I was invited by my doctoral supervisor, Kristiina Ilmonen to attend the “Pillipäivät”
Being a recent resident of Finland, and not yet knowing the language I wasn’t really aware of what to expect.
For me, it was an opportunity to meet likeminded people, and to start creating a professional network, and hopefully making some friends as well.
Nothing could prepare me for what I have learned during the weekend.
The Pillipäivät is already in its 7th edition, and this time around it was organized in collaboration with the Vanajaveden Opisto, the Sibelius-Akatemia, the Kansanmusiikin koulutus and the Wetterhoffin talo.
I was extremely well received by Kirsi Ojala, Mimmi Laaksonen, and Riitta-Liisa Joutsenlahti.
It was explained to me that the whole idea for the event came from the necessity of gathering woodwind players to discussed ideas and have a regular update on the state of the art.
Every event is devoted to a subject. This time the subject was the work of Mr. Pentti Mäkelä, the flute maker. Rightly so, being the 30th anniversary of his passing, the organizers found it suited to have the event at the region where he lived his life – Hämeenlinna – Lammi.
I arrived with the organizers at the Vanajaveden Opisto and helped install the flute collection on the exhibit.
When I first glanced at the flutes, I had the same reaction that any professional musician would have – “You must be joking, right?!”
The flutes looked like something out of a Tolkien book, maybe at the hands of some mystical forest creature. Well… I could see the romantic appeal of those crude crafted instruments, but… no flute was the same. They seemed knifed carved out of living branches of tree. Most of the flutes proudly exhibited the external bark, in their twisted organic nature. The finger-holes were hugged and irregular, the boreholes were gigantic, and the wall thickness of the flutes absurd.
Things got even weirder when the exhibit included flutes made out of gardening water hoses, or kids metal snow shovels.
I immediately tried to find out Mäkelä’s birth date, my brain racing to make sense of this.
“Well, ok! I’m on board!” – I said to myself! “It’s an anthropological approach of sorts…”, “The man made its contribution….” “It’s a folk maker of the 20th Century, a century unkind to the folk traditions, with the advancement of radio and rapid social and technological changes…”
I was deep within, with these sorts of rational considerations, when Mimmi Laaksonen picked up one of the exhibited flutes and started playing…
All considerations went out the window – The sound was composed, balanced, sophisticated.
– What?! These flutes shouldn’t even play!… But well, you know the saying – I thought to myself – “Even a broken clock is right twice a day”
Maybe Mr. Mäkelä got lucky on that one flute Mimmi was playing. But that was not the case. I tried the flutes myself – with each flute, radically different in shape and size, again and again the “same” sound, same essence, same fingering, same scale, same just intonation compromises, same available chromatics, similar available range…
“- What is going on here?”
Instantly I took a second look at the flutes, more carefully. The finger holes where worked internally. The shape of some of them was suspiciously oval. On some of the flutes, one could see that previous finger-holes were covered up and new ones were made as if Mäkelä was hunting for the right position.
Little by little I started understanding that nothing was by chance.
Some may argue that the man was not a flute maker. And they would be right. He was not! He was an artist hunting for the sound, and every single flute was a prototype. I could easily imagine him in his exploratory process: “find the sound” and “move on” to the next piece of wood.
Professor Kristiina Ilmonen Ph.D. has been conducting some studies with the collaboration of Rauno Nieminen Ph.D., on the replication and expansion of Mäkelä’s flutes, for the professional musician. Accordingly to her presentation at the Pillipäivät, they seem to have made some clear advances. However, from what I could gather speaking with the people attending, the Finnish professional musicians and educators complain that a “Mäkelä type flute” is not readily available for order at any price. They say they are unable to conduct their work in the Finnish folk universe, and that they are forced to turn to Swedish and Estonian flute makers for instruments.
Some of these makers have been approached for their assistance in the development and production of “Finnish” models. At least one has shown himself available to supervise a Finnish initiative but was unavailable to produce them himself. Well, that is understandable – From a maker’s standpoint, if I was in their shoes I would have some ethical reservations in dwelling into “Finnish folk affairs” I knew nothing about. On the other hand, having a steady working business, with orders and maybe even a waiting list on my hands, I would have enough on my plate as it was! I probably would continue to offer exclusively my own local models.
So, here we are – Sadly resigned to only hearing the sound of these wonderful flutes, when the original objects are played, at the hands of selected musicians in special occasions.
Fortunately, during the 80’s the entire original collection of Flutes was donated by the Mäkelä family to the Sibelius Academy.
After many years behind a glass wall, in exhibition status only, the flutes are nowadays handled, studied and played much more often – as they should!
However, I personally fear for their progressive and natural degradation. As with any other science or discipline, prototypes are usually kept safe as “one-of’s”, as documents of a process. We may turn to them whenever we have doubts, wish to establish a comparison, or measure improvement in our development. By using prototypes as final production objects we run the risk of losing them forever, once they decay, or if – god forbid – an accident occurs while some musician is handling them.
It is imperative that we make affordable working replicas of what I would have no problem calling the standard “Mäkelä Flute”. That way the Mäkelä story could continue with professional flutists handling them on a daily basis, unafraid to make alterations as needed or lending them to their students.
Will that happen anytime soon? It must! For the sake of Finnish culture.
Much of the Finnish folk music evidences of woodwinds, be it flutes, reeds or bagpipes, seem to have been lost over the ages. It would seem to me as an enormous waste, not to use Mäkelä’s intuition and heartfelt connection to the land. For me, his flutes are a glimpse of what once might have been – Who knows how much Mäkelä might have gotten right? He might actually, by intensive trial and error, have been able to run through centuries of Finnish tradition in one life time. It is my belief that the laws of physics allow for a limited number of combinations of size, mass, geometry, that will produce consonant sounds and identifiable intervals in woodwinds. Whenever we try to stretch and bend physics laws to our will, the cosmos quickly compensates and sets us right.
I believe that until the late baroque, musicians and instrument makers were incredibly aware of this. Measuring tools were limited, so they would rely on proportion and ratios.
Maybe Mäkelä tapped into Finnish tradition by intuition alone – who knows?
I haven’t had the privilege of meeting Mr. Mäkelä. However, a glance at the Wedding flute, at the Garden hose flute or the Shovel flute, and a warm-hearted sense of humour is immediately evident.
I’m sure he is smiling down, rooting for all of us that are deep into the quest for “sound”.