In the Spotlight

WoW – what a sound!

The groundbreaking folk wind ensemble Wind on Wind will surprise even wind music sceptics with their versatile music.

© AJ Savolainen

“The sounds of the flutes flow through my heart. The minimalist nature of the music, the wealth of emotions, the unique sound of each flute and the rich palette of the ensemble playing – they transport me to a mindscape where scintillating waters roar, trill, burble, whisper and ripple. I have the space and the time to be, to listen.”

Wind on Wind is an ensemble of seven folk wind instrumentalists. Their debut album Sees was released last autumn and features different flutes and whistles. The Finnish word ‘sees’ refers to calm water or air and being tranquil, and together with the English meaning of the word it seems to suit the ensemble, which draws on tradition and, at the same time, strives to renew it.

On the instrument’s terms

“These wind instruments have a fairly limited dynamic range. A solo flute is good for expressing a lot of emotion, as the sound is made through breathing, and the player’s state of mind is easily heard through the playing. It’s impossible to create harmonies or a huge pianissimo or fortissimo with just one flute – but seven flutes can do just that!” says Kirsi Ojala, the founder and leader of the ensemble.

“Wind instruments are usually heard together with other instruments. There’s a lot of solo playing, too. In 2010, as part of my studies at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, I started a project where I made arrangements for folk wind instrument ensembles. I wanted to let the instruments speak and to use their specific properties and possibilities as a starting point. I was interested in discovering the sound worlds and rhythmic possibilities created through combining different flutes, horns, reed instruments and jaw harps.” 

She invited wind players from the Department as well as some alumni to join in. Those who had the time and the interest to participate came together to form the group. The project culminated in a concert in March 2011 but left all involved with a desire to continue this groundbreaking work with wind music. However, the subject matter had to be defined more clearly. “This album explores the combined sounds of different flutes. Other types of instruments such as the liru, mänkeri and different horns will still have to wait their turn,” says Ojala. 

Let all the flowers bloom

“The oldest flute in the world was discovered in Germany and dates back 30,000 years. Over the centuries, an insane amount of flutes of different size, shape, material, sound and volume have been in use,” says Ojala. “Each flute is unique, with its own universe of sounds. In addition, each player – then and now – has their own style and way of playing. I find all this beautiful and interesting, but sometimes wonder whether it’s a cause or a consequence that the Finnish wind music tradition is so scattered and obscure. Not even researchers have shown any particular interest in these shepherd instruments or instrument-like signalling devices. There is not a lot of recorded material around. What this means to a player is that there are virtually no stylistic ideals or playing styles to model against. You have to use your own imagination and combine things in a creative way!”

Imagination was certainly required when finding repertoire for wind band. As there is no pre-existing tradition in Finland or even in the neighbouring regions, one had to be developed!

Organic beats and ancient vibrations

“We discovered good polyphonic material for flutes from the Ingrian runo singing tradition, where the choir responds to a lead singer’s verse by varying it slightly each time. Wind players have traditionally borrowed repertoire from fiddle players and singers,” explains Ojala. 

Wind on Wind’s repertoire includes several runo singing melodies, some of which give the uncanny impression of seven women, each with a sound of their own, gossiping by the village roadside, whereas other tunes have such a meditative feel that the album Sees could easily justify the subtitle ‘A portable forest inside the CD covers’. Perhaps this is why the album sounds so distinctly Finnish. The tunes range from Fenno-Ugrian traditions to material from the Laguna Pueblo Indians. They display playful organic beats as well as ancient vibrations. The only new composition on the album is Flowers in Chaos by Stephan Micus. All in all, this is music that you will either fall in love with or not get at all!

To blossom or to bloom?

Time will tell what the next step will be. It can be problematic to organise schedules and funding for an ensemble of seven.

“The aim is to present and develop our music on a wider scale. We keep discovering new possibilities, new sounds and new combinations of sounds to immerse ourselves in.”

In Finland and other Nordic countries, there are only a handful of experts in folk wind instruments, and the number of instrument builders is even smaller – hence the low recognition of the genre. The players of Wind on Wind are true pioneers in the field. “We meet people who are interested and appreciative, but also those who genuinely question the credibility of these kinds of instruments. Although I have to say that question sometimes enters my mind, too,” Ojala laughs.

The answer is in the music of Wind on Wind. It needs no justification. It sings and flows through your heart.

Amanda Kauranne is a music journalist and folk singer who gets teary when hearing music that breathes.

 This article was orginally published on FMQ issue 1/2014

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