Finnish Folk Tunes and Fiddle Mania

The Suvi Oskala Interview

by Michael Lohr

When it comes to mastering the five string Finnish fiddle, very few individuals have the skill and competence to rival Suvi Oskala. Suvi has been a mainstay on the Finnish Classic and Folk circuits for well over a decade. From 2002 to 2010 she studied the five string fiddle, having earned dual Master’s Degrees in fiddle and vocal performance at the Folk Music Department of the prestigious Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.Suvi Oskala

In addition to operating her own music label, Suvi Sounds, she is also involved in a miriad of musical projects including Silmu, Pila Kleemmola, Viulutalkoot, the Auvo Quartet, the Polka Chicks and the Swedish-Finnish folk trio, Pelios. She has composed music for the world’s first sign-language opera for the Helsinki Teatteri Totti Theatre, as well as worked on multiple projects with Finnish performance artist, Masi Tiitta. Among all this, Suvi found the time to release her first solo album, “Soolo,” to much critical acclaim.

The following is an extensive conversation I had with Suvi Oskala about her muse, the fiddle.

Q. How did you first start playing the fiddle, especially the five-string fiddle? What was it about the fiddle that first attracted you?

A. The story of me starting to play the fiddle is one of the boring ones, although with a tiny surprising twist to it: When I was a kid (under 7) I followed my siblings to their piano and flute lessons and started to sing in a children’s choir when I was about 4. Then when I was starting school at seven, I applied to the music school and when asked which instrument I would like to play, I answered “the flute”. Luckily (as I think nowadays), the flute teacher at the music school didn’t want students under the age of eleven, so I was assigned to the fiddle. And here we are years later! So it wasn’t love at first sight for me and the fiddle, but after some bumps we did get through, and have had a mutually respectful relationship for the past 22 years.

The first time I encountered a five-string fiddle was at the Haapavesi Folk Music course in 2001, where an American fiddle player, Casey Driessen, had one with him. I instantly fell in love with the instrument, but couldn’t find a way to buy one then, so instead I bought a viola in 2003 which I played alongside with the normal fiddle for quite many years. Then in 2006 I happened to meet a Swedish violin maker, Per Klinga, at a festival in Sweden. During the previous year Per Klinga had made an amazing five-string viola for Väsen’s violanist Mikael Marin, and I had had the pleasure of trying out the instrument, which was too big for me to play, but amazing in any case. So when I met Per I asked him whether he would be interested in making a five-string that was fiddle sized and fit for a small hand like mine. He took up the challenge and called me sometime the next year with ready sketches of the instrument, which I ended up ordering and buying in 2008. Nowadays the five-string is the only fiddle I play and I’ve been very happy with it.
Q. What are some of your musical influences? And what was it about these people that influenced you so?

A. There are so many musical styles and musicians that have had a huge impact on what I do nowadays. From a fiddle player and singer perspective, one of my musical heroes is Iva Bittova, who has been exploring the soundscapes of simultaneous fiddle playing and singing for the past 30 years. And while talking of that sort of artists one cannot, not mention, Owen Pallet, who is just amazing at what he does! My first love in folk music was Irish American fiddle player Eileen Ivers and Finnish singers like Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Tellu Turkka.

Then there is of course the long list of my great teachers, including Piia Kleemola, Anna Johansson (Sweden), Mikael Marin, Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Heikki Laitinen etc. The courses at Haapavesi have also given me the chance to learn from amazing artists like Jean-Francois Vrod, Casey Driessen, Ruthie Dornfeld etc. And there are of course fantastic Finnish artists like Kimmo Pohjonen and Pekka Kuusisto who have shown that anything’s possible! And after all these there’s the part of my musical brain which has nothing to do with folk music: my favorite bands as a teenager were Blur, Radiohead and Jamiroquai as well as Finnish artists like Ultra Bra and Don Huonot. I’ve also always listened to classical music (and even studied it at music school) and nowadays I’m especially interested in contemporary classical music, which actually has quite a lot of the same building material as improvised (folk) music. And on top of this I’ve listened to a lot of chanson, jazz and other musical genres.

Everything I’ve ever heard or played has had an impact on me and also all the people I’ve had the pleasure to work with have given me new ideas. I try to listen to as many different sorts of music as I can, and at times some really surprising things move me to tears. A good example of this was at Flow Festival 2011, which is held here in Helsinki. I ended up listening to live techno trance music for hours, which was a new experience for me. The concert was mind blowing and I do think I would’ve missed out on a lot had I not just happened to walk in there!
Q. What are the primary modes in Finnish folk fiddle playing style that are different from other genres say Celtic or Norwegian? What nuances exist that separate Finnish players from say bluegrass players in America?

A. There are quite a lot of small nuances that are different in the “Finnish style” compared to other fiddle styles, but something one always has to remember when talking about traditional music styles is that most of the old players had their own distinct style, so even inside the borders of Finland there have been many different styles of playing. So in fact one can’t really talk about a Finnish style without making some great simplifications. Keeping this in mind, the Finnish fiddle tradition does have some distinct features that separate it from even the Swedish styles of playing. For example the fiddle players in Finland quite often haven’t used as much ornamentation as the fiddlers in Sweden or in Ireland. Slides are also a thing that one can rarely find in old fiddle music from Finland. And then there’s also the very distinct bowing style from the Kaustinen region which is quite special. Most of the old fiddlers also used scales that were not equal temper, but had some blue notes. Quite many of them were farmers or blue collar workers by profession, so their fingers were not as apt at playing trills and other fast ornamentations. And with this I’m not saying the old players were not virtuosos. They were! Their virtuosity was just in other things than finger technique! And also the differences in scales were not a question of not knowing how, but more of “this is how I want this to sound”. It is a very individually interpretive modality of music.

There’s also the difference in emphasis of rhythm in tunes like the polskas. There’s a type of polska that’s almost only played in Finland and it’s very different from the polskas played in Sweden or Norway.
Q. You just released your first solo album, “Soolo.” Describe that creative process involved in bringing your solo debut to completion?

A. I’ve written solo material for myself through the years, and during my studies at the Sibelius Academy I played quite a few concerts as a solo artist exploring the various sides of folk music. I hadn’t really thought about recording a solo album, but then in the beginning of 2011 it seemed like the best path to follow, and incidentally I had just gotten a grant to work on some solo material at the time. I started by choosing the tunes from my old repertoire which I still thought good and started gradually working on them. I’ve always been a conceptual thinker, so from the very beginning of the process I wanted to produce an album which would be a whole piece of art, not just random tunes on a CD. And with this thought in mind I wrote some new material as well. The oldest tunes on the album (Naisen laulu and Tuuli) are from 2004 and the latest ones are from spring 2011, so there’s quite a long musical journey behind the album. Of course I arranged the old tunes again to suit the mood of the album, but the main material of those tunes still comes from a time almost 10 years ago.soolo

In the end I think “Soolo” was an album I had to record and publish so that I could be “free” to write new solo material for myself. Recording a CD is always a sort of end to an era. It sort of gives the tunes in question a more concrete form than just playing them for audiences. This doesn’t (at least not in the case of my solo material) mean that they would be totally fixed and never changing after that, but recording them makes them just a tiny bit more real. After the release of “Soolo” I spent three months in artist residencies in Finland and abroad, and during that time I was able to write something totally new – something which I think I wouldn’t have been able to write without getting the old tunes out of the way on a CD first!
Q. Finnish percussionist Oskari Lehtonen provided drum rhythms on “Soolo.” How did this collaboration come about?

A. I first met Oskari through Auvo Quartet’s guitarist Roope Aarnio and I first played together with him on Auvo Quartet’s Summer Tour in 2010. During that time I got to know Oskari as a musician and a person, and soon realised that this was a person I’d like to work with more often. When I was planning my solo album, during spring 2011, I thought I needed some percussion on one of the tracks and Oskari sprang to mind as the best option for collaboration. Since the release of my solo album we have been working on a lot of new material, and nowadays we perform as Suvi Oskala Duo. Working with a percussionist is fantastic, as I want to have the freedom to change things melodically and sometimes even harmonically when I play my solo tunes. Percussion give this freedom, but also adds a whole new spectrum of sound and depth to the tunes – something which could never be accomplished with just fiddle and voice. Oskari and I have also put a lot of effort into learning how to improvise together so that we can communicate with each other on every level during gigs. This gives us a freedom when performing that one can’t have with all instrumentations or musicians.
Q. What is your favorite fiddle brand to play?

A. Before purchasing my five-string fiddle from Per Klinga in 2008, I had a violin that had been hand made in Prague in 1928. I’ve never been into searching for a new instrument all the time, as the ones I’ve found have been so good I haven’t wanted anything else. At the moment my favorite brand of strings are Larsen Strings, which give my five-string a very rich, round sound with depth.
Q. You were one of the musicians responsible for developing the world’s first sign language opera. How did this wonderful project come about?

A. Teatteri Totti, which is a deaf theater here in Finland, wanted to produce the first sign language opera in the world. I can’t exactly remember how I came to be a part of the project, but I think it was one of those ‘someone knew someone who knew me’ situations. The irony of being in the middle of a large, mostly deaf audience, composing an opera, was not lost on me. The project was a very interesting experience for a musician, as we had to think about what they’d feel of the music before setting the “normal basics of music”, like melody, in place. The music was played by me on fiddle and drum and a tuba player. The music of the opera was based on improvisation because the deaf actors weren’t able to react to what we played, so we had to be ready and able adapt the music to what they were doing at all times. All the shows were amplified so that we got maximum effect on the bass vibrations through the floor.
Q. You have worked on a multitude of collaborations with Finnish composer Masi Tiitta over the years and Masi produced your solo album. How did this working relationship come about?

A. Working with Masi has been one of the lucky chances of my life. We first met at upper secondary school where we were on the same class. The school had a focus on arts, so everyone seemed to be working on something interesting at the time and you ended up talking about music and art with people. We started working together in 2006 for my first solo performance “Nainen joka harjoitteli luolassa” (The woman who practised in a cave). At that time Masi was studying composition at the Sibelius Academy and luckily he had the time to work with us! That first project was a success and we even took it on tour in Finland in 2007. Having done one successful project with a group of artists, we decided to do another, “Ma-te-ma-tiik-kaa hi-tau-des-ta” (Mathematics of Slow) in 2010. And then in 2011 when I was planning my solo album and wondering about whether to produce it all on my own or have some artistic guidance, Masi was sort of a natural choice for the job. He is one of the people I’ve always had good discussions about music with and I also seem to discover new things about my music with him.
Q. Last year you were featured on NME TV in England along with Emilia Lajunen in a video for the song, “Polkka” and you were also featured on a South Korean TV show, while touring there. Was that a surreal experience to see yourself on a TV show in a foreign land?

A. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the British TV show. But when we travelled to South Korea I was asked to be on a South Korean lifestyle show. Though I thought I would be filmed playing fiddle, they actually had me to sit at a table and eat fruit the whole time. It was an absurd feeling to be filmed eating fruit at table, while being surrounded by Korean TV types who were conversing to each other and the live audience in a language I didn’t understand. Actually, that trip to Korea was one long, weird experience.
Q. Have you ever attempted to play the nyckelharpa or hardanger fiddle?

A. Yes I’ve played both during my studies at the Sibelius Academy, as well as the Finnish bowed harp (jouhikko). I enjoyed playing both instruments (nyckelharpa and hardanger), but neither of them really felt like my thing, so I didn’t pursue them further. Jouhikko, on the other hand, I loved it and will probably learn to play properly some day!
Q. Your project “Ma-te-ma-tiik-kaa Hi-tau-des-ta” or “Mathematics of Slow” in English, included an exhibition of the “Features of the Poetic” painting series by Swiss artist Denise Ziegler. How did this project arise?

A. “Ma-te-ma-tiik-kaa hi-tau-des-ta” was my second solo project and it was made with the same group that was responsible for the first project, “Nainen joka harjoitteli luolassa” (translated as “The woman who practiced in a cave”). The first one was performed in a black theatre space. After doing a project in darkness we wanted to do our second project in a space with as much light as possible, and this was why we ended up doing the project in Helsinki Kunsthalle art museum and gallery. When we were thinking about the timetables, we asked the Kunsthalle whose works were going to be up at the same time and it happened to be Denise. Denise’s ideas about art and the works she had in Kunsthalle were perfectly in line with the ideas we had for the show, so the collaboration was perfect for our part! We could even use some of her work as part of our performance so it really was a match made in heaven.
Q. You founded your own record label, Suvi Sounds and released three debut albums. Creating your own label is a daunting task in this day and age. How has the experience of business woman as opposed to musician, been thus far?

A. Creating a label seemed for me to be a direct path from where I was and what I’d been doing before. I had already produced Auvo Quartet’s debut album in 2006 without a label and having done that I knew that if I’d ever do it again I’d need to have a label/firm in the background. I have also been producing shows and concerts in Finland for other people so I’m quite accustomed to taking care of forms and budgets.

One of the main problems for artists in small genres at the moment seems to be that in order to get gigs one quite often has to have a CD, but to get a recording deal one has to have gigs. So it’s a ‘lose-lose’ situation where one is quite stuck with the fact that people won’t be able to hear your music as widely as you’d want. We did try to get record deals with existing firms, but as they didn’t come through, I decided to first publish my solo CD and after that, the other two projects. For me, taking care of the mundane office work is a good polar opposite for the work of a musician. It’s concrete in a way practicing can never be, so on some weird level, I even enjoy doing business. And in any case one has to be a bit of a business woman as a musician to survive in this profession nowadays!
Q. What additional projects and/or tours/shows are you planning in the future?

A. The next project I’m working on is called “Klaustrofunktionalismi” (Claustrofunctionalism) which is again made with almost the same group as my first two solo projects. This time we have another musician with us (Teemu Korpipää on electronics) as well as a dancer on stage. The most peculiar part of the project is that it is a contemporary dance piece, but we are going to have 18 pieces of furniture on stage with us! The idea is to explore the nature of dance and furniture in the same space with some experimental live music.

Hopefully I’ll be writing a lot of new material again this year. I am scheduled to go into the studio in early 2014 to start recording my second solo album. And of course we (me and all my fellow musicians) are aiming to conquer the world with our music, so tours abroad are also on the agenda.
To learn more about Suvi Oskala and her many musical projects please go to her Facebook artist profile, or to her official website

To learn more about her record label, Suvi Sounds, which releases music from many different artists, please go to


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