Magic and Menace: The Music of Värttinä

Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.

Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.

Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.

Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.

Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.

There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.

 

Sly and Sardonic Lounge-Noir Jazz

While going through my old CDs this week I came across a fun album from 1998 by New York-based jazz group Dave’s True Story called Sex Without Bodies. The group, which described itself as a “lounge-noir band,” morphed a bit over time but was always anchored by writer/composer/guitarist David Cantor and singer Kelly Flint. They played jazz with a cool Greenwich Village underground jazz-club vibe: spare, dry and witty. Flint’s jaded vocals and Cantor’s sardonic lyrics bring a smoky edge to their songs.

Sex Without Bodies starts with the cynical anti-love song “Spasm,” which was featured in an episode of Breaking Bad:

Look at my lips
They’re just dying to taste you
Look at my teeth
They’re just aching to bite
But as for my heart
It’s a big empty chasm
‘Cause this ain’t the real thing
It’s just a spasm

The characters Kelly Flint inhabits are droll and blasé, but they’re relaxed enough that the group’s music isn’t so much dark as overcast. An hour spent with Dave’s True Story is like an hour  in an underground bar quaffing excellent cocktails with a good-smelling man who sports precise facial hair and offers to show you his etchings.

Four songs into the album is my favorite of their tunes, “I’ll Never Read Trollope Again,” the story of an avid reader of fiction whose favorite author is Victorian writer Anthony Trollope:

I was sitting in a quaint cafe
With a favorite tome and some cafe au lait
But my luck ran out when you came my way
Now I’ll never read Trollope again

You spied the cover as you slithered near
And said “The 1800s—that’s my favorite year.”
And then you sat right down and now I fear
That I’ll never read Trollope again

Near the end of their album is a cover version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song which perfectly matches their louche, ironic yet somehow upbeat manner. Despite its cynical heart, the album is not a downer. Turn down the lights, pour yourself an artisanal something-or-other and see what you think of it.

Squirrelly Silhouette

Pen and ink drawing on paper by Laura Grey
Pen and ink drawing on paper by Laura Grey

Here’s another recent pen-and-ink drawing which was inspired by my visit to Malahide Castle just outside of Dublin, Ireland, a few years ago. Malahide has a room filled with marvelous Victorian silhouettes of all sorts: individuals, families, animals, you name it. The castle was a highlight of my family’s short visit to the Dublin area, and its silhouette room always stands out in my mind when I think of our adventure.

Baaaaah, Humbug!

Ink on paper drawing by Laura Grey
Ink on paper drawing by Laura Grey

Though this little goat is quoting Ebenezer Scrooge, he actually wishes you a very happy holiday season. I’ve added this pen-and-ink friend to my gallery of drawings—click on the image to zoom in on the details. I love working with Micron pens; I drew this fellow with a size 005 Pigma Micron with a .2 mm line width. What animal should I draw next?

Chef: A Rare Treat from Jon Favreau

Chef

If you’re looking for a heartwarming, fresh and funny little film to give you a boost over the holidays, I highly recommend actor and director Jon Favreau’s delicious comedy Chef, which is now on DVD. This charming road picture features talented chef Carl Casper (Favreau), a man who has given up expressing his creativity in the kitchen in order to cook for an unimaginative restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) with diligence but without inspiration. After receiving a bad restaurant review, Carl vows to show what culinary magic he can work in order to salvage his reputation, but things don’t work out as planned. The fiasco forces Carl to start his life over, returning to his roots and focusing on creating simple but perfect food for the masses. This leads him to a closer, more reciprocal relationship with the young son he drifted away from when he let go of his passions and his greatest gifts.

The film has a leisurely pace and many thoroughly enjoyable scenes of preparing and devouring great meals. We go for a long, funny, often moving ride in an old food truck along with Carl, his son (played with great skill and warmth by young actor Emjay Anthony), and his loyal sous chef (played with gusto by John Leguizamo). Along the way we see the U.S. with new eyes and recognize that meals, like relationships, don’t have to be expensive and fancy to be exceptional and memorable.

The movie is essentially a love letter to food, family and friends, and Favreau, who is himself a skilled chef and gourmand, takes the time to show delicious-looking food prepared lovingly and authentically as part of the film’s exploration of preparing and sharing meals as a metaphor for sharing art, love and meaning. It’s  well crafted, beautifully paced and so authentic in tone that each time I’ve seen it I’ve come away feeling like I just hung out with generous old friends who invited me to share something rare and meaningful with them.

Jon Favreau directed such crowd-pleasers as Elf and the first two Iron Man pictures, but he’s also a talented actor who got his first big break in Doug Liman’s very funny 1996 indie comedy Swingers. Favreau wrote the script for Chef in just two weeks and called in a few superstars (Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson) to fill small roles, but the three key actors (Favreau, Anthony and Leguizamo) have such chemistry and take such genuine delight in each other that you hardly know or care about the big-ticket actors.

Often feel-good comedies have a manufactured, by-the-numbers feel to them. I don’t like being manipulated by a director who wants to spoon-feed me my emotions; I want a film to earn my respect and authentic responses. Chef made me feel as if I’d been drawn into something special and intimate. I hope you’ll find it as sweet and satisfying as I did.

The Scourge of the Sea? Just Li’l Ol’ Me

“No little children love me. I’m told they play at Peter Pan, and the strongest always chooses to be Peter. They force the baby to be Hook. The baby—that’s where the canker gnaws.”

Last night’s U.S. television broadcast of “Peter Pan Live!” underscored what I have always believed—no other actor, not even one as entertaining as Christopher Walken, can compete with Australian actor Cyril Ritchard‘s memorable and marvelous turn as Captain Hook. That voice! That face! That prancing, preening charismatic villainy! Ritchard WAS Hook for me, and always will be. His was the voice on the 1954 original Broadway cast recording, and Ritchard’s roguish delivery and outrageous campiness earned him a Tony Award for this performance. Ritchard was also the star of another favorite Broadway musical, “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.