An Interview with Iro Haarla

Bill Shoemaker

Iro Haarla
Iro Haarla                             Photo courtesy of Finnish Jazz & Pop Archive

September 2nd, 2006
UMO Jazz Festival
Helsinki, Finland

Bill Shoemaker: When you entered the Sibelius Academy at 18 or so, you played classical music primarily. Did you concentrate on a specific composer or movement, like the Romantics?

Iro Haarla: We had to play every kind of music, but I liked to play Debussy the most, especially the Preludes. Sometimes I can see what he was seeing. There were also very good Finnish composers who wrote very romantic music, which I preferred, composers like Sibelius, Selim Palmgren, Erkki Melartin. Actually my Japanese piano teacher, Izumi Tateno, introduced me to these composers.  But, I also liked to play Bach. What interested me most was the orchestral works, especially the works of Rachmoninov, Liszt, Mahler and Stravinsky.

Shoemaker: Were you interested at jazz at this time?

Haarla: I became interested in jazz at about 14 because of improvisation. I was then more interested in improvising than jazz, in a way. There used to be improvising in classical music, but it's not really allowed any more. So, to improvise, I had to play jazz. It was the only way. So, I started studying with Heikki Sarmanto, a famous Finnish jazz piano player.

Shoemaker: What styles of jazz did you explore at the beginning?

Haarla: I studied bebop, but not for too long. I admired Monk and Bill Evans. Then Edward Vesala gave me records that opened up new ways for me to think about jazz, like Keith Jarrett's Facing You. And Paul Bley's Open, To Love. I admire Paul Bley very much. For me, his solo works are open, free jazz. I like the way he uses silence. I like the freedom of that way of making music. With bebop and more traditional ways of playing, you have stay in this course and not go too far away.

Shoemaker: Bley's playing is also emotionally concentrated. He can play just a little bit and it can be very powerful.

Haarla: Yes. I like that about his playing. I try to do something like that with my compositions. The lines can be very simple, but the improvisations can go anywhere. I also like the silence and the dissonance in his pieces, which together can be very strong.

Shoemaker: Did you gradually move away from classical music or did you make the change quickly?

Haarla: I stopped playing classical music when I met Mr. Vesala. I somehow found my way when I began to work with him. In a way, I could not use a lot of what I had learned about jazz piano working with him, but I could use what I had learned about composing and arranging.

Shoemaker: The 1970s was a period when Finnish jazz was coming of age. What you're your impressions of the Finnish scene then?

Haarla: Very strong. It had a very powerful effect on me. It changed me a lot, because when I was young I only played and listened to classical music. So when I came to this jazz world, it was so new and so strong and so strange. It was a new world.

Shoemaker: Now, students in jazz studies take years to get to the point where they can exercise their creative options; but, then, the scene was so open that you go directly to the heart of it.

Haarla: Yes. I don't know if someone could do that now in the same way. There are many more musicians. But, I didn't plan it. It just happened. I think I was able to do it because of what I studied at the Sibelius Academy. And Edward Vesala was such a strong person that I was completely committed to his music, making his arrangements for all of his Sound and Fury records. I also arranged music for chamber orchestra. For the pieces written for percussion I had to invent a new way of notating.

Shoemaker: How did you work with him to arrange the music?

Haarla: He would play the parts on whatever instrument he had and made a tape recording. I would then transcribe the parts and talk to him about what instruments he wanted. Sometimes, I would edit them, because they were very long sometimes and I made them shorter, using the best parts. Then I would write the parts. We would always talk about what kind of feeling he wanted a composition to have, but very early I could tell what he wanted just from the parts he recorded. So, we would talk about what instrument would express it in different parts of the composition.

Shoemaker: How would you describe the emotional tone of Vesala's music?

Haarla: Very strong but at the same time very beautiful. His melodies were very simple at the beginning, so the emotions were very direct. It was like that later on, when his compositions became very complicated.

Shoemaker: Did his music become more complicated because he developed confidence that your arrangements would convey more complex emotions?

Haarla: Yes, because he knew I could do it. Also, he knew he could use strange ideas to create music. He once made a piece he wanted arranged for string quartet. He played with golf balls on the strings of a grand piano and recorded it. The transcription was very difficult. They were funny and crazy ideas.

Shoemaker: I think Vesala's legacy rests more on the powerful and beautiful qualities you mentioned, but this playful quality was always present, too.

Haarla: Yes, they are in the same compositions, sometimes. There is a piece on one of the Sound and Fury records like that, “Bird in the High Room.” Another one is “The Invisible Storm.”

Shoemaker: You can indicate much of what we are talking about in a score, but at a certain point, the musicians have to get it, understand the concept. Vesala was lucky to have a stable ensemble in Sound and Fury, one that had few changes, and to also have an outer circle of musicians who could contribute to a couple of tracks on a CD.

Haarla: He looked hard for them and he was teaching them all the time, even in the last Sound and Fury ensemble, which was together for many years. In the beginning, it was a kind of school. He loved these guys. They were like his sons. He had a kind of family with this group. Of course, they had to be good instrumentalists, because the pieces are not easy - they are very difficult to read sometimes. They also had to be good soloists. He worked with them many hours daily to make their solos better and better, to really fit with the composition. It was really hard work.

Shoemaker: How did he work with the musicians to refine their solos?

Haarla: He would play with them and talk to them as they played and after. He did not talk to them about things like harmony, but how to use their own power. It was not easy for them in the beginning because they were young and did not have experience in this way of playing. It was quite heavy for them to play all of these Sound and Fury pieces from memory, which is what he had them do.

Shoemaker: So there was more to playing the compositions than just reading the notes.

Haarla: Yes, because every note had to have the right power. This was Sound and Fury.

Shoemaker: I always found the name Sound and Fury to be ironic because of the line from Shakespeare: “Sound and fury signifying nothing.” Vesala's music signified so much - the forces of Nature, the human condition, etc. Did Vesala have a sense of that irony?

Haarla: No, I don't think he ever thought of that.

Shoemaker: Looking back at the life of the band, do you see different phases or periods where the music changed one way or another?

Haarla: Yes, during the last five years, it was the same band and the music I think really developed from what it was before. It was heavier. On early records like Lumi, the compositions were lighter and not so severe. I think that is because Vesala's life became more severe and hard and he had this instinct that he did not have much time. When he was younger, there was so much joy in his playing, but that changed slowly and you can hear it in the records.

Shoemaker: You also worked with Vesala on film scores and music for plays. Was his music in these situations similar to his work with Sound and Fury?

Haarla: Yes, the compositions very much the same, but he often used other instruments like accordion. He loved accordion because it reminded him of the dance music of his childhood. It was really hard to do because he would have to make the music fit into the film. That would make him frustrated because his ideas were not always short enough. It was also hard for him to write music that did not stand out.

Shoemaker: After Sound and Fury, was it an easy transition to working with ensembles like Rolling Thunder since you had worked with some of the musicians in Sound and Fury?

Haarla: It was not difficult, but it was a big change. I started again from the beginning when I lived alone. I started to compose again. I had these ideas all the time, but I didn't have time for them. And I was thinking about leading my own groups, and I started doing that, as well. The first was the duo with Pepa Päivinen, which started when Edward was still alive and we played his compositions. But, then I started writing for the duo with Pepa and Rolling Thunder started to play some of my compositions. Then I met Uffe Krokfors.  In addition to having a romantic relationship we also started to play together.  In Sound and Fury, I was the bass. Now, with Uffe, I can concentrate on different ways to play and not worry about a bass part. Also, I didn't have very much room to play piano or harp in Sound and Fury, but in Rolling Thunder I had quite a lot of room to play. And, in my own group, I can play more.

Shoemaker: When did you begin to play harp?

Haarla: That was also Edward's idea. I was 20 years old. He said he needed a harp player who can improvise. So, I learned to play harp, but I never played classical music on harp like I did on piano. I played it my own way.

Shoemaker: What are the differences between playing the piano and the harp?

Haarla: The harp is quite limited in terms of harmony and the piano is not. You have to think another way.

Shoemaker: The harp is such an ancient, primal instrument.

Haarla: Yes, but he loved John Coltrane so much that maybe Alice Coltrane was part of his vision.

Shoemaker: Was - is - Alice Coltrane an influence on you?

Haarla: I admire her very much, but I have never tried to imitate her music, or play like her.

Shoemaker: When you began in the `70s, there were few women playing this kind of music. Was it lonely being the only woman?

Haarla: Yes. It was lonely. At the beginning, there was a little bit of laughing among the guys that I was a girl. But, not anymore. Women can play anything they can play. Everybody understands that today.

Shoemaker: Did you feel you had something to prove?

Haarla: “I will show you.” Yes, that is something I said to myself many times.

Shoemaker: Could you tell when you showed them?

Haarla: Yes. (Laughs) I remember when I was 17, I made my first composition for big band. They didn't take it seriously at all. But, they also couldn't play it, so I never heard it.

Shoemaker: Do younger Finnish women seek your advice and guidance about jazz now?

Haarla: Not so much. I'm still pretty lonely there.

Shoemaker: Does your compositional process flow from you hearing something in your head or in the environment, or from improvising, coming onto something that sticks?

Haarla: I have to have something on my mind. Very often, it comes from nature. I love nature. Almost every one of my compositions has been inspired by nature. It may sound very naïve, but it's true. Nature gives me so much power; then I can go to the piano and have an idea. I never compose thinking about a theory or thinking mathematically. It's always inspiration. Sometimes, it can be a person that I love.

Shoemaker: The inspiration of nature seems to be common among Finnish composers and improvisers. I was talking to (woodwind player) Jorma Tapio about his duo with (percussionist) Terje Isungset, and he described it as him being the forest and Terje being the mountain. Nature rarely comes up as a source of inspiration when I talk to musicians from other countries. It seems much more central a source for Finns.

Haarla: Maybe it is because we have not had civilization for that long. We are still close to the time when we lived in the forest. And we have such beautiful forests and lakes. I spent my summers as a child in the country.  I lived in Helsinki when I was young and I was always waiting to go to the country.

Shoemaker: You often use electric keyboards and synthesizers. How do you decide what instrument you will use?

Haarla: It has to do with space and what space will be created with piano or harp or keyboard. One side of my music is about beauty, but it is not all about beautiful melodies. You also have to have some dissonance and struggle, so sometimes I like a heavy sound so that you can feel the beauty.

Shoemaker: You use these heavier sounds in Loco Motife.

Haarla: It is a bigger ensemble with two drums and two basses, so sometimes I use them just to be heard. We are going to have a smaller ensemble, just six people. This is also a band I want to continue with, because it is so different than my quintet.

Shoemaker: Was your quintet formed to make Northbound?

Haarla: Yes. Manfred Eicher wanted to make the record with Trygve Seim there to make it with me. He also arranged for Jon Christensen and Mathias Eick. We had one concert in 2004 and thanks to Trygve we could go to the studio quite soon after the concert.  We had the pieces ready, so we did not have to play them a thousand times, which is not good to do, anyway. We recorded them while they were fresh. I am also of course very pleased with the musicians. They really know how to interpret my music. Better musicians I couldn’t have asked for! Also many thanks to Manfred for the chance to do this project.

Shoemaker: What should someone be listening for on this album?

Haarla: The ballads. There are a lot of ballads on this record. Of course, I want people to feel good, but I try to write strong ballads, not only pretty ballads. My mother, who is over 70 years old, and her friends like this record. To me, that's important, that people who are not musicians or not involved in jazz have a feeling for the music.

Shoemaker: What projects are you working on now?

Haarla: I just finished composing a whole concert of music for UMO Jazz Orchestra that will be performed at the Tampere Jazz Happening. It took me all summer. Now I will compose for a solo record for Manfred, piano and harp, with string quartet in some of the pieces. I don't think we will record this in a studio, but in a church or another special place, maybe in the spring.

Shoemaker: Before we end, let me ask you: What important question did I not ask?

Haarla: That is a good question. You didn't ask anything about my childhood. That's really important.

> More Northbound...