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Kimmo Pohjonen Kimmo Pohjonen
photo Prudence Upton
AS FINNISH BUTTON-ACCORDIONIST KIMMO POHJONEN STRIDES ONTO THE ANGEL PLACE STAGE IN PSEUDO-SAMURAI WRAPAROUND TROUSERS AND SLEEVELESS VEST, HIS HEAD SHAVED SAVE FOR THE WISPY HINT OF A MOHAWK, I WONDER IF WE ARE ABOUT TO EXPERIENCE THE AWKWARD HYBRID OF ‘CLASSICAL MUSICIAN GONE PUNK.’ (I’M REMINDED OF HIPSTER VIOLIN VIRTUOSO NIGEL KENNEDY WHO HAS ALSO JUST TOURED AUSTRALIA.) PERHAPS THE POHJONEN PERSONA MAKES ME SLIGHTLY LESS SQUEAMISH BECAUSE, DESPITE THE PRESENTATION IN A MAJOR CONCERT HALL, THE ACCORDION ITSELF HAS ITS OWN PROTO-PUNK ASSOCIATIONS—YOU CAN’T GET ANY MORE DIY THAN FOLK MUSIC. AND THE SOUND OF ACCORDION, FOR MANY, INSTANTLY CONJURES ROMANTIC PROJECTIONS OF SOCIETY’S OUTCASTS—GYPSIES, CIRCUS FOLK AND CARNIE FREAKS.

Pohjonen starts with some lyrical material illustrating his technique but very rapidly spikes and jagged edges appear, cascades of dissonance erupting as though his hands are misbehaving. From the moment he commences he is completely physically animated, his nuggetty arms pumping the bellows, feet stomping on effects pedals as he rocks back and forth, getting more and more maniacal as he builds his crescendos and walls of sound.

Working with sound designer Jukka Kaven, the essentially unidirectional output is amplified and spatialised. He has an impressive rig of pedals for delays, looping, pitch shifting and other magics. Many of Pohjonen’s compositions are based on presenting a simple phrase which he captures and loops in realtime, successively layering loop upon loop until he has built an epic orchestral squall. While this is impressive technically, and sonically—we witness the piece in the making—the results become structurally predictable (a problem for many musicians using additive looping techniques).

Pohjonen is most invigorating in his integration of extended instrumental techniques. In one piece he starts with the sound of the bellows of the accordion, a deep soughing and sighing, which he then overlays with a patina of rhythms and patterns drummed on the body of the instrument. To this he adds vocalisations—earlier in the concert he has begun to sing along with himself, but more in the way you might do when you practice, a sub-vocal search through the material—now he is exploring his voice as an instrument with mouth clicks, hisses, slurps and yelps. As his voice turns edgier, he discards the accordion, supported only by the looping of his drone like chanting. Now he is standing, performing some kind of liturgical dance, slapping his forehead, beating his chest. As he moves around the stage, a story is being told, but of what—a battle hymn? Summoning of ancient spirits? The lighting is similarly dramatic, with strong colours and patterned gobos speckling the blond wood interior of Angel Place. Pohjonen obviously takes his music very seriously, but is it my cynicism that makes me suspect some kind of parodic intention behind this showiness or is he earnestly trying to conjure a contemporary hybrid shaman?

Sometimes when watching musicians utilising extended techniques, I begin to question the idea of instrument—perhaps this is a mindset that can be applied to any material—someone playing the bass may just as easily be exploring the sonorities of a chair with the same intensity and generating interesting results. Kimmo Pohjonen is undoubtedly virtuosic on his chosen instrument and his explorations of the accordion through its materiality and its electronic augmentation make his work challenging and genuinely entertaining. After extended listening though, I can’t help thinking about what he could do with a chair.


Kimmo Pohjonen, sound design Jukka Kaven, lighting Ari Valo Vitanen; City Recital Hall Angel Place, Jan 18; Sydney Festival 2008

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 47

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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