“Myths are important. But they hold no power if nobody believes in them,”
says Sinikka Langeland.
Text: Ida Habbestad
“I took part in an exercise once. I was one of a group that went to the forest with an ecologist. The ecologist asked us to think about how we could earn money from the forest if we were entrepreneurs. Then we were to think about nature as our point of departure. It was very clear that our attitudes towards the forest changed according to our point of view,” says Sinikka Langeland.
We are driving from Kongsvinger towards the centre of Finnskogen, a forested area in Norway where Finnish immigrants settled in the 1500s and 1600s. We talk about the forest, but also about the metropolis of Los Angeles, where Sinikka has just been working with the band Big Bang and the group’s front figure Øystein Greni. “I found a skateboard kantele that I just had to bring home with me,” she explains enthusiastically, before mentioning in passing that she lived in the USA for a half-year when she was younger, working as a folksinger and guitarist in the Norwegian village at Disney World.
She has obviously led a rich and eventful life, and new topics of conversation keep materialising. But the closer we get to Svullrya, the closer we get to the existential truths. We talk about the “time squeeze” and all the projects we want to finish. Multitasking is the answer for some people. It seems like such a simple way of getting to take part in a little bit of everything. Sinikka wonders whether we are really present in the lives we are living. She wonders whether we remember to experience our fantastic surroundings. Do we remember to listen, or do we just see?
Being able to hear the sound of the forest was one of the reasons Sinikka moved to the centre of Finnskogen in 1992. Svullyra has become her home base. This is where she regains her energy after her extensive tours. It is also where her project is based. “A folk musician doesn’t have to live in the same place where the music he or she plays comes from. But for me there were so many fundamental issues to address. The tradition was dormant, and before I could create my own interpretation of the music I had to identify the tradition and lift it into the light,” she says.
Finnskogen was a culture in a process of change, caught at the point of intersection between the minority and the majority. Even in earlier days it was not far from the major cities of the area. Technological advances arrived early on, but a significant gap remained between the rich and the poor. In Sinikka, too, one can sense the tension that arises between dissimilar qualities. She is interested in mysticism, but is direct and articulate. Her music focuses on the otherworldly, but she is also down to earth. She is open to spirituality, but is still selective and critical. In any case, she finds it meaningful to search deeply, to strive towards a condition beyond everyday life. “Music is very powerful,” Sinikka declares. “I think it is fascinating that now you can put on a CD and change your own state of mind. It touches you in a very profound way, and for me music seems to be stronger than many other things. This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in other art forms. I find contemporary art, in particular, very liberating. It doesn’t act as an affirmation of something I think is beautiful, but it challenges my way of thinking. It’s probably the case that music has become so important to me because it is a language I have taught myself to understand.”
Sinikka adds a log to the open fire. Finnskogen is a few steps closer to the fine, cold season than Oslo is. Mushroom soup, Karelian piraka with rice porridge, and candlelight create a cosy atmosphere. Her home glows with personality, with an idiosyncratic contrast between art that could be called elitist and the totally unadorned, lived-in furnishings of the rest of the house.
A certificate hanging on the wall bears witness to a major event that took place this autumn. Sinikka was awarded the Sibelius Prize for promoting the Finnish cultural heritage in Norway. She introduced the kantele to Norway, and has searched through archives since her student days for songs from the Finnskogen area. She has re-established the pols tradition, retrieved the Lindeman collections from Grue and Brandval, translated rune songs, and made material accessible through books and recordings. She has also composed her own music based on ideas from these traditions.
When her mother decided that Sinikka should have a kantele, they barely knew what it was supposed to sound like. Nor did they have any idea as to the impact the instrument would come to have on Sinikka’s life. “It was not until I was an adult that I really understood what an important source of culture my mother has been for me. There were no day-care centres or schools of the arts then. Most of my inspiration came from my home,” Sinikka says.
But she did not cultivate traditional folk music exclusively. In the town of Kirkenær Sinikka ran a club, Den vesle svarte Æljen (The Little Black Elk), where 300 mature members sang broadside ballads and played accordions and fiddles. In the 1970s the concert as an institution was not as professionally oriented as it is today. Amateurs and professionals performed together, and even when she was very young Sinikka had shared the stage with well-established artists. Today Sinikka appreciates both jazz and folk music concerts, but emphasises that one should not think only in terms of categories.
As an artist she has progressed from the record companies Grappa and Nordic Sound to ECM. As her audience has grown in size she has become increasingly aware of the importance of holding concerts off the beaten track. The broader her knowledge of folk music traditions has become, the freer she has felt to create her own music.
What do you find fascinating about your folk music tradition?
“There is more to it than just having grown up in Finnskogen. The pantheistic belief within the old Skogfinne culture was that life is present in everything. Music relates to nature and mimics it. I think this is something quite powerful; the music wants to convey how one experiences one’s surroundings,” Sinikka replies.
Not long ago there was talk of building a large artillery range in Finnskogen. Sinikka went to the Storting, the Norwegian parliament, and got promises from the politicians. Actually, nobody really wanted to place the range there; the area is too historic. “If you create a mythology, you are also creating a form of protection. On Iceland roads make detours around the elf mounds, whether or not the roads’ builders believe in elves. It is when folk culture has vanished from a place that it becomes fair game. Or when people come in from outside. Wealthy people can suck the resources out of poor areas that they have no emotional ties to. Then the mythology of money is allowed to overpower everything else.”
The mythical is a recurring theme in Sinikka’s work. She seeks out the spiritual dimension. So it is not strange that the deeply religious Fartein Valen is a composer who means a great deal to her. Or that the projects she is most gratified to have completed are those that offer explanatory models.
In Marias Song (Maria’s Song) the focus is on Christian tradition. Sinikka examines how the folk tradition has created variations on the hymns used in Bach’s chorales, and she juxtaposes them with his music. When working with rune songs the focus is on shamanistic religion. The word “rune” means “secret”. Singing rune songs is singing about what is hidden. When examining some of the texts Sinikka has worked with, one could be struck by how they exude intensity, whether this applies to warmth, sexuality or eeriness. Take, for example, an excerpt from a “rune to stop bleeding”:
Thrown towards you, pots full of blood,
Blood that is clotted, congealed and dried,
Ladles of blood and dippers of blood,
Everything that is thrust towards your eyes is blood.
“I’ve thought a lot about whether a performer has to be a believer in order to be able to convey particular material. For the religious songs and the rune songs I have had to find something in myself that could stand behind the texts and understand and accept what they were about. Otherwise it wouldn’t be convincing. The shamanistic aspect can be quite intense, and some things are so dark and heavy that I can’t bear to deal with them,” Sinikka says.
This material is presented in the knowledge that the conceptions we have formed play a decisive role in how we experience the world, a point raised by Sinikka’s ecologist. Sinikka also mentions another artist who is important to her: “Hans Børli refers to a duality – that people are nature, on the one hand, but live in nature, on the other, and contaminate it with their own minds. The romantic relationship with nature is a cultural phenomenon. The man who walked in the snow and nearly froze to death while working as a lumberjack didn’t think that white snow was so romantic,” she says.
What does she herself believe in? Life is mystical, Sinikka thinks. Sometimes she feels that it is obvious that there is a God. At other times she thinks the idea is outlandish. Now she looks up and asks, “What about you?”
Talking about religion brings you very close to a person, and for a moment I understand what it is like to sit at her side of the table. But someone who has worked intensely with myths must have reflected on how difficult it can be to talk about faith. “I have, in any case, registered a tendency today to ask questions about alternative viewpoints. There are good reasons for doing so,” Sinikka says. “Islam regards it as dangerous to create images of the Prophet. Not everybody is allowed to talk about him. In our culture we prefer to be able to speak freely about everything. I think that many people believe that we need a new Age of Enlightenment to cultivate the rational. And I think that it would improve communication in the world. We need to criticise religion. But at the same time it is an ethnocentric feature of our culture: this is what we think, so everyone should think it.”
The spiritual aspect of life is vulnerable, but Sinikka is not afraid of addressing the subject. She is more afraid of feeling inadequate, of being unable to find words that can express the depth of what she is trying to convey. “It’s all about eliminating your own ego, and understanding that the focus is really not on what you accomplish yourself. What’s important is how you manage to approach the real content of the music,” says Sinikka.
What do you think the future holds for your folk music tradition in Norway?
“What really counts is to be patient. Once we made a tremendous effort to revive the pols dance. After that not much happened here in Finnskogen. Of course one can become frustrated by a situation like that. But now, 20 years later, there’s someone who wants to hold courses in the area. This is probably how it must be in the folk music tradition. If it is to be viable, it will be because somebody is committed to it; tradition is not something that can be forced. Myths are important. But they hold no power if nobody believes in them.”