Live reviews

Iiro Rantala – “My Finnish Calendar”

LIVESTREAM REVIEW: Iiro Rantala – My Finnish Calendar (livestream Scottish comedian Billy Connolly said that Glasgow has only two seasons: winter and July. We’re mostly used to thinking of four, but pianist Iiro Rantala’s third solo album My Finnish Calendar is conceived as a month-by-month insight into the twelve seasons of the Finnish mind. Just before the Helsinki region goes into lockdown for the Coronavirus pandemic, the pianist presented this solo piano suite in concert as a ticketed livestream. It was a tonic for the times. Rantala is a charismatic and darkly funny man and an energetic performer. Despite the unusual circumstances the concert had a palpable sense of warmth and connection. As on the extended version of the album, he introduced each track with wrily entertaining rambles about each piece. The presentation was involving. We were treated to a professional multiple camera setup with zooming, panning and cross-fading with the pre-filmed projections of seasonal imagery shot at the autonomous Åland islands. The suite reflects Rantala’s distinctively personal, closely composed melodic third-stream approach: he studied piano in the jazz department of Sibelius Academy and classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music, and when asked in 2016 to name his favourite piano players, came up with a list of Richard Tee, Egberto Gismonti, Keith Jarrett and Michel Petrucciani. The songs are stylistically varied, from dense polkas to Evans-esque ballads, with a melodic sense reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto in having an ‘effortless’ feel tempered by disarming turns and colorations. The writing obeys an ironical bent and a dark sense of humour. Seeing him mischievously eyeballing the camera emphasised the tongue-in-cheek pastiche ragtime of June. He explained that in Finnish June is Kesäkuu meaning ‘summer month’ but the weather is awful and everything is just awful. Children are off school but parents are still at work. Finns aren’t good at smiling and so, he explains, June is “the month of fake happiness.” The sound was good with a dynamic stereo image of the wonderful Fazioli piano (Italian, handmade, and favoured by the pianist) and a discreet warmth to the room sound. The Fazioli also had some of the thickest top-notes I’ve heard. The visuals answered some questions. The disarming buzzing and rattling on the right hand during April comes from a large sheet of white paper placed over the strings. A towel placed over the pins near the keyboard gives the piano strings that muted, choppy attack that sounds like a guitar. Four songs use backing tracks, but all the sound is generated from the piano (aside from one splash of synth and some Glenn Gould-style humming at times). There are laptop sequenced metronomic bass drum-like clicks from hitting the strings, and scraping the strings you can get a sound “like a drunk guitar player.” The prepared piano is used to great effect in August “a Swedish sounding polka with lots of mental problems” following a stylistic facade that opens out emotionally before retreating back to the darker place. It manifests his sardonic analysis of the differences between the Finns, where you get what you get, and the Swedes who look so beautiful but hide a lot of “dark scary shit”.  November in Finland is a month of “total darkness and depression” but it is his favourite, “a time you can be grumpy all the time and just blame the weather”. November is the song he says is most from the heart. Oscar Wilde said sincerity was the enemy of art, and so November might also be one of the slightest of the pieces, where the melody seems to lack some of that Sakamotian twist. It also points to a tendency throughout toward separation of the hands between the left and right, rhythm and melody. There’s a slight whiff of Moonlight Sonata.   “You don’t have to applaud, we can’t hear it” he said, but the chat window spooled appreciative noises—and a lot of technical moans about interruptions to the livestream. I only lost power once, though at another point the stream skipped back two minutes, then after another few minutes skipped forward another few minutes, but it mostly behaved itself for me, though the average viewing figure of 150 did drop by a hundred for an appreciable amount of time. The interface allowed viewers to vote on the encore, which came in at 52% for Tears for Esbjörn. This is his perfect tribute to the lamented pianist and is a showcase of Rantala’s easy grace with melody and rich uncluttered harmony and chordal voicing.  Near the end of the 90-minute set, a box appeared in the chat portal: “Have a question?” Rantala didn’t flinch at the questions. One viewer said they found him hilarious but dark and asked if he was prone to depression; how do you cope with it? “With medicine,” he replied flatly. Was he nervous? Yes. Did this gig feel different? Yes; it was fun but weird, the first time he’s done anything like this without an audience physically present. How many shows has he played? “Thousands,” he said, “and I remember all of them! Noooo—I only remember the ones that were a total disaster… but I will definitely remember this one ‘cos it’s so weird.” To know the seasons of the Finnish mind you have to know about the quality of sisu. An untranslatable but relatable word, it’s the gritty, gutsy, steely quality of stoic determination and fortitude of a people who spend most of the year plunged in wintry darkness apart from a few weeks devoted to mosquitoes. Finland’s name in Finnish is Suomi, which literally means swampland. The country was never under formal occupation by the USSR in the same way that the USA doesn’t have a class system, and on the livestream Rantala described took time to call Stalin as a “mass murderer, dictator and total asshole” (in the album commentary he calls him a “mass murdering fuckhead”). Sisu remains the vital expression of the national character of the Finns. Brits used to be renowned for their comparable ‘stiff upper lip’ though you wonder if the more noble traits might have become overshadowed by more selfish tendencies. To get through the mental and physical difficulties of the Coronavirus lockdown, we could all use a bit of Finnish sisu.   AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.    My Finnish Calendar is available on ACT Records – LINK  Album teaser trailer HERE  

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