceptions of punk at all. The repetitive tinkle of the small yellow plastic WASP synthesiser that went on throughout the record was provocative in its monotony, though the absence of vocals was originally a technical blunder. The cosmic sound of Karavaani that emphasizes the record’s theme of longing for faraway places was produced in a sauna by directing sound through metal pipes. Their second single Rakkaudella sinulle (To You with Love) presented innovations like a “post-Gregorian” choir repeating the word “motor”, and a relay beating against a bird cage which, after echo treatment, sounded like a motor being turned on. Even though the trio’s leader Läjä Äijälä is better known for the hardcore punk of the legendary Terveet Kädet, AKJM were inspired by Dada, M. A. Numminen’s Sähkökvartetti and the new British synth scene from Human League to Throbbing Gristle.

Cassette noise
Finland entered the world of international cassette culture in the early 80's when a few mainly tape- producing avant-garde units emerged. The catalogue of the Power imprint (no relation to the Lahti-based record company of the same name), which was founded in 1982 and operated from a studio built into a swimming pool in eastern Helsinki, leaned towards synth pop tinged with some sort of humour.

Finland’s first alternative cassette imprint Valtavat Ihmesilmälasit Records modernized the 60's notion of “tape music” with about 20 titles that it released in 1980–82. They were definitely lo-fi with a lot of noise and boasted artwork that had been photocopied on a machine probably made in Uzbekistan. Normally 10 to 20 copies were made of each tape; occasionally even as many as 40 (excerpts on the Pilottilasit – Samples from Helsinki Underground 1981–1987 compilation, N&B Research Digest, 2000). Behind the numerous pseudonyms hid a group called Swissair, six schoolmates who had, already at 15 or 16, become bored with punk and rock music in general and focused on PiL, Residents, Cabaret Voltaire and Peitsamo’s Puinen levy instead. Swissair’s suggestive buzz or drone was mainly produced with distorted guitars. The group’s first and only synth was a Soviet-manufactured FAEMI that cost 200 Finnish marks and sounded like a toy instrument. Many tapes from that era sound as if people have just decided to press the rec button and see what will happen. On Urban Hell Trio’s tape two separate sessions were accidentally overdubbed. The Uusittu Pak project recorded children playing games and toy instruments. There was also a plan for selling chunks of concrete by mail order.

Harri Tuominen’s first synth experiment was the Kuvio Ski (Figure Ski) cassette (Valtavat, 1981) recorded on two tape machines that had noise levels of epic proportions. The slightly more mature Tuominen had become interested in electronic music in the early 70's and had also played in a new wave band called Vessel Umpio who released an EP called Seppo on viilee (Seppo is Chilly) on the Johanna label in 1981. Kuvio Ski proves how easy it was even for an amateur to get sounds out of a synthesizer: in addition to guitar and collage sounds, there are many lovely and peaceful atmospheric sequences based on overlong notes. A self-financed cassette Orient Henna (1985) packed in a shampoo carton features an opening collage called Lippukunta (The Brigade) that starts with a rhythm machine and noise from Soviet radiowaves.

However, the early 80's avant-garde wasn’t only put out by eccentric characters on their crude DIY recordings but by established records companies, too. One of the signings of the experimental Q sub-label of the now extinct Discophon was Argon, another duo whose art was based on scientific experiments conducted at the Department of Musicology. Argon, who eventually metamorphosed into the comedy synth pop group Organ, already showed signs of their wisecrack leanings on their untitled debut album (1981); one of the tracks included the “Applesoft computer program” that sounded like uncomprehensible wailing when played on an ordinary record player.

During those years, many former punks were looking for a new direction. One of the many extraordinary acts on Johanna, the label that carried on the rock traditions of Love Records, were Vaaralliset Lelut, founded by multi-artist Jyrki Siukonen and critic Jukka Mikkola, both sincere fans of John Cage and Peitsamo. Their acoustic instruments, uncommon in the avant-garde of the time, included flute, violin, spinet, saxophone, melodica, triangel, bells and other percussion, as well as “impulsive sounds”. Lelut didn’t always come up with clearly defined songs. They produced sound beds - simple repeated melody lines or dub-style dance tracks - but did record some strangely attractive pop songs too. Their chosen genre was carefree dilentantism. In 1981–82 Johanna released no less than three albums by the group, and in 1984 Power compiled a cassette called Hedelmiä (Fruit) out of their unreleased material. The track Aarteenetsintää (Treasure Hunt), is experimental music in the literal meaning of the word: “produced without a goal or a plan, just to test the new studio”.

From the 1980's onwards
From the 1980's onwards the output of avant-garde in general increased manyfold due to the emergence of small labels and techno, etc. Beside the electric output of acts like Pan Sonic, Deep Turtle, Ektroverde et al, the 1993 classic Rakkaus rinnassa (Love in the Chest) by Keuhkot proudly represents the more unusual, unplugged avant-garde. This one man group became known for its unique noise that has been described as “meta-musical art mangled by lung cancer or tuberculosis” and “no-wave techno cabaret performed by mentally ill Turks”. Past Keuhkot live gigs have included a miracle cure show, a cabbage soup cook-out and an idle attempt at growing a plant in a pot – a project that went on from one gig to another. Re-released on the Keuhkot CD Mitä otat mukaan sivistyksestä (What Do You Take Along With You When Leaving Civilization Behind; Bad Vugum, 1996), Rakkaus rinnassa at first sounds like consumption, but the coughing sound is in fact a sneeze - itching and allergy form the piece’s frame of reference. In the recording session the group could only produce one successful sneeze which then had to be replicated. The track is an elegant continuation of the Human Voice in Music series of musique concrète which M. A. Numminen & co started back in 1961 with their recorded belches.

The article is based on a series broadcast in 1999 in the Avaruusromua programme of Radiomafia/Finnish Broadcasting Co. The author has compiled the CD Arktinen hysteria (Love Records) released this autumn, featuring tracks by M. A. Numminen, Sähkökvartetti, Erkki Salmenhaara, Erkki Kurenniemi, J. O. Mallander, The Sperm, Pekka Airaksinen, and many others.

Pekka Airaksinen and Keuhkot will perform live at Avanto club in Gloria on 9th November. The author of the article will play as DJ maisteri Lindfors at the same event. Erkki Salmenhaara’s Information Explosion can be heard as part of Ian Helliwell’s Expo World at Kiasma on 11th November.