Typically, Finnish musicians succeed by doing something highly unusual exceptionally well. Guitarist Petri Kumela is different because he’s done all kinds of things exceptionally well: Bach, flamenco, microtonal avant-garde, Fernando Sor on a period guitar and musical theatre. The career of Finland’s most fascinating classical guitarist is based on a do-it-yourself spirit and curiosity.
This story may as well begin at Helsinki’s biggest sandy beach, Hietaranta, affectionately known as “Hietsu”. Petri Kumela read in a local paper that workrooms were available nearby. Within a few years he was leading Hietsu is Happening, a multi-genre arts festival at Hietsun Paviljonki (Hietsu Pavilion) with jazz musicians from the neighbouring studio, as well as the Classical Hietsu concert series.
But the story could start with the fact that Kumela wasn’t supposed to become a guitarist.
”Waiting for the entrance exams for the Mikkeli music academy, we were warned that it would be difficult to get in for piano lessons. So we ticked the box for guitar," he says.
Playing the guitar placed Kumela on a classical track, but as a teenager in eastern Finland he didn’t take it too seriously. During lessons, he played whatever he felt like, which was often not art music.
"Maybe the teacher there in Mikkeli could have pushed me a bit more toward serious classical repertoire, but at least he made me enjoy the classes, and all kinds of things happened pedagogically along with that."
In bands it always worked without sheet music. You listen to others, but invent your own part yourself. That’s helped me in chamber music
Kumela did do all sorts of things, but mostly on electric guitar. He played in bands that he describes as "eclectic", ranging between rock, prog and funk. He also learned plenty in his own room.
"I recorded on a four-track and concocted all kinds of things. It wasn’t any more focused than my work is nowadays."
When Kumela got into the Helsinki Conservatory, he left the electric guitar behind, but its influence remained.
"In bands it always worked without sheet music. You listen to others, but invent your own part yourself. That’s helped me in chamber music."
Out of the ‘guitar ghetto’
Kumela is one of the few art musicians in Finland who has not studied at the Sibelius Academy. Juan Antonio Muro at the Helsinki Conservatory was the right teacher for him, fascinated by various fields of art and contemporary music. When it was time for postgraduate studies, Kumela, naturally, did not go to Basel, Switzerland, as was the custom for Finnish guitarists at the time.
"I happened to hear Franz Hálasz’s Bach album, and there was an intensity to it. I found out where he teaches and applied there."
The ghettoisation of the classical guitar made me ask whether this was the community that I had to belong to.
Kumela says he adopted an emotional commitment to music from Hálasz, but did not always agree with everything.
"If you disagree with your teacher, you have to be able to rationalise it, and that teaches you," he says.
Alongside his studies, Kumela won a couple of guitar competitions, because guitarists are supposed to have some on their CVs. What it doesn’t say on your CV is how it feels.
"There are lots and lots of guitar competitions, and the same people make the rounds of them playing the same repertoire. I felt ill at those, regardless of how I did. The ghettoisation of the classical guitar made me ask whether this was the community that I had to belong to. And after a string of competitions, many people feel lost and wonder, ‘what now?’."
Curiosity meets stubbornness
When Kumela returned to Finland, he didn’t wonder but instead got to work. Now he has released 10 albums, will soon have premiered 10 guitar concertos, played around the world, served as an artistic director – and created a brand. No-one knows what he’ll do next, but everyone knows that it will be interesting.
The zeitgeist makes you think that an elevator pitch is enough for an idea, but really it’s the execution that makes or breaks it.
At the moment, he’s working on a duo project with free jazz bassist Antti Lötjönen, the premiere of a guitar concerto by composer Antti Auvinen and a dramatized performance based on Juan Ramón Jiménez’s book Platero and I with actor Vesa Vierikko. For a new stage work by composer Perttu Haapanen and puppet theatre artist Alma Rajala, Kumela is picking up the so-called active acoustic guitar. The choice is typical for Kumela – but far from typical at classical guitar festival concerts, though he still plays many of them.
"Those circles expect a certain guitar repertoire,” says Kumela.
“People in the normal music world aren’t interested in that. Rather, there it helps that the repertoire has an easily explainable idea, even if it’s odd. Indeed, the zeitgeist makes you think that an elevator pitch is enough for an idea, but really it’s the execution that makes or breaks it."
Expanding the format
Kumela’s ideas have often led him to expand the concert format and his musicianship. While Platero and I is a stage performance, his latest album, Small Creatures, is an expanding ecosystem of animal-themed compositions, which are also expressed by Laura Ruohonen’s poems, Erika Kallasmaa’s illustrations, animations and eventful concerts. Expansion is not an end in itself, though.
"I love the ritual nature of traditional concerts, but I try to look at its possibilities in different ways. A concert can be something else besides me playing for you the pieces that I’ve learned."
This attitude is not enough, though, to explain the enthusiasm with which Kumela talks about the use of microtonal guitar in Renaissance music, the planning process with a composer for a new concerto or planting piezo-miked pickle jars among the audience, nor does it explain how Kumela is able to bring his ideas to fruition in a way that makes audiences fall in love with them.
I try to look at the possibilities of a concert in different ways. It can be something else besides me playing for you the pieces that I’ve learned.
"I guess my career is based on curiosity combined with stubbornness. I remember when I thought that playing ornaments on a guitar was difficult, and that was followed not long after by my C.P.E. Bach album, which is full of ornamentation. I can’t accept that something can’t be done."
That faith will next be put to the test when artist Markus Kåhre, who specialises in virtual reality and illusions, joins the Small Creatures concept.
"Production-wise, this kind of thing is so huge that it doesn’t work on a do-it-yourself basis,” says Kumela.
“But something will certainly come of it."