Interview with Raoul Bjorkenheim
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I started playing guitar in 1969 while attending a boarding school in Pennsylvania. I was a pretty shy overweight kid, so playing guitar seemed like a good way to connect with more people, especially girls. At that time it seemed that everyone played one, so once I had saved up enough money I bought my first guitar for 25$, a really bad acoustic steel string box. My first whole song was the Band’s “A Long Black Veil” and soon I learned more of their songs, and Bob Dylan’s as well. I sang too, which was the main point. I impressed my father by knowing Arlo Guthrie’s entire “Alice’s Restaurant” by heart.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
My mother is a singer and an actress who began as a ballet dancer, and both her father and mother were pianists, so genetically I must have gotten some of my love of music from there. When my mother was pregnant she took regular ballet classes, so I think that my rhythmic urges were active before I was even born. At the age of eight I attempted to learn violin, but my teacher had pedantic tendencies so I hated going to lessons. Next I tried trumpet, which I enjoyed though I never took any lessons, then after that harmonica, but only the guitar did the trick. I learned a lot on my own, lifting songs from records and chords from guitar methods like Mel Bay’s numerous books. At age 16 I took some private lessons in New York with a jazz player called Mike Gari, which led to my knowledge of voicings and elementary chord progressions. My original ambition was to become a photographer, but by the time I was twenty I knew that it had to be music, so I learned basic stuff at the Helsinki Conservatory then spent three years at the Berklee College of Music, returning to Helsinki in 1981. I earned my “masters degree” playing in Edward Vesala’s Sound & Fury, a very tough several years during which the band leader really whipped us into shape and gave me more advanced tools to work with. I realized that a good teacher gives you some answers, but more importantly makes you ask questions, and a really good teacher shows you how to create the tools with which to answer them yourself.
What were and are your main musical influences?
I grew up listening to classical music, my favorite pieces were Stravinsky’s “Petruska” and Ravel’s “Bolero”. As a child I also sang for several years in a church choir. At the boarding school previously mentioned I started getting into rock, my first album was Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up”, and soon I was into Hendrix and Ten Years After. I think one of the major events in my musical life was seeing the film “Woodstock” in a movie theatre in 1970, and I went to see it a dozen times after that. The intensity of the performances and beautiful footage made a huge impression on me: the Who, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone and of course Jimi’s iconic playing. Soon I was in a rock band as second guitar and singer, we covered Zappa, Santana and the Stones among others. Then I heard Mahavishnu, which really sealed my fate, inspiring me to want to play guitar like that. I started checking out the early jazz guitarists like Django, Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery and from then progressed to John Abercrombie, John Scofield and Pat Metheny, who were my main influences for a decade or so. I also started listening to freer stuff, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, so the guitar receded and more important inspiration was gotten from sax, piano and trumpet players. But the list goes on and on, so to make things a bit shorter, here are my main inspirations today:
Olivier Messiaen, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Bela Bartok, Julian Bream, Barrios, Beck, Jimi, Brij Narayan and on and on and on…….
The Doors of Perception is your third Cuneiform release with your quartet Ecstasy, how did start the idea for this new record ? Who made the cover ? I really loved it..
During recording sessions and gigs we always make a point of having several totally improvised pieces in the set, just to avoid the syndrome of merely playing compositions well, which is the norm. Personally I like to hear a band take risks and hopefully surprise me with new sounds and ideas, so when eCsTaSy went into the studio for the newest record we were determined to create as much fresh music as possible. I’d have to say that some of the aggressiveness comes from the political situation in the world right now, with fascism rearing it’s ugly head all over the world, and the disgrace of a president Trump giving his blessing to it through his actions. I felt that it’s not the time for peaceful music to get comforted by, rather music to march to the barricades by. The cover photo was taken by me last June during a walk in Soho NYC, and it seemed to reflect the sound of our music, and I’m really happy with it too.
Let’s talk about the sound of your guitar, I’ve always liked it but in this record it’s … perfect, you have a fantastic saturated sound, charged and at the same time clean, precise, with a fluid and elegant phrasing, what have you connected to your six strings? Sometimes it seems that you are not using effects or pedals but that you are playing them directly.
The main sound is born from the guitar itself, so I play a couple of really nice Gibsons that deliver a fat sound, and a vintage Burns 12 String “Double Six” guitar with the original Trisonic pickups which I love. I also use a Parker Fly for the bowing pieces as the lowest E string has a full 2 octave range. For years I’ve been designing my ultimate pedal board, but I always want to change the sounds too, so I have a several of them which I combine. I spend a lot of time working on guitar technique, based on the chromatically enhanced modal way of thinking inspired by George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, and I am always searching for new chords and sounds. My most interesting discovery lately has been tuning the guitar to natural tuning, which makes chords played with a fuzz sound incredibly rich, as the notes match the overtone series. My twelve string guitar is featured on Doors of Perception, and it is unconventionally tuned to allow otherwise impossible chords.
How do you express your “musical form” both under execution that improvisation? How did your instruments changed the way you play and think about music?
I feel that creation of form is an important part of improvising, and for this one needs to develop one’s capacity to remember. I find that forms with no repetition at all, ABCDEF…etc, tend to be easily forgotten, but when something is repeated, even in an oblique way, the music makes more sense. Of course there are improvisations which stay in a certain mood or energy field, and then repetition isn’t so crucial. Guitar can be a very visual instrument, patterns, fingerings etc, so I decided five years ago to learn to play the flute, and I find that not looking at my hands makes a big difference in how to play and hear, and I think that the benefits have transferred to my guitar playing too.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
Derek Bailey’s book “Improvisation” describes many different concepts of improvisation, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject. It’s important to remember that written music has only dominated the music scene for around 500 years, fed by the European sense of cultural superiority, but improvising has always been an important part of music all around the globe. When I discovered “world music” in the 70’s, it changed my priorities from focusing on the afro-american jazz tradition to encompassing musical traditions like Flamenco and the Carnatic. I term my musical concept “investigative guitarism”, by which I mean to imply that I use improvisation as a tool to discover new aspects of the guitar and music in general, and despite the rather unacademic sounds I produce, I have a sophisticated and disciplined procedure for studying music and it seems to me that I’ll never have time to learn it all.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
Well, like Miles Davis once said, if you make a mistake, just repeat it. Soon it becomes the springboard for new ideas. The only mistakes I try to avoid are the ones that are totally out of character with the music I’m playing at the moment, but having said this I’ve learned a lot from listening to recordings of mine, often discovering that the mistakes sound quite interesting and arouse my curiosity.
Do you think you will play again with Nicky Skopelitis ? I like his music…
Yes, I like “Relevator”, the record we made together, and a big thanks to Bill Laswell for producing it. It’s one of my recordings that I can easily listen to without only hearing how it could have been done better. I haven’t been in touch with Nicky for quite awhile now, but who knows what the future may bring?
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
You do realize the impossibility of this question? Hmm, this list can only reflect about one percent.
Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
John Coltrane: Interstellar Space
Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies
Keith Jarrett: Facing you
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
2018 will be the year I focus on my guitar playing even more then before, one of my goals being to write a book on Improvising. Instead of only being for jazz guitarists, I want it to be useful to classical and rock guitarists as well, with conceptual ideas for improvisational strategies which help learning and mapping the instrument. Most of the ideas can be realized on all instruments. You can improvise on any music that’s close to your heart, I remember a classical pianist who improvised beautifully in the style of Scriabin.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
To lead imagination into the unimaginable.