Friday, June 15, 2007

Spoleto 5: Jojking and epic.

If you are not familiar with jojk (or yoik) singing from Finnish Samiland, then you might have been just as surprised as many of the folks in the audience at the Westminster Choir concert at Spoleto at the sound of Veljo Tormis's setting of "Raua needmine" from the Kalevala.

Let me back up.

The Westminster Choir gave two concerts in St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, and we saw the second one. The program was mostly contemporary music from the Scandinavian and Baltic (read: diacritical-rich) region of Europe: pieces by Alfrēds Kalņiš, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Trond Kverno, Veljo Tormis, and (surprised?) Johannes Brahms. Mäntyjärvi's setting of "Ave Maria" was powerful, with the women's voices whispering prayers while the men sang. And Kverno's "Ave Maris Stella" seemed to gesture in sonically rich ways to chant traditions of early music. Beautiful stuff.

But it was Estonian composer Veljo Tormis' Raua needmine, or "Curse upon iron," was the real knock-out for me. He composed this piece in 1972 against the evils of war, and it was banned by the Soviet government. The piece opened with an abrupt "HWAET!" from the kamchatka, which was some kind of percussion instrument played with a large padded hammer. It scared the living daylights out of the people sitting in front of me, but trust me: it was one of the more suitable epic openings I have heard. Then a number of male voices began to jojk.

Saami folk music is called jojk and is a singing style where melody and verse are of equal importance. Jojk is improvised while singing and can express feelings of sorrow, hate or love. To sing jojk means deeply identifying yourself with someone or something.

Saami nåjd sang jojk and drummed to reach religious ecstasy. Consequently, the church looked on jojk as "the song of the Devil" and banned it well into the 1900s.

Today, Saami musicians still practice traditional jojk but with the accompaniment of instruments. Often their playing is flavored with influences from western music.

Jojk performed in a church! I first encountered this style of singing from Wimme Saari, who often records just as Wimme. His music has a striking combination of this very traditional form of singing with electronic music--and it is absolutely addictive.

All this to say: Tormis' setting of a piece of the Kalevala, usually considered the Finnish national epic, was fabulous. Listening to it, I started to understand in a way I had not before what it might have been like to listen to other epic poems--poems that gave people a sense of what it meant to be them. The words of "Curse upon iron" object to the metal as "You spiller of innocent blood!," telling the story of the ore's (mythic) origins, and how it is shaped by "the forge of death," "hammer[ing] anger into iron." It is epic at its best, and so modern (don't forget the Kalevala was compiled in the 19th century, and I am guessing this version may update it even further):

Brand-new and up-to-date technology,
The ultimate word in electronics
Ready to fly in any direction,
Stay undeflected on its course, hit the target
Paralyze, and knock out of action, obliterate,
Render helpless and defenseless,
Harm and hurt, cause unknowable loss,
And kill, kill with iron and with steel,
With chromium, titanium, uranium, plotonium,
And with a multitude of other elements.
Ohoy, villain! Evil iron!

If only my Beowulf students could have been there!

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