An entirely unintelligible business

“What an odd thing it is to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’. This, at least, was one of the things about human beings that puzzled the highly cerebral alien beings, the Overlords, in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. Curiosity brings them down to the Earth’s surface to attend a concert, they listen politely, and at the end, congratulate the composer on his “great ingenuity”—while still finding the entire business unintelligible. They cannot think what goes on in human beings when they make or listen to music, because nothing goes on with them. They themselves, as a species, lack music.

 We may imagine the Overlords ruminating further, back in their spaceships. This thing called “music,” they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans, central to human life. Yet it has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.”

A musical mural under a bridge in Kaustinen

The previous excerpt comes from Musicophilia, a non-fiction book by Oliver Sacks, who was a renowned physician, professor of neurology, and best-selling author. The book, listed as one of the Washington Post’s best books of 2007, is about music and humans and the often odd and obsessive activity that music-making can prove to be. The book connects music and neurology and shares several fascinating anecdotes of music-incited neurological changes or vice versa, neurological changes which incited a flurry of musical activity in the lives of people who had, for example, been struck by lightning and survived.

It was well over a year ago that I began contemplating the possibility of coming to Kaustinen.  Slightly hesitant about signing up for four months in a place I could hardly find on the map, I googled furiously anything I thought I knew about Kaustinen, mixing and matching keywords such as “Kaustinen” “Finland” “folk music” “violin” “fiddle”. For many months, I repeated this process, hoping each time to come up with something new—anything to make me confident that this was the right decision. Whether or not Kaustinen had some form of intangible musical heritage was no longer a question. That had been confirmed in my earliest searches. But it seemed peculiar to me that a town hosting the largest folk music festival in Europe had nothing to say about anything else—besides the music. Despite the fact that Kaustinen appeared to offer exactly what I needed to carry out a research internship focusing on intangible musical heritage, I was still desperately curious to know more about the town where I might end up spending four months of my life—what did it look like, would I be able to find a place to live, was there even a grocery store?? But faithfully, GoogleEarth led me time and again to suspect that the most central point in this town hosting what some call Europe’s Woodstock was a traffic roundabout, which I truly had to see to believe.

What also seemed quite clear through my excessive googling was that Kaustinen and the violin went hand in hand. At one point, I came across an excerpt from a book entitled “Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland”, where I read that Kaustinen was thought to have a violin in every home. So, bearing this in mind, I decided to confide in the musical lyrics I had written upon receiving news of my acceptance to this Master’s program, which promised to take me to “Unknown Lands.” (also the title of the song) The lyrics go like this: “Throw your skirts all to the wind, bid your mother fare thee well, hang on tight to the tails of life, and trust lands unknown.”

More musical art in Kaustinen

And so, I decided to trust in what appeared to be the right “direction,” despite having the sense that it was a bit of a gamble. After all, what better place to study intangible musical heritage other than a village where having a violin in the home is as normal as having a couch or a refrigerator? Surely some of these instruments were being brought to life in daily practice, not just sitting in attics collecting dust. And being brought to life they are.…

Musical reflections at the Folk Arts Centre

While there may be other things happening in Kaustinen, I would have to say that my google searches were not all that misleading. If truth be told, I think google is underestimatingthe musical omnipresence in Kaustinen, if anything. And the pride that is shown for this living tradition is just as ubiquitous as the music itself. In the off chance that there is a morning where there is no music drifting out of the windows at the music high school (a public high school specializing in music studies) as I walk to work at the Folk Arts Centre, I can be sure that I will run into some sort of musical symbolism later that day, passing by a building or crossing under a bridge. The representations of this living tradition seem to be as prominent as the very musical practice itself; that is to say, they are everywhere.

Fiddle and beer at the Ravintola Pelimanni (“folk musician restaurant”)

On the evening of my arrival, as I settled into my new apartment, it seemed that music was already everywhere. Being as it was the Folk Music Institute that had arranged for me to rent this small wooden house while in Kaustinen, the musical elements of decor should not have come as any great shock, but these early signs of musical importance seemed almost too good to be true. Greeting me when I first walked in the door was a harmonium (pump organ), an essential instrument for the Kaustinen folk fiddling tradition, sitting right next to the coat rack. As I entered the living room, throw pillows with music notes adorned the sofa, and books chronicling the musical history, techniques, and methods of Kaustinen filled the bookshelf.

Mauno Järvelä’s book about the Näppärit music pedagogy method

But since settling in and getting to know Kaustinen a bit better, I realize that first evening in my new home was representative of a greater truth in Kaustinen—that musical symbolism is everywhere. Whether it’s the town crest which is a prominently featured golden fiddle bearing a blue background, music-themed murals underneath bridges, or a bar glass rack at the local Pelimanni(“folk musician”) restaurant adorned with oversized violin bridges, these symbols are as inescapable as the music itself.

Bar glass racks adorned with oversized violin bridges at the Pelimanni (folk musician) restaurant


Kaustinen’s town crest, featured at the entrance of the town hall

Regardless of whether you are participating in the act of playing music in Kaustinen or just a passerby, you can be sure of one thing—music and musical presence is unavoidable. I can imagine that the extraterrestrial Overlords from Sacks’ Musicophilia,observing human beings from galaxies afar, would pay particular attention to this small village in Central Ostrobothnia, Finland. They would surely delight in the perplexity of this “entirely unintelligible business” of music and music-making, which seems to verge on an epidemic here in Kaustinen.

Suzanne Wedeking