Interview with Sami Sänpäkkilä from yesteryear…
here is another article published elsewhere, earlier this year, and in a language other than english. I am reprinting it here in english, for those of you who do not read czech, and am slowly making my way up to the present day, reprinting articles from last year one at a time…hope you enjoy it, even though some of the dates and other materials may be a bit, well, dated, now…
Two Perspectives on Curatorial Practice and the Organization of Music Festivals
(PART 2: Sami Sänpäkkilä)
Festival organizers, presenters, and curators hold paradoxically difficult positions, both creatively and within the social milieu surrounding their activities, the particular “scene” whose existence that they are partly responsible for. On the one hand, it is their often independent initiatives, their own energy and creativity that program, and in some cases even create the music festivals that exist. These are the people who frame for us the opportunity to enjoy what is often a smorgasbord of largely unfamiliar musical delights. For emerging artists, a set with a real sense of presence in a crowded festival can allow a much larger and more diverse audience to encounter one’s music than a normal club gig or gallery concert. Nowhere is this truer than in smaller musical communities, such as the “Experimental” music community, where the “scene” -both locally and internationally- is notoriously small. Tightly-knit relationships of both positive and negative variety abound, and if the Experimental music community can seem familial, the familial sense can be at times compared to that of a cannibalistic school of piranhas. As such, the role of curators is a precarious one. The organizer/curator, if joined in one role, must mediate their own creative decision making with the material needs presented by a particular festival situation in a particular time and place. Additionally, a often critical social dynamic exists. What is spoken to a curator’s face – normally extremely flattering commentary, naturally- can reflect the absolute inverse of what is spoken elsewhere, where a sea of black bile questions and critiques the motivations for nearly every decision made.
While preparing some of my own work this past summer at Titanik Gallery in Turku, Finland, I found myself performing several times with the jubilant collection of alien protozoa known as Kemialliset Ystävät . This was something of a re-emergence for this group, and accompanied the release of the new record, Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa. Somewhat in support of this record, we performed on two large summer festivals, the H2Ö Festival in Turku, and later, in Helsinki on the Other Sound stage of the Flow Festival. Having been impressed by the diversity and quality of programing in these festivals, and well as amount of work evidently required to produce these events, I contacted the curators of these festivals to try to shed some light on the confusing artistic and social issues inherent in such large-scale organizing. In the end, however, it turned out that Mikko Levón and Sami Sänpäkkilä, my two interviewees, are both as diverse as the events they organize, and yet, as is true of their festivals, certain important attributes are shared. Rather than finding a reduction in the complexity of the curatorial role, I found two delightfully complex artistically rigorous personalities. Rather than speculate on any of this any further, I will present both interviews below, in full, and leave the discussion for next time we are together at a festival.
The second victim of my interrogations was Sami Sänpäkkilä, who for many years has curated and presented the Other Sound stage on the gargantuan, Helsinki-based Flow festival held each summer. He also is responsible for bringing the world the record label Fonal, who have released recordings by many highly original Finnish and International musicians. Sami and I spoke over a lunch of curry interrupted periodically by a Tomutonttu in the disguise of Jan Anderzen, who added insights and questions to our discussion.
J: Previously you had been playing music, in Kemialliset Ystävät…and…what is your solo project called?
J: Oh! I know Es but didn’t know it was you
How did you start with music?
S: I started making music in maybe 91 or 92 or 93 so its been going on over 20 years now, I started with experimental music listening to David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack…maybe that’s a good starting point, and then we began making experimental music with Niko-Matti Ahti, and we started the band Kiila together, in 93 or something
J: I didnt know you were in that band either….
S: Yeah, we started it with Niko-Matti and then I quit in 2006 to concentrate on other stuff, so I have been in many, many bands during the past 20 years but now I have kind of quit…for the past 2 or 3 years I haven’t recorded much music, and I have quit playing solo and in bands almost all together, so its been over a year since I have been onstage playing music, I think
J: You even quit playing at home?
S: Even at home, yeah…I have done a little music at home, but I am mostly doing videos now…that’s the short of it.
J: When you say quit, whether its Kiila or music in general, was this a decision you made before hand or something that just evolved, and do you anticipate that you will continue this “retirement”, or is it that you just got interested in other things so you started working on something else, like your new Samurai Film?
S: No, I am old enough to never say never. I am definitely going to make music again some day but I don’t know when. What I mean by that is that I have made room for other things in my life which I need right now and because whenever I picked up an instrument in the past year or two it never inspired me, and I never felt like motivated to do stuff, but when I pick up a video camera that’s when I feel like I am alive so I am just following the easiest route and doing what I like.
J: What about Fonal Records, when did that start and so forth?
S: Well, officially 1995, that’s what I keep telling everyone, but I toyed with the idea for a few years before that, but that is the established date… 1995…so its 20 years as well, and now its only two releases until the 100th release.
J: That many? I had no idea…
S: Yeah! A few of them are digital releases, but there are maybe 40-50 full length albums, so its been…a lot.
J: There is a lot of diversity on that label, and I only know of a subsection of it, but I was a fan of your label before I met any of the musicians on it. Is it in general more oriented on experimental music? it seems like it…
S: I like to call it experimental pop music, because everything I release always has melodies. I don’t think I have ever released a pure noise album.
J: Like a harsh noise album?
S: Everything always has some beauty in it, a melody in it…I am not a fan of pure experimentalism or noise, its just not what is close to my heart…so if you listen to all the albums there are only a few that are really experimental, and most have to do with playing with melodies and rhythms, but its very unconventional anyhow.
J: Still, I would have a difficult time characterizing most of what I have heard on your label Jarse, Kemialliset Ystävät, Antti Tolvi, for example as pop…does experimental pop mean for you the structured melody and rhythms found in some of this music, or are you referring to artists using the vocabulary of pop, or rock or folk music in new ways?
S: Yeah, or without conventional structures. You can’t say its pop music because its not going to have that kind of status in the mainstream world…
J: The “popular” aspect of the pop music world is missing.
S: But I don’t think that it should be, I don’t think people would consider it extremely experimental either. I don’t know, that’s my opinion, but then I have only been listening to experimental music for 20 or 30 years, so I am biased to say what is experimental and what is not.
J: I guess it depends on who you ask?
J: So Fonal has developed your identity?
S: That’s why its a little eclectic at times, I am not thinking clearly, or I just happen to like something…
J: Does that translate to your curatorial approach to the Flow Festival as well?
S: Its slightly different…I do like to curate…I have a few rules. I don’t like to book the same bands that I have already booked, and then I want to book as many female artists as I can find, so there is a little bit of gender equality.
I mean, I don’t want to not book female artists because I am a guy, of course if I was a girl I would do that as well, I think its important.
J: Well, even on the mainstream stages the roles that women play in bands is often the same…you occasionally see a woman playing bass or drums but not often enough. Its often gender-specific. I hadn’t thought of it, but its true that on your stage there were a lot of women, and that’s not often the case, even in the experimental music circuits.
S: That’s not to say that I book the female bands just because they are female, its music – music first…but of course there are lots of solo guy acts that one could book…
J: With the Flow festival, its a huge huge festival in Helsinki, the capital city, but you are dealing with one stage, that is interesting to me….you obviously can’t book everything you might like to book
S: No, unfortunately not.
J: The diversity functioned to create a nice, I can’t resist it, “flow”… a really nice program…there were some rock bands, some improvisation, some contemporary classical arists, some crossover artists , you had, to name a few… Evan Parker, Grateful Däd, Tomoko Sauvage, Miaux, and Monopoly Child Star Searchers ..this is an extremely diverse pile of music. Well…festival stages sometimes feel like pile, but the curating makes it work…so does your booking for the bands festival differ from how you think of your bands for Fonal?
S: Yes absolutely, for the festival there are three days, and I want there to be different types of bands for every day, and of course, you want to end the night with something that is a little more rock or upbeat, so you don’t want to have, for example, minimalistic stuff all day, and similar type of bands one after the other…there has to be some kind of drama in the day, in the lineup of the bands…that’s what I think about, and then of course, whats new, what’s fresh, like yeah so first I think of what’s new this year, and then I think of what would be nice maybe something older but that people don’t really know that well, and then just like the greatest bands that I can find, and all those have to fit into this very small budget that I have and then I have to figure it out according to those things, and so its every year getting more difficult, because I have the rule that I don’t book bands twice so that makes it…
J: You run out of local bands? or everybody needs to start new projects…
S: Yeah, it was really difficult this year, to get…well, musically I was very happy with it, but when I was booking it I didn’t find any bands that I thought, ok this is new, this has just come out this year and its really a brand new thing that no one has ever seen in Finland, so I didn’t have that, like last year I had a few bands from different countries that were something that I thought “oh yes! No one has ever heard this in Finland,”and its, yeah…so its its very different from how I do Fonal, Fonal is just like, “is this good or not?”, “do i like it or not?”, and then I release it, or not.
I dont think of the previous album or the next.
J: You aren’t thinking of a larger identity for the label?
S: No, I just think of one release at a time
J: Do you think for the festival it is different because you are composing the energy of the whole day, or the whole weekend?
S: Yeah absolutely. I don’t think of …it doesn’t matter what each day is like, each day can have their own feeling, but its very important that you don’t have too much of the same on one day, there should be some variety in the music, so its interesting for a person to sit for the whole day in that room if they want to.
J: That is what I did. Well, and thinking about the festival as a whole, do you have to think about what is going on on other stages, for example?
S: No, not at all, and no one has ever told me that no you cant book that band…
J: You are free…
S: I just send them a list, and they just say cool, that’s it,
J: Is your stage is paid in the same way as all the other stages on the festival, and how does it fit into the structure of the festival as a whole?
S: I have no idea, I have no idea how that works, how the festival works as a whole, I just know how my stage works, and even then there are many things I don’t know.
J: Well I guess I was asking because I was wondering if you have to look for other grants or funding…funding is often a a big challenge for organizing these things, and then some people complain of feeling that their curatorial freedom might be limited by the sources of the funding…
S: No I dont do anything like that, no, I just curate, and the only stressful and annoying thing is that I have to fit the bands into the budget and so I have to decide what they get paid, and there are 15 bands, and there is certain amount of money, and its like, “oh this guy is coming from the States, so this is going to cost 600 to 1000 euro to fly him in” and I have to work that out, which is really annoying. I would like to just decide “This Band” and that’s it, but that’s the job
J: Where there bands from the states?
S: well, Spencer (Monopoly Child Star Searchers), but last year I had maybe 2 or 3 bands from the States, this year there were maybe like 10 bands I couldn’t book because of money or time table problems or whatever.
J: So you are not anti-American
S: Usually most of the bands that I would like to book come from the States, its definitely a biggest percent if you look at the…its like States, Belgium and Finland, those are the top countries.
Jan Anderzen: They usually add a couple of bands to your stage that you didn’t pick…how does that work, do you have to accept them?
S: No, they just tell me, “we booked these bands for the Other Sound stage”, and I say ok.
J: Does that come out of your budget?
S: It comes out of some other budget.
J: So so another curator didn’t have room somewhere…
S: Or they think it will fit the Other Sound stage.
J: Who came up with this name Other Sound?
S: The main festival organizers.
J: What do you think about that?
S: It’s relatively harmless.
It’s good to keep it simple.
J: Other Sound is pretty simple…and its only one word.
Jan: It”s two words actually
J: Thats true. Is it two words in Finnish?
S: You can’t really…
Jan: It wouldn’t fit on the card.
S: If you translated it it would mean something else.
Jan: if you translated it it would mean the Second Sound or something…
J: When you are booking that stage, it seemed like there were quite a lot of different kinds of things, it wasn’t all experimental pop, to use your phrase from earlier, there were somethings that were pretty straight far out, and also some that were straight forward rock..
S: Thats right. What I really loved was Tomoko Sauvage, the French/Japanese performer, I really liked her gig, and it is really awesome to be able to bring that stuff to 20000 people who might visit that stage, and every year there are a few people who discover experimental music through there, and they realize, “I don’t like this crappy main stage stuff, this is the good stuff, here…”, because I have been through that, I have been to Ruisrock, and sure I liked Nick Cave there, but it would have been great if they had an experimental stage there because I would have probably discovered 20 new bands that way, over the years.
Jan: Did you already mention that they moved the Other Sound to a bigger venue because it was packed in the past years?
S: Yeah, previous years it has been at this other venue more at the middle of the festival area but it was very small it only fit 200 people, and this venue fit maybe like 800. Previous years its been so full that there has been a line a cue to the gigs and a lot of people have not been able to get in, so this year they wanted to try the bigger venue and surprisingly it worked. I was really skeptical that the intimacy would be lost but it worked. The only thing I am wondering is that if that’s the reason why there was a few gigs where there were only 20 or 30 people there…because its a bit remote now, maybe the normal usual audience doesn’t just accidentally come across our stage.
J: Its not that remote but there is no sign.
S: There is a sign but its very small.
J: Did you have anything to do with the interior decorating? I thought it was a really nice experience sitting in the rocking chairs to listen.
S: No, but I thought it was really nice. The whole thing with the inside, I usually don’t have anything to do with that
Jan: but you also curate the visual artists…
but when we made the sculpture with Wille you asked us to do it…
S: Oh, you mean the fine artists…I thought you meant the Vjs…yeah, every year there is like an art installation inside the venue. Was it last year that Jan and Wille Klén made this really cool three dimensional colourful a little bit like a bird shapped huge three meters two meters wide object? That was really nice, it fit really nice into the old venue, this year it was Anssi 8000, the seven figures, The Seven Samurai in front of the rainbow…
J: The VJs you don’t really have anything to do with, they are just put there..
S: Its some kind of collective group or company that do this every year for Flow.
J: It seems kind of extreme to involve them in every set, it adds a lot of energy to situation whether the artists want it or not.
S: Yeah, well, three years ago I didn’t know anyone doing VJ stuff, now I know some people I would like to have VJ there, but I don’t know…I haven’t decided, well I haven’t been asked yet, but I haven’t decided if I want to do it next year, but I do have a lot of recommendations, there are quite a few of things I would like to change
J: When do you have to start working on the preparations for the coming year?
S: Well that’s the problem because I never know like right now I don’t know if I am going to do it next year again, but that’s been the situation like every year I am asked like maybe I am asked like around March or April.
J: Isnt that already late to book flights?
S: The flights are usually booked a month or two in advance.
J: Thats all? Thats the expensive way to do it…
S: Thats kind of the …well, I don’t do it, but that’s what I understand happens every year, its really late, everything is really late.
J: Other than money, if you were going to curate Other Sound for another year, if you were going to do it again and you could change something and make it your dream situation what would you do differently? or is there something the festival could do to make it better?
S: I would just have it be more holistic, like all the everything could be curated by a small group of people, like the VJ stuff, the artwork, the light inside the venue, like this could all be done by a small group of people that work together.
J: Its like decentralizing your role, and re-centralizing the activity of curating on a group with specialized members.
S: Yeah because the lighting is a big thing in every space, so it would have some guy do it, like just one guy working on it specifically it would be really awesome.
J: But working together with the vision of everyone in the group….
S: And really small things like there was a lot of room on the left side of the venue, and you could put, for example, chess boards and people could come and play chess, I really liked the “fat boys” cushions and the rocking chairs…
J: So you are thinking of the total environment rather than just about getting huge bands to play.
S: well, when Tomoko Sauvage plays, it would be really nice to play chess during her set, it would be a total experience, rather than just sitting in a chair and looking and listening, well, you can do that, that’s a given, but if you were just there hanging out and then all of a sudden people people would start making their own chess rules because of the music, stuff happens.
J: Like you could open up subconscious portals…
J: You are not a mystic?
S: No but it would be a different experience, if you look at the balloon stage, its different because it has a big white balloon on top, and that’s all, nothing else.
J: Well the stage is round, that is pretty weird.
S: But its pretty simple, well, its not simple to make, but its a simple idea, and its special, the venues I hate the most are the rectangle/straight/blue and black I don’t like those at all…that reminds me of a “Glastonbury mudfestival” that I hate.
J: In past years, your stage was inside as well, and all the others are outside, and the building you were in had a lot of character….
S: Yeah, the previous one was a little bit more intimate, and there was not so much echo and reverb in the venue, it had carpet on the floor, and they use it as a dance studio normally.
Jan: I think its a circus, like a black box that is good for dancing and circus and theatre, and so the acoustics are really good.
J: I am trying to imagine a circus with carpet.
Jan: Contemporary Circus.
J: Do you think if you continue to curate it would you always want it to be inside, because everything else except for the films are outside…
S: I would be happy to have it like, for example…that some artists could be on the balloon stage and some…
J: wow, ok, so you mean decentralize the whole thing, the whole festival.
S: Yeah, I think that would be cool….the balloon stage is cool…yeah, and I dont know if its a good thing or a band thing that it has its own sub-catagory, the Other Sound, but it kind of does, maybe for some people they will decide””oh thats the bad stuff, I dont want to go there, ” and for other people “”oh thats the good stuff I want to go there”. I would like it to be more accidental that people would just go there because of the bands, “oh that sounds interesting””.
The reason we moved it to a bigger venue is because some people wouldn’t fit in if there was a bigger band on that stage, but then why not have those bands play a bigger venue, put them on the main stage, have a little bit..or put the smaller band on main stage and see what happens you know. I am in favor of that too, but its not going to happen of course
J: Maybe for economic reasons, I don’t know…but also many, or most people I speak with are against of, for example, the idea of a record store where everything is alphabetical, people really want the genre distinctions, and although I like your idea, of organizing all the stages together to work for creative programming first of all, and offer the audience some surprises, I think I can see why many people think that they wouldn’t be into that idea. I mean, many people wouldn’t want to go to the cinema and just buy a ticket to see “a movie” and then watch whatever is there. Actually that is what we had in our neighborhood when I was a kid…but unless, well, especially with the prices today, I don’t think so many people would want to go for that idea. There is also the consumer culture pressure where people think they know what they want and what they are going to get from a specific experience, and so they are going to the concert to try and get that…whatever that is, which is usually some experience hinted at in the marketing hype and which may or may not exist in any form at all.
But it comes down to either, like you said people can come to this stage, and they discover music they have never heard before, or people can decide whatever it is they think they want to hear specifically and go hear that. There isn’t one right way, both are right, but I do think that if you spend a certain amount of time with music and especially with experimental music of various flavours that those little genre boxes become a little less useful at a certain point because
S: Yes, and also the deeper you go into your own kind of stuff the more you can accidentally start pushing other stuff out so it kind of like just gets to be a hindrance to your own creative abilities so…I just want to pick up stuff I don’t know, it doesn’t matter if its Don Cherry or if its Nina Neneh Cherry, if its good its good. But I say no to gigalo cherry Eagle Eye Cherry, thats where I throw the…what other cherries are there?
J: And now, you are making a samurai movie.
J: Have you made other movies or this the first one?
S: I’ve made…all in all I have made a bit over 50 music videos
J: Wow. Its a lot.
S: A lot anyways, art films, maybe like ten to 15 art films..
J: have you made any of the Kemialliset Ystävät videos?
S: No, because its really difficult to make a really good Kemialliset Ystävät video.
Jan: But you were just planning to, or you were asked about something, but its not happening…
S: no no somethings going on…I am experimenting or something, but it might, you know, you never know…
Jan: Time lapse…experiment?
J: its seems that’s a popular approach..
S: Yeah very popular
J: So what is your process like with regards to working with video?
S: Well when I make a music video or an art film on my own it just usually starts from an idea and then I slowly make some sort of very abstract script for it, and then I start shooting and then I need to edit, so its a very normal style, normal order of doing stuff
J: As you’re editing do you find the script or the original idea changes?
S: Yes yes that is the one thing that you have to…you have to…every step of the way you have to look at what you have and do it according to what is there, its so horrible when you see these film school people, even when they, ok, even when they have a meeting day to write a script, they shoot they edit and even during the editing phase they are still referring to the first meeting “oh no we can’t do it like this because we said we would edit like this”, and every step of the way you have to re-evaluate your approach and what you can achieve with the stuff that you have at the moment, and its horrible to look at when people don’t realize that, and its the same with every artform, everyday you have to re evaluate, and that’s been the best thing in doing this movie because the people I work with Mika Rättö, Tuomas Laurila, Harri Sippola, Pasi Salmi, Tuomas Niskanen, Anna Elo, Anna-Mari Nousiainen (list of names) a lot of these people from Pori, and they are really open to everything.
J: It sounds to me like your filmaking approach is in fact rather musical. How many people are involved and what is the collaborative working process like?
S: Well this is based on a theatre play in Pori from 2009…
J: Written by one of the collaborators in the film version?
S: Yeah, most of the people who were involved in the play are now involved in the film as well. I am probably like the only one who didn’t have anything to do with the play, I just went and sawit.
All this year we have been just shooting and re-writing the script as we go and next year we will have all the post work…the audio and editing and color grading and etc, but we do those things a little bit as we go, this Thursday and Friday we are going to edit again, this scene we shot last week, so we are doing because that’s how we learn, to do it…the first scene we shot like a year ago, it took us four days to shoot it, and we still haven’t been able to finish the edit and the more recent scene we shot it took us one day to shoot and six hours to edit, and they are the same equal amount of footage in the final film, so we have learned a lot…we have learned how to work and so much about making films, this is our film school right now, that we are in, and none of us actually have been in film school.
J: That can be an advantage
S: Yeah, definitely it is and I have been working in feature films before and this is so much more relaxed and if anyone has an idea its never…everything is welcome.
J: It seems like that could describe your curatorial approach as well. Maybe before we finish here you can tell me the name and dream-release dates for the film.
Its Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen, Rauni is a name in Finnish, Reposaarelainen means it happens in Reposaari which is a place in western Finland, so it means Samurai Rauni of Reposaari, so Reposaari is also the place and the surname. We have a tentative release date of December 2015…I really want it to be ready then. I don’t want to do it for more than four years, I really want it to be finished by then.
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