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Playing accordion a risky business: Kimmo Pohjonen

Features - Classical Music | World

Playing accordion a risky business: Kimmo Pohjonen

by Melissa Lesnie on March 1, 2012 (March 1, 2012) filed under Classical Music | World | Comment Now
Sparks fly when Finland's "extreme" accordionist steps onstage with his squeeze-box.

Kimmo Pohjonen is telling me about the history of the accordion in his native Finland when he casually mentions that it was played, in a very specific setting, to drown out the sound of human flatulence.

“From the 1920s to the end of the ‘60s, there was live music for wrestling matches,” he explains. “At that time accordion was a very cool instrument and they used it to get more ladies to watch costumed wrestling; it was meant to cover the sound of farts when the wrestlers squeezed each other, and there was time for dancing after the matches.”

Detractors may argue that playing accordion is very much like breaking wind, but Pohjonen is on a mission to shatter the widespread perception of the instrument as old-fashioned, ungainly and dull. The latest in a string of innovative and downright kooky collaborations saw the intrepid musician recreate the spectacle of grappling throwdowns accompanied by jaunty polkas – with a modern twist.

“It was an unbelievable project,” he enthuses. But it’s totally believable that Pohjonen would think so radically outside the squeeze-box. Although his entourage of beefy, sweaty men aren’t currently touring with him, he will be wrestling with his own accordion at the Melbourne Recital Centre and WOMADelaide this month. And Australian audiences can expect the unexpected.

Pohjonen claims that accompanying wrestling matches isn’t even the craziest thing he’s done onstage, recalling one concert in Portugal in which he was playing a wireless accordion and spun around continually, so fast that he fell down and broke his knee. But he insists even injury is par for the course when it comes to the excitement and spontaneity of live performance as his toned arms control the heaving bellows and his fingers fly over dozens of buttons. His desire for freedom of movement has even led him to wear skirts onstage. “I want to use lots of energy when playing. It’s a very physical instrument – only drums are comparable where you can use your entire body.”

And how does he psych himself up for such high-octane shows? In typically Scandinavian fashion: “It might seem strange to Australians that my greatest hobby in wintertime is jumping into an ice hole and then going into a sauna, which I love to do almost every day.”

It’s no wonder Pohjonen has earned a reputation as Finland’s “extreme” accordionist, but he insists there is method to his madness. “I’ve been playing this instrument since I was 10 years old – for 37 years, so it’s a long story on one instrument. After 20 years of playing I was pretty dead or tired for the instrument and even nearly quit playing. Through that process I started to find the instrument again and somehow fell in love again through finding new things and tried to push the limitations of the instrument.”

This questing approach to his instrument has led Pohjonen to collaborate with fellow fearless adventurers the Kronos Quartet, but his one-man shows are just as riveting. “When I started to do my first solos, I wanted to have an accordion player people have never seen, who plays music in a way that hasn’t been done.” He set about achieving this by improvising (he plays almost exclusively his own music), modifying his instrument with custom-built electronic components, and introducing bold theatrical elements through lighting and sound effects.

So what can audiences in Melbourne and Adelaide expect? “Very often people think that when there’s a solo recital it’s one guy playing one instrument, as I am doing. But I make the picture wider; I’m there alone but I use my voice quite a lot and I sample myself so that instead of one Kimmo Pohjonen there are 10 Kimmo Pohjonens onstage. In a way the sound can be huge and heavy with lots of layers – not only one accordion. The sound palette is quite heavy with this solo project, like a band.”

It’s an incredibly extroverted style of performance for someone who was “ashamed” to tell his friends about playing the accordion as a child. “It was a very uncool instrument in the ‘70s when I started to play,” he winces. “My father played it and I was the only young boy in our village who played accordion. It was something only old people played and I think in a way accordion is still a bit uncool, though that’s changing and more and more youngsters are trying it.”

Pohjonen has stepped out from the shadow of his instrument and left his embarrassed pre-teen self behind him to embrace the breathtaking scope of the humble squeeze-box. Not one to follow trends, he is perhaps single-handedly showing the world just how exciting and “cool” the accordion can be.

“There’s an attitude of ‘is the accordion a real instrument?’ and ‘only wimps play it’. But nowadays there are people looking to the future of the instrument. The last 15 years for me has been about what you can do using technology – it’s an endless world of possibilities.”

I can’t resist asking Pohjonen if he knows any good accordion jokes. “I hear those all the time and there’s plenty,” he chuckles: “Two accordions – an Italian Pigini and a German Hohner – are thrown from the top of the tower at the same time. Which one breaks first? The answer is, ‘Who cares?’”

Let’s hope this risk-taking performer doesn’t break his own custom-built accordion – or his knee – during his Australian concerts.

Kimmo Pohjonen performs at the Melbourne Recital Centre March 8, and WOMADelaide March 9-12. Read the Q & A interview with Pohjonen in the March issue of Limelight.