Interview with Heikki Ruokangas (September 2018)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
I started to play guitar at age of ten when my sister got new guitar for school. For some reason I got interested in playing. Previously I had played some random melodies with my dads guitar, but that was the time when I began to learn chords and other stuff.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I played classical guitar first when I was kid, but never listened classical too much. Finnish rock and punk music was my favorite style when I started to play guitar. Later I got electric guitar and went to play in different rock and punk bands. I got interested in jazz when I studied in Oulu pop/jazz conservatory where I had great teacher who helped me to understand the essence of jazz and improvisation. From there I continued to Oulu University of Applied Sciences to study guitar pedagogy.
What were and are your main musical influences?
Growing up I was mostly influenced by Finnish rock and punk bands such as 22 Pistepirkko, Kauko Röyhkä and Leevi and the Leavings. I think these bands influenced my sound and aesthetic vision that has been coming through more in my latest works. When it comes to jazz, my biggest influences include Keith Jarrett, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Derek Bailey for example. These musicians have shaped my expression not only as jazz musician, but as a musician overall.
How did it start the idea for a record like your last “Mono and Dialogues”? How did you meet Henrik Hako-Rita?
My collaboration with Hako-Rita started in 2012 when we formed a group together. We had studied with the same teacher who introduced us to each other. We began by playing mostly standard tunes but soon we started to write original material as well. With my solo guitar album Monologues (co-produced by Hako-Rita) I began exploring more unconventional approaches in my music. In the next album I wanted to combine my solo pieces with our duo material. The concept for the album ”Mono and Dialogues” was influenced by the photo shoot held in autumn 2017. From these sessions we had our album cover and we wanted to build a story around the vision that the picture evoked in us.
I think that your version of “Summertime” is one of the best moment in the album, how did you get the idea to play in this way? It’s simply amazing….
I think ”Summertime” seems realize my vision of combining beautiful melodies with violent avant-garde. This is not necessarily a decision to play this particular piece this way, but rather natural evolution that stems from my post-bop roots meeting the explorative atonal and geometric approaches.
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.?
My music is mostly improvised with minimal written parts. Songs like Summertime have a harmonic structure that exist in the background even if the improvisation breaks out of this structure. As an improviser I create tension and release by going in and out of this structure in both rhythmically and harmonically. On the other hand, instead tonal progressions, some of my compositions are based on geometric patterns. Different styles and categories are not so relevant in my music as I am influenced by various genres from rock to classical. For me, the most important thing is the inspiration and vision that I seek realize.
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…
That is a difficult question. In my music I aim to break structures and therefore create an ”error” but usually resolving this musically. I like to create an illusion of a chaos that I can control, therefore I consider my ”Errors” to be planned. Still, when improvising, the ”Errors” as mistakes are naturally always present.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
Moments of crisis are unavoidable both in small and large scale. Most of all they teach us acceptance in a moment. As a consequence you might be forced to re-think your choices and ways.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I am currently working with two projects. First, I am creating art exhibition that combines my geometrical paintings with music. Idea is to create music using geometrical shapes and the painting acts as a ”notation” to the music. My second project at the moment combines vintage drum machine, double bass and analog guitar-synths.
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 than talent, obviously.” I think all of you have a great talent, but … what is your personal vision?
I think you need a bit of talent, strong vision and most of all a stamina to endure the ups and downs that you face when you walk towards fulfilling your vision.